Ventriloquist Breathes New Life Into Old Dummy

Calling someone a “dummy” is not usually considered to be the sincerest form of flattery, however in the world of puppetry and ventriloquism, the word “dummy” is a professional term used to describe a large puppet usually having movable features (as mouth and arms) manipulated by a ventriloquist.  The preferred term by professional ventriloquists is “figure” or “character.” Some politically correct types have even gone as far as referring to them as “Mannequin Americans.”

Late in 2010, Ventriloquist Jim Barber was presented with an unexpected request from a member of his audience at the Hamner Barber Variety Show in Branson, Missouri.  While Jim was performing on stage, he noticed that someone in the crowd was holding a wooden ventriloquist dummy.  Of course, this caught Jim’s attention immediately and he walked off the stage into the audience to meet the Baltz family from Kansas. 

Dave Baltz explained that the character was named Mickey, and was constructed by his father, the late Howard Baltz in the 1930’s (1934 to be precise).  They performed together throughout the Midwest under the stage names “Howard Stone and Mickey Baltz.”

After the show, the family asked Jim if he would be able to assist them in restoring Mickey’s damaged paint and broken internal mechanics.  Jim accepted the challenge, and after an emotional goodbye, left their special wooden family member with Jim to perform the necessary transformation (see video below).

Over the next few months during his spare time, Jim worked on renewing Mickey back to a new appearance by carefully dissembling the head and removing the mechanical eye mechanisms.  He then sanded away the old cracked paint, fixed the leather filler under his chin, created a new left eyebrow from wood putty to match the existing brow on the right side, and finally repainted the entire head and eyes by hand.

The black Japanese wig, which was made of real hair, was gently washed, dried and styled for perhaps the first time in 77 years. 

Lex Pearson, Stage Manager for the Hamner Barber Variety Show, also assisted by soldering the broken mechanical elements that controlled the left eye lid, blinking lever, and headstick frame.

When the new paint finish was completely dry, the eye mechanisms were repositioned back into place and all the internal mechanics connected again to allow the animated facial movements that really bring life to a ventriloquist character such as this. When the wig was reattached to Mickey’s head, he was ready to go home to be with his family.

Shortly before the Baltz Family returned to the Hamner Barber Theater in Branson on June 19, 2011 to reconnect with Mickey and bring him back home to Kansas, Dave Baltz sent the following letter which gave more information regarding his father Howard Baltz.

Dear Jim,

Dad built Mickey in 1934 in Chanute,Kansas. He was a semiprofessional magician working in the Midwest. His stage name was Harold Stone. He did a show consisting of slight of hand, early stage illusions and Mickey. When he married Clora in 1939 he now had a new partner in the show. They would perform for church groups and do fundraisers.

Howard Baltz showing inside of Mickey's head.

During World War II, dad spent 4 years in the Navy and was stationed at Great Lakes Navel Station where he was a teacher in the training center. He made models of the Japanese’s ships for the trainees to identify. While he was station there he had a heart attack and spent 5 months in Great Lakes hospital, during that time he entertained the patients with his magic and Mickey.

After the Navy he returned to college at Pittsburg, Kansas and finished his degree in audio-visual education. He went to work at Central Missouri University in Warrensburg, MO.  His magic show was used with charity fund raisers and at the college. He corresponded with Edgar Bergen on technical issues as Mickey had a very unique operating system. I am still trying to find that letter.

I am attaching some photos of Dad and Mickey. I appreciate what you are doing for Mom, (Clora) she will be thrilled with seeing Mickey again.

Dave Baltz

The day of the reunion, Jim Barber decided to do something extra instead of just hand Mickey back to the family.  He thought it would be great if Mickey had one last opportunity to perform before a live audience, after having sat in silence for 32 years after his alter-ego Howard Baltz passed away.

Clora and Dave Baltz Receive Mickey After The Show Photo Courtesy of Monte Schisler Hometown Daily News

Jim quickly worked up a rendition of “The Dummy Song” made popular in the early 1950’s by Louis Armstong.  Although Mickey flubbed a line of the song (blame it on Barber), the audience responded with huge applause and laughter, while tears of joy were flowing in the section of seats surrounding the Baltz family.

It was an emotional homecoming for them to see Mickey again for the first time after he underwent his facial transformation. 93 year old Clora, who was married to Howard Baltz, was waving, laughing and crying at the same time; being so full of joy to see her little Mickey again.

The video below shows the stage debut of Mickey Baltz after 32 years of silence, followed by video of Jim Barber’s restoration process to make the 77 year old ventriloquist figure look new again.

Where will Mickey Go From Here?

Mickey is now back home with the Baltz family in Kansas, but at the urging of Jim Barber, the family is considering a long-term residence for Mickey at the Vent Haven Museum in Ft. Mitchell, KY at some future date.  Jim is a proud member of the Board of Advisers for this unique museum that houses what is considered to be the largest collection of ventriloquist memorabilia in the entire world.

Founded by Cincinnati native, William Shakespeare Berger, Vent Haven houses over 700 figures, thousands of photographs and playbills, and a library of books, some of which date back to the 1700’s. In 1973, a public opening and dedication of a third secure and climate controlled building was held.  Edgar Bergen and Jimmy Nelson were among the performers. Today, between 900 and 1200 people visit Vent Haven each year. The Museum also hosts an annual international ConVENTion with over 400 ventriloquists attending each year in July.  As a result of the foresightedness of W.S. Berger, Vent Haven is a permanent institution, open to the public and devoted to the art of ventriloquism.

Jim Barber Returns Mickey Baltz to his "Momma" Clora. Photo Courtesty of Monte Schisler Hometown Daily News

Thanks to Monte Schisler, News Director of Branson Hometown Daily News for the Baltz Reunion Photos!

Other Branson Show News Articles:

Comments

  1. Bob Isaacson says:

    Howard Baltz did a wonderful job of creating ” Mickey”. Jim also did an outstanding job of restoring the figure. Thanks Jim, it was terrific.

  2. Jim, what a beautiful thing you did for the Baltz family. It’s things like this that make me so proud to be a member of the vent family. The vent family is like no other family in the world and it’s because of people like Jim Barber that makes it so.

  3. Awesome! In the hands of the master the old becomes new!

    Great work!

  4. That was GREAT!!

  5. That was really impressive work. And nice to see.

  6. alan carmel says:

    A very nice paint job but has anyone noticed that now the hands don’t match the face? Nice job but with the mismatch of colors, to me, it now looks odd. Any chance that you will get the hands to match the face in the future?

    • Good comment Alan, you are correct that the hands and face do not match perfectly. Let me explain why this was done on purpose. I wanted to preserve as much of the original work of Howard Baltz as possible, while providing Mickey with a fresh look that brought out his cute personality more than the original face paint allowed. His original colors were not very warm in flesh tone, which left him looking a bit sickly and unnatural. As the restoration was intended to preserve the legacy of Mr. Baltz, and not to put Mickey back to work performing full time, the hands were left alone to show the original color scheme and the video of the restoration process was made to archive how Mickey looked before and after. If Mickey were to be used on stage for performances, I would have repainted the hands in the same style as the face. This could still be done in the future. – Jim Barber

  7. James Tucker says:

    I can’t compliment Jim Barber enough for the work that he did on Mickey and most of all the act of kindness shown toward the Baltz family. The performance was very moving because you could sense the shear delight of Mrs. Baltz in seeing her Mickey in action once again and seeing him restored. It was like reuniting family members. Thanks again to Jim Barber.

  8. Gary Owen says:

    Jim,

    What a gesture of kindness. I can see why you have such loyal friends and fans!

    I plan to share this story with our colleagues and friends at this weeks International Ventriloquist Convention. Although we know you are unable to attend, this story will certainly get some attention.

    we will see you in October.

    Gary O

  9. Lane Davis says:

    Jim-
    I knew you were a man of many talents-and restoring dolls is just another. Very impressive! and what a nice thing you did for the family and history.

  10. Patti Brady says:

    What an amazing story…I came across this story as I was looking for someone to retore my doll that my dad got me in 1966…He needs a knew hand..some stuffing and for his mouth to work again..I live in Nebrask..any suggestions..oh yes he needs clothes…:)

  11. Emily Hickman says:

    I love ventriloquist dummies sooooooooo much !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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