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