Ventriloquism keeping retired weatherman Dennis Bowman busy
When a TSA agent at the Syracuse Airport saw what appeared to be a human head, hands, feet, arms and legs scattered around, along with wires and sticks, inside a traveler's suitcase, he had a question for the bag's owner.
“Those are things they don't want to see in luggage at the airport,” says Dennis Bowman, a former weatherman and current ventriloquist. “The agent, trying to keep his cool said ‘What are you carrying on today, sir?' I said, 'Oh, it's just a little friend of mine.' He said ‘why don't you be the one to open it up.' I opened the case and pulled out a dummy, Chester (Drawers), who said ‘arrest this man — he's crazy!' The agent looked at me, and said ‘Oh, it's you. Get outta here.' ”
Bowman says he often gets weird and suspicious looks when people see his quirky companions. The dummy has to make the trip safely. It can't be lost in baggage claim or boarded on another flight, because it's 50 percent of the act. So these fake friends always travel as carry-ons.
They also are often an investment. These dummies or figures, as they are also called, can cost from $1,000 to $3,000. One of Bowman's dummies — the vintage “Dennis McGinnis,” which Bowman bought for $8,500 in 1989 — might be worth more with his history. He's been active since 1905, including entertaining former President Harry Truman. He was made by Charles Mack, the same man who made “Charlie McCarthy” for famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.
“It is hard to put a price on ‘Dennis McGinnis,' ” says Bowman, who also owns “Benjamin Franklin,” “Rocky Landers,” “Captain Herkimen” and “Chester Drawers,” who was his first dummy.
On Sept. 28, Bowman made a visit to Concordia Lutheran Ministries in Cabot, Butler County, where he performed for the residents, including Lucy Treccase, who will be 112 years old in October. She is the same age as dummy Dennis McGinnis, and his visit has become an annual event.
You never know when Bowman and one of his dummies will start a routine. Not too long ago, Bowman had his truck at the repair shop in Bellevue and one of the mechanics asked if there was a dummy in the vehicle.
Soon Bowman was performing surrounded by an impromptu crowd of repairmen.
Bowman has the knack to draw people in, says Bob Rumba, of Robinson, who is on the board of advisors for the annual ventriloquist get-together — the International Vent Haven Convention — in Fort Mitchell, Ky.
“Dennis also does some pretty good impressions and sound effects like gun shots,” Rumba says. “He is pretty entertaining, and he also speaks Spanish. He has a lot to offer. I love his work.”
Bowman's been perfecting his craft for 42 years, often incorporating ventriloquism into his appearances as a weatherman — making them more exciting for the audience.
When you watch him, it's as if the dummies he works with have a mind of their own. They often say things that surprise Bowman, even after all of these years.
“I am really enjoying this phase of my life,” says Bowman, of Ross. “Sometimes people look at you like you are strange, but mostly, people are intrigued by it.”
More people have become interested in ventriloquism this summer watching Darci Lynne Farmer of Oklahoma on NBC's “America's Got Talent.” The 12-year-old girl won the competition show last week with her ventriloquism, comedy and singing act.
Helping teach speech
It certainly was intriguing to Ellen R. Cohn, professor department of communication sciences and disorders, school of health and rehabilitation science, at the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland.
“As a speech-language pathologist, I've worked with clients who were unable to move their lips together to make sounds such as p, b, and m,” Cohn says. “There were not many solutions for this in my profession's literature. It seemed that ventriloquists were able to create the perception of these and other sounds without obvious lip movement. How could they do this? I searched for several years for a local ventriloquist who could explain their craft, and share the techniques with my graduate students.”
When she discovered Bowman, he readily agreed to visit her graduate class.
“Mr. Bowman later presented a vigorously applauded seminar at the Pennsylvania Speech-Language-Hearing Association,” Cohn says. “As a result of learning from Mr. Bowman, I gained a new appreciation of potential compensatory speech strategies. Whenever Mr. Bowman teaches ventriloquism techniques to a professional audience, they experience some of the effort and concentration that is required to learn a new speech sound production technique. It is tiring. This is a valuable empathy building experience for clinicians of any level of experience.”
To master ventriloquism, Bowman spent a great deal of time, effort and self-analysis learning and practicing his craft. He has a precise understanding of oral speech movements, in part because of his undergraduate background in speech production and phonetics, she says.
He also has studied the history of the craft.
“Mr. Bowman is a lifelong learner,” Cohn says. “He attends professional conventions on ventriloquism to seek new techniques, and reads the work of other ventriloquists. ... He possesses understanding and empathy for his audiences, treating all with respect. I am always impressed with the respectful manner in which he treats his non-human ‘ventriloquial figures.' ”
Cohn says ventriloquists and speech-language pathology are “helping professions” that require mastery of evidence-based practices and the ability to impart knowledge to others. Bowman possesses the requisite attributes of a speech-language pathologist, had he chosen a different professional path, she says.
“I regret that we missed recruiting him to our field,” she says.
Bowman, of Ross, did weather for 43 years from 1972-2015, which included 16 years at WPXI and 10 at KDKA.
He was fascinated with ventriloquism as a kid, but never thought he could do it, because he thought you had to have a trick throat and be able to throw your voice.
“Then I saw a guy perform at my church in 1975, and I talked to him afterward,” Bowman says. “He set me straight and encouraged me to start reading books and practicing. I was already working in television weather at the time, so this new-found hobby became a logical thing to work into my appearance work … and eventually found its way into my television work, too.”
It also interested his family. His daughters and wife, Debbie, who still travel with him to the annual convention, were always around this form of entertainment. His little old lady character, Minnie O'Toole, now known is Minnie Myles, is pretty much his daughter Gwen Bowman's puppet now. And another dummy he won at the convention in a raffle is used exclusively by her. Gwen Bowman works for Propel Charter Schools, where she teaches a puppetry class.
“The conventions were our family vacations,” says Gwen Bowman, 42 of McCandless, whose website is pghpuppetworks.com. “I would carry Minnie around and just loved watching my dad and other ventriloquists. It kept me engaged.”
She and Minnie have a fun routine about flight attendants where you really feel like you are on a plane with them.
Another puppet in the Bowman family collection resembles Chester and is named Clark Andy Bar. Dennis Bowman's daughter Marnie Weston, 39, performed with him from 1987-92, when she was 9 to 14 years of age. Technically, Clark is Weston's puppet, but she no longer performs, so Clark serves as a backup for Bowman, if Chester goes down for repairs.
Weston performed for five years and won the junior division competition (ages 17 and under) at the 1988 ventriloquist convention. His wife, Debbie Bowman, also can perform and for a few years, used bee puppets in presentations for libraries.
There is a lot of connection to the dummies because ventriloquists work so closely with them, Dennis Bowman says. The man who made most of the figures Bowman owns was Foy Brown.
It was from Brown that Bowman bought “Dennis McGinnis.” The dummy had been in Brown's family since 1916, first with Foy's father, Professor Charles Brown, until his death in 1946; then with Foy's brother, Doc Brown, who performed with “Dennis” until his death in 1983. It was Doc Brown who performed in 1951 at a function attended by Truman.
“Foy wanted me to be the next performer to work ‘Dennis,' because he knew I would keep him alive and not just put him in a museum or something,” Bowman says.
When Dennis Bowman first got Chester in 1975, he was unsure of what size clothes he wore, so he took him, dressed in the outfit he came in, to a Kmart in St. Joseph, Mich.
“Holding clothes up to him in the children's department, I found lots of new outfits for him,” Bowman says. He then placed Chester in the shopping cart where a child would sit and headed for the checkout. “One of the guards pointed at Chester and said ‘Where do you think you're going with that? That's store merchandise. You can't leave with that.' I told him that it was my property and had brought him into the store. The guard was sure that it was a mannequin from the children's department and ordered me to take it back.
“I then reached my hand into Chester's back and grabbed the mouth action lever. I worked his mouth and had him say ‘Do your mannequins in the children's department do this?' The guard gave a half smile and said ‘Get outta here.' ”
Former weatherman Dennis Bowman, who works as a ventriloquist wrote a book about the craft “Ventriloquism…Yes You Can Do It, Too!” Here are some tips:
• The first thing about ventriloquism is the position of the mouth. Basically, the teeth should be together, but not clenched. Your tongue should have free movement inside your mouth — otherwise every word you try to produce will come out muffled.
• There are what's called difficult letters — B, F, M, P,V, and W. These are the letters that will make or break you as a ventriloquist because they require you to use your lips, so you have to find substitutes for these letters. For example, use D for B.
• A ventriloquist act is only believable if there is character separation. Your puppet needs to be completely different from you. He or she should have a strikingly different voice from yours and should say things in a way you wouldn't say them.
• Another thing to keep in mind for maintaining life in your puppet is to keep him or her animated during the performance. Often, a novice ventriloquist will only move the puppet when it's the puppet's turn to speak. The rest of the time, it's just sitting there lifeless.
• A ventriloquist act, even those that delve into character education, stranger danger or gospel messages must contain humor.
• Lip control is vitally important, otherwise, it's a puppet show without a curtain.
• A ventriloquist must be able to ad lib, so that the puppet can react to what's going on in the room. This really helps to build the illusion of life with the puppet.