Giving the Gift of a Lifetime
Most big brothers call their little brothers a dummy. My brother gave me a dummy one Christmas morning when I was a kid.
The year was 1969 and I was going to become a professional baseball player for the World Series Champion New York Mets. I was also going to be an astronaut like Neil Armstrong and walk on the moon. I was also going to be Batman.
So far, I have given up on two out of three of these things. The Batman thing is still in play. I just need to turn some body fluff into ripping muscle. I know where to get a Batmobile. My friend bought one of the movie cars.
It wasn’t until Christmas morning that year that I added one more thing to my perspective career choices. I was going to be a professional ventriloquist like the ones that I had seen on TV.
The wrapped gift was in a 3 x 2 x 1 foot box. This was a rather big present to receive from my 21-year-old brother, Duke. I could tell from the look on his face he was excited to see my reaction.
When I tore off the paper I saw a white box with red stripes and an illustrated drawing, but I still wasn’t quite sure what was inside. I opened the box and pulled out a little guy wearing a red suit jacket, a red bow tie, tan pants and black shoes. It was a ventriloquist dummy.
Along with the little guy was a tri-folded pamphlet that had a picture of a ventriloquist on it that I had seen on TV. His name was Jimmy Nelson and the little guy in the box was made in the likeness of his dummy, Danny O’Day. Also pictured was Danny’s annoyance in life, a dog named Farfel that generations would know as the Nestles Quick dog (N-E-S-T-L-E-S. Nestles makes the very best CHAWK-LATE.)
Most importantly, the pamphlet had the instructions I would need to become a ventriloquist.
Practice, Practice, Practice
All Christmas morning I stood in front of a full length mirror that was in the hall closet of our tight Cape Cod style home. Since this was the center of the house, I had a regular audience of my parents and big brothers watching me learn how to talk without moving my lips.
After watching me struggle, Duke told me there was also a record album with Jimmy Nelson giving instructions on ventriloquism. Not long after Christmas, he bought it for me. I played that record at least a few hundred times as Jimmy, Danny and Farfel taught me ventriloquism.
No Bat. No Helmet. No Cape. One Snake
So here I am, 42 years later. I never did play for the Mets. The call from NASA never came. And while I still hold out hope for a career fighting crime wearing a cowl, I am pretty sure that isn’t going to happen either. I am told, however, that I am a darned good ventriloquist.
From the age of twelve I have been getting paid to perform. It started out at birthday parties for kids. Soon the adults began laughing as much as, and eventually more than, the kids.
One night I took a big chance at a night club in the shadow of Giants Stadium in the in the tall grass of the New Jersey meadowlands. I signed up for a talent show competing against singers, comedians and a mostly undressed lady with a very large boa constrictor. I think it was a dance she did with the snake. Yeah, it seems if memory serves me right it was some sort of dance. Well, let’s just call it a dance as memory seems to fail me at the moment.
Anyway, I didn’t want a fan club in the audience. I was nervous in this new environment. But my longest running fan agreed to show up that night to support me. Duke sat at the bar and watched me perform in the show. I can still see his smile. And I am pretty sure he was looking at me and not the snake lady.
When the MC announced the winner, I had won. A kid performing what was then being referred to as a dying, vaudeville, prop comedy act, beat out the New York and New Jersey slicksters. That night I was baptized a comedian/ventriloquist. The other performers congratulated me. The snake lady hugged me and her hug lingered. Or was that the snake?
My big brother Duke came over and patted my back. He offered in jest to be my agent. I told him why not, he was the one that got me started.
From that night I went on to perform hundreds of shows for audiences of all types. I have performed in casinos and church basements; large corporate events to back room bachelor parties. I even proposed to a woman with a monkey puppet on Christmas morning on behalf of her groom to be. I have poked fun at working folks and millionaires; small town mayors to governors and senators. I have had a blast all the while and get paid handsomely to do so.
If it was not for that box my brother Duke handed me that Christmas morning, none of it would have happened.
You Never Know the Gifts You Bear
This story has little to do with me. This story is about my brother Billy “Duke” Getler’s Christmas morning gift..
In a previous post, I told of how he past away suddenly, just two days before Thanksgiving. His death was quick and unexpected, but not terribly sad. His death had a message because he died doing exactly what he had planned on doing with his life. How many of us can say that?
I can’t imagine having lived my life thus far without having been given that little Danny O’Day dummy from my brother. As important, the instructional album I played repeatedly taught me to be a ventriloquist. I listened so much I thought I knew Jimmy Nelson. Years later, he would become a friend (Danny, too).
My brother gave me more than a red and white box containing a stuffed body and a plastic head with a string hanging from the back of his neck. He gave me the gift of a lifetime.
Life may have been very different were it not for that Christmas morning. I could have ended up a shy adult. I would have missed out on some pretty amazing adventures. And even though saying, “Some of my best friends are ventriloquists.” sounds like a snarky response to an insult, it is true. My ventriloquist pals are among my oldest and dearest friends
When you give a gift to a child, think about the impact that gift may have on that young person. Your gift may just set them in a new direction.
If they embrace that gift, support that kid along the way. It may be life changing. Your gift may help them discover new things that they did not know existed.
As a result, you may even have to end up in a New Jersey nightclub seeing a lady do something indescribable with a snake. You can chalk that up to an experience in your own life. Win-win.
Al Getler is a newspaper, website, book and magazine publisher. He is also a comedian/ventriloquist and a speaker on leadership, customer service and personal branding.