Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Jimmy Nelson - Dean of American Ventriloquists

Even if you are not a ventriloquist and don’t know the name Jimmy Nelson, If you hear the jingle “N-e-s-t-l-e-s, Nestles makes the very best...Choc-Late” (from the Nestles Quik commercials of the mid fifties through 60’s) you know Jimmy Nelson.  Jimmy and his ventriloquist figure Danny O’day performed the Quik commercials that ended with that song/jingle. Farfel (a vent puppet dog) took the last line “Chocolate” and snapped his mouth closed at the end.  Jimmy’s performance on those commercials were better than any of the shows they sponsored.  They were delightful.   Jimmy parlayed a recurring role as a ventriloquist pitch-man on the Texaco Star Theater in the 1950’s to become an icon of American Variety performers.    His brash side kick Danny O’Day and long-eared dog,  Farfel,  performed in every entertainment medium from 33 RPM records to Carnegie Hall.  He became a pillar of what is now referred to as the Golden Age of Television. He was a regular on the Ed Sullivan Show, did the Nestles commercials, pitched toys, did record albums and performed in supper clubs with the “Who’s Who” of entertainment. 
I became addicted to Nestles Quik because of Jimmy Nelson. I became a ventriloquist because of Jimmy Nelson. Truth be told I didn’t want to be just a ventriloquist... I wanted to become Jimmy Nelson.  
Edgar Bergen was too formal. Some of the other ventriloquist of the day were too corny, Jimmy was the Goldielocks of ventriloquism, just right.  He did not get lost in the relationship with his characters. Danny was precocious but not rude, Farfel was deadpan but not a push over, master of the understatement, and Jimmy’s personality was so engaging he could negotiate peace between the two.
Jimmy never retired, because his phone kept ringing, even after he left the winters of Chicago and moved to Florida. Because he always had time to encourage other ventriloquist,  he was ultimately given the title of “Dean of American Ventriloquists”. To me he was my Ventriloquist GodFather.  It wasn’t that he just showed us how to be ventriloquist, he showed us how to be gentlemen.  I never heard him say a bad word about anybody and no one who knew Jimmy had a bad word to say about him.  Everybody called Jimmy Nelson their friend and I was no exception.  His devotion to God, family and ventriloquism (in that order) was as influential as his instructional album teaching ventriloquism called “Instant Ventriloquism”. Over the years our paths crossed many times. I even became friends with his son Larry Nelson for the short time we both lived in Los Angeles. My times with Jimmy were never often enough nor long enough and I never got over being a “fan boy” to my hero Jimmy Nelson. I suppose my greatest thrill was to be called a “half-Nelson”.  Betty Nelson gave me that title during a dinner at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.  We had just seen Terry Fator’s show. 

Jimmy passed away this morning after a short illness from a stroke.  
There is no way to prepare for this news. There is no way to calculate his loss to the art of ventriloquism nor fill the void that his departure has left in my heart.  I know so many people, peers, entertainers and especially ventriloquists feel the same.  My eyes glisten, keeping me from more joyous memories of my friend, Jimmy.  My thoughts are with Betty and Jimmy’s wonderful family.  Like Danny O’Day I have no more words right now.

Never the same,


Twovoices said...

Jay, I recall with clarity when you said, “Jimmy not only taught us how to be ventriloquists...he taught us how to be gentlemen.”
I visited Jimmy at his home in March while performing at Florida communities.
Glad I followed my instinct and stopped by to see him.
Cindy and I came in from dinner tonight and she saw the sad news on Facebook.
The tears were instantly flowing...but my lips weren’t moving!
Thanks for this nice tribute

Tom Pace said...

Jay, you and Jimmy are my heroes. Jimmy Nelson had an impact on my life from an early age. That’s for sure. You were so fortunate to be able to say that he was your friend. As you also are, Jimmy was a great role model. He inspired so many people to appreciate this wonderful art form. He was a true gentleman.

Philip Grecian said...

It is as I said in the World Vent group. I guess I just thought he'd always be with us. I had a short conversation with him once...and he sent me an autographed photo afterward. I hadn't been presumptuous enough to ask for one. He knew I'd love it.

Paul Scavarda said...

Jay, They live on through you and Bob and a half Nelson is better than no Nelson at all.

Holly Hoover said...

I am very sorry for your loss. God Bless.

I have an odd question and don’t know where else to ask.
I hope it isn’t rude to ask on this post of yours.

I feel certain that I have seen you live in person, back in the 1970’s when I was a little girl.
There was a club in Ft. Worth or Dallas Calle Charlie’s Club?. Pretty sure that is correct.
It was you, wasn’t it? It was a dinner club. I remember comedy, singing and your comedy/ventriloquism.
I remember being able to request a song or anything like that if it was your birthday.
I got to request, as we went on my birthday twice.
I would have been Between 4-10 when I was there.

Can you tell me if it was you?
Or is my Memory Faulty?
I remember Soap and being too young to watch it until reruns were on.
I instantly said, It’s Jay, I know him!
Because you came to our table at least once...

Thank you for the wonderful memories!
I smile when I see your name somewhere.


Holly Hoover