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Variety show culture is difficult to wrap one’s head around, particularly with the passage of time. It’s something which we haven’t seen anything like for many years. However, in a world less than 50 years removed from Vaudeville, there was a place for the plate spinners, the ventriloquists , and the dancing bears. There were so many names, faces, and careers that proliferated during this era of entertainment, but with the lack of preservation plaguing some of the early years of television, the images are quickly being lost to time.
It is in this quest that I found my way to Arthur Worsley’s work… YouTube is a goldmine, friends. It’s the only place to find clips from The Ed Sullivan Show which aren’t the same old A-List acts.
There’s no shortage of ventriloquists throughout the middle of the twentieth century. Most in the United States are at least tangentially aware of Edgar Bergen and his primary dummy Charlie McCarthy and others probably know Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney.
Arthur Worsley is a name that might be more familiar to our UK readers. Born in 1920, his 2001 obituary in the Times Colonist out of British Columbia writes that the youngster fell in love with ventriloquism at a very young age,
He made his first stage appearance at the age of 11 at the Casino- Rusholme, Manchester, where he was billed as ‘The World’s Youngest Ventriloquist’… He made his London debut in 1935, aged 14…. and was soon playing theaters around the country.
The London Guardian goes onto report that by Worsley’s London debut, he was also making his own dummies and was a full-time touring professional.
Ventriloquism is of course, most at home as a live theatrical performance. In the United States, we had Vaudeville honing these variety acts while Worsley came up in the Variety theatrical scene and toured extensively throughout his career.
Worsley’s son Michael gave an interview on behalf of the British Library Theatrical Project and spoke on his father’s career:
…My father was away all the time, you know, I mean, he was really only at home if something had gone wrong, it was a mistake, so when I went to school on a daily basis I always left by the same gate to go to the same bus stop because when I opened the gate he might be there waiting in the car. Might be… probably wouldn’t be but might be. That might be because he was doing a split week, he got a television and so he’d got part of the week at home…
An article in The Blackpool Gazette, entitled ‘Blackpool’s Arthur Worsley- ‘World’s Greatest Ventriloquist’ gives the most thorough breakdown of the middle of Worsley’s career and the greatest insight to this Variety theatrical scene, which is shrouded with not only the passage of time. After serving in World War 2 as part of ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association), he continued headlining, including ten seasons at The London Palladium.
While so many ventriloquists found homes on the radio, Worsley’s career seems to peak as television’s popularity exploded into the middle of the 1950s and the early 1960s. He worked internationally, securing work in Europe, Australia, and the United States. Probably the best remembered of these was Worsley’s work on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The Blackpool Gazette reports that Worsley debuted on the show in 1955 when it was still The Toast of the Town. Newspapers show Worsley in the United States for much of the second half of 1955. A variety of national newspapers show him debuting on The Toast of the Town in July of that year alongside singer Polly Bergen.
Worsley’s name continually appears in United States papers throughout the second half of 1955. Articles in a number of national papers show Worsley playing clubs in Los Angeles during the following months before returning to The Toast of the Town in November.
The Blackpool Gazette continues to report that Worsley would grace Ed Sullivan’s stage a dozen times before it came to an end in 1971. Most often cited is his return appearance in January of 1957. Worsley shared a bill with Elvis Presley during this appearance, which proved to be the singer’s final performance on the legendary variety program. The Gazette goes on to say the show was watched by an astounding 50 million people.
Worsley is most often credited alongside his dummy “Charlie Brown”. His act stands out as unique, especially when viewed alongside his ventriloquist contemporaries. In a unique twist that would almost classify as ‘meta’ in contemporary parlance, Worsley remained largely mute while he was on-stage, leaving ‘Charlie’ to do all the talking.
In fact, this twist on usual ideas of ventriloquism initially felt like a bit of a barrier to gaining an appreciation of his work. There’s no back and forth between dummy and ventriloquist. However, with time to play over the few clips that exist, Worsley’s surviving footage shines in its intelligence. Charlie does ‘all the talking’. The dummy grumbles, he berates his controller…
Why is it when I shout, you spit in my face?
Watching his surviving work, Worsley proves himself to be a whip-smart comedian with an act that doesn’t shy away from deconstructing ventriloquism as an art form.
This of course begins with the fact that Worsley rarely spoke on stage. While so many ventriloquists focus on the interaction with their dummy; in keeping his mouth shut, there’s added pressure to bring this creation to life. This lump of wood has to stand out on its own and has to carry the act. it has to be even more human because there’s nowhere to hide.
The deconstruction continues from a number of different angles. At one point, Worsley physically turns Charlie around to show how he’s working the dummy. Worsley’s hand can be seen inside Charlie’s chest cavity, rhythmically maneuvering his head, which at one point does a 180-degree turn and cheekily pretends to be a priest.
You’ve never seen this on television… unless you’ve crawled ’round the back of the set… How would you like to go through life like that? No guts and someone else’s hand where your kidneys ought to be?
This moment feeds smoothly into the ‘bit’ which seems the most remembered in Worsley’s work: “Bottle of Beer”. The general conceit is that certain consonants are difficult for ventriloquists to say without moving their lips, with “B” being one of the most difficult. As it plays out, Charlie demands that Worsley say “Bottle of Beer” without moving his mouth. When Worsley remains mute, Charlie spins around and shouts it repeatedly into Worsley’s face.
It never has been done! But I can do it! Watch me!
At this point, the dummy says ‘A Bottle of Beer’ without moving his lips. This moment seems particularly geared for television and it works impeccably. The joke would, of course, fall flat if Worsley’s lips could be seen moving, and in the unforgiving nature of variety television, he shines in the moment. Check out his appearance on the November 3rd, 1963 episode of The Ed Sullivan Show to see the comedian at the peak of his powers. Worsley remains static in a close-up and any lip movements are barely discernible. (By contrast, Paul Winchell and Edgar Bergen were often filmed with a lot of cuts ).
Worsley continued working regularly throughout the 1960s and 1970s before eventually retiring in 1980. He passed away in 2001 at the age of 80.
The inherent intelligence and confidence in Worsley’s act leads to glowing commentary. In his 2001 obituary in The Guardian, he’s called “The ventriloquist’s ventriloquist”. This can often be a thankless moniker. It’s not often the most intelligent of any medium that receives popular, longstanding acclaim. However, with each additional clip that I find and each article that I read, I want to see his work preserved. I want to see some writing on this man’s life. While he was mute on stage, the mind boggles at the stories that remain untold.
This is of course not a comprehensive breakdown. At present, YouTube has roughly six surviving clips featuring Worsley at various points throughout his career. Ultimately though, these clips (most of which come from The Ed Sullivan Show) only cover about 15 years of Worsley’s more than forty years on-stage. In fact, in his British Library interview, Michael Worsley admits that his father largely didn’t use his stage act when he was on television, protecting his livelihood for the theater where he saw most of his work. So, with each passing year, the lack of surviving video clips means the memories of this fascinating comedian risk slipping further into the haze of history.
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