Wednesday, February 20, 2013

An Interview with Willie Tyler and Lester - Part Two

Willie Tyler: I originally discovered the ventriloquist school I went to and the lady who made Lester through an ad in Popular Mechanics magazine. My teacher, Madeline Maher, painted a Jerry Mahoney figure brown and I used that figure for a while. My brother came up with the name Lester. I had the character sitting there for days and I could not think of a name. My brother came home from school and said, "I got it! I got it! There's a guy in study hall named Lester and he looks just like him!"

So, that was the first Lester. The medium Lester came when I was in my teens and then the larger Lester, the one everyone knows, was made when I signed with Motown. Most of the places I played for Motown were large venues and the medium Lester I had couldn't be seen far away in the balcony. So the big one is the character you've seen on all the TV shows and that's the one I still have today.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were on The Flip Wilson Show a few times.

Willie Tyler: Yes, I have a photo of myself with Flip Wilson. I did his show and the picture has Lester and I with Flip and Flip is holding another ventriloquist figure. The ventriloquist figure that he had was actually my extra Lester and they dressed him up in drag like Geraldine.

Kliph Nesteroff: You had some back-up Lesters...

Willie Tyler: I had Lester and I had one back-up. I had my regular Lester for a few years and the lady who made him for me back in Michigan was going to retire. So I figured that I better get another one made for back-up. I had it for years, but I never used it much. I used it for that Flip Wilson show and I used it in a McDonald's commercial, but that figure was always in drag. It was always Lester's girlfriend or something.

Kliph Nesteroff: February 1969 you did the Riviera in Las Vegas. You were opening for Ann-Margret.

Willie Tyler: Yes, we were there for a month. That was very fun. Motown was making noise all over the world at that time, so agents were coming into Detroit to talk about signing acts. So a lot of us all got signed by the William Morris agency. It was through them that I got the gig at the Riviera Hotel with Ann-Margret.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were back again later that year with the Supremes.

Willie Tyler: Yeah, I had forgotten that. I certainly toured with them a lot. We played McCormick Place in Chicago together. I did a whole lot of stuff with The Supremes. In fact, the last show they ever did together was at the Frontier. It was publicized, "Diana Ross appears for the final time with the Supremes."

I was the opening act and people from all over the country and all over the world were coming to see those final few performances. There were all kinds of celebrities in the audience to see those shows. After that I did a few things with Diana Ross when she performed as a single. We were together in Framingham, Massachusetts and several other venues across the country. 

Cindy Birdsong was playing Keno and she won quite a bit of money. After that, every single night, Diana was going out and playing Keno. It was that idea of, "If Cindy can win at Keno then obviously I can win at Keno." Diana went out every single night to play Keno and, of course, never won anything. We were there with a guy named Gil Askey. He did all the arrangements and was the conductor for those last performances at the Frontier.

Kliph Nesteroff: April 1969 you played the Copacabana with the Temptations.

Willie Tyler: Yes, I still have the advertisement for that. It has pictures of just their heads. Lester's name isn't on it because there wasn't enough space so it just says Willie Tyler. The Copacabana was nice. You'd always hear about this world famous nightclub and then you'd go there and it was tiny. It was a tiny club. The stage that the acts performed on was floor level. 

The band behind was elevated slightly. It held maybe a hundred and fifty to two hundred people and there were tiers for the back tables. It was a supperclub and they had phenomenal food there. It was known that if you were working the Copa, then you pretty much had made it. So you had acts like the Supremes, the Temptations, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis Jr. 

The Copa - you made it. I had a great time there. I had fun. We did whatever amount of time we did and then the Temptations would come on, do their show, and then we got ready for the second show later in the evening. I remember a couple big name football players were in the crowd and the big tall guy who was with the Lakers...

Kliph Nesteroff: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?

Willie Tyler: Yes, that's right and it was before he had changed his name. His name had been Alcindor. He was there and the football player who did needlepoint...

Kliph Nesteroff: Rosey Grier.

Willie Tyler: Rosey Grier! He was there for opening night and I'm sure some other well-known people, but I can't remember. 

Kliph Nesteroff: The Copacabana was known for having connections to the Mob, but so did most nightclubs back then.

Willie Tyler: Yes, there and pretty much everywhere including Detroit. I think it was that way because they had the connections for the liquor. They could get licenses and many things that other people wouldn't necessarily be able to get. A lot of places you worked you knew it was connected. But that was just the way it was. And, of course, when you went to Vegas it was the same way. It was just part of the deal and everybody accepted it. There was a guy who ran the Copa named Jules Podell. He would always sit back near the kitchen next to the cashier. 

He had this big, gigantic ring on his finger. When he wanted something he would tap that ring and his people would jump. At the Copa, I believe, those in the blue jackets were the waiters. The guys in red jackets were the busboys. And the guys in tuxedos, there were about seven of them, would seat people. I found out later that the guys in the tuxes... if anything broke out... if anything went wrong... they were the ones who would handle stuff. They were the extra security. 

Sammy Davis Jr was performing there one night and there was a table up front and they were talking loud. So one of the guys in a tuxedo went over and said, "Would you please keep it down. Mr. Davis is doing his show." And they walked way. But this table kept doing it. Guy in a tux comes over, "Please hold it down, you're interrupting the show." They keep talking. 

So the tuxedo guys signal the busboys. The busboys walked over, they lifted up the table, and they took it away. They physically moved it out and now here are these people just sitting there in a circle with no table! So they got the hint to leave. So the Copa was all about little things like that. That was the New York state of mind of dealing with people (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: What can you tell me about the other African-American ventriloquist act of that era - Richard and Willie.

Willie Tyler: Richard and Willie was from Los Angeles. Sometimes people would get me confused with him. Richard and Willie did party albums. He was signed to Laff Records and to Dooto Records. Richard Pryor was originally with that same Laff label and Redd Foxx was with Dooto. What happened was, whenever I came out to Los Angeles people would get me mixed up with Richard and Willie. People would come up to me, "Alright, Richard, man! I got all your albums!" 

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Willie Tyler: You know? It got to the point where I'd just say, "Oh, okay. Thanks." Because to try and explain it - you wouldn't have time. The only album I ever had was Hello, Dummy. Although when I did the Hollywood Palace with Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five and Diana Ross and the Supremes, they turned it into an album. It was called Diana Ross and the Supremes host the Hollywood Palace. On the back of that album there's a picture of Lester, Diana Ross and myself.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you know this fella Richard Sandfield of Richard and Willie fame?

Willie Tyler: No, not really. I met him once and it was just, "Hey, how ya doin?" There was another Black ventriloquist named Aaron Williams. He was a deputy sheriff here in Los Angeles. He was the opening act for Ray Charles and for some of the West Coast soul acts. But he was a deputy sheriff, so he was pretty much moonlighting as a ventriloquist. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I always assumed that Richard and Willie was a take-off of your act, like an X-rated version of Willie Tyler and Lester. I mean there aren't even five Black ventriloquists in the business and here are two with the name Willie in the billing...

Willie Tyler: Well, no, I don't think so, because at the time my popularity had not gone national yet. He was doing what he was doing on the West Coast and I was doing what I was doing with Motown, but my act had not broke through nationally. The situation was just a coincidence. Willie was the name of his character. Y'know, a lot of ventriloquists named their character Jerry. A lot. So, I think, his name was basically a variation on that. Willie was the name of his wooden character and Richard was his name.

Kliph Nesteroff: I think Stu Gilliam, the comedian who was on so much early seventies variety TV was...

Willie Tyler: Yes, Stu Gilliam started out as a ventriloquist. Bill Murry, the emcee-comedian with Motown that I was telling you about, I was talking to him one time. I had never seen Stu's ventriloquist act, but Bill had. He told me that the reason Stu Gilliam stopped doing ventriloquism was because he had some kind of major dental work done and it kept him from being able to do it properly. 

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Really? That's amazing. August 1970, you became a regular on Robert Klein's short-lived summer replacement Comedy Tonight.

Willie Tyler: Mmm hmm. That was fun because I got to work with Robert Klein and Madeline Kahn. She was a regular on there also. And the fella who played the father on Everybody Loves Raymond was also a regular...

Kliph Nesteroff: Peter Boyle.

Willie Tyler: Yes, right, Peter Boyle. So I was in very good company. They were all just starting in the business. We did about six or seven shows. It was just a summer replacement, but it was a lot of fun. I remember Robert Klein coming to the set all the time with these enormous bellbottoms on. That was the (laughs)... a skinny guy with these bellbottoms.

Kliph Nesteroff: May 1970, you played the Copa again. This time with the Four Tops. 

Willie Tyler: Yeah, that was cool. I was working with the Four Tops and at that particular time I started smoking cigarettes. Everybody smoked back then so I figured, "I better smoke."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Willie Tyler: I wanted to be with the big guys, so I figured I'd smoke too. I'd go to the Copa, drink a rum and coke and eat their great Chinese food. Then one day I walked out of the hotel and I'm walking down the street in New York and I got dizzy. Real dizzy. I fell up against the wall and I said to myself, "Oh, no. No, no, no, not in New York. Do not let me pass out on the streets of New York." Because people will just walk around [ignoring] you. Anyway, I got back to the hotel trying to figure out why I was dizzy. I went down to the Copa and I was still dizzy. 

Back in those days I would perform with my foot up on a chair and put Lester on my knee. That meant I'd be standing on one leg. But that night I was so dizzy that I sat in the chair for the whole act. I stopped with the smoking, I stopped drinking and I stopped eating the Chinese food. And suddenly I was all right! I thought maybe it was my body telling me to stop smoking - so I did

Kliph Nesteroff: You were performing during what they called Prom Season at the Copa. 

Willie Tyler: Yes, it was all these kids dressed up in their tuxedos and their gowns. When you go to a formal, at least back then, people were on their best behavior. Fights don't break out when people are wearing tuxedos. If people are in jeans and a sweatshirt, then they're dressed for a melee! So they were very nice. Back in those days, the younger folks going to a prom were very conservative. So it was a situation where they were dressed up and they were good audiences - and fun to work for.

Kliph Nesteroff: September 1972 - you became a regular on the dying days of Laugh-In.

Willie Tyler: I think it was a result of my having done The Hollywood Palace. My management had been trying to get some more TV gigs for me. They called me and told me they landed me a regular spot on Laugh-In. But that season of Laugh-In really wasn't even supposed to have happened. 

NBC found that people were still interested enough to give it one more season, but George Schlatter wasn't there anymore. It was now a Rowan and Martin Production. They had Paul Keyes as the executive producer. I read the thing you did about Paul Keyes and how he was friends with Richard Nixon.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right.

Willie Tyler: I was glad to do the show because it helped me a great deal... it helped us a great deal... Willie Tyler and Lester. I was also able to meet a lot of celebrities on that show because if you ever watched Laugh-In you know it was just celebrity, celebrity, celebrity, celebrity. I got to meet John Wayne. 

It was among the last shows he ever did. So we were able to rub shoulders with all sorts of people and I got to work a lot with Lily Tomlin. She was from Detroit and she was really the big act on that last season. When we did it - Goldie Hawn was no longer there. Arte Johnson wasn't there. Most people had left, but it worked out nicely for me. 

Rowan and Martin were very nice, congenial and seemed to like their work. It was all shot very fast. The set movers were always moving things because they'd shoot scenes that were only a minute and a half and they'd have to move everything out of there, move something else in and shoot for only a minute and then move again.

Kliph Nesteroff: February 1975 you performed in South Africa.

Willie Tyler: Yes, with Della Reese. I'm trying to think of how we even got that gig. Someone had approached me about doing it. We toured a series of theaters for a couple of weeks. It was Johannesburg and a couple other places. It was quite interesting and it was tense. Quite tense. It wasn't quite revolution yet. 

Nelson Mandela was in prison and a lot of other stuff was going on. It was an uncomfortable situation and much of the world was boycotting South Africa until Apartheid ended. I went back after Apartheid had been abolished with Frank Sinatra. It was an area where they had gambling and we were there for ten days. That was after all that stuff went down.

Kliph Nesteroff: So when you went there with Della Reese... before Apartheid was abolished... what kind of an audience were you performing for?

Willie Tyler: I think it was an all-white audience for one show and an all-Black audience for the other. Segregated shows. It was almost like working down South in South Carolina back in the day. There were areas in the States when I first started working the South where the audience was white on the ground floor, upstairs balcony on the left side was white, upstairs balcony on the right side was Black. 

Kliph Nesteroff: October 1975 you played the Blue Max in Chicago with Mamie Van Doren.

Willie Tyler: No, I don't think so. I played there, let's see... no, never with Mamie Van Doren. I played it with Cab Calloway and Lola Falana.

Kliph Nesteroff: And you were a regular cast member on a series of Lola Falana television specials...

Willie Tyler: Yeah, she had a TV show on ABC. We were on there doing sketches. Things like - I was going out on a date with her and Lester was in the backseat. That kind of a deal. That's why we were working with her outside of Chicago, because we had done her show.

Kliph Nesteroff: The line-ups on the Lola Falana specials featured classic comedians like Redd Foxx and Art Carney, but also a lot of the young Comedy Store comedians like Jimmy Martinez and Murray Langston.

Willie Tyler: Oh, yes, comedy clubs really started happening around then and especially into the eighties. What happened was I was doing Laugh-In and living in Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard. One night I came outside and suddenly there was a sign across the street that said Comedy Store. I said, "Hey, what's going on with this?" I walked over there and right at the door was a fella named Sammy Shore.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right.

Willie Tyler: Pauly Shore's dad, of course. He was there and he recognized me from television. He said, "Hey Willie, you let me know if you ever wanna do a spot now that I've got this club." So that was around 1972. I would go there and I worked the Comedy Store for years. I worked it regularly up until about eight or nine years ago. I always went over there and it was great. 

It was a good place to try new material and watch other acts that were trying stuff out, honing their sets, before their Tonight Show. Jay Leno had just moved out here then and David Letterman became the regular emcee. A lot of folks were around. Jimmy Walker. Sammy and his friend had opened the club. They were trying to make it work, but Sammy Shore got a contract with Elvis in Las Vegas around the same time. So he had to go to Vegas and he let Mitzi run the club until he got back. 

When Sammy left to go do Vegas the club wasn't really making any money. When Mitzi was running it, it started making money. Soon after that they got a divorce and Mitzi got the club. From then on it was Mitzi and not Sammy. Mitzi loved Lester. She always wanted to talk to Lester.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Willie Tyler: One particular night Richard Pryor was on the bill and Mitzi put me on the bill. That was cool, but what happened was... I wound up in the hospital. This was my big night with Richard Pryor at the Comedy Store. 

It had been publicized and everything, but I couldn't make the gig... I had an appendectomy. So I never worked with him. Later on, many times, I rubbed shoulders with him and he was always there [at the Comedy Store]. All the major comedians and actors were always at the Comedy Store.

Kliph Nesteroff: You met one of your heroes, Edgar Bergen, in Windsor...

Willie Tyler: Yes, at the Elmwood Casino. I saw in the paper that Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were coming to town. I remember it was a Wednesday night, so I went over there. I put Lester in my trunk and went to watch the show. Of course, the Elmwood Casino was a big nightclub when it was in its heyday, but this was when it was well past that and it was going downhill. I went in there on a Wednesday night and there were not a lot of people there. 

It was a middle of the week kind of crowd. I watched the show and afterward I asked the maitre'd where I could find Mr. Bergen. Sometimes the maitre'd will tell you that he's not seeing anybody, but he said, "Oh, he's right in that room over there." He was in a little cubicle with his wife having dinner. I went in and introduced myself and I think he recognized me. He didn't shirk away or anything. I sat down and they were having dinner and I wondered if maybe this was uncomfortable for him, but he didn't mind. 

We were talking about the mechanics and he asked, "Where's your figure?" I said, "He's in the car." He said, "Bring him in!" So I went and got Lester and brought him in and did a little bit with Lester while Edgar Bergen critiqued me. He said, "You know what you're doing wrong?" Back in those days, when Lester talked he was animated and when I was talking he wasn't animated. He was just still. Edgar Bergen saw this and he told me, "You must keep him moving at all times. Even when he's not talking you must keep him moving." 

That was one of the phenomenal pointers I got from him. I remember it to this day. He was eating dinner, but he truly took time out to talk to me about particular things. Later on he and I did an HBO special together called The Vent Event hosted by Steve Allen. Shari Lewis was also on the bill.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you meet or get to know Paul Winchell?

Willie Tyler: Yes. I met Paul Winchell out here in California. He was doing a show with his characters Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff and it was a Where Are They Now? He gave the characters gray hair, they looked older, and Knucklehead Smiff had a moustache. Knucklehead Smiff was now a television executive (laughs). 

The special was done at a place called Gazzari's on Sunset. He wanted me to be a part of the show. He interviewed me on camera and I really appreciated that. Later on TV's Bloopers and Blunders with Ed McMahon and Dick Clark had us doing a segment on there. It was Shari Lewis and Lambchop, Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney and Willie Tyler and Lester. 

We all sat around having lunch while the camera was rolling and we sat there talking and doing bits. The food got cold because we were doing shtick the whole time. That was for NBC.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the more remarkable things you did was work for legendary filmmaker Hal Ashby in his film Coming Home. What do you remember about that experience?

Willie Tyler: I was working a comedy club down in Hermosa Beach. La Jolla. There was a Comedy Store down there and I got a call from William Morris. They said, "We think we have a part for you in a movie. You'll have to go down to Hal Ashby's place in Malibu. Take Lester with you." 

Next day I went. He asked me to take Lester out and do a little bit with him. Hal Ashby was a bit of a hippie. He stepped out for a moment and came back in. He said, "Do you mind if when we do this... if we go with another character?" I said, "Oh, no, I don't mind." So they had the art department build a Vietnamese type [ventriloquist dummy] character because the film was about the Vietnam War. I played a paraplegic in a wheelchair and the character was bolted to the wheelchair. 

Even though it wasn't the Lester character, it still had the Lester voice. And it worked out. It was fun to be in a film like that because it won Oscars for Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress for Jon Voight and Jane Fonda.

Kliph Nesteroff: Hal Asbhy was known for being eccentric.

Willie Tyler: He was fine. It was done at the Ranchos Los Amigos hospital in Downey. One day (laughs)... you know, with Lester, when the character isn't doing anything I put him away. But with this character they had him bolted to the wheelchair. So he was always in view. I remember they were moving things around and setting up the shot and Hal Ashby walked over, looked at the character just sitting there, and said, "Wow, man. That's creepy."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Willie Tyler: (laughs)


mackdaddyg said...

Great interview. He seems like a really nice guy, which is always refreshing.

Thanks for sharing.

Bobby Wall said...

I heard that Lester dumped Willie and is now doing a single.

(Great interview, Kliph!)

Kevin K. said...

Is this the first person you've interviewed who isn't wracked with bitterness and jealousy?

Anonymous said...

Loved the two-part interview. A charming man with a lovely career. Congrats to you both.

Benovite said...

Aaron Williams! I was trying to remember who the black cop with the dummy was. He did anti-drug bits on KTTV I believe, between the afternoon cartoon shows. This was back in the late 70's or early 80's. At any rate, Aaron Williams would always prompt his dummy to say, "Say nope to dope and ugh to drugs!" I never forgot that. Good stuff, Mr. Nesteroff! I've been glued to your blog for days now reading all the interviews(I seldom get glued to blogs).


wow! this is wonderful! to learn so much about one of the lords of the art of ventriloquism willie tyler and lester,it was amazing to read about him meeting the the father and lord of ventriloquism mr.edger bergen.

Anonymous said...

stumbled on some old laugh-in reruns and remembered the joy and comfort this guy brought me as a kid-so glad hes still around and all this content is available for enjoyment-most cable entertainment today is vulgar and seasoned with garbage -Willie Tyler is classic entertainment royalty at its best-these pups today could take a lesson from this master comic who has sometimes not been as celebrated as he should have been