Anachnu: Joe Gandelman

Joe Gandelman with "John Raven."

Joe Gandelman with “John Raven.”

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO – It would be difficult to say whether ventriloquist Joe Gandelman spends more time in his San Diego condominium or in his car driving to gigs at schools, fairs, senior homes, and private parties across the United States.  On one national tour that stretched over eight months, he and his dummy friends performed at 260 schools.  He personally drove over 49,000 miles.

Gandelman carefully maps his trips in advance.  An inveterate user of the Internet—both as an author and a reader—he scours listings for restaurants that serve healthy food; he looks for motels that will offer him a good ‘frequent traveler’ rate; and he tries to find health clubs with swimming pools in which he can keep in shape by doing laps.  All that driving means a lot of time sitting behind the wheel.  Like most ventriloquists, Gandelman typically sits during a stage performance, so you can understand why the man craves exercise.  Now in his mid-60’s but looking far younger, Gandelman recognizes the dangers of a life style that is too sedentary.

He writes most of his own material, or purchases jokes from other professionals, and never knowingly uses material that any other ventriloquist uses.  Occasionally, he will hear a joke on a Sirius comedy channel that can be reworked into some new shtick for his own show.  Then, if he’s incorporating new material into the act, he may practice his routine as he drives along.

If he’d rather take a mental break from work, Gandelman says, he can scan the passing scenery.  He remembers wondering what makes a full moon over Iowa seem so much bigger than anywhere else.

Whenever he travels, Gandelman brings along his companions – dummies, puppets, a genie’s head in a box, even a talking pizza.   They don’t talk much to him, unless he prompts them, but once they’re on stage together, they will have plenty to say.  Fellow comedians have suggested that as a boy Gandelman might have been imprinted by Jack Benny, who used to gently make fun of himself.  On stage, Benny would pretend to be vain and cheap.  He’d never admit to being older than 39, and he could squeeze a dollar so hard he could make its portrait of George Washington gasp.  Gandelman’s own self-deprecatory brand of humor plays off his short stature – he stands 5’1 – and his seeming naiveté.  His main character, John Raven, is a “typical cheeky boy,” who constantly seems to best Gandelman in conversation.

Their humor is intended for family consumption.  There are no dirty jokes.  He, John Raven, and other dummies stay away from political and religious controversies.  Instead, they serve up a diet of puns and jokes in fast-moving dialogue that both children and adults can enjoy.

At a show for a Jewish school, for example, John Raven says he’s just heard about a kosher hamburger at McDonald’s.

A “kosher hamburger at McDonald’s?” Gandelman repeats, somewhat incredulously.

“The Big Maccabee,” Raven responds.

At another point the Talking Pizza may surface.

“A talking pizza?” queries Gandelman.

“A talking pizza,” confirms the object.

“I hate when food repeats on me,” Gandelman deadpans.

A talking pizzas, a big bear with a surprisingly squeaky voice, an elephant, and others are what might be described as supporting actors in shows in which John Raven stars.

“He is a state of the art character with glass eyes, real artificial eyes but too big to fit in a person,” Gandelman says. “It looks like he is looking at you; his tongue sticks out; he can wiggle his ears, and his head spins around.  No matter what I do he comes back with a joke.  For example, I tell the children in the audience that I love nursery rhymes like ‘Jack be nimble, Jack be quick’ and he’ll say ‘Jack really needs deodorant stick.’  Or ‘There was an old woman who lived in a shoe’ and he will go, ‘Shaquille O’Neal Size 22.’”

In another shtick, Gandelman will pretend to be hypnotizing John Raven.  He will ask the children in the audience if they know what hypnosis is.  “No,” they will respond, to which Gandelman will explain that it is “the science of one mind controlling another.”  Whereupon John Raven says, “That’s not hypnosis, that’s marriage” – a laugh line for the adults.  “I have added the line, ‘Marriages are made in heaven,’ and he says ‘So is thunder and lightning.’  I say ‘Marriage is grand.’  He says ‘Divorce is 20 grand.’  If Gandelman is pretending to hypnotize John Raven, the dummy will wiggle his ears or stick his tongue out.  Gandelman will protest that such actions are impossible because John is made of wood and can’t do impossible things.  “When I say that, his head spins around 360 degrees.”

Children also like Gandelman’s elephant character.  It pretends it is a dragon.  “And I say ‘Dragons do fire and smoke; you can’t do that’ and he says, ‘Well, I can do this’ and he squirts all the kids in the front row” eliciting their screams of delight.

On occasions, Gandelman will do “message shows” such as, at libraries, the importance of reading, or, at schools, anti-bullying.

Magicians don’t like to discuss how they do their tricks, but this is not necessarily true of ventriloquists.  There are many books freely available on how the art is practiced, so after his shows, Gandelman will discuss tricks of the trade with audience members.  Some letters in the alphabet require you to use your lips, ‘M’s” and “P’s” for example, while other substitute letters can be formed inside the mouth without moving your lips.  So, as examples, an ‘M’ can be transformed into an ‘N’; and a ‘P’ into a ‘T.’  If the ventriloquist is not moving his lips, but the dummy is moving his, the illusion will be that the dummy is speaking.  It is simply a case of misdirection.

“Misdirection” – that’s a word that can make Gandelman remember some unfortunate car rides.  There was a time when his Global Positioning System (GPS) device took him down a rural road and then conked out – no signal.  The farther he went on the road, the more it looked like a cow path.  Worse yet, his gas gauge was showing empty.  Gandelman remembered praying—yes, praying—that he would not be lost or stuck, and thus be unable to get to his show on time.   Gandelman now likes to bring printed directions along with him, just for such contingencies.

Gandelman writes internet reviews of the various restaurants that he visits on his road trips—always happy to share a compliment when one is deserved, less willing to write a negative review unless a place is so bad he considers it a duty to warn off fellow travelers.

At night in his motel, Gandelman edits a website known as “The Moderate Voice,” , which carries stories on a variety of political topics from all over the world.  Occasionally, when he is so motivated, Gandelman will write a column of his own.

This is not so strange as it may seem for a ventriloquist.  For many years before he became a performer, Gandelman was in fact a journalist.  During his college years at Colgate University, his study abroad involved serving as an intern at the Hindustan Times in New Delhi, India, awakening in the native of New Haven, Connecticut, a love of travel.

Following his internship, he returned to the United States to take a master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.  Subsequently, he returned to India and then went to Bangladesh, Cyprus and Spain, along the way getting himself credentialed as a correspondent who is paid by the article, known in the business as a “stringer.”

Thereafter he worked for various U.S. papers, including the Wichita Eagle and the San Diego Union-Tribune.  He was assigned to bureaus at either end of San Diego County; initially in Oceanside, and later, where he could utilize his Spanish, at the border.  Eventually, he became disillusioned with journalism as a career, seeing too many papers reducing their staffs because of falling revenues.  Believing there was no future in print journalism, he decided that he would indulge his love of entertainment – as a high school student he had won leading roles in various musicals – and try to make a living at his hobby of ventriloquism.

Early in his career, he submitted a tape of himself and a dummy sitting at a piano, supposedly singing together, and it was chosen to be shown at a salute to the Spanish ventriloquist Senor Wences along with tapes by Jim Henson of Muppets fame and ventriloquist Willie Tyler.  That encouraged Gandelman to pursue his new career.

Sometimes all that alone time, traveling across the country, makes Gandelman wonder whether he chose the right life course.  He helped raise a foster son, Tom Powell, today easily recognized as the spokesman for the ‘Save Our Bolts’ organization, who now is a father himself.  Whenever Gandelman is out of town, his foster family makes certain to look after his condominium and his cats.  But throwing himself into his work—whether at the newspaper where he accumulated 40 hours overtime in one week, and was warned never to do that again by an expense-wary boss, or as a traveling ventriloquist—leaves little time for building additional relationships.  Still a bachelor, Gandelman wonders aloud whether if there had been more balance in his life, he would have been married.

Still, he says, brightening, there are compensations for his lifestyle.  There is something magical about a room filled with children and adults smiling and laughing along with him and his puppets.  Laughter brings out people’s spirits.

“When I do a job with seniors, they have a young spirit,” Gandelman says.  “To me, the spirit is timeless, no matter how old the body is.  If I see a baby, the spirit is the same, even though they can’t express themselves.”

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected] .  Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the U.S.)

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