Ventriloquist Denny Naughton & friends getting back in the act for National Czech & Slovak Museum fundraiser
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The advice Denny Naughton received fresh out of law school still rings in his ears.
“The lawyer I worked for in Omaha said, ‘You want to be known as a good lawyer, not a good ventriloquist.’ That was really a mistake, because I’ve had a lot more fun doing ventriloquism, I think,” said Naughton, 71, who practices estate and tax law out of his Marion office.
He and his “friends” — Gramma Kavnaw, Spike the biker, Roadkill the bird, and Benny, his sidekick since his teens — will make their Cedar Rapids public debut Nov. 14 at CSPS. It’s a doubleheader, with singer/guitarist Ralph Kluseman of Dubuque performing hits from the 1960s and ’70s.
The show is a fundraiser for the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, where Naughton’s wife, Gail, serves as president and CEO.
Naughton’s vocal artistry, which sprang from his penchant for talking to himself in his youth, has been the springboard to an alternate life path full of alter egos, performance awards and gigs with some of the biggest names in entertainment, from Loretta Lynn and the Everly Brothers to Mel Tillis, Minnie Pearl and Lassie.
Unlike the others, however, television’s favorite collie didn’t have much to say.
“Lassie didn’t want to talk to me,” Naughton said. The canine star would bark on cue in performances, but clammed up backstage. “Everybody would get mad when he wouldn’t write his signature,” Naughton added. “After the show, kids would come up, and Lassie wasn’t just ‘human’ then.”
People talk to Naughton’s puppets as if they’re real, too.
“It’s kind of weird,” he whispered. Audiences especially pay attention to Benny, a hand-carved wooden puppet Naughton bought in 1963 from its maker in Minneapolis. Naughton paid $115 from his paper route earnings, and bought Benny a wig that gave him a Beatles cut before the Beatles burst onto the American music scene the following year.
“I just try to make (Benny) act normal, and it seems to work,” Naughton said. “That’s somehow related to the fact that he can say things that would be otherwise insulting if a person (said) it. But I don’t try to do insulting. I just do standard material and I try to do some of those old bits that the old guys taught me — the professionals from way back.”
You won’t hear any jokes or tales about Naughton’s wife in his act, however. That’s part of their “prenuptial agreement,” he said.
And in deference to his wife’s career in the public eye, he shies away from too much political humor. He did get his first “boo” this past summer, for making a Donald Trump comment onstage during an impromptu appearance at the Bill Riley Talent Search at the Iowa State Fair. It’s a competition he won 50 years ago.
“I do some political humor, but it’s not incorrect,” he said. Still, Gail admits, “I’m just holding my breath” about the upcoming CSPS show.
It’s all in good fun, the puppet master said. “It’s good therapy. It makes people laugh, and they don’t blame me for it.” They blame the puppets.
Each of Naughton’s puppets has a distinct character, voice and point of view.
• Benny is a bratty, wisecracking smart-aleck, in the vein of Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy. “He gets away with things I’d never be able to say,” Naughton said. Benny’s more than just a talker. He has sung with the Omaha Symphony and played harmonica with the Fabulous Uniques, an Iowa Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame band Naughton played with in the early 1960s, before giving up music in 1965. Naughton credits Benny with paying his way through law school.
• Gramma Kavnaw, aged 102, is “a young-thinking old lady” who talks about her husband, exercise and her day-to-day routine. Example: “I’ve got a fitness program. I like to start slow and then taper off.”
Made by a women who worked for Muppeteer Jim Henson, Gramma looks like Naughton’s real grandmother but is named for the elderly woman who lived across the street from his family in Pocahontas in northwest Iowa. He and his brother would do chores for her, and she would pay them with candy bars.
• Spike the biker was a gift from a friend, who found him at a flea market in the Arizona desert. “His persona fits his decorum,” Naughton said.
• Roadkill, a colorful bird Naughton bought at an international ventriloquists convention, doesn’t make many stage appearances. But when he does, he talks about his interview to be a drone, which went awry when he flew into a windmill. (On a side note, Naughton described the conventions as “really spooky.” “You have 500 people in a room talking to themselves.”)
Talking to himself while delivering newspaper is what set Naughton on his ventriloquism path.
“My mother read there was something wrong with people who talk to themselves,” he said, “so she decided to send me to a doctor.”
Instead of medical intervention, he spied an ad for a book on ventriloquism in the back of a Batman comic book in 1956 or ’57. He began honing his craft at age 11, starting started with sock puppets. He graduated to a plastic doll with a moving mouth, patterned after Paul Winchell’s Jerry Mahoney puppet from his ’50s and ’60s television show.
He watched the ventriloquists on TV, practiced in front of a mirror, sought out mentors along the way, and watched other performers onstage. “I used to go to shows and steal their jokes,” he said. “I got thrown out of a couple of nightclubs for writing down jokes.”
Benny was his ticket to making the rounds of summer fairs, parties, bridal showers “for $5 a pop,” fundraisers and state conventions. He worked his way up to opening for Grand Ole Opry stars and other headlining acts, and entertained comedy insiders at a party in West Hollywood 20 years ago. But he’s never had the nerve to step onto a comedy club stage, he said.
He was still working company parties and other events while working as a trial lawyer in Dubuque, where judges would tell him he’d better not break into any characters or voices in court. That’s not such a stretch, considering he used to entertain his classmates by making voices come out from under a teacher’s desk or telephones. “I was not very good at sports, but I knew I could tell a joke,” he said.
He pretty much shelved his act, just doing a couple of private parties since moving to Cedar Rapids in 2003. He’s looking forward to getting back on stage in just a few days. With a revival in ventriloquism — thanks to Jeff Dunham and two big winners from “America’s Got Talent,” Jeff Fator in 2007 and Darci Lynne Farmer in May — Naughton is looking toward the future, too.
“I’ve started to get interested in doing more,” he said. “I think there might be a market there, where there wasn’t before.”
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