Señor Wences, a master ventriloquist who convulsed nightclub and Ed Sullivan Show audiences while bantering with his falsetto-voiced hand puppet, Johnny, died Tuesday. He was 103.
The Spanish-born Wences, whose real name was Wenceslao Moreno, died in his Upper West Side apartment where he lived with his wife of 50 years, Natalie, said his publicist, Glenn Schwartz. He had recently been hospitalized but returned home, where he celebrated his birthday on Saturday with friends and relatives.
In the "Golden Age" of television, Wences' voices made him famous. He bickered and bantered with his puppets while he drank, smoked and juggled. He conversed with a head in a box: "S'OK?" "S'awright." He was defeated by his hand-puppet, who boasted, "Deefeecult for you; easy for me."
This puppet was no sock-shaped thing pulled over the fingers. Wences created it literally out of his hand, scrunching up his fist and drawing a mouth where thumb and index finger met. A blond wig was draped over the top, and there was Johnny.
His character Pedro was a gravelly voiced head in a box, born out of necessity when Wences' ventriloquist's dummy was accidentally damaged and only the head was spared.
Pedro wore glasses and a Dali-like mustache and beard. His voice became clearer as the door to his box opened, and muffled as it closed. Audiences forgot the sound was really coming from outside the box.
Then there was the neurotic Cecilia Chicken, created in the 1950s for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows.
Wences' technical virtuosity made him a hero to fellow ventriloquists. He'd talk to his puppets with his face right in theirs, as if daring the audience to watch his lips, which, of course, never moved. He'd juggle his characters like balls, shifting speedily from one voice to another with no loss in clarity or control.
He'd stuff a hankie in Johnny's mouth, and have the puppet speak with a muffled voice while he himself smoked a cigarette. Then he'd give Johnny a drag, and the puppet -- that is, Wences' hand -- would somehow emit perfect rings of smoke.
There were no jokes, just what one writer has described as "bizarre, farcical, Spanish-accented patter." At a time when other ventriloquists hired gag writers, Wences got laughs with a just a look or a sound.
In between his many Sullivan show appearances, he entertained four presidents, toured with Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, did a Broadway show with Danny Kaye and played every casino in Vegas.
He was still touring in his early 90s, but age steadily made his difficult routines all but impossible. After a few years in retirement, his 100th birthday brought a round of new publicity and greetings from old fans who were happily surprised to find he was still alive. The Friars Club even made him a lifetime member.
Wences was born in Penarada, Spain, on April 17, 1896. But he always celebrated his birthday on pril 20, because his father was so poor it took three days to borrow the money to register the birth.
In 1934, when he came to the United States, Wences was conventional, "another ventriloquist with a dummy," as he put it. But two years later, en route to Chicago, his act was transformed when his dummy, Pedro, was crushed in a baggage car accident.
Wences bought a box, stuck the head inside, and, on stage that day, inquired if he was OK. Pedro replied, in a voice as gravelly as Johnny's was squeaky: "S'awright!"
A memorial service and burial will be held in his native Salamanca, Spain, this weekend, Schwartz said. No other details were immediately available.
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