Monday, August 22, 2005

Paul Winchell (Dec. 21, 1922-June 24, 2005)

Another one of my idols died recently, in June. I read his obit in "The Week" magazine then, and have been meaning to write something here since.

When I was a kid, ventriloquism was pretty huge. You couldn't open up a Sears "Wish Book" catalog and not see a two page spread on ventriloquist dummies. Charlie McCarthy, Willie Talk, Laurel and Hardy, and, of course, Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff.
I really longed for one and even sent off for one of those gizmos that was supposed to help you throw your voice. (It wasn't until I was in my 20's until I got my own Charlie McCarthy. I also have a Pee Wee Herman ventriloquist doll.)
Paul died, in his sleep, with his family near. They knew all what he did, but I wonder if other generations know.
As a child he had a bad stutter, which his mother didn't help with her over bearing ways. As a remedy he took up ventriloquism, which he associated with magic...a favorite subject with him. Being a huge fan of Edger Bergen and Charlie McCarthy also gave him plenty of inspiration.
Paul got his first break in 1936, when he appeared on the “Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour” with his first puppet, Terry. He later was part of a ground breaking TV event, probably forgotten by film and TV historians. Paul's first television appearance was a show he hosted in John Wannamaker’s, a department store, and was broadcast only within the store itself, since TV had not yet made it to the American home. Later, Paul was given a big plug by Ed Sullivan. His occasional appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” made him known to a large national audience and helped spearhead his growth as an entertainer in demand.

Not only was Winchell huge in the 50's and 60's..and single handedly brought ventriloquism back in vogue with his TV show, "Paul Winchell-Jerry Mahoney Hour" (debuted in '47), but he was a staple in animation as a character voice. In '68 he was the voice of Tigger in Disney's "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day," which earned an Academy Award for best animated short film. Paul did Tigger until about '99.
When Paul began to air the legendary, "Winchell Mahoney Time" (1950s) on Saturday mornings, it soon conquered the children's show audience, featuring Milton DeLugg, the bandleader, a large, highly energized audience of kids, a clubhouse motif and theme songs that these children would never completely forget. For the first year of "Winchell Mahoney Time," Carol Burnett made her first television appearance as a stable character in the show.

In the 60's, Paul did the voice of Fleegle of the Banana Splits and other Hanna Barbera chacters then...Dick Dasterdly, Jetsons, Smurfs..(he was Poppa Smurf!!)..etc. He also worked on several Disney pictures during the 60s and 70s and is considered one of the "classic" voices of the Old Disney.
Not a lot of people know that Paul was an inventor. His greatest claim to fame was the artificial heart invented in 1963. The "medical" community didn't actually use it until 1982. Not too much about that in the "medical reports" these days, heh? (Click and read that article)

Paul had over 30 patents including a portable blood plasma defroster, an early disposable razor, a sectional garment for hypothermia, and a retractable fountain pen.

Today, Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff, reside in the Smiffsonian...ahem...Smithsonian Institute in Washington in silence.


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