Inspired by the Sunday-night radio program with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, Jay Hurwitz acquired his first dummy at age 6.
“Charlie McCarthy was the Bart Simpson of his day,” said Hurwitz.
After lots of begging and pleading to his parents, Hurwitz was given a Charlie McCarthy replica. He started performing frequently as a ventriloquist in junior high school. In 1955, he performed at a men’s club dinner at Temple De Hirsch. Later on, he took a break from ventriloquism and became a political science professor. He didn’t really get back into ventriloquism until the 1990s.
Born and raised in Washington, Hurwitz said that Seattle has its advantages and disadvantages for performers of his ilk. There is less competition to be a ventriloquist, but there is also less opportunity. There aren’t many ventriloquists at all these days. This is due to the fact that everything can talk on its own, said Hurwitz.
“The wonder of it isn’t as strong,” he said. “Comedy has changed.” Ventriloquism’s day was back with variety shows like Ed Sullivan’s and during the era of vaudeville. Someone has to inspire you to become a ventriloquist, said Hurwitz. His younger brother followed his footsteps at six or seven. Now he’s a ventriloquist and magician in Texas.
“Things come and go, but we ventriloquists are not giving up,” said Hurwitz.
The Muppets brought about a different kind of ventriloquism. Soft puppets are often used now because they are less expensive and easier to carry. But the art of ventriloquism is much different than puppetry, said Hurwitz. “We think of [ventriloquism] as a form of comedy.” Making people laugh is what he likes most about ventriloquism. “When it’s working, there’s nothing like it.”
Being old-fashioned, Hurwitz prefers the hard wooden dummies over the soft ones. He currently owns eleven of what he calls “world-class” dummies. They range anywhere from a blond bombshell to Izzy, a Jewish baseball player.
Although he gives his dummy Izzy a Jewish persona, Hurwitz does not discuss religion in his routines. He was inspired to create the Izzy character back in 1994 after reading a book called The Catcher Was a Spy, about a Jewish baseball player and graduate of Princeton who spoke 17 languages. Izzy, originally named Olaf, wasn’t imagined as a Jew when Hurwitz purchased him.
Contrary to popular myth, ventriloquists aren’t schizophrenic and their dummies don’t take over, said Hurwitz.
“It’s not some unhealthy thing,” said Hurwitz. “Virtually anyone can become a ventriloquist.”
He did, however, admit that he is often surprised to hear what the dummy has to say. “The dummy will say things you don’t know he was going to say,” said Hurwitz.
Hurwitz likes to say his performances are “tailored to the occasion.” He chooses a certain character out of his cast of dummies to take to each venue, and his act varies according to the occasion.
Hurwitz has performed over the span of 40 years for a wide variety of occasions and audiences of all sizes. Usually a performer at corporate events, Hurwitz thinks of himself more as an adult entertainer. But he has performed all types of events, from Bar Mitzvahs to comedy clubs. Some of the more unusual places he has performed include the 100-foot level of the Space Needle and a truck repair garage.
Hurwitz is not only a ventriloquist but also an actor and public speaker. He has been in commercials and appeared in A Contemporary Theatre’s production of “God of Vengeance” last season. As a speaker, Hurwitz teaches how humor and creativity relate, how an organization can become more creative through humor and how companies can establish their own personal and corporate humor action plan.
“Right now my interests are more as an entertainer,” said Hurwitz. “We’ll see what happens.”
To contact Jay Hurwitz, write to email@example.com or call 425-827-1646.