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Sodom In Half - Ricki Hilliard, Lost King of the Blue Ventriloquists
by John-Ivan Palmer

I went from psych major at UC Berkeley to Felicia Fantasy's Tenderloin boyfriend in one academic quarter. If I hadn't traded the soporific lecture hall for the strip club dressingroom, I might never have heard of Ricki Hilliard, the most notorious of the blue room vents.
     Successful ventriloquists working today, like Todd Oliver (with his live talking dog), or Bob Trent (with his smart-ass crow), can only remember a few blue vents by name. There was Wayne Roland in Chicago, who tried to break out of blue rooms, but still did risqué material and was always in trouble for it. There was Grover Ruwe, the sly jape from Kansas City, Dick Weston in Vegas, and Richard and Willey (who Trent calls "wickedly dirty"). Barklay Shaw's X-rated chicken and Wayland Flowers' dirty old lady dummy all worked--again in Trent's words--"really blue." But almost nobody's heard of Ricki Hilliard. He was too blue.
     When we delve into the world of XXX-rated ventriloquism, we delve into such a black hole of human taboo that nothing radiates out. Oblivion gobbles up the names.
     There is no mention of blue room vents in Valentine Vox's definitive I Can See Your Lips Moving, The History and Art of Ventriloquism (1981). I talk to agents like Gilbert Miller in Las Vegas, who knows everything about show biz from vaudeville to the point where it all turned to shit. He can't remember the name of a single dirty vent. Not only that, but he bristles at the very mention of filthy ventriloquists and distances himself in such a way that I feel ashamed I ever asked. The taboo is as strong now as in the 13th century when ventriloquists were tortured and executed by Christian authorities for the capital crime of making a voice appear to originate from someplace other than its source.
     And I use the terms "dirty" and "filthy" not to be judgmental, but because these were the terms used both inside and outside the business itself. It assumes the modal values of the culture as a constant, and the modifiers and enhancers measure just how far from mainstream taste you can expect the dummy to stray. You want a dirty disgusting vent act, utterly, and I mean UTTERLY filthy? That sort of thing. It's a way to get directly to the point and do a little business.
     What made Ricki Hilliard such a morsel of the forgotten wasn't just the standard blue vent gimmicks, the filthy jokes, the dummy's erection, the urination into the audience, the raised finger, the endless fuck, fuck, fuck. That alone would have guaranteed him work inversely proportional to his importance in ventriloquial history. It wasn't because he merged two historical no-no's: cultural taboo and making inanimate objects appear conscious (although that may be closer to the necromantic essence of his demonic power). He was devastatingly popular in west coast strip clubs of the lowest order for five short years because he dredged deeper, took greater risks, and consorted with more ancient gods than any known ventriloquist for the last three thousand years.
     Hilliard began his career in Tenderloin porn theaters, doing ten minute shows between movies to give the projectionist time to switch reels. It was an impossible niche, and why he did it rather than work, let's say, kiddie shows, is part of Hilliard's mystery. When the lights went up, Hilliard walked out on the stage carrying the dummy with a penis sticking out. It was an atrocious sight gag, but it worked. Hilliard himself looked straight and wholesome, a kind of skinny dork. The dummy was a bug-eyed Charlie Manson figure, nearly full human size, which made the erection gimmick all the more "realistic."
     Most blue room vents were products of the 1950's, when booming Rust Belt factories all had Men's Clubs that threw parties with strippers and dirty comics. This was long before the Devil went PC. Several times a year Puritanism gave way to Paganism and life seemed more balanced and eternal than it does today. Hundreds of acts and agents thrived in this culture like bread mold and blue vents worked circuits year round. But by the early 1970's most were ravaged by vice and life on the road.
     With my library and files on cognitive psychology and everything I never learned in class, I moved to Turk St. with Felicia Fantasy and her snake. I don't know if anyone's written the intellectual history of the Tenderloin, but there was one. The cheap hotels along Eddy, O'Farrell and Turk Streets were indeed filled with garden variety losers. But peppered among them were people like me, the rejects of formal education, who wouldn't follow the syllabus-bizarre bookworms, amphetamine-addicted students of metaphysical poetry, erotomaniacal biblical scholars, socially crippled botanists, perversion seeking poets. Ricki Hilliard was among them, run out of Chicago, according to rumor, by some scandal in the Shakespearean theater clique. All these seekers of odd flavors and fragrances were too non-conformist for the middle class hippies, so they ended up in the Tenderloin, which was no love-in. As my behaviorist professors would put it, positive and negative reinforcement in a maximum displacement from zero. Violence was always imminent. You saw it in the doors, most of which had been repaired numerous times from being kicked in by police or people going berserk. Tenderloin doors were always old, the locks were always new. You had to fight for your ecstasy. Kicking was the name of the game. Get yer kicks, kick the junk, kick yer ass, what a kick. People just stepped over the blood on the sidewalk. It had to be as disturbing to Hilliard as it was to me. All night the screams and the sirens made it difficult to sleep, and when you did sleep you had nightmares. X-rated ventriloquism was how Hilliard kicked his way out of hell.
     I saw Hilliard in Tenderloin pross bars doing funny voices for hookers, or on the North Beach strip where he knew all the sex shop clerks. He tried to get himself booked at Big Al's, the Condor, etc. He did work some of the lesser clubs on a one shot basis, but no one wanted to pay him. I even saw him on Market Street a few times, once in the rain, pathetically working for tips. Whenever I complimented him on his thespian talents, he used his hip, loose, show biz persona to take control of the conversation to pry sexual information out of me. Would I screw a cow for a thousand dollars? A million? He'd manipulate me into some absurd hypothetical agreement, then spend days telling everyone about it, building the whole thing into an offstage routine, voices and all. And here's what the cow said...etc. No one could get close to him because he used ventriloquism as a shield. When things got personal, he'd throw a voice into a shot glass or a hash pipe or a hooker's cleavage. He was definitely in a self-referential world of his own and unless it involved some kind of sexual commerce most people avoided him.
     When my girlfriend, the ultra-high maintenance, all-nude sensation, Felicia Fantasy, finally got him on the peeler circuit, we bumped into him all the time in places like the Palm Tree Lounge in Calgary, The Syndicate and Fantasia Cabaret in Edmonton, The King of Hearts in Laramie, and the Roxy in Cheyenne before they shut it down as a public nuisance.
     In show biz, especially tough show biz, evolution happens quickly. Laughs aren't that easy to get. In roadhouse hells of vomit, drool, blood and ugly scenes, you'll do anything for laughs. You'll steal jokes, you'll score them like guns and drugs, you'll run your mind at full throttle and drive everyone nuts in a mad quest for workable lines. If you fail, you die. That's why show business thrives on the metaphors of violence. You kill em, you slay em, you knock em dead. Or you die. Hilliard mowed em down-about half the time.
     The sight gags were pretty much the high point of the show. One of the dummy's hands had the middle finger permanently out and the arm worked on a rod controlled by Hilliard so the dummy was constantly flipping people off. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, and by the way, fuck you too. It was a formula of cosmic simplicity. In the Rocky Mountain cowboy dumps in the winter of 1970, I saw Hilliard's act literally explode with adaptive mechanisms. In addition to the erection gimmick, he rigged up a big glob of brown clay to drop out the dummy's ass. Hilliard's logic, if not his taste, was flawless--a defecating ventriloquist dummy. Then sometime between the Dragon Lounge in Portland and the Frontier Room in Vancouver, Hilliard figured out a way to pack pounds and pounds of clay into the oversized dummy's body, so much that the issue came down to how much weight Hilliard could carry out onto the stage. The more the shats, the more the laughs. He dropped the stuff in laps, on people's heads. He was a bouncer's nightmare. Felicia complained about clay causing embarrassing stains on her costumes when she rolled around on the floor and put a lot of pressure on me to get Hilliard to stop. There were other hostilities. Drunks threw clay back at the dummy (but never Hilliard). Several times he had to be escorted to his car because someone threatened to kick the dummy's ass (never Hilliard's) in the parking lot. In a medium of Dionysian excess it flipped a switch in the collective unconscious, and on these nights I could see why, for 30 centuries, ventriloquism could be such a dangerous activity.
     In some ways it was amazing to see. The shock, the hysterics, the revulsion. After about 10 minutes of overkill from his crapping dummy, he brought out the big finish--a potty-mouthed female dummy rigged up with a dress that came off. He probably stole the idea from blue room vent Chris Cross. But Hilliard took it one step further. Not only did the female dummy have pubic hair, but a kind of opening so you could actually peer inside her artificial body. The dummy wench conned some stooge up on stage to look between her legs, which were rigged up to open real wide or snap shut. Catcallers yelled, "Whata ya see!" No matter what the guy said, it was funny. Meanwhile, during all of this, the dummy insulted the stooge. Pure genius.
     If the trends would have stayed the same, Hilliard might still be doing it. He might even have become another Lenny Bruce or Andy Kaufman. But west coast strip clubs in the early 1970's were vaudeville's absolute and final dead end. Generic crab walkers and butt puppets, who'd show more and work for less, ran strippers out of business almost overnight, including my girlfriend, the Snake Dancing Wonder. I have no idea where all these people went. They seemed to vanish in some great mass extinction. I never saw Felicia again after that incident in Omaha, when she kicked me out of her car and drove off to Denver with a bunch of my books on the nature of consciousness. I never saw them again either.
     Clubs went through a quick succession of fads from male strippers to stage hypnotism, disco, mud wrestling and then comedy clubs created a whole new format. Vaudeville literally went out in a blaze of glory. Suspicious fires were commonplace.
     The last time I saw Ricki Hilliard was in the sleaziest toilet of all time, the Kon Tiki Lounge on highway 290 between Spokane and Coeur d'Alene. It was an awful week. Felicia said the only reason she brought me on the road with her was because she needed a driver, otherwise she hated me and by the way, would I drive her to Omaha? Hilliard was stabbed by an Indian he outraged with his shitting dummy and spent the night in a hospital. I found out he had an eight year old son in Chicago no one would let him see. One night in the house trailer behind the club, I heard him through the thin walls crying hysterically. Since then someone told me he was in porno movies, someone else said he was arrested in a john sweep in Seattle, and another rumor had him breaking a two week contract in Anchorage because of some scandal that forced him to leave town suddenly. But all of it was hearsay. Trying to verify the facts surrounding traveling night club acts is like trying to find the real Jesus.
     Wayne Roland died an alcoholic born-again Christian, Grover Ruwe is a born-again Christian of advanced age working for free in nursing homes, and other blue vents have died of AIDS. I have good reason to believe that Ricki Hilliard was not even his real name. Maybe somewhere in America today he's on-stage as a chillingly convincing Caliban or Richard III. Maybe he's getting stoned with Long Dong Silver.
     I always thought that Hilliard was more a function of the Tenderloin than of show business. Ventriloquism for him was a survival mechanism to deter predators real or imagined, like the pika, a rabbit-like West Coast rodent that throws its voice when it hears you coming and makes rocks sound like goats. Go ahead, eat one. Meanwhile, I'm outa here.
     Beyond that you could regard Ricki Hilliard as an anomalous phenomenon of no value whatsoever, like a ball of light that comes in your back door, follows you upstairs, wanders in and out of the bathroom, only to pass out a bedroom window and explode over the wisterias.

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