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
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
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.