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NOTE: Rod James is a much beloved volunteer for Golden Hours and Omni Media Networks. This article appeared several years ago in the Forest Grove, Oregon newspaper.

NO DUMMY

Puppeteer Rod James shares lessons he learned from his life on the road.

By Patricia Noble
Forest Grove News-Times
February 7, 1999

 

"If you're going to be in it for the money and the fame, you can forget it," says ventriloquist Rod James.

"For a time I was in it for that. Then I realized that it's the joy of little kids' faces, and the true happiness that you can bring to others -- alleviation of their pain and the cease to their suffering. If you can bring a little bit of comedy, that's where it's at."

As a child growing up in Crookston, Minn., he'd been fascinated by ventriloquists. James turned that fascination into a profession. He marked his 40th year in show business last year.

"I'd always listened to Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen on the radio, and I thought, 'Oh! It would be nice to be born that way.' And when I found out I could learn how to do it, that was it. From the age of 13 right on, I knew what I was going to do."

The first two puppets he owned he made himself. "And I got news for you," says James, "I'm no puppet maker." In desperation he wrote to the only successful ventriloquist he'd heard of. To James' surprise, Bergen wrote back telling him to write to the National Magic Company in Chicago, Ill.

"Armed" with a real puppet, he began his career with carnivals and circuses around the midwest. His first big break came in 1952 when he began working in the slide show of the Ringling Brothers Circus.

"That was the most wonderful job I had. They made you feel like a performer. The premise was, always leave them wanting a little more, but always give them more than what you've actually advertised."

Ringling Circus, says James, was like an extended family. And, as with most families, there are two irrepressible wiseacres. In the Ringling family, it was the two great "tramp" clowns, Otto Griebling and Emmett Kelly.

"They would come and do things to break you up in the side show, 'cause they had a lot of time until the big show got started. So they would grab each other by the arm and look like two old people. They'd come stumbling around with a couple of old straw hats (on sideways) and stare. Stare and look -- oh, just funny.

"Emmett and Otto -- sound like a couple of bookends, don't they?"

In 1954 James was tapped to perform in a tribute to overseas war correspondents. Among others in the show were Sid Caesar, Carl Sandburg and Bob Hope, with President Eisenhower closing the show from Washington, D.C.

"We were all standing around the press club down on 34th Street in New York after the show, and Bob Hope said, 'Gee, I didn't know the Prexy was going to close the show.' And I said, 'What?' He says, 'The Prexy -- the President!' And all of a sudden it struck me. I'm standing here with a fellow that can call the President 'The Prexy.' It was the first time I realized I might have been in august circles."

But a few breaks didn't go his way, and as that old trouper, Buster Keaton used to say, "It doesn't take much to put the skids under you."

"When I was with the Ringling Circus, I was living rather high and heavy. I was a confirmed drunk. I'd been in the circus in '52. And in '53 I opened at Coney Island, which was then the fun place of the world -- like Disneyland is now. But we did a show every 45 minutes from 1p.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week for 26 weeks. One's body can't go through that. The season stopped and my drinking didn't. That's when I came to A.A."

His experience with Alcoholics Anonymous brought him back to his Lutheran upbringing, and he began a career as a Christian entertainer with a television show called "Through the Porthole," produced by the television evangelism department of the Lutheran Church.

But he tried to serve two masters: Jesus Christ and the life he'd always known. "I don't know if you've ever sat on a picket fence, but to try to be in and out is the most awful feeling in the world, because you're not living up to what you're preaching. Can you imagine looking in the mirror?"

Increasingly, the man who stared back at him in the morning was a man he could no longer respect. He became addicted to narcotics given to him after an automobile accident, his marriage ended in divorce and his parents took his children to raise.

"Things were going from bad to worse and finally, in 1962, on 'Good Friday, I come to my hotel room in Kingsburg, Calif., and the TV is playing -- and there is my show, my gospel program! And here I am: I'm divorced, my kids are all farmed out, I got a monkey on my back, and I'm thinking, 'What is this?'

"So I just gave up. I said 'Lord, you go ahead. I've tried to do it on my own. If you want me, you got me.'"

Now James is a much happier man, doing exactly what he wants to do. He and his puppet Basil spread an entertaining gospel in local churches and shopping malls.

"It's done for the glory of God," says James. "We're using the talents God gave us. And we do have a wonderful time -- whatever we do."

 

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