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North Vancouver artist breathes life into ventriloquism

There are only a handful of folks left who know how to make a puppet (and make a living performing with one).

In his Edgemont basement workshop, Don Bryan sands away some of Winestein’s basswood face. Bryan is now one of just a handful of people remaining who knows how to make a functioning ventriloquist dummy and – even trickier – how make a living performing with one.

After Winestein’s face is complete and his head has been attached to a handmade body, he’ll be sent off to another performer.

“The only trouble is it takes me like 300 hours to build one of these things,” Bryan says. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I fiddle and agonize over details forever.”

The art of ventriloquism dates back thousands of years, but mainly in the form of religious rites. Around the 1700s, talking dolls began showing up in stage performances.

Bryan fell in love with ventriloquism when the artform was at its peak, listening to Edgar Bergen and his famous wisecracking dummy sidekick Charlie McCarthy on the radio in the 1950s.

Almost right away, he got to work on his first figure, which he still has today. Some time later, his parents, who were actors, introduced him to Bergen who offered the young Bryan high praise for his handiwork.

Ventriloquism was always a hobby or side hustle for Bryan, until the 1980s recession cost him his desk job and he went to work full time as an entertainer.

He’s opened for A-listers like Eddie Murphy, B.B. King, and Dolly Parton, and he’s had residencies in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. But most of his time in show business has been on cruise ship stages.

Now in his 80s, Bryan and his main character Noseworthy, who he describes as a likeable curmudgeon, have a lot of material that the cruise ship demographic can relate to.

“Everything hurts and what hurts don’t work,” Noseworthy says. “I get up four or five times in the middle of the night. Everything dries up or leaks when you get older.”

Once the act has begun, the master, ironically, is subservient to the puppet. Noseworthy gets all the best lines. Bryan must be the straight man.

“I like to appear a little more humble, if that’s the way of putting it. Let Noseworthy run rampant and get all the limelight and the laughs because that’s what it’s really all about – bringing that character to life,” he says. “[The audiences] engage the puppet right away. It’s like he was another person there. They will talk to Noseworthy, not to me.”

Bryan has had a lot of time to ponder why people respond to talking puppets the way that they do. He reasons that it involves the same part of our personality that tingles when we’re baffled by a magic trick.

And though they work very closely together, when the show is done, the ventriloquists and their dummies don’t keep the conversation going, Bryan says.

“In fact, I was talking to Noseworthy about that last night,” he says.

Bryan has worked numerous 9-5 jobs in his life, and at times, there was temptation to go back. But architectural designers don’t get a standing ovation when they’ve done their work, and they don’t get to wear a tuxedo on the job.

“I’m at the age where I should be retiring, I suppose. But why do that when I can still work? My act is still relevant. My skills are still good,” he says. “It fills me up.”

While he wouldn’t go so far as to say that ventriloquism is a lost art, Bryan said he is proud to keeping a tradition going. Just this year, he released a new edition of his book that teaches how to build puppets like Winestein and Noseworthy, and how to develop the skills that bring them to life.

And clearly, audiences are eager to hear what they’ll say next, Bryan notes.

“I’ve had people come up to me after some of my shows and say ‘My wife has terminal cancer. She hasn’t laughed like that in years. Thank you so much,’” he said. “We need laughs in this world.”

If you aren’t willing to board a cruise ship to see Bryan and Noseworthy do their bit, the duo is booked to play the Culture Paths festival running from July 4 to 6 at Whey-ah-Wichen (Cates Park).

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