NEW YORK - Senor Wences has lost his voices.
"It is very deefeecult for me," says the greatest living ventriloquist, unintentionally parodying one of his old bits. "It is from the age - from working the many years."
The voices. They carried him through Depression-era performances on the vaudeville stage, through countless two-shows-a-night club dates, through 43 triumphs on Ed Sullivan's show.
In the Golden Age of television, the voices made him famous. He bickered and bantered with his puppets while he drank, smoked and juggled. He conversed with a head in a box ("'S OK?" "'S AWRIGHT). He was defeated by his hand-puppet, who boasted, "Deefeecult for you; easy for me."
Now Wences is 100. His puppets are packed in a suitcase, awaiting the day they will be offered to the Smithsonian. At a time when the adjective "legendary" is horribly abused, he deserves it.
"People like David Letterman love Wences," says Tony Belmont, director of the Comedy Hall of Fame, "but most of them think he's dead."
He lives a block from the Ed Sullivan Theater, in an apartment with his wife Natalie. After a decade of obscurity, he is basking in 100th-birthday greetings from people happily surprised to find him still in their midst.
He can, in fact, do his old voices, but not for long, not in quick succession, and not while juggling or smoking or drinking.
He walks with a cane, wears glasses with thick lenses, and has some trouble hearing - but little trouble recalling a career that spans the century.
It began in grade school in a small town near Salamanca, Spain, where young Wencesleo Moreno learned to imitate voices and to answer "present" for absent classmates. "I was very mischievous," he says, stretching the word out to about 25 syllables in his heavily Spanish-accented English.
His teachers did not applaud. Instead, they made him clean out the ink wells. Which was how he discovered that he could smear ink on his hand to form a little face when he clenched his fist.
Now he amused his fellows by sticking his hand behind his back, moving his thumb and forefinger to simulate a mouth, and projecting a high-pitched voice. It was the birth of Johnny, and the beginning of an act.
Accident brings success
In 1934, when he arrived in New York, Wences was conventional - "another ventriloquist with a dummy," as he puts it. But two years later, en route to Chicago, his act was transformed when his dummy, Pedro, was crushed in a baggage car accident.
Only the dummy's head was spared. So Wences bought a box, stuck the head inside, and - onstage that day - inquired if he was OK.
Pedro replied, in a voice as gravelly as Johnny's was squeaky: "'S AWRIGHT!"
Pedro wore glasses and a Dali-like mustache and beard. His voice became clearer as the door to his box opened, and muffled as it closed. Audiences forgot the sound was really coming from outside the box.
Wences was an excellent technician - his lips didn't move - and he flaunted his virtuosity. He'd talk to his puppets with his face right in theirs, as if daring the audience to watch his lips. Similarly, he'd create Johnny right there on stage - draw the face on his left hand with lipstick, then drape Johnny's little blond wig over his hand. The ventriloquism would convert any skeptics.
Wences juggled his characters like balls, shifting speedily from one voice to another with no loss in clarity or control. There were no jokes, just what one writer has described as "bizarre, farcical, Spanish-accented patter." Although Wences and company seemed to understand each other, exactly what they were saying usually wasn't quite clear to the audience.
At a time when other ventriloquists hired gag writers, Wences got laughs with just a look or a sound. And he got them from grandparents and grandchildren simultaneously.
Wences and Johnny argue over a song:
Wences: "Is difficult."
Johnny: "Is easy."
They go on, back and forth. Finally, Johnny says: "Deefeecult for you; easy for me."
Wences played vaudeville houses but dressed for Mrs. Astor's ballroom: white tie, tails, starched white shirts. He had the receding hairline, aquiline nose and narrow face of an aristocrat, the posture and step of a dancer.
Years later, the young ventriloquist Michele LaFong would sit for hours at the Museum of Broadcasting, studying tapes of Sullivan shows. Wences' act, she realized, was choreographed; he never took an extra step. "It had a rhythm to it," she says, "a beat."
His was a precise, economical act: 19 minutes with a one-minute encore. He only asked the promoter for a card table and a glass of water.
Agent Eddie Elkort called Wences "the most bookable client I ever represented - a sure-fire crowd pleaser who was never temperamental. Problem-free, no nonsense. He was an automatic rebooking. The very best."
Sullivan on the line
Wences made his television debut in 1948 on Milton Berle's show. He created the neurotic Cecilia Chicken for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows." Then Ed Sullivan called.
He started at $600 a show, and worked up to $7,000 - $1,000 a minute.
Wences was sensational. He'd stuff a hankie in Johnny's mouth, and have the puppet speak with a muffled voice while he himself smoked a cigarette. Then he'd give Johnny a drag, and the puppet - that is, Wences' hand - would somehow emit perfect rings of smoke.
Once, Sullivan had a bright idea: Don't open Pedro's box. Well, no one told Wences how to do his act, and for three years he did not appear on the No. 1 variety show. "What will Wences do without Sullivan?" his wife was asked. "What will Sullivan do without Wences?" she replied.
Wences did all those Sullivan shows, including ones with Elvis and the Beatles (none of whom he recalls meeting). In between, he entertained four presidents, toured with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, did a Broadway show with Danny Kaye, and played every casino in Las Vegas.
Although he never achieved the fortune of Edgar Bergen or Paul Winchell, he was the ventriloquist's ventriloquist.
"Most of us were in awe of Wences," recalls Jimmy Nelson, who created Danny O'Day and Farfel the Dog. "He could get laughs just by saying, `S`AWRIGHT!' And I still don't know how he got those smoke rings out of Johnny."
Sullivan went off the air in 1971 and Wences went to Paris, where for seven years he played the Crazy Horse Saloon. When he came back to New York, there were fewer offers. Who needed an octogenarian ventriloquist in the disco age?
And the voices were going. Johnny's falsetto became more difficult to project and sustain, and the rapid-fire shifts between characters' ranges became a terrible vocal and mental strain.
In 1985, in Miami, he dropped the plate he juggled with a stick over Pedro's box. He recovered beautifully - Pedro screamed, Wences blamed Johnny, and the audience laughed. They didn't know it was an accident.
But Wences was disconsolate. "I can't do the juggling," he told the producer afterward.
The following year, he set out with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller in the road company of the vaudeville review, "Sugar Babies." He was 90.
But again there was a slip: For the first time, he dropped Cecilia Chicken's egg.
"My baby! My baby!" Cecilia cried. The audience roared.
The end: North Carolina
Senor Wences' career ended on a spring night in 1986 somewhere in North Carolina at the end of a successful six-week run. The old man got on a plane and flew to Spain for the summer, just as he has every spring since.
This year, two weeks after his return, with no apparent sense of irony, the Friars Club made Wences a lifetime member. At the ceremony, video clips of Wences performances were followed by live performances by several young ventriloquists. None was flattered by comparison to the master.
At the end of the evening Wences was helped up two stairs onto the stage. He leaned on his cane, seemingly dazed by the lights and the applause. He wore a camel's-hair sport coat, a sweater vest tucked inside his slacks and a flowery bow tie.
"Pray God you brought the lipstick," joked the emcee, perhaps unaware of Johnny's retirement.
As usual, it was difficult to make out everything Wences said as he expressed thanks; as usual, no one seemed to care. But apparently there would be no ventriloquism.
Then something seemed to occur to the old man.
"S'OK?" Wences softly asked the hand microphone. Instantly, it growled back: "S'AWRIGHT!"
His lips never moved.