Written By Sherwood Kohn
Tom Crowl, an intense, voluble gentleman of 5 feet, 6 inches, 45 years, thinning brown hair, a graying mustache and bright blue eyes, sat on one of the old red theater seats in the lobby of the Carroll County Arts Center and talked with me virtually nonstop. Across his lap lay Dangerous Dudley Duck, his sassy ventriloquist’s puppet, content, for the moment, to be a quiet witness.
“I used him as an oven mitt once,” said Crowl. “He wasn’t happy. It traumatized him.”
Inside the Arts Center theater, where Crowl will be performing on October 26, a children’s matinee was in progress. The duck on Crowl’s lap remained dormant, apparently oblivious to queries about his genre.
“We call them dummies,” said Crowl. “After all, how politically correct can you be when you’re a puppet?”
But of course, Crowl does not refer to his figures as “dummies.” One gathers that “vents,” as they are known in the trade, prefer to call their alter egos “puppets.”
“I wanted to be a magician,” he said. “As a kid, I watched them on Ed Sullivan’s TV show. My whole life was geared to that until 1984.”
That was the year that Crowl, a Westminster native, graduate of Westminster High School and employee of Kelly’s Stationery for five years, had a respiratory ailment that put him in the hospital. He determined then and there that when he got well, he was going to take the plunge and make his living as a magician.
In a few years, he had married Dierdre, had a son, Cameron, and toured with a magic act called “Tom Crowl and the Mrs.” As a hobby-cum sideline, he carved signs, wooden goblets and barrel heads under the name of Crafty Owl. Then, when he was working at a fair in New Hampshire, he met master ventriloquist Ken Groves and seriously got the ventriloquism bug.
From Groves and others, he learned the techniques of the art: talking without moving your lips; controlling your breath; splitting yourself into two personalities (not permanently); manipulating puppets; creating various voices and scripts.
Obviously, the basic premise of magic – diverting the attention of an audience from reality to illusion – came in handy for ventriloquism, and Crowl was on his way.
By that time, Dierdre had decided she wanted a job that didn’t tour, so she dropped out of the act. She still helps out onstage occasionally. Cameron, who is 15 and has toured with his dad, now attends Winters Mill High School. Crowl has had some 150 bookings so far this year, including a gig in Cancun this fall. He has also played cruise ships, civic groups, colleges, and county fairs and has opened for, among others, rock ’n roll twister Chubby Checker.
“My favorite is corporate parties,” he said. “I send out a questionnaire before I go and tailor the show to people in the audience.”
Often, Crowl, through his puppets, will make a company official the butt of his jokes and frequently calls people out of the group to don articulated masks and become living dummies.
“People start to see the puppets as real,” he said.
The duck seems to be his most versatile alter ego, one that is useful for squelching hecklers and can also lay an egg, but Crowl has several others, including a drunk named “K.J.” (for Kermit, Junior) that can throw up; a hick named Deeder; “Sammy,” a Sasquatch character; Raoul, a Spanish monkey; Clair-Voy-Ant, the French psychic; Sin Gin, the dragon; a grumpy octogenarian named Maurice; a couple of articulated masks, and Wilson, a tennis ball named after the volley ball in the movie, “Cast Away.”
Crowl has invested all of his figures with backgrounds or biographies. “They have lives of their own,” he said.
For instance, said Crowl, the duck grew up on a farm and has 42 brothers and sisters (“he’s Catholic”). “He learned to speak dog and chicken and knows that cow patties and hamburgers are not the same. He got his nickname because he did dangerous stuff in the barnyard. One day he went to a petting zoo because he wanted to get into show business. He was discovered there.”
Deeder, the country dude, said Crowl, “grew up in the deep South. He doesn’t want people to go there because the gene pool is too shallow. HeÔs 24 years old and still in the third grade. His father and mother are in the same class.”
Despite the conceit that his puppets have lives of their own, Crowl says he is not like the creepy guys in horror movies who cannot separate illusion from reality.
“My puppets are just props. I don’t take them out at home and talk to them. But I know their personalities so well that I can improvise onstage. When I’m onstage, the duck is real to me. You’re an actor. You’re playing two parts. It’s not easy.”
Ventriloquism, said Crowl, is creating the illusion of life. “Part of the illusion is not moving your lips.” Diversion is the other part. “The puppet is so animated that your attention goes to him. “You’ve got to be about 10 feet from the audience to be effective.”
“A lot of vents are introverts. They hide behind their puppets. I couldn’t be funny doing standup alone. If the audience doesn’t laugh, it’s lonely. The duck is a companion. If the act is working, the audience is having fun. Interaction is the key.”
“I’m still learning,” said Crowl. “I videotape each show. A lot of it [the performance experience] is comfort level onstage. At first I was a wreck. The show now is a totally different animal than when I started.”
Crowl writes a script for each routine. He said he has studied comedy writing and jots down everything, throws little away and uses only half of one percent of his accumulated material. His idols are Robin Williams (“for his spontaneity”), Steve Martin and ventriloquists Jeff Dunham, Ken Groves and Terry Fator.
At this point in our conversation, the matinee ended and children started straggling out of the theater. Crowl woke up Dangerous Duck and tried to make conversation with a few of them. Most did not know what to do. They looked as if they wanted to talk with the puppet, but were too embarrassed to be gabbing with a goofy-looking bird. Crowl seemed disappointed, but philosophical.
“You can say about 21 letters of the alphabet without moving your lips,” he said. “But the five labials – V,F,M,P, and B – are difficult. So you learn substitutes, ways to do it without moving your lips.”
Dangerous Duck looked right at me and said, “V, F, M, P, B.” I was so flustered that I forgot to look at Crowl to see if he was moving his lips.