July 18, 2002
Blame It on the Dummy
If you've got something against the Jewish dummy named Velvel, blame Nat King Cole.
Back in 1955, the legendary crooner would come into the Sunset Strip club where his wife worked, and catch Rickie Layne and Velvel in action.
"He told Ed Sullivan, 'There's a guy working with my wife in Ciro's,'" Layne, 78, told The Journal. "'He's hysterical. He uses a dummy with a Jewish dialect.'"
Cole promised Sullivan that if Layne and Velvel bombed, he would do a show gratis. On Jan. 1, 1956, Rickie Layne and Velvel killed on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Cole never did the free show.
"After our bit," Layne recalls, "Ed told me, 'We're gonna have you on again in two weeks.' Two weeks later, Ed told me, 'We're going to have you a month from now.'"
The man/puppet comedy duo made 48 appearances on "Sullivan."
"I always tried to work Sullivan into some of the bits because he loved working with the dummy," Layne says.
At the Vegas Ventriloquist Festival 2002 in April, the International Ventriloquist Association (IVA) presented Northridge residents Layne and Velvel with a career-saluting Askins Award, alongside Candice Bergen, who accepted an honor on behalf of her pioneer ventriloquist father Edgar Bergen.
"He represents what I called dyed-in-the-wool ventriloquist," IVA Director Valentine Vox says of Layne. "They asked me how ventriloquism has changed over the years and it hasn't changed. It's still about comedy."
"I'm not a good ventriloquist," Layne admits. "I'm basically a comic. I use the dummy as an excuse to do dialogue."
Born Richard Israel Cohen, Layne, who alternately bills himself as Rick E. Layne, began working in showbiz at age 9. The Brooklyn-born comic impersonated Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson until the day his Uncle Norbert bought him a dummy. That dummy was one Willy Gladstone.
"I called him Gladstone because he slept in a Gladstone bag," Layne says. "One night I tried the dummy out as an encore. The audience liked the encore better than the act."
Layne and Gladstone have remained joined at the lap ever since. Throughout Layne's teens, the pair toured America with Major Bowes' entertainment troupe. In 1943, 18-year-old Layne was drafted. When Layne exited the Army at 21, he hit the Catskills. It was while playing the Borscht Belt that Gladstone was reborn as the Yiddish-accented Velvel.
"Velvel is 'Willie' in Jewish," Layne says.
Over their long career, Layne and Velvel have played every venue, from New Jersey's Grossman's Hotel and the Catskills' Grossinger's to New York's Copacabana, the Fountainbleu in Florida, and L.A.'s Orpheum Theatre. The pair has palled around with Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra and hung out at Jerry Lewis' place. Cary Grant would catch Layne and Velvel at Billy Gray's Bandbox, a popular Fairfax District club.
"Once in Miami, I opened at the Ritz-Carlton," Layne remembers, "and a chambermaid came into my suite while I was down having lunch. She called the police after she had opened my suitcase and found Velvel. She went around screaming, 'There's a dead boy! His eyes are open, his eyes are open!' She thought I killed a kid. The hotel fired her for going into my stuff."
Personality-wise, Layne and Velvel have not changed much over the decades. However, life on the road has physically aged both ventriloquist and dummy. Clean-shaven in the 1950s, the team filled out, grew their hair and sported mustaches by the late 1970s.
"I was up in Reno in 1978 and I did a gag with the dummy where he had a mustache," Layne says. "I'd say, you're just jealous because your mustache is bigger than mine, and Velvel would answer, 'Anything I have is bigger than yours.'"
After a veritable lifetime of ventriloquism with Velvel, Layne still gets a charge out of entertaining audiences. And there's a good reason why Layne has worked with Velvel all these years: "If something came out wrong, I'd blame the dummy."