Señor Wences

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Señor Wences
Senorwences1935.jpg
Wences in 1935 with an early version of Johnny.
Born Wenceslao Moreno
(1896-04-17)April 17, 1896
Peñaranda de Bracamonte, Salamanca, Spain
Died April 20, 1999(1999-04-20) (aged 103)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Cause of death
Natural causes
Years active 1937-1977
Known for Ventriloquism
Spouse(s) Esperanza Martin (1922-1944)
Natalie Cover, nee Eisler (1951-1999)

Wenceslao Moreno (April 17, 1896 – April 20, 1999),[1] better known as Señor Wences, was a Spanish ventriloquist. His popularity grew with his frequent appearances on CBS-TV's The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1950s and 1960s.[2]

Early life[edit]

Wenceslao Moreno was born in Peñaranda de Bracamonte, Salamanca, Spain.[3] His father was Antonio Moreno Ross, a Sephardic-Jewish[4] artist, and his mother was Josefa Centeno Lavera, both from Salamanca.[citation needed] Wenceslao is a name of Czech origin (Václav) meaning "victorious."

Career[edit]

Performing under the stage name "Señor Wences", Moreno was known for his speed, skill, and grace as a ventriloquist. His stable of characters included Johnny, a childlike face drawn on his hand, placed atop an otherwise headless doll, with whom the ventrilloquist conversed while switching voices between Johnny's falsetto and his own voice with great speed. He opened his act by drawing Johnny's face on his hand, on stage. He would first place his thumb next to, and in front of, his bent first finger; the first finger would be the upper lip, and the thumb the lower lip. He used lipstick to draw the lips onto the respective fingers and then drew eyes onto the upper part of the first finger, finishing the effect with a tiny long-haired wig on top of his hand. Flexing the thumb would move the "lips."

Another popular Senor Weñces character was the gruff-voiced Pedro, a disembodied head in a box. Wences was forced to suddenly invent the character when his regular, full-sized dummy was destroyed[2] during a 1936 train accident en route to Chicago.[3][5] Pedro would either "speak" from within the closed box, or speak with moving lips – simply growling, "s'awright" ("it's all right") – when the performer opened the box's front panel with his free hand. A large part of the entertainer's comedy lay in the well-timed, high-speed exchange of words between himself and his creations, and in the difference in their voice pitches.

Part of his act involved throwing his voice while his mouth was otherwise engaged (i.e. smoking or drinking.) Another favorite prop was a telephone, with the ventriloquist playing both sides of a telephone conversation. For the "caller" he simulated a "filtered" voice, as it would sound over a telephone wire. This voice always began a conversation with a shouted "Moreno?" – using Señor Wences' true surname. He would respond "No, Moreno is not here."

He usually built to a big finish that combined ventriloquism with juggling and plate-spinning. As he performed his routines, Pedro and Johnny heckled him with flawless comedic timing.

Wences with another of his puppet characters, Cecilia Chicken, in 1962

Although he was an international favorite for decades, his main career was made in the United States, where he arrived in 1934[2][3] or 1935.[5] In addition to live performances at nightclubs, he appeared regularly on TV variety shows, including frequent appearances on CBS's The Ed Sullivan Show, where he was a guest 48 times,[5] on Broadway, in Las Vegas casino theaters and in feature films.[3] Much later in his career he was introduced to a new generation of fans on The Muppet Show. His last TV appearance was on The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show, #2, a retrospective in which the nonagenarian talked about "Suliban" and performed a brief spot of ventriloquism.

He pronounced his name the traditional Castilian way, which in English sounds like "WEN-thess". After Sullivan would announce him saying his name as "Señor Wen-sess", the ventriloquist would subtly correct Sullivan's pronunciation by announcing himself to the audience: "Hello, I am Señor Wen-thess".

In the early 1980s, a Tri-State Honda dealer's commercial featured Señor Wences with Johnny. Pedro's "s'awright" was a voice from the elaborate glovebox. Señor Wences would point out all of the car's features to which Johnny would reply, "Nice!" This may have been Wences final commercial appearance. It was shot in Puerto Rico because its star declined to travel to New York.

In 2009 Señor Wences was featured in the ventriloquist comedy documentary I'm No Dummy,[6][7] directed by Bryan W. Simon.

Catch phrases[edit]

One of Wences's trademark bits of shtick (referenced several times below) involves his dialogue with a low voice emanating from inside a box. At the opening of the dialogue he would shout, "Hello in the box!" At the conclusion of the dialogue, he would open the lid of the box and ask "S'awright?" ("It's all right?") and the box voice would answer "S'awriiight!"

Another involved explaining to his hand puppet Johnny that something was easy (or difficult) to do, to which the puppet would reply the contrary, such as, "Easy for you, for me ees very deefeecult!" in his Spanish accent.[3][5]

These catchphrases were incorporated into a record Wences released in 1959 by Joy Records, featuring the songs "S-All Right? S-All Right" and "Deefeecult For You – Easy For Me".

Death and legacy[edit]

Wences received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the US National Comedy Hall of Fame in 1996.[5]

Despite his retirement by age 100, Wences' famous puppets Johnny and Pedro "continued working". Ventriloquist Michele LaFong performed at Wences' 100th birthday celebration at the New York Friars' Club (where he was made a lifetime member[8]), and he was so impressed that he befriended LaFong.[9] Not only did he give her his puppets,[3] but also taught her how to perform his classic routines.[10] Las Vegas headliner LaFong is the only ventriloquist authorized by the Wences Estate to perform Johnny and Pedro, plus Wences' routines.

Wences died just after his 103rd birthday.[1] He had been residing in New York City's Upper West Side[8] on 54th Street, just around the corner from the Ed Sullivan Theater. That section of 54th Street has been named Señor Wences Way.[5] His portrait can be seen at the Players Club in New York.

Personal life[edit]

Wences married Esperanza Martin (1922–1944); his "Johnny Martin" dummy bears her surname. She was born in the Canary Islands in North Africa. His second wife, Natalie Cover, née Eisler (1949–1999) was born in Kharkov, USSR, today Ukraine. She was also his manager. His nephew José Luis Moreno and brother Felipe Moreno were also ventriloquists. Wences has a son in Chile and several descendants.

In popular culture[edit]

  • At the end of a 1959 episode[episode needed] of the cartoon series Quick Draw McGraw, Quick Draw McGraw and his sidekick Baba Looey repeat the famous lines of "S'awriiiight". The line is also used in The Munsters, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, Cheers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Wacky Races, Mad Men, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and Roger Ramjet.
  • In early episodes of The Jetsons,[11] George's watch reads the time in Johnny's voice, and responds with Pedro's "'sawright'" when George thanks it.
  • In the 1965 Chilly Willy cartoon "Half-Baked Alaska", Chilly and Smedly did a routine similar to the "Nice? Nice" act. A similar gag happens at the end of "Pesty Guest", produced that same year.
  • In the 1979 movie The In-Laws, a South American dictator speaks to the protagonists indirectly, via a "Johnny"-like character drawn on his hand named "Señor Pepe." At that point, any doubts they may have had about his sanity are confirmed.
  • On CHEERS, Season 10, Episode 19- Rich Man, Wood Man (02/20/92). During an argument between Woody and Kelly, Sam says, "It's like arguing with Senor Wences"
  • In "Fat Butt and Pancake Head", a 2003 episode of the animated television series South Park, Eric Cartman creates a hand puppet in the style of Señor Wences' Johnny. Cartman and the puppet also go through several of Señor Wences's classic routines.
  • In The Simpsons episode Homer Vs Patty and Selma, Bart claims he can have fun all by himself, he makes a hand puppet, which he then asks 'S'awriiight?' repeatedly, before bursting into laughter.
  • In Disney's Aladdin, there are two references to Señor Wences. The first happens when Aladdin first meets the Genie, (Robin Williams) who describing himself as "often imitated", employs a dummy and a high-pitched, Spanish-accented voice similar to Johnny. The second is near the end of the film, when Aladdin suggests Jafar wish to be a genie. The Genie makes a Johnny-like hand puppet.
  • In the Sam & Max comic book, Bad Day on the Moon, Max spends a brief time as disembodied spirit in possession of Sam's hand, taking on the appearance of a Johnny-type puppet, except with bunny ears, and saying the "S'awright" line.
  • In the novel Caramelo, one of the characters meets Señor Wences in a Chicago jail cell.
  • In the movie America's Sweethearts, when Lee Phillips (Billy Crystal) urges Dave Kingman (Stanley Tucci) that they have to make a film with a director that Phillips insists is a genius, Kingman responds, "No, there's only one genius in this business, and that was Señor Wences. A little lipstick, some hair, and his hand, and the guy had a career for 85 years!"
  • On the July 14, 2009 episode of The Colbert Report, host Stephen Colbert used a Johnny-like character named Senator Wences to question Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor during her confirmation hearing.
  • In the May 20, 2010 The Rush Limbaugh Show, Limbaugh derisively referred to the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, as Señor Wences and gave a short review of who Señor Wences is. Limbaugh explained the comparison as Calderón seemed to be a puppet, articulating US President Barack Obama's philosophies during the State visit press conference on May 19, 2010.
  • In "Noshing and Moshing," the 15th episode of Freaks and Geeks, Neil performs the "S'awriiiight" call and reply gag with his painted hand and a box.
  • In the March 29, 2012 episode of "30 Rock" ("The Shower Principle"), the character Jenna Maroney, after catching her hand in a mousetrap hidden in a refrigerator, shouts in pain, "But I'm auditioning to play Senor Wences' wife tomorrow!"
  • In the season 2 episode of Mad Men entitled "For Those Who Think Young," Paul Kinsey opens and closes his satchel while saying "S'awliright." Señor Wences is also mentioned in the season 6 Mad Men episode "Collaborators."[12]
  • A song called The Man With The Laughing Hand Is Dead (which appears on the Melvins' album The Crybaby), written by Bliss Blood in collaboration with the Melvins, is a peculiar dirge for Señor Wences. It is based upon the picture of the aftermath following Wences' death. It mentions Wences' characters Johnny and Pedro, among other things, and uses excerpts of a recording of Wences' performing one of his numbers called Deefeecult For You - Easy For Me.

References[edit]

External links[edit]