Willie Tyler and his pine pal (birch buddy? fir friend?) Lester will not be doing topical humor ripped from the headlines when the ventriloquist act plays Boca Raton July 13-14.
Tyler, who speaks for Lester, feels the audience gets enough of that and will want a respite when the duo come to the Boca Black Box Center for the Arts.
“We don’t do the political stuff,” Tyler says from his home in Los Angeles. “We leave that to people who are able to do that better, or think that they do. I remember as a kid, I would go to the movie theater and sit in the dark … and watch what was on the screen. It would take your mind off of what was going on outside in the real world. It took you to a different place. When people see our act, we like to take them to a different place.”
Tyler was one of the few, if not only, African-American ventriloquists to gain fame in the 1960s and ’70s. Growing up in Detroit, Tyler got the entertainment bug as a child seeing ventriloquists on TV. He started performing at the age of 10 after taking a correspondence ventriloquist course from a “Popular Mechanics” magazine ad. After four years in the U.S. Air Force, Tyler returned to Detroit and eventually signed with the Motown Record Corporation. For the next eight years, he and Lester toured with many of Motown’s artists, including Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops and Stevie Wonder. He went on to make TV appearances on “The Tonight Show,” "Pacific Blue,” "In the House," “ Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “The Late Show With David Letterman.”
We recently talked to Tyler by phone.
Is Lester based on anyone?
I had Lester, but I didn’t really have a character yet. My brother Delano came from school one day and said, “I got this guy in study hall who looks just like him.” And Lester came into being. His personality is made up of all the kids in the neighborhood I grew up with.
How did you know you had the gift? Or did you?
I had seen [ventriloquist] Paul Winchell. It really fascinated me how they made these little characters come to life. The next day, I tried to do what he did. I got interested in it. I watched more of his TV shows. Then, I started doing little variety shows in school and talent shows in Detroit. It made me feel good to be onstage. You want to be a personality. You want to be seen, but you can’t do it yourself. It’s like a Walter Mitty situation. Lester was the extroverted part of me.
So how did a ventriloquist end up getting signed to Motown?
I was working around Detroit, so they knew of us. They were signing acts. They were thinking maybe they needed someone to do the emcee work for the Motortown Revue [a series of national tours with Motown recording artists in the early 1960s]. At that particular time, Motown had International Talent Management, so they would manage acts. I signed an eight-year contract. But because they had a management firm and recording and everything else, they were antitrust. So they had to drop management. And so I went with others — William Morris, ICM — which was great. A year later, they put an album out, “Hello Dummy” on Tamla [Records] and that was it. I was with the Supremes on a TV show called “Hollywood Palace,” which was really big back then. It was Diana Ross and the Supremes hosting with Sammy Davis Jr., the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder. Motown put out an album of that Hollywood Palace show, so I was on that Motown album, too.
Willie Tyler and Lester will appear 8 p.m. July 13-14 at Boca Black Box Center for the Arts, 8221 Glades Road, in Boca Raton. Tickets cost $25 and $35. To order, call 561-483-9036 or go to BocaBlackBox.com.