Show Business | Our Town | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Our Town

Show Business

by

comment

"Come on Jimmy. You don't want to watch this."

"Yes I do."

"Come on--let's go find your mother."

"I wanna watch the puppet show."

"You're gonna be bored."

Jimmy doesn't look the least bit bored. It is his father who is shifting his weight and looking distractedly at young women in shorts and bathing suits. In fact, it is Daddy, not Jimmy, who is letting loose with a series of theatrical yawns while Jimmy watches entranced.

A bright red balloon is floating lazily toward the sun as the sounds of circus music are piped over a small amplifier in front of the Glencoe branch of the Skokie Federal Savings bank on this scorching Saturday afternoon. Among the tall glasses of lemonade, colorful balloons, a clown, and mothers pushing strollers of this sidewalk sale is a group of children assembled in front of a small stage. There, Lester Marshall, a friendly-faced, slick-gray-haired man wearing a white shirt, black tuxedo pants, and shiny black shoes, is getting ready to introduce his puppet show.

"Everybody who likes puppets, say 'I do!'" shouts Marshall in a soothing, firm voice.

"I do," shouts a group of cross-legged youngsters.

"We didn't hear you in the balcony." Marshall smiles and beckons the children to say "I do" once again.

"I DO!" they shout in gleeful anticipation.

Lester Marshall has been a magician, ventriloquist, and puppeteer since before the age of television. His acts, which include a Punch and Judy show and a send-up of Little Red Riding Hood, have been developing since his first appearance on stage--when he was three years old.

"I did vaudeville with my dad. He would bring me onstage as an encore. I did a ventriloquist act. I imitated him, dressed like him, had a miniature dummy like him, and his gag was that he was transforming himself into how he looked 25 years ago. He walked off and I walked on," said Marshall.

"There were many places in Chicago and the midwest that had vaudeville, but that was near the demise of the vaudeville era so I didn't have much work or jobs in that field. I went to school and joined the service but I kept working. As I got older--18 years or so--I started working with supper clubs, nightclubs, and whatever vaudeville houses were left.

"My dad was a ventriloquist, a clown in the circus, and he played a lot of vaudeville and he was a magician. He also had a father who was in the business. My dad wasn't very successful in show business; it's a tough racket. Before he passed on he showed me all of his secrets and techniques."

The theme to Cabaret is blaring. Lester Marshall smiles broadly, puts a whistle to his lips, and blows.

"Don't go away," Marshall beams, "in a few minutes we're going to see some absolutely fantastic puppetry with the Punch and Judy players." Moments later, Marshall has tucked himself away behind the little stage adorned with white fringe. Suddenly, a cartoonish, vaguely spooky character with a shiny big nose emerges.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I am Mr. Punch. I'm the groooovy one you've all been waiting for," declares a high-pitched nasal voice.

"Look! It's Punch!" one little girl in the audience coos admiringly.

Lester Marshall's performance is a one-man show. He introduces it, does all of the voices, writes the scripts, operates the puppets, performs magic tricks, makes balloon animals, and packs up when the show is done.

"When I was three or four years old," recalled Marshall, "I watched the old-time Punch and Judy acts from vaudeville. The kids were so enthused. . . . I thought, when I grow up I want to do Punch and Judy too, and I did and I get the same enthusiasm as there was when I was a little boy . . . Our stuff is sharp enough and updated enough that we hold the attention even of the adults. That's my reward--to see the kids not walk away, to see the adults not walk away."

Marshall's success seems to challenge the theory that television and video games have shortened children's attention spans. The children I saw didn't speak at all during the shows, except when Marshall called for their participation. All of the buzzing and mumbling was by their parents. As the theme to Cabaret played, I overheard a couple of older gentlemen singing "Life is a cabaret, you putz." The kids turned around and said "Shhh!"

"We find that a live show is 120 percent more effective than video or TV," said Marshall. "Live shows where we can ad-lib and do magic are more entertaining for a child. I love kids; they're my people. I give them what they want the way they want it, and they stick with me. . . . The nice thing about children is every four years we get a new batch of them. My audience never depletes."

Creepy movies and Twilight Zone episodes about people controlled by their dummies have made me feel a bit spooked by puppeteers. Marshall looked friendly enough, but my paranoia and curiosity forced me to ask whether there was any truth in those stories.

"I think I'm pretty straight," laughed Marshall. "There've been lots of stories. . . . I know of one case of a man who was a vaudeville ventriloquist and his wife divorced him because he spent too much time and affection on his dummy."

Marshall has achieved some degree of success over the years, notably on the radio show Blue Jacket Time and television's Bozo's Circus, where he performed several times. But his life still has something of the flavor of a traveling circus. His summer schedule is full of office parties, birthday parties, and the like.

"I can work the rest of my life," said Marshall, "hopefully, if I can hold out physically. Which I think I do. I look OK, don't I?"

I smile and nod.

"It's vigorous work," he continued. "It looks easy, but it isn't. You have to set everything up. After I'm through, pack it all up. I have a truck full of stuff. My wife helps me out a little."

Although he and his wife have three daughters, it looks as though Lester Marshall might be the last of his line.

"None of my daughters is interested," he laughs. "I can't sell it. I can't even give my secrets away. They all have done it. They each have a terrific ventriloquist figure, and they can do it. They've done it in school, but they just don't have the interest to do what I'm doing, which is OK . . . They like my act. It's funny--in the house they always kid one another mimicking my show because they know the script from start to finish--they're always saying, 'Hey Judy! Hey Punch! Hit 'im again!'"

"There's a lot of competition out there," Marshall says thoughtfully, "but I follow the old law that the cream rises to the top . . . and I hope I'm the cream."

Children are applauding and happily yelling "YEAH" as Marshall's puppets take their bows. Parents begin to lead them away, and Marshall comes out from behind the stage and looks the children over with an air of contemplation.

"You've been absolutely wonderful," he smiles.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

Add a comment