Terry Ainsworth, sport historian, takes a look back at the life of the King of Ventriloquists, Arthur Worsley
My grand-mother, Elsie Ainsworth (born Davenport), often mentioned her famous relative, Arthur Worsley 1920-2001, a famous ventriloquist who was also part of the Davenport family tree that included James Kenyon Davenport who scored the first goal in the Football League in September 1888.
Arthur, who was my great uncle, and his dummy, Charlie Brown, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957.
He was without doubt the “King of Ventriloquists”.
Arthur Worsley had a simple, perfect ventriloquist’s gimmick.
His wooden figure, Charlie Brown, did all the talking. There was no give-and-take with the ventriloquist, no repartee.
Throughout the act, Worsley stood silently by, mute as a dummy.
Worsley made his first stage appearance at 11, billed as the World’s Youngest Ventriloquist.
His London debut was four years later. He ascended to stardom in the 1940’s, at the start of ventriloquism’s halcyon days.
“Arthur Worsley was wonderful,” said Ricky Jay, a magician, historian and connoi-sseur of perfor-mance.
“He was elegant, if you can say that about a ventriloquist.”
By contrast, Edgar Bergen, the most famous ventriloquist in the United States, had such pronounced technical limitations that his greatest success was on the radio.
Worsley thrived under the scrutiny of television cameras.
Ed Sullivan kept inviting him on his show, says Michael Worsley, the ventriloquist’s son, because ‘they realized he was the only vent in the world they could zoom in on for close-ups.’
For most of Worsley’s act, Charlie would abuse him -- Turn me ‘round, son. And look at me when I’m talking at you’’ -- growing ever more exasperated by the ventriloquist’s silent stupidity.
Worsley would accept Charlie’s tirades with a Buster Keaton-like implacability, on rare occasions a barely detectable rise of the eyebrow, on still rarer ones a slight smirk.
In due time, Charlie would work himself up into a conniption and start shrieking at Worsley.
Not only was this funny, it also allowed Worsley to show off his chops. “Ventriloquism is much, much easier to do if you speak softly,” Michael Worsley said.
“Charlie yelled -- very loud. To stand for 30 minutes and scream, that’s incredibly hard to do.”
Near the end of the routine, Charlie would begin harping on Worsley’s limitations as a ventriloquist, most notably his difficulty with the vent’s bête noire, the letter ‘b’.
“Say ‘bottle of beer’ without moving your lips. Go on.”
Silence from Worsley.
By this point, Charlie Brown’s head would be right next to Worsley’s, shouting in his face: “Say it! Say ‘bottle of beer’! Say it!”
Nothing. Then Charlie, after calming himself: “How is it, son, that when I shout, you spit in my face?”
Terry Ainsworth said: “Arthur was an absolute superstar. It was wonderful really, he barely moved his lips which was incredible.
“You can see videos of Arthur on Youtube.
“Charlie (the dummy) used to slag Arthur off something rotten. It was what I call real entertainment.
“I never met Arthur but I know he died in Blackpool in 2001. He was a wonderful entertainer.”
Arthur married Audrey (née Hewitt), a stage performer. They had one son, Michael.
When Arthur retired in the early 1980’s, he put Charlie Brown in the attic and never took him out.
He died in July 2001 in Blackpool, aged 80.
He is buried at Carleton Cemetery, Blackpool, in plot E794.