HE'S NO DUMMY
By Dave Stave
Observer Staff Writer
Ventriloquist Rod James and his dummy-sidekick, Basil, are practically inseparable.
The two have been together for nearly 50 years, and James, 72, is reluctant to let Basil, his "boy," out of sight particularly when they are traveling.
Basil, who traveled around Europe with a ventriloquist in the 1940s before joining James, often has been perched on James' lap visiting freely with other passengers while the two are riding on buses or planes.
James explained why Basil, who remains age 9 year in and year out, is his constant companion. It would be impossible for James to do his ventriloquist act if Basil was stashed in a suitcase that was lost somewhere in an airport or in the belly of a plane.
When the ventriloquist arrives at a city where he is scheduled to do a performance in a church or some other venue, he wants to make sure his dummy is close at hand.
James and Basil rode the bus to Union County last month, where the two did fall kickoff programs for Sunday schools in Pastor Jerry Peters' United Methodist churches in Union and Cove.
James of Forest Grove and Peters enjoy getting together whenever they can.
James and Peters (or make that three with Basil) did a family show, "Dr T's Medicine Wagon Road Show," in the Northwest for 15 years.
The hour-long variety show was performed at county and state fairs, grand openings and just about any place where the two were invited. The act broke up in 1997.
Peters, who appeared in the shows as Toe-Toe the Clown, said he had a lot of fun working with James.
"It was a joy," Peters said. The two had a general idea where they were taking their act, but seldom worked from a script.
"There were lots of ad libs," Peters recalled with a smile. "It was chaotic. We had a ball."
Peters, who in addition to his church responsibilities helps his wife, Shirley, operate the Opera House in Elgin, said he was involved in a "clowning routine" on his own in the 1970s when he decided to add a partner. "I wanted to have a two-person act," Peters said.
Someone told Peters about James and Basil. They met at the McDonald's restaurant in Hillsboro and decided to team up for a show.
James has had a dummy by his side since he was a teenager, when he made contact with the renowned ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.
James said he was greatly influenced by Bergen, who had a show in the early days of television with Charlie McCarthy, a dummy who wore a monocle and a top hat.
"I wrote him when I was 13," James said. He was impressed when the ventriloquist wrote back and told him of a place where James could obtain his first puppet. A picture of Edgar and Charlie McCarthy was included with Bergen's letter.
Ventriloquism is not the only thing that James has done through his career. As a character actor, he has many films and television shows to his credit. He appeared in the film, "Imaginary Crimes," and was on the NBC television movies, "Why My Daughter A Moment in Time" and "To My Daughter with Love."
He also appeared years ago on radio's Arthur Godfrey Show and Don McNeal's Breakfast Club and was the voice of Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol." For a short period he was the voice of Mr. Bluster on the Howdy Doody Show, a popular children's television program in the 1950s.
More recently, he was the old man in a Thomason Auto Dealerships television advertisement in Portland that focused on a candy bar.
He and Basil also do weekly programs on National Public Radio.
Sometimes in speaking in Sunday schools or to other Christian groups, James talks about how God delivered him from alcoholism in the 1950s.
He and Basil team up to tell children the story of how Jesus fed 5,000 people with a few loaves and fish.
It's God's touch on his life that has allowed him to stay free of alcohol for a half century, James said.
"I tell the kids, if God can feed 5,000, think of what He can do with you."