(1928 – 2019)
Jimmy Nelson was born in 1928 in Chicago, Illinois.
In 1937, when Jimmy was nine years old, his Aunt Margaret won the grand prize at a local bingo game. The prize was a Dummy Dan ventriloquist puppet. She gave it to Jimmy that Christmas.
As a child, Jimmy was very shy. One day he brought his puppet to school for Show and Tell. Mrs. McSweeney, his fourth grade teacher, encouraged him to perform with his puppet. Each day he would recite one lesson.
His fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Shanley, continued to encourage Jimmy to work with his Dummy Dan. Together, he and his father would write little routines for Jimmy to perform.
In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Jimmy appeared on stage for amateur nights at the local movie theaters. The teenager used these performances to hone his craft. He would also venture out to watch professional ventriloquists as often as possible.
During that time, Jimmy met his first mentor, Herman Stoike, who performed as Uncle Herman. Stoike took Jimmy under his wing and helped him develop into an even better ventriloquist.
Another influence on Jimmy was Bob Evans, a popular ventriloquist at that time. Young Jimmy would be in the front row whenever Evans appeared in Chicago. Eventually Jimmy went backstage to meet his idol. Bob Evans was then kind enough to tutor Jimmy every time he came to town.
Danny O’Day’s attitude and voice were a direct result of Bob Evans’ influence.
Jimmy worked hard on his act. At one of the movie theater amateur nights, Les Lehr, a Chicago agent, stopped by to check out the local talent. He spotted Jimmy and became his first booking agent.
In 1945, at the age of 17, Jimmy was working so much that he needed a professionally carved ventriloquist figure. Frank Marshall, (another Ventriloquist Hall Of Fame member) was the premiere figure maker of the time. He was also a Chicago resident, so Jimmy went to him. Frank carved the Danny O’Day that we are now familiar with. Jimmy continues to perform to this day with his original Danny.
In 1947, Frank Marshall recommended Jimmy have him carve a second Danny. In the event the first one ever got damaged, Jimmy would then have a backup. Hand carved figures are hard to duplicate and Jimmy was not satisfied with the results. He decided to use the figure and created another partner for the act, the sophisticated Humphrey Higsbye. This gave him more versatility as Danny could now spar with Humphrey and Jimmy would act as referee.
One of their classic routines was the song, “Rag Mop” with all three of them singing together.
In 1949 Lou Cohan, a well connected talent agent, wanted Jimmy with his agency. He convinced Jimmy to come on board. Jimmy started getting higher paying bookings and even his first television show.
At the age of 21, Jimmy created and hosted Holland’s Happiness House on WGN-TV. This show gave Jimmy the opportunity to appear on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town in 1950. His appearance was so well received that Sullivan had him return a month later.
1950 saw another addition to his act. One night Jimmy was playing with a stuffed dog that was onstage during his show. The audience was laughing and Farfel was “born.”
Jimmy went to Frank Marshall with the concept for his dog puppet. Frank custom-built the new character, which would soon become a national icon.
Jimmy moved to New York City and throughout the 1950’s appeared on many television shows. He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show five times between 1950 and 1953. He made two appearances on Your Show Of Shows, and three on Cavalcade of Stars. Other guest appearances included the quiz shows Bank On The Stars, Quick As A Flash, Strike It Rich, and Down You Go.
Nelson also appeared on many variety shows. The Pat Boone-Chevy Showroom, Cavalcade of Bands, The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Kate Smith Show, The Garry Moore Show and The Jackie Gleason Show all featured performances by Jimmy.
Jimmy was also the Emcee for his own quiz show, Come Closer. In addition, he hosted his own radio show with his puppet partners for two seasons called Highway Frolics.
In 1952 Jimmy landed his biggest role to date. He became the spokesman for Texaco on The Texaco Star Theater hosted by Milton Berle. This role catapulted Jimmy to national fame as he appeared week in and week out on this hugely popular show.
Jimmy continued to perform live as well. He appeared at Radio City Music Hall six times and The Copacabana five times. Nelson also made numerous appearances The Latin Quarter, The Cocoanut Grove, The Chicago Theater, The Chez Paree and The Edgewater Beach Hotel, popular venues of the day. Jimmy also played Las Vegas, performing at the El Rancho Hotel, The Flamingo Hotel, The Desert Inn and The Riviera.
In 1955 Nestlé was searching for a dynamic new spokesperson for their Quik line of chocolate drink. Jimmy, Danny and Farfel auditioned for the role and commercial history was made. The trio made commercial after commercial that thrilled audiences young and old for over a decade. They also sold a lot of Quik chocolate drink.
Their signature singing of the jingle became iconic. Originally live, the commercials were later filmed allowing for more exciting scenarios. Jimmy made over 120 commercials during his time with Nestlé.
Jimmy’s stature continued to grow exponentially in the entertainment world. His manager, Lou Cohan, wanted Jimmy to have a top-notch opening act. Cohan’s stable of entertainers included the beautiful and talented Betty Norman. She was selected for the job.
In 1951, Lou sent Betty to Minneapolis to open for Jimmy at the Radisson Hotel’s Flame Room. The highly regarded Supper Club was the perfect venue to try out a new opening act. Betty was a hit with the audiences during the two-week run. She was also incorporated into Jimmy’s act.
In addition to working well onstage, the two also found they worked well off the stage. Betty and Jimmy married in the spring of 1956.
Jimmy continued to stay busy in the 1960’s too. The Nestlés Quik commercials were produced monthly. In 1961, Jimmy hosted his own show, Studio 99 1/2 on WNTA in New York City. Adults also loved this children’s show for it’s sophisticated humor.
Nelson also continued to do other television shows. He appeared on To Tell The Truth, Mack & Meyer For Hire, and on The Ed Sullivan Show.
In 1963 the Juro Novelty Company teamed up with Jimmy to manufacture a version of Danny O’Day and Farfel for children. These toy ventriloquist figures were very popular.
In 1964, Jimmy approached Juro owner Sam Jupiter with a unique idea for teaching ventriloquism. At Christmas that year, Juro released Jimmy Nelson’s Instant Ventriloquism. The record album was a fun, educational way to learn ventriloquism. The record was a hit. In 1966, Juro released a second instructional album, Jimmy Nelson’s Ventriloquism 2.
These two albums influenced ventriloquism as never before. Some of today’s top stars in the vent world, including Jeff Dunham, started with Jimmy Nelson’s albums.
Prior to Instant Ventriloquism, Jimmy had released other albums. Joke Along With Jimmy Nelson, Peter and the Wolf with The Cricket Symphony orchestra, Pinocchio also with The Cricket Symphony orchestra and Fun & Games & Lots of Laughs featuring Jimmy Nelson.
Entertainment tastes began to change in the 1970’s. Jimmy still performed live and on television as often as possible. In 1971, Jimmy became the spokesperson for First Federal Savings and Loan of Fort Myers, Florida. This relationship continued well into the 90’s.
In 1978 Jimmy co-starred in HBO’s Vent Event. It was also in the 70’s that Jimmy became an ardent supporter of the Vent Haven Ventriloquists Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. Jimmy was named to the Board of Advisors since its beginnings. He attended The Vent Haven ConVENTion yearly, sharing his wisdom and knowledge with all who come.
In 2005, Jimmy’s career was featured in Kelly Asbury’s book Dummy Days. This overview of the golden age of ventriloquism included an entire section on Nelson’s career.
Jimmy was also highlighted in the 2010 feature comedy documentary, I’m No Dummy.
In 2011, two of the greatest honors that could be awarded occurred at the Vent Haven Ventriloquist ConVENTion. To celebrate his 70th year in show business, Jimmy was bestowed with the title Dean of American Ventriloquists. This title had never before been given in the ventriloquist community. The Vent Haven Ventriloquists Museum also named Building Number 4, “The Jimmy Nelson Building.” These honors secure Nelson’s legacy in the entertainment and ventriloquism world forever.
On September 21, 2014, Jimmy sent the International Ventriloquist Society an email stating:
Here’s my latest news:
After much deliberation I have finally retired from performing. After 70 plus years of performances all over this wonderful country and abroad I feel it is time. I am 85 (86 in December) which is way past retirement age.
Danny & Farfel are protesting, but I just close the suitcase cover and listen to their muffled “Let me out of here.” Humphrey Higsbye and Ftatateeta have been retired for some years, so I get no flack from them. Betty & I will do some traveling (for pleasure, not for business for a change) visiting family and friends. And,of course, I look forward to visiting with all my vent friends at future conVENTions.
See you there.
Jimmy passed away on Tuesday, September 24, 2019 at the age of 90.
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