(1922 – 2005)
Paul Wilchinsky was born in New York City on December 21, 1922, to proud parents Solomon and Clara Wilchinsky. His father was a tailor. He grew up in an apartment near Coney Island. Early in life he experienced the showbusiness life of sideshow barkers and carnival workers working the area.
Paul contracted polio when he was 6 years of age. This disease caused his legs to atrophy. Winchell claimed relentless weight training allowed him to overcome the effects.
This episode is believed to have contributed to his desire to be a physician. When the Great Depression hit, his parents could not afford to send him to medical school and that dream was dashed.
While recovering, Paul found an advertisement for a “ventriloquism kit.” The kit cost a total of 10 cents. His mother refused to purchase the kit, but his sister’s boyfriend gave Paul the money and soon he was studying the art.
A shy child with a stutter, Paul would find refuge listening to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s radio show. He used ventriloquism as a therapy. Paul would emulate Edgar & Charlie’s routines. This helped him overcome his stutter.
At school, he asked his art teacher if he could build a ventriloquist’s dummy. His teacher agreed to give him class credit and Paul built his first Jerry Mahoney. The name of the figure was a nod of thanks to the art teacher, Jero Magon.
Paul was an avid reader of magazines and gathered jokes from them to create a comedy routine for Jerry. In 1938, he performed on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour as Paul Winchell. Paul won first place with his act. Part of the prize was a touring offer, so Paul played theaters with the review show.
A bandleader named Ted Weems saw Winchell on this tour. He offered Paul a job and Winchell accepted, becoming a professional ventriloquist at the age of 14.
For years, Paul played on the vaudeville circuit, refining his act. In 1943, he attempted to have his own radio show. Unfortunately he was overshadowed by the success of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.
In 1948, Winchell made the move to television with an appearance on The Bigelow Show which aired on CBS. That same year, Winchell appeared with Joseph Dunninger on the NBC program, Floor Show. Winchell would provide singing and comic releif between Dunninger’s mentalism routines. Recorded via kinescope, the show was replayed on WNBQ-TV in Chicago, Illinois. This 8:30-9 p.m. Central Time show aired on Thursdays and was the station’s first mid-week program.
The Paul Winchell Show began in 1950. It was originally called “The Spiedel Show.” Winchell appeared on NBC’s prime time schedule until 1954.
After The Paul Winchell Show left the air, Paul hosted Circus Time on ABC from 1956-1957. He appeared on the show with both Jerry Mahoney and another figure, Knucklehead Smiff.
Winchell once said, “It wasn’t until I was 35 that it dawned on me that I’d missed my education.” For this reason he enrolled in pre-med at Columbia University in the mid-1950s. Later in life, he became an acupuncturist and medical hypnotist. Winchell took on some projects for the American Red Cross and the Leukemia Society. These projects led to medical patents in his name.
From 1965 – 1968, Winchell took on his best known show. Winchell-Mahoney Time featured Paul, Jerry Mahoney & Knucklehead Smiff. Set in a clubhouse, the program became a sensation with children.
Winchell, ever the inventor, developed a way to replace his dummy’s hands with the hands of puppeteers. This allowed him to take ventriloquism to a new level and revolutionized puppetry.
Another innovation for that show was Ozwald, a character that resembled Humpty Dumpty. Winchell created the character by painting eyes and a nose on his chin. He then added a “body” covering the rest of his face. Finally, they turned the camera upside down to capture this unique “puppet.”
From the late 1950’s through the mid 1970’s, Paul continued to make guest appearances on television series. Some of the programs he appeared on include: What’s My Line?, I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Nanny and the Professor, McMillan & Wife, The Donna Reed Show, and two appearances as Homer Winch on The Beverly Hillbillies in 1962.
In the late 1960s he appeared as a French Ventriloquist on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in. The ventriloquist, Lucky Pierre, had an elderly dummy that died of a heart attack in the middle of his act.
Winchell also appeared on Love, American Style, with fellow ventriloquist Shari Lewis. They played a shy couple in a waiting room who choose to introduce themselves to each other through their dummies.
In 1968, Winchell began something that carries on his legacy to this day. He began voicing Tigger for Walt Disney’s Winnie The Pooh.
This resulted in Winchell becoming the “voice” of other cartoon characters. He was the voice of Dick Dastardly and Clyde & Softy on Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races. Paul also voiced Fleegle on the Banana Splits and Gargamel on the Smurfs. He also voiced many other world-famous cartoon characters.
Winchell was very successful as a voice artist. He even won a Grammy Award for his performance in Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too.
In 1970, Winchell started negotiations with Metromedia to syndicate the 305 color segments of Winchell-Mahoney Time. The two sides couldn’t reach an agreement so Paul offered to purchase the tapes for $100,000. Metromedia responded with an ultimatum. Either Paul agree on a syndication plan or the tapes would be destroyed. Paul refused and Metromedia erased the tapes.
Winchell sued Metromedia and in 1986 a jury awarded him $3.8 million for the value of the tapes and $14 million in punitive damages. Naturally, Metromedia appealed the award all the way to the Supreme Court but the award held and they were liable for the amount.
Paul was married three times. His first marriage to Dorthy (Dottie) Movitz produced his son, Stacy Paul Winchell, and a daughter, Stephanie. His second marriage was to actress Nina Russel. Together, they had a daughter, April Winchell, who is also a comedian and voice actress. Paul’s third marriage was to Jean Freeman.
There is little doubt that Winchell was a genius. He had over thirty patents to his name. Among his inventions were the disposable razor, a blood plasma defroster, a flameless cigarette lighter, and an early version of the artificial heart.
The genius cast a shadow over him as well. In Winchell’s autobiography, Winch (2004) he revealed stories of an abused childhood and a history of depression. This included a short time in an institution. The book opened old wounds within the family. As a result, at the time of his death, Winchell was estranged from his children.
In 1999, Winchell retired from his career. He passed away from natural causes on June 24, 2005 at age of 82.
- Paul’s book: Ventriloquism For Fun & Profit inspired many beginning ventriloquists.
- Winchell was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in television.
- Jerry Mahoney was originally carved by another Ventriloquist Hall of Fame member, Frank Marshall.
- Paul had basswood copies of Jerry’s head made by a commercial duplicating service. One became an upgraded Jerry Mahoney. He modified two other copies to create Knucklehead Smiff.
- The original Marshall Jerry Mahoney and one copy of Knucklehead Smiff are in storage at the Smithsonian Institution.
- The other two figures are in the collection of illusionist David Copperfield.
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