Welcome to the third instalment of this series of interviews that originally appeared in Rubber Chicken magazine. Editor and publisher Peter Aubery has made them available for the Kids Entertainer Hub audience.
In this series, Peter Aubery picks the minds of kids entertainers Charlie Frye, Jimmy Carlo, Bill Abbott, Michael Diamond, Paul Daniels, and Sylvester the Jester. In this episode, we feature ventriloquist, magician, and kids entertainer extraordinaire John Kimmons.
How did you first get into magic?
I suffered from a long illness as a child and while off school, I started to read The Puffin Book of Magic. I became a little obsessed with it.
Shortly after, I had a magician come to entertain at my sixth birthday party, and he turned out to be Wilfred Tyler, a kids’ magic legend and the co-author of Open Sesame. Nine years later, my Dad met him in a pub and chatted about me and my magical ambitions. This resulted in an invitation to Wilfred’s house where he gave me a stack of books and a huge pile of Magigram magazines.
As we left I remember his wife tutting, shaking her head and saying, “Another perfectly intelligent child lost to magic.” She didn’t know how right she was!
What made you decide to go into ventriloquism?
Even when I was very young, I was intrigued with the way things moved. I would perform little puppet shows with my soft toys and Action Men, finding ways to manipulate them and make them seem alive. Ray Alan was fascinating to me and I recall sitting in front of the TV and saying “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper” repeatedly while trying not to move my lips.
The funny thing is, I had no ambitions in this area at all. I never saw it as something I would ever do in front of an audience until about 1995, when I decided that I wanted to drop Punch and Judy from my show and bought my first vent puppet (a Supreme Animal Crackers Rabbit).
My first attempt was a disaster. I bottled it completely and vowed never again. It was only when my ex-wife took a booking for a ventriloquism act that I was forced to try again. I’m now very pleased that I did.
What advice would you give to anybody wanting to start venting?
I’m pretty convinced that ventriloquism is a skill you either have or you don’t. It’s a bit like wiggling your ears or rolling your tongue. If you can do it, it’s instinctive and second nature. If you can’t, it’s almost impossible!
If you have the necessary coordination and ability, the most important element in any vent routine is acting. You are playing two (or more) roles. You and the puppet(s) are both acting and reacting to what each other says. That’s a hell of a lot to think about. It is far harder than learning any complicated sleight.
With that said, I suppose my advice would be to give the art form the respect it deserves. If you think it is easy, you may be doing it wrong.
A lot of kids’ magicians who include vent get away with murder because kids are a far more forgiving crowd to work for. Don’t be one of those guys. Work hard and stick at it and eventually you will experience a fantastic moment when the puppet seems literally to come to life and you no longer need to even think about what you are doing. It’s as if the puppet thinks and speaks for itself. That’s real magic!
What was the thinking behind the hugely successful Trix in the Stix?
We wanted to make our convention a celebration of children’s entertainment, a convention with a real party atmosphere. To achieve this, we needed the perfect venue where everything was under one roof. We are very lucky that the amazing Lion Quays Resort is right on Practical Magic’s doorstep!
Jeremy also did an incredible job assembling a very talented creative team. For my part, I helped add a multimedia element to the proceedings. I made video clips introducing each event, including silly spoof videos and videos of famous kids’ acts. I also found some rare archive behind-the-scenes footage of Supreme Magic which had not been seen by anyone since the seventies.
I think I can say without fear of contradiction that the success of Trix in the Stix surprised everyone, including us. The response was just phenomenal, with people bombarding us with requests for tickets for 2014 just days after the convention ended.
How are you going to make the next convention even more successful than 2013?
Next year is going to be fantastic. Joining us from the U.S. are Norm Barnhart and Buster Balloon. These guys are incredible and they bring the house down wherever they lecture and perform. From closer to home we have Gary Dunn, who is one of the funniest performers in the business.
One of the biggest hits of last year was our late-night show so in 2014, we will be back with ‘The Breakaway Wand’ where we offer an irreverent look at the world of kids’ magic with sketches, stand-up, videos, and more.
On top of all that, we will have a first-class cabaret show and four more 15-minute Power Presentations. And this is just the stuff I am allowed to tell you. Expect some surprises!
With yourself and your wife both achieving huge success within the children’s entertainment world—lecturing, working, getting an invite to the exclusive KGB club—are you really competitive with each other or just with the world?
It’s more like we are a mutual support group. Tamar and I are each other’s biggest fans. It’s a good thing that we are not competitive because I’m sure I’d lose. Tame left her home and her job to move in with me in Sheffield and in the space of 18 months, she went from zero bookings to being the area’s most sought-after children’s birthday party entertainer. At a time of recession when many entertainers are feeling the pinch, that’s no mean feat.
It is marvelous to have a wife who understands that I can’t take weekends off and who enjoys conventions as much as I do. One thing we have both learned from traveling the world and attending so many events is how little we actually know. It is wonderful to be able to continue learning about this incredible profession together and sharing our own knowledge with others.
Your Race trick has gone on to almost cult status in such a short amount of time. Have you any more gems hidden that you might be releasing someday?
Do you know, I had that Race trick up my sleeve for about four years before I even bothered making a prototype and trying it out. It was only when I put it in my show for the first time and had the bright idea of having the birthday child race against three adults that I realised what I had. I’m very slow at getting round to things, but watch out for Tips and Trix 2 next year. There are a couple of things in there that I love.
What does the future hold for you both?
Well in 2014, we are doing our first joint lecture at KAX in California and we will both be lecturing and performing at South Tyneside and Trix. I am hoping to record a new DVD next year and we also have plans to write a book together. Apart from that, lots more lie-ins and holidays I hope.
What do you think is the secret to being a great children’s entertainer?
There’s an old adage that says “Never dance alone, even in a solo.” Always remember that the audience is part of the performance so include them in it. Engaging the crowd is the real key to success. Danny Hustle from Boston passed on a great piece of advice to me: If you want an audience to like you, you have to make it obvious that you like them.
I’m also a great believer in honesty on stage. Be true to yourself and do materials that you enjoy. Never ever sit down and try to figure out what a five-year-old might like. That kind of approach just leads to a mediocre show. Take risks and give yourself permission to fail. That’s how everything worthwhile starts.
Any advice for somebody competing or getting an act together for a local or national competition?
Getting an act together? I’d say, “Why are you entering a competition if you don’t have an act yet?”
Seriously, the best advice given to me before the World Championships in Blackpool 2008 was from Tony James. He said, “Go out there and just do your regular act, your best ‘drunk or sober’ routines.”
He was so right. If you are entering a competition, you will be nervous and the last thing you need is to be wrestling with new material. Besides which, new material always sucks.
Any final words for us?
I’ll just say that we should never lose sight of the fact that we are so lucky to have the opportunity to do this job.
I’d also say that if you are ever looking for inspiration or new routines, instead of spending a fortune on the latest miracle gadget, try looking through some of the older books and learn something about the rich history of our art. In Tips and Trix, I took a trick that existed decades ago, changed the method, and turned it into ‘The Big Race.’ All the old stuff can be new again.