23 November 2009
From the age of 5, Chris Covington knew he was going to be a ventriloquist. “I went to a birthday party and the woman had hired a ventriloquist. None of us knew what one was. This guy walks on stage with a chair and suitcase. He opens the suitcase and pulls out this humanoid thing. The kids were quite disturbed by it. And then suddenly it spoke, it was bizarre. It scared the hell out of me. He (the doll) looked straight at me and asked in this horrible voice; “What’s your name?” I burst into tears and wet my pants. I just got up and ran away.” It seems odd that he continued to follow this profession, considering his first experience with the doll wasn’t a happy one. Once Chris’s mum explained to him what ventriloquism was, he thought it was just fantastic.
Fewer people would know Chris Covington by his real name. He decided to change his name when he was first starting to do nightclub gigs in Sydney, somewhere in the early 60s. “For some strange reason, agents and club managers and people couldn’t handle the name Covington. They couldn’t get it right. They used to put up the act on a chalkboard outside the hotel, and once it had, ‘Appearing tonight… Chris.’ And that was it. I could have been a stripper. God save us from that. So I went through the phone book and I always liked alliteration. I went to K and saw Kirby, and I thought, I like that – Chris Kirby.”
Ventriloquism wasn’t as rare as it is now when Chris was training himself during the 50s and 60s. He doesn’t think that there were that many ventriloquists in Australia, but the ones who were performing, were quite well-known. However, it was very popular in America and was known as a ‘Big Act,’ because there were so many people in it, and sometimes even an orchestra. It didn’t have to just be a man with his doll.
While Chris was interested in ventriloquism from a young age, he says was “[v]ery much into music. I wanted to learn to play guitar. My dad wouldn’t let me play guitar. I guess he figured it would cost more money, and he reckoned guitar playing was too easy. It was in the 50s when Rock n’ Roll first broke out and he said ‘if those idiots can play guitar, it can’t be too bloody hard.’” Strangely enough, his father seemed to be happier with Chris experimenting with ventriloquism rather than music, and it was because of his father that he got his first doll. A dentist owed his family some money so he offered Chris’s dad an old ventriloquist doll in lieu of the 10 quid. “So I got that doll, and had to get a name for him. And I came up with Gregory… Gregory the doll. Chris Covington and Gregory the Doll. It was doomed from the start.” But, it was this duo of Gregory the Doll and Chris Covington that got Chris his first television gig for a kid’s show in Adelaide.
The TV station that hired Chris were pleased with how he was doing, but they started getting phone calls that the children didn’t like the doll, because it was so ugly. During this time on the kid’s show, Chris got a call from Eric Sykes, who was a ventriloquist too. “He was a member of the Brotherhood of Ventriloquism… and he said, ‘I’m just calling to tell you how much I love your work, and I think you’ve got a lot of talent. I do have one criticism. I don’t like your doll. I’ll make you a doll. And I’m not going to charge you because I think you’re that good. I’d be honoured to make you a doll for when you go on, but if you don’t go on, I’ll charge you.’ I’d always had in mind a Dennis the Menace type bloke. So he drew up some pictures, and in that time we came up with the drawing. One came up and I was like ‘that’s it, that’s the one.’ And I had a name for him, it just came to me. Terry. And I experienced that moment where everything is right.”
The partnership of Chris Kirby and Terry worked well. They were working every night of the week, and were on television frequently. He spent 2 years away while his international career was being launched when he performed on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1967 and Sunday Night at the London Palladium. On the strength of what he’d done overseas for 2 years, he got even more work in Australia and more publicity. When Chris was 30, his agent received a phone call from Donald O’ Connor’s representatives. “Donald O’Connor was coming to Australia to do some corporate stuff, so I – it was very exciting. So I met with them and we worked it all out… and we did the show together and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
It was after performing with Donald O’ Connor in Sydney at the Silver Spades Room, that O’Connor convinced Chris to move to America. Chris had written a half hour sitcom that O’Connor was going to invest money into and they would try and sell it in America. The decision to move wasn’t too difficult, “In the meantime, my first marriage was crumbling, with Judy. And it had been for a year or so. So I said ‘Look, I’m going to go to the states for a while and find out about this.’
‘Oh yes, I know where you’re going. All those girls in Las Vegas.’
‘Well, yes. Let’s hope.’
I’m very flippant about it now, but it was anything but. So off I went and one thing led to another, and they fixed up my green card, and O’Connor’s manager said he’d handle my work.”
To be continued....