Remembering Ken Spencer
By David Malmberg



In 1963, after mowing lawns for a couple of months to save up money, I had purchased my first ‘Jerry Mahoney’ figure through Sears. I had watched Winchell for years on television, but it wasn’t until the early 60’s that I had discovered that a figure such as the Mahoney doll could be purchased commercially. I was 13 years old and mighty proud of that doll and actually can boast that my first professional show was with the Mahoney figure.

It didn’t take me long before I started thinking about a professional figure though. But, in those days, as a young boy, I had no idea where to look for a figure. My Father, a professional musician, had worked with vent Dick Weston on the fair circuits. Consequently, with my interest in vent, and my Father’s encouragement, I began corresponding with Dick in the early sixties. By this time he was headlining in Vegas. In one letter, I told Dick that I wanted a professional figure. He wrote back and informed me that there was a “very fine figure maker right in Minneapolis by the name of Ken Spencer.”

Dick passed along his number and I placed the call. Ken answered the phone and we set up a time when I would come to visit him and talk about his making a figure for me. I’m guessing this was some time in 1964.

My Mother drove me to Ken’s house. It was a modest home, located in South Minneapolis on Columbus Avenue. Ken invited us in, took us through the living room, through the kitchen, and back into a small work area. I estimate today, that the area was about 12 X 12 feet. There was one window, a small workbench and wood carving tools hanging on the wall above the bench. One other thing: there was a very old ventriloquist head sitting on the bench. I asked him about it and he said it was a head that was made by a fellow by the name of Charlie Mack. That, as a boy in Chicago, Mack had put him to work carving hands in his workshop.

Ken, a tall man with reddish hair, inquiring eyes, and always a slight smile on his face, was wearing a pair of farmer overalls and a plaid shirt. He pulled out a small 5X7 card that had a number of character heads on it. I immediately selected a cheeky fresh kid and he indicated that he had one partially completed and would I like him to finish up that one for me? I said yes. He then asked me what features I wanted. I selected “automatic eyes,” (a weight connected to the eyes in the head. When you tilted the head to the right the eyes went left, to the left, then right. It actually worked quite well) and moving eyebrows. Each additional feature was 10 or 15 dollars extra. Total cost for this first figure? $115.00.

Two weeks later, Ken called and the figure was ready. My parents had purchased him for me as a birthday present. I named him Simon Spencer and he is still a staple in my act today.

One thing I remember about that new figure. The paint. It was oil based and probably mixed from various house paints. In fact, even today, if I open the mouth of ‘Simon,’ I can still smell that paint as the inside of his mouth has the original paint on it. And the detail of the paint job was very vaudevillian. Large and bold brush strokes around the eyes, and mouth. Intense red for the lips. And of course, the rosy cheeks of the classic fresh kid.

I have very fond memories as a boy, getting up in the middle of the night, and opening up the suitcase that held my Simon. I would just sit there with an overwhelming sense of pride of ownership over this first professional figure.

In brief I have just explained the process of getting a figure from him. In reality, I was at his house for over three hours that day. As a young boy, it was fascinating for me. My Mother, on the other hand, didn’t think he would ever shut up!

Ken made no pretense about the ever decreasing supply of material for his figures. He would stuff the arms and legs of the bodies with “excelsior,” which was used for stuffing furniture in its day. He would wet it down, and then mold it to form the arms or legs. His sources for this material were dwindling and it upset him. Ken also used taxidermist eyes in his figures and was always complaining that they were getting difficult to find. This as well as procuring the right size wooden balls that he used for the eyes themselves.

Ken had a template that he used for the head, which was three planks of basswood glued together. He would then outline on one side of the wood this template which was really a very general outline of a head. He would make up a half dozen of these blocks and take them to a woodcarvers shop in Minneapolis where they would cut out the basic form for him. He would then return to his shop, set a form in the vise and go to work. He was fast. Very, very fast. I watched him rough out an entire head in about an hour one time. Absolutely amazing to see him work.

He was quite the story teller. He told me one time of meeting the Great Lester. They had some correspondence and had agreed to exchange each others act. So, according to Ken, he typed up his routines, sent them to Lester and never heard from Lester again!” Interestingly, all the time I associated with Ken, he always had a picture of Lester on his wall in the studio.

Ken was also an acquaintance of Edgar Bergen. He shared with me one time that he had Bergen out to his house and set up his act for the great ventriloquist. Ken’s act consisted of a figure on his knee,

three in a barrel and one outside of the barrel. These latter figures were operated with his foot causing heads to pop up and down out of the barrel. (Ken always used to explain to me that he would do a gag with the figure on his knee, the audience would laugh and then a head would pop up out of the barrel and laugh as if just getting the joke. This would cause the audience to laugh again.) According to Ken, “It was a great piece of business. I could get two laughs out of every joke.” Well, anyway, Ken set up his act and actually performed it for Bergen. At the end of this demonstration Bergen said:

“Ken, I do believe yours is the greatest novelty act in America today. The question is, what are you going to do with it?”

Ken took a lot of pride in that validation from Bergen.

By the way, Ken was adamant that Charlie Mack had carved Charlie McCarthy. This during a time when lots of folks were thinking that Frank Marshall had created Charlie.

In the late 60’s I had Ken carve me a duplicate Simon. I was absolutely astounded at the accuracy. This while he complained of growing cataracts.

By the mid seventies his eyesight had gotten so bad that the figures he was carving were taking on enormous proportions. In addition to this, his memory was going. One time, I sold back to him a figure that he had made for me in the early seventies. About a month later I came by for a visit and he said:

“Say Dave, this young fellow came by the other day and sold me back one of my dummies. You wouldn’t be interested in buying it would you?”

I still have a good laugh over the fact that he had forgotten it was me that had sold him the figure in the first place. Speaking of laughs, one time Ken demonstrated the distant voice for me. Now mind you, he was in his 80's so the voice wasn't as clear as in his younger days. Ken said:

"You have to push the voice back in the throat. Hello, hello, hello, hello. "
(voice was gravelly and not at all in the back of the throat)
"hello, hello, hello, hello. Back in throat."
(I was thinking at this point that there was so much phlegm coming up that he must of had bronchitis or something)
"If I just keep doing this Dave, the voice will get very clear. Hello, hello, hello, hello."
(cough, hack, cough, hack hack hack!!!!!)

It makes me laugh thinking of it.

Ken was always busy. Often he had orders a year in advance. They would come from all over the country. I am not aware of how many figures he carved but I know there must be a lot of them out there gathering dust these days. They are truly beautiful works. Most of the original Spencer figures you find today have that antique vaudeville quality about them. That is how he learned his craft. But, with a new paint job, his figures operate and look today just as good as anything being made. Interestingly enough, I have never had a single mechanical problem with my Ken Spencer figures. This in over 50 years of service. Quite a testimony to a master craftsman……Ken Spencer.
 


David Malmberg
 


David is a pro vent working in the Midwest. He has used Spencer figures for all of his career. Find out more about David Malmberg and actually see video of his Spencer at work by going to:

www.davidmalmberg.com



 

Inside a Ken Spencer ventriloquist dummy head owned by David Malmberg Another view of inside a Ken Spencer ventriloquist dummy head owned by David Malmberg Ken Spencer ventriloquist dummy head owned by David Malmberg
   

 

 
Early David Malmberg with his Ken Spencer ventriloquist dummy figure Another picture of an early David Malmberg with his Ken Spencer ventriloquist dummy figure David Malmberg starting out
   

 

 
David Malmberg's Ken Spencer ventriloquist dummy figure in an ad Color version of an early David Malmberg with his Ken Spencer ventriloquist dummy figure Another David Malmberg Ken Spencer ventriloquist dummy figure
   

 

 
  David Malmberg