Journey of a Stradivarius
By David Erskine

 

During the years 1931 through 1941, the brothers McElroy created ventriloquial figures, instruments for entertainment. George did the puppet modeling and painting, and Glenn designed and fabricated the controls. In their workshop in Harrison, Ohio, their creative spirits and hands gave their three dimensional art the illusion of life. As a Stradivarius became an icon in the world of music, their puppets became an icon in the world of ventriloquism. Their figure, Happy Hazard, became one of their most recognized instruments.

His more than twelve functions include; jaw, upper lip, stick out tongue, crossing eyes, automatic posing eyes, one eye wink, floating eyebrows, wiggling ears, fright wig, wiggling nose, light-up nose, and a combination wink and raising eyebrow movement.

In the early 1930s Rex Slocombe, a Toronto magician, purchased this wunderkind from the McElroy brothers. In 1948, Cy Leonard, a Canadian ventriloquist and actor from Toronto, acquired Happy and during the next five decades they performed around the world until Cy’s retirement from show business in the late 1990s.

In 1950 Happy’s head was broken into about twenty pieces after a stagehand accidentally knocked him off a chair backstage. Experts examined the Plastic Wood head shell and declared it beyond repair. Finally, a professional model builder agreed to reassemble the head. Later Cy altered the automatic posing eye linkages so that the eyes would move from side to side. Also, for television close-ups, the seam was filled in around the nose that allowed it to go up and down.

In a letter to David Erskine dated July 31, 1976, Cy wrote:
“I modified the eye movement on Happy. Originally he came with a balanced weight that automatically moved the eyes if the head was turned and tilted slightly. Because it was impossible for the head to be turned to the right and have the eyes look to the left, I modified it to give me full control for certain comic effects I wanted in the act, for “double takes,” etc. Same for the left. Actually, I removed the “nose wiggle” effect and use this key for the eyes. The moving nose wasn’t really visible from any distance and on TV the crack around the nose looked like the Grand Canyon. I filled this in and, in my opinion, it looks much better. It does mean redoing it when I have to change the light bulb in the nose, but this only happens every few years because I only use it for a few seconds in the act.”

In another letter to Erskine dated February 28, 1983, Cy wrote:
“I’m a little jealous of Happy. He never puts on the years. However, I did have a major problem with him just a few weeks back. I’ve had troubles in the past with various parts, but this time the mouth went. Unfortunately, a solder joint under the tongue gave out and I really had to do major surgery, even to the point of drilling two ¾ inch holes in the back of his neck to gain access to some screws. In addition, a type of plastic material that supplies the main mouth movement had worn through. I won’t go into all the details but it took about 4 days working 14 hours a day to get him back in shape. Pleased to report he’s even better than new, as I replaced the plastic part with aluminum and it should be good for another 45 years or 10,000 jokes, whichever comes first.”

And in another letter to Erskine dated July 11, 1983, Cy wrote:
“Last year for the first in about 40 years, Happy’s mouth ceased to function… Even after fixing it I still don’t understand the theory of the action because the spring tension seemed to be so critical. In other words, even after everything had been repaired, it still wouldn’t work right unless the spring tension was just perfect. And this was only found after countless hours of experimenting. There must be an easier way.”

In December 2005 Ray (Geppetto) Guyll, today’s Antonio Stradivari among dummy makers, acquired Happy from Cy and the Strad’s next adventure unfolded in Seattle, Washington. There Ray restored Happy after taking everything apart, literally. After more than 300 integral parts were assembled and tuned, his head and hands were painted to the McElroy scheme and their magical illusion emerged again. And in November 2006 Dan Willinger, Malden, Massachusetts, obtained Happy for his collection of museum quality figures.

Cy Leonard, born in 1922, got his start as an entertainer in 1939, while in high school, after building a public address system to play 78 rpm phonograph records. A neighbor heard the system and hired him to run the Saturday night dances at a Toronto country club. While experimenting with the sound system, Cy developed an impersonation act that was well received at local clubs and service groups, and spent the next two years in show business as an impersonator and comedian.

In the days when radio was king, he worked on a radio program called Roy Ward Dickson's Fun Parade, on station CFRB. During one show, his impersonation of Winston Churchill was so realistic; listeners called in to accuse the station of using a recording.

The logical move from impersonations to ventriloquism was easy for Cy, especially with the popularity of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. He taught himself ventriloquism and didn’t see another ventriloquist while making his name as a professional ventriloquist in Canada, performing with a Len Insull figure and a Frank Marshall figure.

In 1941 he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was sent to the UK to join an Air Force show that toured Air Force bases throughout England, Scotland and Wales. And for several months he emceed shows at London's Stage Door Canteen. Eventually the show played to RCAF troops in France, Belgium, and Holland and after V-E Day, Germany. After Military service, he resumed his career in Canada and Happy joined the act in 1948. And Cy’s interest in the art and artists of ventriloquism grew as he corresponded with W.S. Berger and visited The Vent Haven in Covington, Kentucky.

In 1951 he started another career as an actor and can be seen in movies, TV programs and documentaries made in and around Toronto. Also, Cy and Happy headlined on TV and in resorts, clubs, the corporate world and on cruise ships.

In 1967, during Canada's centennial year, the Ontario government organized a variety show that traveled to remote areas of the province, where live stage shows are not normally seen. Cy and Happy were the comedy headliners on that bill.

In 1975 they performed at the first Vent Haven convention, held in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. Happy was the first McElroy I saw perform and meeting Cy and his lovely wife, Barbara, at that convention, was as big a thrill as meeting George and Glenn McElroy. Cy and I corresponded and traded information and ideas, and my family visited the Leonard’s lovely summer home in Clearwater, Florida.

In 1978 the Canadian government organized a variety show to travel to the Middle East to entertain UN troops in Egypt, Israel and Cyprus with a stop off in Germany to entertain NATO troops. Cy and Happy were booked for the tour and were so popular that they were booked again in 1980. Also, during 1978 and 1980 they entertained troops at Army Base Alert at the Arctic Circle.

Cy was the first ventriloquist to appear on Canadian television in a CBC-TV show called THE BIG REVUE, and was in the first sit-com produced in Canada, Tugboat Annie. In the sequence, “Annie’s Racehorse,” he played the part of a conman ventriloquist and Happy appeared as a prop. His TV work included appearances on the sit-com, Troubles of Tracy, and guest spots on the Tommy Hunter Show that ran on CBC-TV and the Nashville Network in the U.S. And from 1962 to 1979 he and Happy appeared on CTV’s The Uncle Bobby Show. They also appeared on Bozo’s Circus on WGN-TV in Chicago. Many Canadians remember their Molson beer commercials for Hockey Night in Canada; they were introduced as "Canada’s own, Cy Leonard and his friend, Happy!" They had ten return engagements for the annual Senior’s Jubilee Show at Roy Thompson Hall, which is the Canadian equivalent of New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Cy and Happy kept busy performing on cruise ships based in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where Cy was an assistant cruise director and Barbara, a social director. When not working on cruise ships he and Happy had convention dates coast to coast in Canada. And there were appearances at major resorts including two seasons with the Vegas-style show at Deerhurst Resort in Muskoka, Ontario, with a repeat at Innisbrook Resort, in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

It can be said that art makes us better or worse; the McElroy’s performance art, the visual demonstration of comedy and joy, makes us better. Happy looks like he’s thinking, and saying something encouraging or shocking.

So goes the journey of a Stradivarius from Harrison, Ohio.








 

 

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