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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Nov. 24, 2014

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Wayne and his dummy.
Wayne and his dummy.
That's not really his right hand.
That's not really his right hand.

Red Hot Chili Puppets rock the world of ventriloquism

I was really looking forward to The Red Hot Chili Puppets’ show on the Summerfest Children’s Theater & Playzone Thursday at 12:45 p.m. Clearly under-researched, I was expecting a cloth-sock version of Flea backing up a googly-eyed Anthony.

Instead, the show featured a ventriloquist, Wayne, and his life-sized "dummy," Wingnut. You can imagine my initial disappointment.

But once I stopped bummin’ that I was not about to witness a cover of  "Yertle The Turtle" or even "Under the Bridge" by a chorus of soft-mouthed Muppet wannabes, I decided to give ol’ Wayne a chance to "laugh my head off until it pops off." (Which is what he guaranteed would happen to the audience at the beginning of his show, while he played a washboard).

Wayne Francis, who is from Denver, is celebrating his 15th year at Summerfest with more than a dozen shows throughout the 11-day festival. He travels with 10 large puppets, all of which he built and gives voice to, and says he never performs the same show twice. This I found impressive and suggested to me that Wayne actually likes what he does.

And after seeing his show, I was certain that Wayne really is a guy who loves his job. He is energetic, smiley and very engaging. I could have lived without his insistence that the entire audience recite the "Star-Spangled Banner" as well as his Chihuahua puppet named Chico who speaks Spanglish.

But he made my kids laugh. A lot. And he even made me laugh when he asked, "OK, who here likes free stuff?" and when everyone raised their hands he said, "Great. After the show I am giving away a baby boy." Also, at one point he performed with a big, creepy "talking" pillow that hit on a mom in the front row. "Wanna shake my corner?" the pillow asked the lady. I wanted more of that, but alas, it was not that kind of family show.

Wayne is, quite possibly, the best ventriloquist I have ever seen. Not that I have seen many, but wow. I know ventriloquism is the art of "belly talking" but I do not understand how they do that. Only on certain letters would his upper lip raise ever so slightly. Otherwise, his mouth was as still as the hot afternoon air.

"I started practicing ventriloquism when I was 10. I sat on my bed with a joke book in one hand and a mirror in the other and I practiced until I learned," he told me after the show.

No, my head didn’t pop off, and I wouldn’t head down to Summerfest just to see Wayne and his dummies, but I would watch his  30-minute gig again with my kids. The shows at the Children’s Stage go beyond the entertainment, they are more about sitting in the shade, enjoying Summerfest with family and listening to your child, along with dozens or more other children, laugh and laugh and laugh.

These days, for me, that’s red hot.

Upcoming Wayne & Wingnut shows at Summerfest:

Friday, June 29, 6:30 p.m.
Saturday, June 30, 2:15 p.m
Saturday, June 30, 6:30 p.m.
Tuesday, July 3, 4:45 p.m.
Wednesday, July 4, 2:15 p.m.
Wednesday, July 4, 4:45 p.m.
Friday, July 6, 2:15 p.m.
Friday, July 6, 5:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 7, 4:45 p.m.
Saturday, July 7, 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 8, 12:45 p.m.

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