Dennis Bowman Still Entertaining Audiences—as a Ventriloquist
Oct 01, 2017 11:09AM ● Published by Shari Berg
For nearly three decades, Dennis Bowman was the voice of Pittsburgh weather. But while the oft-recognized TV weatherman officially retired from prognosticating in April 2015, he continues to lend his voice to another of his great passions: ventriloquism.
Ventriloquism is something that Bowman has been obsessed with for nearly as long as he’s been predicting the weather. It was a Sunday in April 1975 when Bowman decided that his longtime interest in ventriloquism was something that he wanted to further pursue.
“My wife and I were in church, and the minister of music was a ventriloquist,” said Bowman. “He called all the kids down front and did a cute little moments for children message with a dummy. The kids loved it, the congregation loved it. It was something I had always been fascinated with, but never thought I would be able to do it. I always thought you had to have a trick throat or something.”
Bowman approached the minister of music and asked for help pursuing his interest in the craft and was surprised to learn that it was a bit easier than he had expected. “I found out that you only had to learn to say six letters without moving your lips–B, F, M, P, V and W–because we don’t use our lips on any of the other sounds in the alphabet. This surprises a lot of people, but it’s true.”
Bowman spent two hours daily in front of a mirror, practicing saying words without moving his lips. “After six weeks, I could see that I was going to be able to do it, and that was when I went out and bought my first dummy, Chester Drawers, which I still use today.”
Bowman was already working in television at that time, and was always being asked to incorporate ways to make his presentations more personable or funny, so he began to work Chester into his regular daytime job. “I would do weather teases with Chester. We’d be sitting on a park bench, discussing what was going on in the park, and then I’d say, ‘…and we’ll have an update on the weather in a moment.’”
Bowman expanded on these moments with Chester when the next stage of his career took him to Syracuse, NY. While that station didn’t want him to use Chester in his regular forecasts, it did create a children’s program that featured Bowman and all of his puppets. “So what started out as a hobby became a semi-profession, and then a profession,” he explained.
When Bowman came to Pittsburgh—first at WPXI and then at KDKA—he brought his dummies along with him. Chester, in particular, was front and center in a program in which Bowman visited local schools to talk to students about the weather.
“Chester is your typical dummy. He’s brash and young and we work well together because I’m the straight man, and he wisecracks,” Bowman explained, laughing. “He’s around 13 years of age, and every May 16, he turns 13 again. It’s just his wooden guy age.” Bowman also sometimes features his other puppets, Captain Herkimer, Mini O’Toole and Dennis McGinnis.
Bowman’s daughter, Gwen, also dabbles in ventriloquism, and likes to make use of Mini O’Toole in her routines. Bowman said that it has been nice to share his passion with his daughter. “She has two or three characters that she uses in her act; she’s really been bitten by the ventriloquism bug,” he said.
One of Bowman’s most prized possessions, Dennis McGinnis, was acquired in 1989 from Foy Brown. The puppet was made in 1905 by Charles Mack, who also made another famous puppet–Charlie McCarthy—for Edgar Bergen. “I’m the fifth ventriloquist to own him since 1905,” said Bowman.
The puppet has a storied history with his previous owners, including a performance in 1951 for then President Harry Truman. Bowman said he hopes to be able to pass Dennis down to someone who will appreciate and use him to entertain once he is ready to hang up his hat as a ventriloquist.
“Puppets outlive many owners when they are maintained properly,” he said. “They will entertain generations of people if they are allowed to. Most of them, unfortunately, end up in museums and will never entertain again. I don’t want that to happen to my puppets. I want them to continue to make people laugh long after I’m gone.”
Emma Venezie, publicist and social media manager with Talent Network, Inc. of Pittsburgh, said that Bowman is one of the few professional ventriloquists in the area who represents a unique and specialized style of comedy. She called Bowman both “gifted at the art and able to deliver a clean routine.”
At age 67, Bowman is still thoroughly enjoying performing and has no intention of retiring from his passion anytime soon. “I can’t imagine a day coming when I don’t enjoy doing the performances,” he said.