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They're masters of a magic kingdom

May 22, 2000|By ANDREA ROWLAND

Ed and Joan Gilbert share their Hagerstown home with a bunch of dummies.

Alonzo and Eddie laze on chairs, while grumpy Fred scowls from the couch. Madam cackles. Punch shakes his stick at Judy. And the devil rests next to Bill Clinton.

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The Gilberts have spent 30 of their 45 married years collecting ventriloquist figures and crafting their own dummies using molds, wood, plastic, plaster, cloth and a variety of household items.

They've made bodies from bleach bottles and eyes from Ping-Pong balls.

Part-time merchandiser Joan Gilbert, 64, sews the dummies' bodies and does most of the artwork on the figures. Her husband, 69, makes the figures' heads and installs the strings and pulleys that help animate them.

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The time-consuming work is a labor of love, said the Gilberts, who hope within the next year to devote most of their time to making and marketing their dummies.

Retired foundry worker Ed Gilbert, who still works part time as a consultant for U.S. Silica Co. in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., said he's modeled some of his figures after people he's known.

Fred made his debut at a retirement party for a grumpy co-worker, and Alonzo was named for another U.S. Silica colleague, Gilbert said.

The Illinois natives learned from books how to make wood and plastic figures. They honed their skills at seminars, eventually learning to craft the more contemporary, lightweight "soft puppets" from an expert known only as "Verna," they said.

Ed Gilbert tests the finished products.

The son of a vaudeville theater owner, he's been practicing ventriloquism, puppeteering and magic since he first performed at age 9.

For years, Ed and Joan Gilbert made the puppets and props for their family's stage show at Santa's Village in Dundee, Ill. The show, "Erin and the Amazing Gilberts," helped put Erin Gilbert and her four younger sisters through college, their father said.

Magic left the family for many years after 21-year-old Erin was killed in a car accident, Joan Gilbert said.

She and her husband keep their many magic tricks in a Hagerstown warehouse, but Ed Gilbert still spices up his U.S. Silica presentations with sleight of hand and other illusions, he said.

"When you talk about sand, it's pretty boring unless you put some magic in it," Gilbert said.

He most enjoys creating ventriloquist figures in his home workshop, but he's also practicing new voices and techniques to bring the Gilbert dummies and puppets to life.

Ed Gilbert will perform May 27 at the Knights of Columbus in Hagerstown with area magician Hugh McVeagh.

"You've got to get it in your head that you're talking to the dummy. That's what it takes," Gilbert said. "The secret to ventriloquism is developing the dummy's personality."

The best ventriloquists aren't the focus of their acts. Their dummies are, he said.

"After the good ones perform and you ask, 'Did he move his lips?,' and your friend says, 'I don't know. I never looked,' That's good," Gilbert said.

He and his wife are members of the Society of American Magicians (SAM), International Brotherhood of Magicians, Puppeteers of America and The Magic Castle in Hollywood, Calif.

They have forged friendships with famous magicians and ventriloquists, they said.

"We've seen a lot of stars grow," Joan Gilbert said.

The Gilberts know renowned ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, and remain close to Peter Rich, a Hagerstown native known as one of the best ventriloquists in the world.

Rich is now retired and living in Texas, Joan Gilbert said.

Current SAM dean Jay Marshall was once an Ed Sullivan Show regular and the opening act for such entertainers as Frank Sinatra and Pearl Bailey. Marshall served as mentor to Ed Gilbert in the art of Punch & Judy puppeteering, he said.

A staple in British pop culture for hundreds of years and the United Kingdom's national puppet, Mr. Punch is a mischievous, slapstick-wielding imp who flouts society's rules, according to the Punch & Judy College of Professors Web site.

Punch's slapstick gave name to a whole genre of physical comedy, but modern critics have labeled the puppets' traditional messages "politically incorrect," according to the site.

In the classic Victorian show, Punch killed Judy and the baby and later hanged the hangman and defeated the devil.

"It does have socially redeeming values, but it also has violence," Joan Gilbert said.

Her husband said he's modified his Punch show to downplay the puppet's tendency towards domestic violence. Instead of using his slapstick on Judy, Punch whacks the devil figure or the Bill Clinton puppet.

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