When artist Steve Taylor was a kid living in San Diego’s College Heights, his bedroom wasn’t covered in pictures of baseball and football players.
Instead, he looked at a picture on his wall of Walt Disney, his childhood hero.
“I’ve always wanted to work for him,” says the ventriloquist and professional magician, now 63.
Taylor’s dream briefly came to fruition when he appeared in a short two-week run of a “talented teen” variety show on a Tomorrowland stage at Disneyland.
But Taylor was discovered aged 9 in 1967 and mentored by legendary San Diego puppet Marie Hitchcock, who died in 1994.
The budding ventriloquist and magician had been performing in San Diego for a year when he attended one of Hitchcock’s puppet shows at the downtown public library. Moments after a children’s librarian introduced them, Hitchcock asked her to help out during his weekend performances at the Balboa Park Puppet Theater.
For the next five years, he worked faithfully as her part-time apprentice, carefully taking his puppets out of their bags, organizing them, straightening the strings, and putting them away properly.
She sometimes invited him to perform one of her magic tricks during her show, and he sometimes entertained from behind the set with a hand puppet while the children waited for a show to open.
This weekend, March 25-27, Taylor returns to the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater in Balboa Park. This time it will be his entire show and his first return to the stage in 46 years.
He describes his appearance as his homage to Hitchcock and his faith in him when he was so young. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without his training and encouragement during those early years.”
She taught him how to add weights to a puppet’s feet so it looks like it’s walking, not floating. She asked him to make sure a puppet faces the children in the audience to appear alive and engage with them.
She shared the golden rule of puppetry: “You have to believe they’re alive, or your audience won’t believe it.”
Taylor has created a menagerie of three ventriloquist dummies – Irishman Rudy O’Riley, Pokey the Opossum, and Alli the Croc.
“When you add a character, you have to really like them, or the audience won’t like them. When you like them, a personality and a voice come easily. It’s almost like love at first sight.”
For example, a wooden puppet maker in Colorado sent him photos of 12 figures he had made. Only one “spoke” to Taylor. Unfortunately, this turned out to be the only puppet ever sold, so Taylor walked away. A week later, the craftsman called to say the other buyer had backed out. Thus, Rudy became part of Taylor’s family.
The secret to being a ventriloquist, Taylor says, isn’t throwing your voice or keeping your lips from moving. It creates an illusion of life with an inanimate object, so viewers don’t even look at your lips.
Taylor is proud to present a family show with layers of humor that can appeal to anyone from 3 to 103 years old. “Something may go over children’s heads, but adults will laugh,” he says.
But Taylor isn’t just a ventriloquist and puppeteer. He has been doing magic tricks since he was 5 years old. At age 8, he started performing at birthday parties and scout rallies. He stands out from other ventriloquists by adding magic to his shows. The challenge, he says, is finding tricks that can be done with one hand while the other manipulates the dummy.
He and Rudy performed at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. Taylor and Pokey the Opossum gave an opening greeting for “America’s Got Talent” when the show visited Tacoma, Wash., and he took his show to Comedy Central.
Nevertheless, he fell back in this career. Taylor’s dream was to be a Hollywood film editor. That’s exactly what he did for 10 years after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in film and performing arts from the University of Southern California.
He helped edit films on shows such as ‘Designing Women’, ‘Fantasy Island’, ‘Hart to Hart’ and ‘TJ Hooker’ – until the writers’ strike caused him to lose his job in 1988.
It was then that he created Steve Taylor Productions and took his ventriloquist and magic show on the road. Not much has changed over the years except the adaptation to political correctness over time.
“Rudy used to flirt with girls. He doesn’t do that anymore,” Taylor says.
Today, the puppeteer has returned to the stage where he started as an apprentice 55 years ago.
He still has a few puppets that Marie Hitchcock gave him. “It’s a magical place, and so much magic happened.”
Taylor also achieved his childhood goal of emulating Walt Disney by creating entertainment that all audiences can enjoy. “Puppets and ventriloquism are just one way to achieve this goal,” he says.