Michele LaFong and Senor Wences
Wences' biography by Jorge San Roman (Spain)
Foreword by comic/ventriloquist Michele LaFong
What are the odds that someone not only gets the chance to meet their childhood and professional idol, but becomes great friends, apprentices with him, is given most of his puppets and characters to carry on his legacy, and doesn't even meet him until his 99th birthday? Well, that's exactly what happened to me. In 1996, thanks to my then manager, Marty Fischer, my career crossed paths with my childhood dream when I was invited to appear on A Tribute to Senor Wences on his 100th Birthday tour.
From the first time Wences saw me perform he recognized the influence he had had on me and my show. I proudly admitted that I studied him for years. He had great rhythm, speed, timing, strong characters and voices. No punch lines were needed with him. Senor Wences was my idol. I told him he was the BEST. Wences agreed! We thought alike and became fast friends. Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday were "Wences" nights. Marty and I would pick up The Wences in front of the building on 55th Street and 7th Avenue in New York City where they lived.
We drove to one of their favorite Russian, or Spanish, restaurants, where we ate dinner, heard great stories about Wences and his celebrity friends and enemies, his life on the road, and what it was like performing on The Ed Sullivan Show. And on and on it went. He would speak in broken English, with a very heavy accent, and at times his wife, Tali, had to translate. My Spanish made his English sound fantastic! Whenever Tali would not be around to translate, we would be forced to rely on sign language and drawings, which made our conversation even more interesting and very funny.
The one thing that really sticks out in my mind is how playful at the table Wences was. What a jokester! Before we ordered, he would fold napkins into fantastic animals, like origami art. Sometimes, he would draw eyes on a duck that he had made and make it talk with a very funny voice. He was always fooling around, making everyone laugh. His timing and deadpan manner were still impeccable. Whenever someone else was talking too long and Wences got bored, his favorite thing to do was to secretly distract me trying to get me to laugh when it was publicly inappropriate. It always worked. Then he would kick me under the table and giggle. He was like the naughty school boy who would get me into trouble in class, and then look around like he had nothing to do with it! So much fun!!
From the restaurant, we would go back to their very modest apartment, where Tali and Marty would discuss business concerning Wences' next award ceremony, a street to be named for him, or his100th Birthday tour. Wences was never interested in business. He would rather take me into the kitchen, open up his trunk from 30 years ago, and play. That's when he would teach me all of his characters that I had already recognized from The Ed Sullivan Show. This went on for another four lucid years. He was STILL as funny at 99 or 103 as he was in his "Hey Day."
March of 1998 was the highlight of my life. Wences publicly "passed the torch" on to me, as recorded in Life Magazine. He handed off his puppets and characters to me with a big smile. He wanted "Johnny," "Pedro," and the rest of the gang to "live on." Live on they shall, and so will the legacy of The Great Senor Wences.
More on Senor Wences
Wences was born in the province of Salamanca, Spain. His father was Antonio Moreno Ross, artist, and his mother was Josefa Centeno Lavera, both from Salamanca.
Wences was known for his speed, skill, and grace as a ventriloquist. His stable of characters included Johnny, a childlike face drawn on Wences' hand, which he would place atop an otherwise headless doll and with whom Wences conversed while switching his voices between Johnny's falsetto and his own voice at amazing speed. Wences would create Johnny's face on stage to open his act, placing his thumb next to, and in front of, his bent first finger; the first finger would be the upper lip, and the thumb the lower lip. He used lipstick to draw the lips onto the respective fingers and then drew eyes onto the upper part of the first finger, finishing the effect with a tiny long-haired wig on top of his hand. Flexing the thumb would move the "lips."
Another popular Wences character was the gruff-voiced Pedro, a disembodied head in a box. Wences was forced to suddenly invent the character when his regular, full-sized dummy was destroyed during a train accident en route to a performance. Pedro would either 'speak' from within the closed box, or speak with moving lips — simply growling, "s'awright" — when Wences opened the box's front panel with his free hand. A large part of Wences' comedy lay in the well-timed, high-speed exchange of words between himself and his creations, and in the difference in their voice pitches.
Part of Moreno's act involved the ventriloquist throwing his voice while his mouth was otherwise engaged (smoking or drinking). Another favorite prop was a telephone, with Wences playing both sides of a telephone conversation. For the "caller" he simulated a "filtered" voice as it would sound over a telephone wire. This voice always began a conversation with a shouted "Moreno?" (Wences's true surname), with Wences in person patiently explaining, "No, Moreno is not here."
Wences usually built to a big finish that combined ventriloquism with graceful juggling and plate-spinning. As Wences performed his routines, Pedro and Johnny mercilessly heckled him with flawless comedic timing.
Although he was an international favorite for decades, his main career was made in the United States. He appeared regularly on TV variety shows including a memorable half-hour turn on The Muppet Show. His last TV appearance was on The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show, #2, a CBS retrospective in which nonagenarian Wences talked about "Suliban" and performed a brief spot of ventriloquism.
Wences pronounced his name the traditional Castilian way, which in English sounds like "WEN-thess". After Sullivan would announce him saying his name as "Señor Wen-sess", the ventriloquist would subtly correct Sullivan's pronunciation by announcing himself to the audience: "Hello, I am Señor Wen-thess".
Wences died just three days after his 103rd birthday. He had been residing in New York City on 54th Street, just around the corner from the Ed Sullivan Theater. That section of 54th Street has been named "Señor Wences Way." His portrait can be seen at the Players Club in New York.