Cliff Patton talks with his hand.
The words travel down his arm, turn left at his right elbow and arrive on the lips of his cast of characters.
When Cliff talks to penguins and potted plants, they talk back. They are the voice at the end of his fingers.
Children are fascinated when he brings his dummy, Skeeter, to life without having to plug him in. Imagine that. Or when he introduces them to Frizzie Hair and has a running dialogue with Dennis Small the Tennis Ball and Wilson the Racket.
Cliff has been a ventriloquist for more than 50 years. He has entertained at schools, libraries, fairs, festivals, parties and hospital wards. Not many folks do what he does, so he keeps the fires burning at 65.
He curls his mouth, clenches his teeth and throws his voice all the way to his fingernails.
Youngsters sometimes study his face to try and catch his lips moving. They are more likely to get a glimpse of his tongue darting behind the gap between his two front teeth.
Adults can enjoy his act on a different level, and the old-timers are reminded of the days of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Cliff was inspired by Paul Winchell and his loudmouth doll, Jerry Mahoney in the late 1950s. They were on TV on Saturday mornings. On a good day, the Pattons might pick up five stations on their black-and-white RCA. (Winchell later gained fame as the voice of Tigger in Winnie the Pooh.)
When he was 11, Cliff mailed off a dime for a brochure on how to become a ventriloquist. He bought a $10 cloth puppet and named him Bull Face. His father, Marion, loaned him the money and made him sign a contract to shine his shoes and golf clubs for a month.
As a teenager, Cliff found a $35 dummy at the Junior Bootery, next to the old Bibb Theatre on Third Street. The owner told him he had been unable to sell the doll. If Cliff would come to the store and entertain the customers every Friday and Saturday until Christmas, he could own it. Cliff named him Jerry, in honor of Jerry Mahoney.
He would practice in the mirror. He got gigs at the Elks Club and Moose Club. He stopped performing for a few years after his mother, Lillian, frowned on the idea of him still playing with dolls.
In college at Georgia Southwestern in Americus, churches would often pay him $15 and feed him a meal to do a childrens show. In 1967, he met a student named Chip Carter, who invited him to perform at a meeting of the colleges Young Democrats. It was a political rally for Chips father, Jimmy, who was running for governor.
When Cliff married his wife, Peggy, in 1977, he became stepfather to her five children, ages 5 to 14. He had a built-in audience at home and sometimes entertained them by using socks on his hands.
Trying to support a family as a full-time ventriloquist was tricky, so he took jobs as a production manager at Channel 41 and by moonlighting at Finchers Barbecue, Shakeys Pizza and Shoneys.
There have been years when he has done as many as 300 shows, entertaining 4-year-old girls and 84-year-old great-grandmothers. He has performed everywhere from Six Flags Over Georgia to Callaway Gardens, Zoo Atlanta, Okefenokee Swamp Park and the Cloister at Sea Island.
His most famous dummy, Skeeter, was a gift in 1987 from a friend in the Macon Clown Club. The doll was so beloved he is now in his second generation. Cliff began calling him Skeeter after he stuck his hand inside and a powdery resin made his skin itch, like a mosquito bite.
There are a lot of moving parts in his act. He is also a magician and balloon artist. He can bring laughter and joy to any audience. Friday night he will do a show at thesecond annual Bos Camp in Macon, a bereavement camp for children and their families who have lost loved ones.
I asked Cliff about the challenges of entertaining younger generations, who have grown up with video games, computers, cellphones and other electronic stimulation.
The traditional charm of ventriloquism still works, he said. He did, however, remember a show at the Mossy Creek Festival in Perry in the late 1980s, when the childrens toy talking bear, Teddy Ruxpin, was popular.
He was doing a routine with Skeeter, who decided to take a nap.
Cmon, lets go, a little boy in the audience said to his friend. His batteries are dead.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or email@example.com.