Famed ventriloquist Todd Oliver brought together his menagerie of wooden, furry and feathered friends for two nights of family-friendly ventriloquism and magic at the Wagoner Civic Center on Feb. 12-13.
“The main goal is for families to laugh together,” said Oliver. “I just love that sound when you hear it, when you hear a little kid giggling and his mom and dad are laughing with him. When I was a kid growing up, my best memories were my mom, my dad, myself and my brother laughing together. That to me is the biggest blessing I’ve ever had in showbiz.”
Audiences wore masks and social distanced as they were treated to 90 minutes of superior showmanship during “Todd Oliver’s Most Magical Night of Your Life.”
Oliver’s real-life “talking dog” Irving took center stage first, followed by a variety of magical acts. Several adults and children were also invited onstage to help pull a rabbit out of a hat and become real-life ventriloquist dummies.
Audiences were also introduced to three of Oliver’s wooden dummies, including loveable bad boy Joey Clarke, grumpy old-timer Pops and his lifelong love Miss Lilly. The dummies are all hand-carved out of basswood and based on real people Oliver met in his younger years.
“Ventriloquism is one thing, but the dummy, there has to be a character there that is endearing to the audience,” said Oliver. “I think we have all seen people like that.”
Oliver’s love for ventriloquism began early after watching “The Ed Sullivan Show” with his family. He received his first dummy for Christmas when he was just 10-years-old and quickly leaned on it as a way to deal with tragedy.
“I got the dummy for Christmas when I was 10 and three days later, my dad died. At 10, it freaked me out, but the dummy really helped me with my sadness and I also found that he made other people happy too.”
Over the years, Oliver’s mastery of his craft has led to appearances on shows including “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “Walker Texas Ranger” and “America’s Got Talent,” where he finished as a semifinalist.
However, Oliver is more familiar with small town audiences than most realize.
“My climb in the business was a bit different than most present day comedians,” he said. “I started out doing school shows. I have to say about 70 percent of those schools were in towns like Wagoner. When you play a town like Wagoner, I really believe that people aren’t as jaded as other people from bigger towns. I do really like the smaller communities and the smaller audiences.”
The show was sponsored by Wagoner’s Shipman Funeral Home & Crematory after Anita and Jason Shipman watched Oliver perform in Branson, Missouri, and messaged him.
“I’m glad that we’re able to bring someone of his caliber to Wagoner, to be able to allow our community to experience that,” said Jason. “It’s a pretty unique show and it’s something that a person can watch over and over again. If we can just erase some of this feeling of everything working against us during this pandemic, just for a moment, and give people 90 minutes of opportunity to laugh smile and feel normal, that’s important.”
The Shipmans also chose to donate over $2,800 made from the show’s ticket sales to Tall Tails Bail Bondsmen for Dogs in Wagoner.
Tall Tails is a nonprofit, volunteer rescue helping homeless dogs at the Wagoner Animal Shelter. Since its inception, the organization has saved over 1,000 dogs and hosted numerous spay, neuter and vaccination clinics. In 2019, Tall Tales was named the Nonprofit of the Year by the Wagoner Chamber of Commerce.
For the Shipmans, donating the proceeds was just one more way to give back.
“Our dog Jane, who is like our daughter, actually came from Tall Tales and is a huge part of our lives,” said Anita. “I also volunteer with Tall Tales as well and foster dogs out of the animal shelter here in Wagoner, so we wanted to give back to that organization to help other animals.”
Oliver was also delighted to know that the proceeds benefited Tall Tales, as the animals in his show are rescues themselves.
“It’s just a great thing to adopt your animals,” said Oliver. “We’ve adopted dogs like Irving over the years for the show. Most of the time they come from somebody who has to give up the dog because they’re going into a nursing home or the people were moving into an apartment. We also have bunnies and some come from people that decided they didn’t want to keep the bunny, but it works great for our show. It’s such a win-win deal for everybody and it’s a cause I can certainly relate to in more ways than one.”