QUICK QUESTION: what’s one of the hardest occupations you can imagine?
Not from a standpoint of physical strength or endurance –although that’s certainly a consideration– but hardest in the sense of something that’s extremely, extremely difficult to master.
And, while we’re at it, an occupation that –by its very definition– essentially demands it be done in public, in front of an attentive audience – many of whom are, quite frankly, rooting for you to fail.
Okay, you got one in your head? Good. Now imagine yourself choosing four different occupations that all fit that same basic description, and then proceeding to excel at each of them. What on earth would that feel like?
One of the few people I have ever come across that might be qualified to answer that question would be Andy Gross, who makes his public debut in our area on Friday, Jan. 10 at the historic Tybee Post Theater.
Gross makes his living as a hyphenate. By that I mean he’s a stage performer who juggles (no, he doesn’t actually juggle as far as I know, although it would not surprise me in the least if he did) standup comedy, ventriloquism and magic.
See what I mean? Pick any one of those careers and strive to become adept enough to travel the country and earn not only a living but positive reviews. Sorry, but it’s likely not gonna happen for ya.
Now, if you dare, pick all three and try your hand at the collective dexterity, timing, charisma, plus mental acuity (and, while we’re at it, let’s be honest, and add natural talent) required to excel at such daunting endeavors.
Gross did, and these days, the 51-year-old crisscrosses the USA, giving an average of 150 shows per year at theaters and comedy clubs, in Las Vegas and on cruise ships and private corporate events for major companies.
One place he doesn’t perform anymore, however, is college campuses. But, more on that later.
Gross says he was first attracted to ventriloquism at the tender age of nine, when he saw the creepy Hollywood movie “Magic,” starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margret. “It was about a ventriloquist who was a bit crazy and used his dummy to kill people,” Gross recalls.
“After I saw that I drove my parents crazy asking them how to do ventriloquism. They took me to the library the very next day and I checked out every book I could on the subject. Not too long after that a ventriloquist came to perform in my hometown of St. Louis, Mo., and with my parents’ help we managed call around to some local hotels and eventually got him on the phone. His name was Dick Weston, and he was nice enough to give me information on where I could purchase a real ventriloquist’s dummy as well as learn more about the art,” he says.
“This place had ads in the back of comic books that read, “Fool your friends, throw your voice!” and, “Be the life of the party!” I ordered their mail-order course on ventriloquism and it worked! By the time I was 12 or so, I could throw my voice well enough that I could ‘page myself’ out of class in school! (Laughs) My fascination with magic grew along with that, but they were both just hobbies, because at the age of seven I got into racquetball.”
That’s right, folks. Remember I asked you to imagine four different incredibly difficult occupations? Well, by the time Gross turned 15 years old, he’d already become the youngest professional racquetball player in the history of the sport.
This was in the heyday of racquetball when it was at its peak of popularity around the world, and it just so happened that St. Louis was, as Gross puts it, “the mecca of professional racquetball.”
“My entire childhood revolved around sports and playing tournaments,” he recalls, adding that for the next decade he toured the world as a highly paid and revered athlete. However, after moving to Los Angeles at the age of 18 and living a life of sports fame and fortune, Gross says, “The unthinkable happened. The sport just fell apart. Professional racquetball died, and at 26 I found myself wondering what I was going to do.”
Living in a city packed with comedy clubs, most offering Open Mic Nights to amateurs wishing to try their hand at earning laughs and money, Gross jumped up onstage at a couple of venues to show off his mothballed ventriloquism and sleight-of-hand skills.
“Those were just hobbies of mine, but I had a great passion for them and worked hard studying and reading and practicing.”
It turns out that passion and dedication paid off.
“They asked me to come back. Then they asked me to open the show. Then they asked me to be the middle performer in the show, and eventually they made me the headliner,” he says with discernible pride in these accomplishments.
Soon, he was on the road, working 200 days a year. “I’d done some birthday parties and things like that from time to time as a kid, but nothing major or serious until my racquetball career was over.
“I’m proud to say I have never had a ‘real job,’” he admits, joking that this odd turn of events is some sort of natural progression. “I mean, doesn’t everyone go from being a professional racquetball player to being a ventriloquist?”
It’s worth noting that in the early 1970s, it was much, much more difficult to find and study ventriloquists than it is today, with the internet bringing everyone from rank beginners to seasoned pros right into your own living rooms or onto your smartphone. Especially for a child.
“I remember watching the TV sitcom ‘Soap,’ because they had a ventriloquist on named Jay Johnson,” relates Gross. “He’s still performing today and is one of the best ever. I would sit every week just to catch the few lines he had on the show. Johnny Carson was an amateur ventriloquist and magician himself and so he would have variety acts on ‘The Tonight Show.’ My parents would always let me stay up and watch on those nights! Plus, my father took me to see magician Doug Henning live a few times, and I loved his show.”
These days, Andy Gross has become known worldwide mostly from his viral videos on web platforms like YouTube, which to date have accumulated more than 150 million views.
He’ll likely perform many of those same routines at this Tybee show, but he says audiences should expect to see other aspects of his stage show that have not yet made it online.
“I spend a great deal of time researching and developing ideas and building props. I mean months building and refining them. But, nothing makes you better at your craft than performing live. So, I will practice and rehearse for weeks, but then getting on stage and doing it is really the key that makes it great. You need the audiences’ feedback to know what’s working and what’s not. I also try something new almost every show – whether it be some ad libs or a new trick or joke. You have to keep things fresh, especially since the audiences know me more now and come back to see me time and time again. I do keep some of the staples in the act but try to freshen those up as well,” he says.
“I always get asked by aspiring comedians and entertainers what the best way is to improve your show, and I say ‘live stage time.’ Get on stage as much as you can and perform. The audience will tell you what is good and what is bad. Listen to them. They know!”
Gross says that depending on the type of show he is hired to perform he may travel with as many as five additional stagehands and assistants. However, when he plays smaller theaters or corporate functions they simply don’t have the room for many of his larger illusions, so he does a more intimate show, often traveling to the gig by himself.
While he has never appeared publicly in Savannah, he says he has played private, corporate shows here and emphasizes that he adores this part of the country. “I love that area and am excited to be heading your way. I am really looking forward to it.”
As I mentioned earlier, Gross recently gave up playing colleges, which for generations has been an unusually lucrative destination for standup comedians, magicians and other types of performers offering lighthearted stage entertainment.
He says he rarely played schools to begin with, (“I have four kids and thankfully plenty of work,” he avows) but feels the changing atmosphere among crowds on many college and university campuses has proven too problematic and combative for himself and many other more established performers.
“That market is very tricky. Many top legendary comedians –such as Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Joe Rogan and others– will not play schools anymore and have spoken out about it.”
The problem, he says is the propensity for young people to be too easily offended at the type of material many longtime enthusiasts of standup, stage magic and ventriloquism might recognize as the sort of risqué, slightly ribald patter or ‘crowd work’ tat has long been a tradition in those fields.
“The ‘PC climate’ amongst younger adults is something you have to be very careful with and respect,” he offers, adding, “As long as they respect (you) back.
“People want to find a way to get offended at so many things nowadays and then with the internet they have somewhat of a voice and go for the cancel culture just because maybe they don’t agree with something you think or say. It can hurt someone that is a truly good person working extremely hard for years at building a career to feed their family. These people don’t take that into consideration. They just want to try to ruin this person because they don’t think exactly as they do or said something they didn’t think was funny.
“Not everyone will agree on what’s funny,” he continues. “You try your hardest to make everyone laugh. but I have learned it’s really hard to please everyone every time.”
Despite the changing attitudes of some crowds, Gross continues to enjoy a busy schedule and is making new fans daily. He says the advent of popular network TV talent contests have at last shone a long-overdue spotlight on serious, professional performers who mix comedy with ventriloquism and (sometimes) magic.
“When you look at the success of Jeff Dunham, who’s now one of the highest paid comedians in the world, and the other three or four ventriloquists who’ve won ‘America’s Got Talent,’ these skills are more popular than ever and you can clearly see the public loves them. It’s a fantastic time to be a ‘voice tosser’ and a magician.”