Joe Gandleman is a mouthpiece for dummies.
Nah. Dumb joke. Start over.
Joe Gandleman is a ventriloquist. That's an ancient art of projecting one's voice so it seems to come from another source, usually a wooden dummy.
In the Middle Ages, it was sometimes associated with witchcraft, which must have put a damper on recruitment into the art. Who wants to be burned at the stake over a trick, especially when your dummy would probably add fuel to the fire?
Gandleman is 65 and lives in a Rancho Peñasquitos condo with two cats. He was a respected bilingual reporter at The San Diego Union a quarter-century ago. He says he grew tired of the politics of the newsroom of that day and asked himself that nagging question of dissatisfaction: Is this all there is?
Over time, which means hundreds of hours of frustration, he polished his ventriloquism hobby to a shiny finish. However, to go from being an amateur to whom people say, "Oh, you're really good at that" to a pro who can command money is not an easy bridge to cross.
Even for an apartment-dwelling bachelor, it's a choke-size gulp to walk away from a paycheck and go off and hope someone will pay you to be amusing.
The result is usually not funny. We romanticize "second career" ventures while forgetting that many (maybe most) of such makeovers, especially on the edge of age 40, result in failure and wondering where the 401(k) disappeared to.
"Joe is going to quit his job and do what?" I'm sure that's what some aunts and uncles asked each other.
Gandleman had his getting-established pains, including the gestation of a very large credit-card debt. But over the years, by paying attention to good marketing practices and a willingness to put many zeros on his car's odometer, he's built a school following and has expanded into county fairs and retirement homes. He tailors his show to the venue, but the audience for a humorous puppet show tends to consist of kids, regardless of their ages.
He decided to concentrate on grammar and middle schools. Crafting a schtick that is funny but also with a moral message is as easy as a drunk walking in clown shoes.
Now, 25 years later, Gandleman reflects on what he has taught and what he has learned.
Through the years, a particular cause of his has been bullying. "When I was a kid, parents tended to be unconcerned about bullying. It wasn't that big an issue, and you had to pretty much deal with it on your own. Personally, I used humor to avoid bullying."
Though bullying has not changed and its frequency has certainly not diminished, some attitudes have. Gandleman says that in some eastern states, the use of the word is discouraged.
"(This year) when I was on the East Coast, some elementary schools told me to not use the word ‘bullying.' Those schools are afraid that the word is going to be used too loosely. So, you have to say ‘bucket dippers' and ‘bucket fillers.' Bucket dippers are people that are negative, that also may try to do things to you physically. Bucket fillers are people who put good things into the bucket."
(So is a kid going to say, "Oh, my lunch money was taken away by a bucket dipper?" I fear the answer.)
Gandleman said, "My message to kids through my shows is that if you are being bullied, tell someone. Tell an adult. If you see someone being teased or bullied, you say, ‘No, stop.' Doing nothing is sometimes the wrong thing to do. The other thing I say to kids is, telling an adult is not the same as tattling. Tattling is trying to get someone in trouble. Telling an adult is trying to prevent trouble."
His format is a running dialogue between himself, playing straight man, and the puppet, which has a sassy personality of its own. In that quippy give and take, he makes points to the kid audience about good behavior and responsible citizenship.
Program emphases change over time. Bullying and drug avoidance will always be prime topics for kids to be educated about, but recently Gandleman has added the encouragement of reading and Internet safety. Also nutrition, in an effort to make junk food less appealing.
In his quarter-century of presentations to schools, Gandleman has seen attitude changes on the part of the adults who run things. Schools have gone from seeming like rigid institutions to feeling like families.
Teachers' dress is more relaxed - and that reflects a less hierarchical atmosphere. Now, teachers see the value of his using humor to drive home his messages, rather than just solemn pronouncements.
In the beginning, he wore a coat and tie. But when he switched to informal clothing, even a loud Hawaiian shirt, he noticed that the kid-adult barriers broke down and the rapport became more free.
"Now, I go to schools and the kids and teachers say, ‘You're really cool.' Being 5-foot-1 helps. Kids relate to me. They consider me this old-looking big kid. After a show, they'll talk to me in a way they don't talk to most adults."
Gandleman says of his audiences: "When I (interact) with kids, I see they really care about people and about animals, and have a lot of raw creativity. I see kids that really want to do something good.
"But when those little kids start out, they don't realize what's coming as they get older. Are they going to hold up when life turns into a boxing match and they're being punched hard? Will they still be happy and keep that view they had as kids? Or are they going to be so beaten down by life that they're shells of what they were when younger?"
He believes kids are more open to ideas and feelings than we. Their experiences go straight from the brain to the heart, while ours can get lost in the labyrinth of the side roads paved in our minds.
It may help Gandleman in his rapport with children to share their height, but being a foot shorter than many men had to personally instruct him early on in the dark art of teasing, bullying and being overlooked.
At this stage in life, his stature is recognized for what it is: a triviality in the ways that count for character and manhood. But he wasn't always a grown man to be respected for his accomplishments.
"One thing my parents usually said was, ‘(Height) doesn't make a difference.' That was baloney. It did make a difference socially. Some of the people I wanted to go out with wouldn't go out with me. It did impact me."
His well-meaning parents tried to help. "My mother said, ‘All you need to do is find a rich, old lady who will take care of you.' Gee, mom, thanks for putting it that way. She also said, ‘You're too sensitive. Look at Danny Devito, look at the beautiful wife he has.'
"My father said, ‘Well, some of us are smart and some of us aren't coordinated, and you're smart.' Or he would say to me, ‘Don't worry how you look; when you get older, women won't care.' So he left me instilled with all this negative stuff.
"Accepting yourself is the hardest thing to do. I still go through that right now. Everyone does," he says.
Gandleman learned some tough lessons and survived stronger, and has passed the knowledge on to kids through the lips of his dummies - John Raven, Smiley the bulldog, Edwin the elephant and other friends.
Two points I take away from talking with Joe Gandleman and others like him: Beauty and success have all the growth stimulus of a jelly doughnut. It is through pain that we grow. Secondly, children can return only what they first are given.
I personally believe that women and men who devote themselves to children are God's chosen. Even more so, older men who do so are God's elect and will go straight to heaven, even though they might not otherwise deserve it.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org
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