PAUL WINCHELL and JERRY MAHONEY

On a “Seinfeld” episode re-run last night, Jerry Seinfeld says Elaine Benes’s complaint about a clothing store mannequin that looks like her might have a legal precedent: “Winchell versus Mahoney.” That was coincidence for me, because I had just been discussing Winchell with some of my students — who had never heard of him and didn’t know what a ventriloquist was.
 
We were discussing in class the idea of irony as an unexpected outcome from known circumstances. I used Winchell as an illustration because he was most widely known for his comedy act with dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff, among others.  Winchell also had a long career as a voice actor, meaning that he provided the voices for animated characters, not the least of which were Sam-I-Am and Tigger.
 

PAUL WINCHELL and JERRY MAHONEY

The unexpected outcome from those circumstances was that Winchell was awarded the first patent for an artificial heart designed to be implanted in a human being. To what extent his model played a part in the later practical application of such devices seems to be a matter of dispute, but that doesn’t reduce at all what Winchell achieved while he was fully occupied with an unrelated career.
 
After our classroom conversation, I decided to poke around the Internet to read more about “Mr. Winkle,” as Jerry Mahoney called him. I was sorry I did. While, on the one hand, he was a kind of renaissance man with a wide variety of interests and a humanitarian bent, his life had a very dark side that resulted in discord and estrangement in his family – so much so that one of his daughters described him after his death as “a very troubled and unhappy man.”
 
Since I was around for the heyday of television variety shows, I have vivid memories of Paul Winchell, and they are, of course, of a lighthearted and creative artist whose goal in life seemed to be to make people laugh. I would rather have died with that fantasy.

PAUL WINCHELL with JERRY MAHONEY and MORTIMER SNERD

ELIZABETH MOREHEAD "Noel"

When Elaine Benes broke up during a piano recital because Jerry Seinfeld had put a Pez dispenser on her knee, Noel the pianist played on. Oh, she was plenty upset, but she didn’t acknowledge the distraction and continued to play.

Not every artist has that kind of composure. About 45 years ago, I was at a concert at Seton Hall University at which Leopold Stokowski was conducting the American Symphony Orchestra. Some people came in after the concert had started. I guess we were all aware of the doors opening and closing and the latecomers making their way into the gymnasium, but — hey — it happens.

Well, tell that to Stokowski.

LEOPOLD STOKOWSKI

He stopped the orchestra in the middle of the first piece, turned around and glared into the darkened gym. When the place had settled down, he went to the microphone and said, “You have to excuse me. When one comes to a place of learning one expects to find intelligence.” Then he returned to his place and started the concert again.

Of course, that’s a reasonable expectation on both sides of the footlights, so to speak. But the principle apparently is lost on Ian Hart, who went to pieces during a performance of “Speaking in Tongues,” a play on London’s West End for which he has gotten good notices. And, according to an account in The Times of London, witnesses say Hart’s threatening verbal abuse of a patron in the theater was without any basis except in the actor’s imagination.

Gerald Earley — the target of Hart’s ranting — said that a certain point in the proceedings, the actor had become “pretty feral,” which I thought was a delightful choice of words. Hart brushed off the incident as silly, but he also admitted he doesn’t like acting in the theater because he doesn’t “enjoy the relationship between the audience and the actor,” and, may I say, there’s a simple solution to that.

For The Times’ account of Hart’s outburst, click HERE.

Ian Hart and John Simms in "Speaking in Tongues"