When Noah Simmons first saw a professional ventriloquist on TV last year, he was excited to realize that ventriloquism is all about getting away with mischief.
“I saw Jeff Dunham on TV and I thought, 'Oh, I really want to try that. I want to make people laugh and get away with things,'” Noah said. “That's basically what you do — blame it on the puppet. If he says something bad, I apologize to the audience and say, 'It's him.'”
Noah, now 12, lives in Huntley. He performed in April as part of the annual “Nothin' Up My Sleeve” show at Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake. And in July, he got to meet his idol when Dunham paid a surprise visit to the kid who dubs himself “The Next Jeff Dunham” on his YouTube channel. Dunham then paid for Noah and his father, Marc Simmons, to go to the annual “Vent Haven” ventriloquists' convention in Kentucky.
It's been a dizzying, gratifying ride for the young ventriloquist, made all the more impressive by the fact that he bought his first puppet — using his chore and birthday money — only in January.
“My goal is in 10 to 15 years to be on a legitimate show like Leno or Letterman,” Noah said.
Noah is definitely on the fast track, said Glenn Chelius, co-producer of “Nothin' Up My Sleeve.”
“He's had so much happen to him in a short amount of time that most kids would die for,” Chelius said. “Just the experience this kid has had over the summer is unbelievable.”
His big stage debut was a hit, Chelius said. “He has great lip control, he tells original jokes that he makes up on his own, and he got a lot of giggles and laughter from the audience,” said Chelius, who is a magician and ventriloquist, too. “Being a kid ventriloquist is pretty rare. There's probably more kid magicians than kid ventriloquists.”
Noah now has five puppets, also called “characters,” each with a different voice and personality.
Dylan is his main puppet, the one for whom he writes the most lines in his joke journal, Noah said.
“Dylan is the opposite of me. He's the cool one and I'm the smarter one,” Noah said. “He's a bad boy. He's the cool one, but I'm always above him. I look down on him, and he looks up to me sometimes.”
But what's an interview with a ventriloquist without a little one-on-one with the puppet?
So Dylan, what is the difference between you and Noah?
“I'm better than him,” he replies. “I'm cool and I like shakes. Chocolate shakes.”
So why are you better than Noah?
“I don't think I can say that here. I'm not old enough to say those kind of words.”
Noah's other puppets are Charlie, a dapper fellow with a Southern accent; Sidney, a haughty actor from Britain; Buster, a hyper dog with a deep voice; and Steve, a parrot with a squeaky voice.
“There is no favorite. I like them all,” Noah said. “Whichever one gets the most laughs will be the one who will get the most spotlight next time.”
It definitely took a lot of practice to learn how to make the puppets talk, Noah said. “I was practicing every single day,” he said. “The trick is the mouth position and substituting sounds.”
Noah explained he studies clips and lessons from ventriloquists like Jimmy Nelson, who performed in the 1950s and 1960s. “Your tongue and your teeth become crucial. It's important to practice in front of the mirror — you have to watch your mouth.”
His parents, Carrie Parsons and Marc Simmons, said they were puzzled when Noah first took up ventriloquism.
“I was a little bit worried just because it's not normal middle schoolboy behavior. I tried to steer him to another hobby or sport,” Parsons said. “But once I saw him perform at the Raue Center and saw how many people were laughing and clapping, and just so excited to see him onstage, I totally changed my tune. I saw how good he was.”
Marc Simmons has also grown to fully embrace Noah's passion and often acts as his son's sounding board. “He runs a lot of his joke past me. If I don't go, 'Ha!' it's not good.”
Local magician Marshall Brodien Jr., the son of Wizzo the Clown from “Bozo's Circus” who met Noah by chance at one of his performances earlier this year, was responsible for having Noah join the lineup of “Nothin' Up My Sleeve.”
“My idea was of having him as an inspiration for kids, because I knew that a lot of kids would be there,” he said. “He did a phenomenal job. He made everybody laugh; it was a real good response.”
Noah has lot of charisma, Brodien said. “I think the kid is going to excel. If he keeps doing what he's doing and he keeps pressing hard I think he's got a great talent to be successful in that type of business.”
His peers' reaction to ventriloquism can be mixed, Noah said.
“Sometimes I'm nervous to mention it because people sometimes don't know what the word means, or they say, 'It's a puppet, ugh,'” said Noah, an honor roll student now in the seventh grade at Marlowe Middle School.
But Noah also got encouraging reactions after taking his puppets to class twice, once as part of a book presentation and once during Spanish class.
“I was nervous, but they thought it was awesome,” Noah said. “I looked out there and I saw a kid with an open mouth. Then someone gave me a high-five.”
The surprise visit from Dunham on July 18 was a moment he'll never forget, Noah said.
Dunham was impressed by Noah's videos, Chelius said, and his management team contacted Marc Simmons to set up the visit at Noah's grandparents' house in Morton Grove. All the adults present — including Brodien and Chelius — were in on the secret, but not Noah and his sisters.
“I was like, 'Oh my God.' I was stunned,” he said while watching a home video of that day. “My voice is so high-pitched in this, because of the shock.”
Noah and his father then joined Dunham on his tour bus to go to his show in South Bend, Ind.
Dunham did not respond to requests for an interview.
“I learned that practice makes perfect,” Noah said. “It was awesome because there was a lot of stuff I hadn't seen yet, new material. And I got to go backstage.”
Noah admits this is not the first time he's thrown himself headfirst into a new hobby, like he did with the guitar and the keyboard. But ventriloquism is different, he insists. “I think I'm going to stick with this because I've already raised my profile and I don't want to bring it back down.”
His puppets are like friends, in a way, but they're also a bit eerie, Noah said.
“I'm never going to have a rocking chair in my room and set them on that facing my bed. That's scary. I always put them away.”
• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. She and Kimberly Pohl always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of a young person whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (847) 608-2733.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.