As a woodcarver and sculptor, specializing in ventriloquist dummies, Robert McRay today is considered one of the best in the world and has been invited onto the Tonight Show. Those alone would be tremendous accomplishments for anyone. But consider that Robert comes to this craft after many years as a movie actor, producer, and writer. Imagine him all buffed up, and you might remember him as the mute, staff-wielding sidekick in the 1998 TV version of “Conan the Barbarian.” You might have caught him in the “Legend of the Phantom Rider,” a 2002 movie he wrote and starred in. Or you may have seen him in a guest role (usually as a bad guy) in TV shows like “Walker, Texas Ranger”.
Most of his acting roles are a far cry from the soft-spoken and articulate man who today makes one-of-a-kind, “big head” dummies and characters. Entertainment and creativity, however, provide a common link between the different stages of Robert’s life. It all evolved from his experience as a professional ventriloquist from age nine to seventeen soon after his family moved from Wisconsin to the Pacific Northwest.
“The first figure I had was a plastic Charlie McCarthy figure. But his face wasn’t what I wanted, so I started altering its features. I used anything I could like clay and stuff. That was my first experience with figure making. When I was 16, someone ordered a dummy, and I made my first fiberglass casting. In the 50s, the McElroy brothers had created all their characters with animation (eye movement, wig flipping, tongue sticking out), and I also got involved with Automata, an 18th century style of mechanical engineering. When I combined the two, I just fell in love with how wood and brass go together & and ventriloquist figures were the best union of the mechanics and the wood.”
Robert soon graduated from fiberglass to a one-of-a-kind wood carving so each dummy would be unique. When the ventriloquist takes the stage, Robert feels, he needs something nobody else has ever seen before. Concurrently with the development of his skill, Robert was growing disenchanted with ventriloquism.
“The elegance fell out of the practice, and it was turning into backyard bubble shows, so I quit ventriloquism at 17 and joined the Navy.” Robert recalled, “When I got out, there was a six or seven year hiatus before I got back into acting. And ventriloquism is a form of acting, you’re in front of an audience and you’re taking them away from whatever experience they’re going through, and then making them feel something else.”
After settling in California, and close to Hollywood, Robert eventually enjoyed great success as an actor for several years … although he also got involved with casting, producing, and writing.
“In the beginning, I would play a good guy because I only weighed about 160 lbs. That’s what I call BC … before Conan. For that role I had put on the muscle and went up to 230 lbs. And even though I was a good guy on the show, I got typecast as a bad guy ever since. That’s okay. Good guys live, but the bad guys get to play with all the toys in the movie and TV circuit.”
Though his acting career was going well, the suicide of best friend Trevor Goddard this year caused him to reevaluate his relationship with Hollywood.
“Trevor and I started out the whole acting thing together. Working in this industry is like riding a rollercoaster. You have some real highs and some awful lows, and it got to him. After “Jag,” he was in “Pirates of the Caribbean” and was already signed for the sequel. We were both rolling, but the industry got to him, which culminated in him taking his own life. I’d started making the figures again while I was still acting, because it’s a great escape. Then when Trevor died, I thought, well, I’ve had a good run as an actor. I can say I’ve done it, been there, and it’s time to move on.”
As he made the transition to carving, Robert knew what ventriloquists wanted. His approach is unique. His clients don’t give him sketches, just a brief, five-sentence description of a personality, and they trust Robert to come up with everything else. His puppets don’t follow the usual “cheeky boy” stereotype … personified by Paul Winchell’s Jerry Mahoney from the 1960s television.
“The look is exaggerated,” explained Robert, “and there’s good reason for that. Kids and even grownups are very apprehensive about a ventriloquist puppet when it comes on stage, partly because of their reputation as being evil & the demonic possessed puppet. It even goes back to Egyptian times when they were called belly talkers, and they were always considered witches. So you have a barrier to cross in the first five minutes to get the audience comfortable with the character. My theory is that once you walk up on the stage with one of my characters, the audience already knows the story of the figure … it’s in the carving. It’s already funny, so you don’t have to go through that buffer zone, and you’re already into your act. And kids aren’t afraid of the big head, it reminds them of Saturday morning cartoons!”
Robert rarely does any sketching, but pulls the figure out of the wood by carving down into it. He uses a Fordham rotary tool to get the basic shape, but then goes to a Dremel for the detail. And each piece is already purchased before he starts. Though he loves working with ventriloquists, about 80% of his work goes into private collections. And many of his customers want whatever he comes up without any input.
“I’m fortunate right now to have a known body of work. People will say, I get your next piece and put a deposit down … no matter what it is. I like the freedom to let the character develop itself. The more restrictions they put on it, the more generic it becomes. I can do that, I used to be a celebrity caricaturist [working in clay], but I tell them they’re taking the fun out of it. When it’s done, they say, it is more than I expected and exactly what I needed.”
The final step in creating the dummy is painting. You can still change a character’s features, Robert noted, with paint. Robert described how characters don’t often feel right when he’s done carving, but adding paint can change the look and bring a character to life. Which brings him to the best part of the process … being finished. Like much creative activity, the work can be agonizing and painful, but he loves the results.
Since he’s also a writer, Robert spends a lot of time in front of the computer. For relaxation, Robert and his wife take the occasional camping trip. Among his current projects is a puppet of a 95-year-old man. Along with a total of 16 other animations, he’s going to have a toupee that rises up and down. Another current order calls for a semi-realistic baby dragon, and though the client only requested opening and closing eyes, Robert knows he’s going to give it a wagging tail and make it puff smoke before he’s done.
“I’m amazed at how lucky I’ve been.” Robert mused, “For some reason I can do this. I don’t know why, and I don’t feel like I’m capable of doing it. And I look back at my work and say ‘that’s cool … who did it?’ Call it a gift of whatever, but I get just as much enjoyment as the client does out of it.”