Twas late one afternoon during the Three Rivers Arts Festival that I first saw him, a guy dressed all in white save for his Harry Potterish round-lensed glasses, looking mighty weary as he pushed a cart filled with the most elaborate balloon animals I’d ever seen.
Bob Rumba and I rode the subway beneath the river together and talked. Weeks later, we spoke again and he mentioned in passing that he knew about every professional ventriloquist in the world. By then, I believed him.
So when he returned from the Vent Haven Ventriloquists Convention in Fort Mitchell, Ky. — prestigiously located between Cincinnati and its airport — I got Mr. Rumba on the phone. I wanted to know two things I’d never wondered about before I met him:
How does a ventriloquist/celebrity impersonator/balloon animal artist make a living in this town, and how does someone become that particular triple threat in the first place?
Mr. Rumba — who long ago pared down his name legally from “Rumbaugh” — wouldn’t say how old he is, but he said he was two years behind Michael Keaton at Montour High. (“I’m the only ventriloquist who went to high school with Batman.”) That means Mr. Rumba is flirting with 60.
In the 1970s, he did enough theater work hereabouts with college graduates to decide to skip college. Sometime in 1974, he and his friend Gorman Lowe moved their comedy act to Chicago. They’d practice Laurel and Hardy routines and other shtick in their day jobs in the shipping department of a jewelry wholesaler, then perform in bars and clubs at night.
Back then, one of their signature bits had the slight Mr. Rumba playing the big Mr. Lowe’s ventriloquist’s dummy. As time passed, Mr. Rumba got a real ventriloquist to teach him the craft in exchange for juggling lessons. When Mr. Lowe moved back to Pittsburgh after a couple of years, Mr. Rumba began taking a dummy onstage.
Fast-forward through four decades. He has become a good enough mimic to get gigs as Groucho Marx in TV commercials. He’s gotten other commercials by working with dummies that are his mini-selves. He can imitate everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Barney Fife, with his Ed Sullivan impression winning him a long stretch at the Caravelle Theatre in Branson, Mo., with the Liverpool Legends, a Beatles revue.
Branson isn’t what it was, he said. Soaring gas prices have kept many from making the long drive into the Ozark Mountains, and “when Andy Williams died [in September 2012], it was like losing one of their anchor stores.’’
He returned to Pittsburgh four years ago and he’s renting a home in Robinson, trying to re-establish himself and find work the new hard way: through YouTube videos and his eponymous website. It’s unclear how well that’s working. The most recent comment beneath one of his YouTube videos is 5 months old and says simply, “this guy goes to our wendys all the time :)”
When you’re a one-man variety show, though, almost any encounter is an opportunity. His balloon animals at the arts festival won him a job at a graduation party, and that led to another such party this week. He’s not leaving show business.
I went with him to the Heinz History Center on Wednesday to see a display that would mean something only to baby boomers like him who grew up around our three rivers: the puppets, made of rug yarn hair and darning eggs, that ventriloquist Hank Stohl brought to life from 1952 to 1964 on KDKA and WTAE-TV.
Mr. Rumba named his dog, Connie, after one of Mr. Stohl’s characters. The main puppet, Knish, wasn’t in the museum display, but “Oh, yeah,’’ Mr. Rumba said when we walked up to it, “there’s his relatives.’’
It’s the kind of display he knows well. That ventriloquists’ convention was held in Fort Mitchell, Ky., last week because the Vent Haven Museum, dedicated to the art of ventriloquism, is there. Mr. Rumba is an adviser to the museum and the convention.
At the convention were a couple of men, Terry Fator and Jeff Dunham, who have made millions of dollars as ventriloquists. I saw an online montage from the convention that included both their acts and Mr. Rumba’s.
Forty years on, he still has a ways to go, but he keeps things in perspective.
“I’m not famous,’’ he told me. “Not yet anyway.’’
Brian O’Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.