The Great Lester ~ Legendary ventriloquist had local ties
By Lily Kongslien
Special to the Star Journal
As a child I recall my father telling me about “The Great Lester,” a famous ventriloquist who lived beyond us in a cabin along the Wisconsin River a few miles north of Rhinelander. I understand that at first he and his wife, Lottie, who was a fortune teller, lived in town on North Stevens Street. He spent only his summers in the Northwoods as he performed on stages and vaudeville all over the U.S. and Europe the remainder of the year. The summers that he spent here were most enjoyable for him. He dressed as he wished, usually as a small-town “bum” and enjoyed entertaining youngsters as they crowded around him for his impromptu acts and humor. Usually he wore out-sized and out-of-style clothing and cut all the hair off his head as he said it was the only way to get the grease paint out. He was probably called eccentric but he was revered as one of the greatest ventriloquists ever.
The Great Lester was born in Poland in 1879 as Marian Czajkowski; he was related to the Great Russian composer Tschaikowksy, with his father having a high title in Polish royalty. He came to America as a very young child and at the age of 16 left his formal schooling to join the circus. At first he did every conceivable job until he was promoted to clown. He also performed as a magician, assisted a balloon jumper until he fell off a balloon basket and received a shoulder injury that was to make him walk slightly stoop-shouldered the rest of his life. After leaving the circus, he played all the shows from Chicago to New York and developed two different acts so that he could be booked twice in the same town. His disguises and costumes were of exciting colors and his special acts were known as Kaloofra the Arabian and the Hindu Magician. He also performed, to sustain employment between acts, as a fire eater, mind reader and sword swallower. He also performed as Bosco the Snake Eater. After appearing in various roles, he went into ventriloquism.
During his stint with the circus and several years later, he heard Orrin McKnight with his “distant voice illusions and imitations.” After this he read every book he could find in libraries on ventriloquism and at the age of 20 he began his journey as a ventriloquist. His first dummy was a girl character, then he began using two figures. In Chicago while riding a streetcar, his dummies disappeared leaving Lester with an engagement to perform, but no dummies! He went to the Theodore Mack Co. and since he had no money, they helped him get started on making a dummy. The Mack Co. is credited with helping him develop a likeness of the Katzenjammer Kids from a comic strip, which was to become his dummy, named Frank Byron, Jr.
At the age of 22, the Great Lester was booked for his first European tour; it was on this tour that he discovered the power of his modified voices while enroute to Germany. On the ship, Friederich Der Grosse; he was challenged by some men on the ship who bet him $100 that he couldn’t stop the liner mid-ocean. Even though he didn’t have the $100, he took the wager. Later that night, standing by the rail with one of the officers of the watch, Lester for the first time tried the stunt that he later used in almost all of his performances – the fake call for help. The officer immediately rushed to the bridge shouting, “man overboard!” Bells clanged, the big steamship slowed down and a boat was lowered in a matter of moments. Appalled by what his voice had done, Lester forgot all about the wager and took refuge in his cabin. The incident was the turning point in his life and in the next 30 years he played all the great vaudeville houses. While touring the word as the headline act, Lester earned per week between $1,500 and $2,000. At the age of 57 he gave his final foreign performance in England in 1936 and his final vaudeville performance in the U.S. in 1955 at the Nixon Theater in Pittsburgh for the International Brotherhood of Ventriloquists.
The Great Lester trained Edger Bergen (Charlie McCarthy) in the great art of “voice throwing.” Bergen introduced himself to Lester after having watched him perform and asked for technical advice. Lester agreed to give the voice lessons, remembering his own hardships in the beginning and did not charge a fee.
The Great Gabbo, a movie produced in Hollywood was reported to be based on the life of the Great Lester. He didn’t like the movie and sued the producer. Intentional or not, the reported lawsuit packed the theater in Rhinelander when the film played here.
After his career in Vaudeville and his years in Northern Wisconsin in the summer, the Great Lester moved to California and died there in 1956.
Lester’s dummy, Byron was later owned by Ted Baron. The Barons, as well as our family, lived in McNaughton in the town of Newbold during the time The Great Lester spent the summers at his cottage north of us. Marian Mettayer, from the old Mettayer Tavern, had received the dummy from Lester and didn’t know what to do with it and hung in on the chicken coop. It was reported that chicken thieves were frightened by it and never finished their crime. She gave it to Ted Baron’s son Mike and it now belongs to him. If Byron, the Great Lester’s dummy could REALLY talk, what a great story could be told!