John Byrd, Ventriloquist
By L. Fausz May 21, 2014
John Byrd of Western Chesterfield, was named the 2014 Senior Idol Winner during the Shepherd's Center of Chesterfield's 4th Annual Greater Richmond Final Competition.
Winning with his comedy ventriloquist act along with his dog, a basset hound named Henry, who thought he was a sheep dog, Byrd has been performing his act for several years and has been practicing ventriloquism since the age of 10.
By BILL LOHMAN
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Now that he's retired, John Byrd can spend more time doing what he loves best: standing in front of audiences and carrying on conversations with himself.
Without moving his lips.
Byrd, 61, who lives in Chesterfield County, performs as a ventriloquist, entertaining school kids and residents of retirement homes, as well as church and civic groups.
"I liked my job, and I liked the people I was working with," said Byrd, who retired in August from the state Department of Criminal Justice Services, where he worked in training and employment records. "It just seemed it was time to retire. Now, I am excited because I get to follow my passion."
Byrd is among the 19 percent of "leading edge" baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1954, who say they are retired. He's also among the 80 percent of boomers who say they plan to work in retirement, said Matt Thornhill, founder of the Boomer Project, a Richmond-based research initiative.
"They quit doing what they had to do, to do what they want to do," said Thornhill. "We expect to see lots more of that."
Byrd has been a fan of ventriloquism since childhood when he would sit in front of the television, mesmerized as he watched Paul Winchell work his magic with his dummy, Jerry Mahoney. At age 10, his parents gave him a book by Winchell and a Jerry Mahoney dummy, prompting Byrd, who grew up in Roanoke, to launch his own act. He performed at school functions and vividly recalls doing a show at the Hotel Roanoke while still in junior high school.
After high school, Byrd pretty much dropped ventriloquism. He attended Virginia Military Institute and then went into the Army, where he didn't have a lot of time to pursue performing. Then, he didn't have a dummy. During one move while he was in the military, Byrd's wife, Margaret, backed over Jerry Mahoney's head with the car, apparently an accident.
"I tease her about it all the time," Byrd said with a laugh. "She says, 'What kind of idiot would leave a dummy in the driveway in the first place?'"
The Byrds, who came to Richmond in 1977, raised three children. In the past few years, Byrd's fascination with ventriloquism was rekindled. He bought dummies, started attending an annual convention of ventriloquists and worked on his act.
He now has a full life to draw material from: his work as a counselor, his role as a Stephen Minister for his church, Bon Air United Methodist Church, and his experience as an organ donor. He donated a kidney to his brother-in-law about three years ago.
"My mother died of kidney failure," Byrd recalled. "I was with her the last time she tried dialysis, and she couldn't tolerate it. She was in a lot of pain. Then my brother-in-law got to the point of needing a transplant. I decided having seen how difficult dialysis was for my mother...I thought, If I can live with one kidney, why should he have to suffer through dialysis?"
With some audiences, Byrd weaves the serious subject into his act in a lighthearted way.
"My [puppet] says to me, 'I guess he thinks about you every time he goes to the bathroom!'"
Byrd employs a cast of characters, depending on his audiences, that includes a bird named Gooney and a new one called The Jazz Man. At a recent at Grange Hall Elementary School in Chesterfield, he went into his trunk and brought out a shaggy-haired puppet named Archibald, a talking book and Tony the Turtle, a shy creature whom Byrd encouraged to say something "nice and warm" to the audience of fourth and fifth-graders.
"Oatmeal!" said Tony.
The kids howled.
Contact Bill Lohman at (804) 649-6639 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Shepherd's Center of Chesterfield and the Chesterfield County Senior Advocate's Office hosted the Fourth Annual Senior Idol Competition on Friday, May 16th at Victory Tabernacle Church of God on Genito Road in Midlothian. It was a fun-filled evening showcasing the talents of twelve finalists, 50 years and older. Out Master of Ceremonies, Cavell Phillips, did a fabulous job introducing the acts to the audience who cheered on their favorite performers. The crowed was also entertained by Bailey Bridge Middle School's eighth grade chorus. John Byrd's comedy ventriloquist act not only had the crowd roaring with laughter, but also earned him the title of Senior Idol, 2014. Greater Richmond's top 12 acts vied for the title. The first runner-up was L. T. Holmes singing "Me and Mrs. Jones." June Knight was name second runner-up with "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown." Ed Pettersen, who played the keyboard and sang a Billy Joel medley, won the "People's Choice" Award. More than 500 people attended the event that consisted of acts of diverse styles and genres.