Ventriloquist, puppeteer, toy collector and kid-at-heart Bob Abdou wants to spread joy
One day in the mid-1990s, Bob Abdou got in his car and started driving across Atlanta with no destination in mind. Everything in his life was falling apart. His marriage was ending, and he'd lost his once-thriving print shop. He had nothing left. Abdou was at rock bottom.
While driving and weeping, Abdou took a call from his friend Chuck Field, who had a surprising take on the situation. “He said, ‘This could be the best thing that ever happened to you,'” Abdou said.
The printing business had brought Abdou financial success for a time, but the long hours ate up his days and nights. And for a couple of years, the highlight of Abdou's week had been the Saturday mornings he spent at Atlanta's Center for Puppetry Arts, where he greeted visitors and practiced ventriloquism with his custom dummy, Woody, whom he fell in love with the second he took him out of the box.
“When I opened it up, I heard angels sing and light beaming out of the box,” Abdou said. “I could not believe what I was seeing. It was amazing.”
When a young visitor to the center asked for “Mr. Puppet,” Abdou's stage persona was born. But ventriloquism and puppetry were still just hobbies. He didn't have time to do more than volunteer on those Saturday mornings and perform once or twice a month. Until, that is, everything fell apart.
“He didn't know which way to turn, but I knew how much joy he was getting out of entertaining audiences,” said Field, a ventriloquist based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He told Abdou to follow his passion for puppetry.
The tears stopped. “I thought, wait a second,” Abdou said, “I've got nowhere to go but up.”
Entering the Sharon Heights home of Mr. Puppet is like walking into the fantasy world of a child from a bygone era. A glass display case packed with Howdy Doody marionettes and toys occupies one wall of the living room, while a giant poster of Adam West as Batman covers half of another. More memorabilia lines the hallway, and vintage cereal boxes litter the kitchen. Plus, the Beatles room. And the puppet room, where more than 100 puppets and marionettes in clear dust covers dangle from the ceiling.
Abdou's wife, June Wilkins, a Lutheran minister, has declared the dining room and den toy-free zones. But the first floor doesn't contain even half of Abdou's collection.
Other than a narrow walking path, thousands of vintage toys cover every square inch of Abdou's basement, which he named “The Hall of Everything.” Entire sections are dedicated to Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Popeye, “Planet of the Apes,” Arthur “the Fonz” Fonzarelli, “Lancelot Link,” Magilla Gorilla, pre-Elmo “Sesame Street,” “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “The Partridge Family,” “Captain Kangaroo” and much, much more.
A puppet of Bull, the bailiff from “Night Court,” stands in one corner. Colonel Sanders is perched atop the water heater, and last month Abdou picked up some Three Stooges lawn ornaments. (See a photo slideshow of Abdou's collection at columbusalive.com/photos.)
“The main reason I collect is the main reason I perform,” Abdou said. “After I got divorced, I bought a toy, and a friend of mine came to my house and said, ‘I remember this toy as a kid.' And I remember the smile on his face. So I said, ‘You know what? I'm gonna start collecting more toys.' I like friends coming down and saying, ‘I remember this.' When you can remember the good times of a childhood, that's what I wanna do.”
Thinking back on his own childhood in New Jersey, Abdou doesn't immediately go to the good times. “My first stepfather was a raging alcoholic. Whenever he got mad — and he got mad a lot because he was drunk — he would punch you in the back of the head,” he said. “He would beat my mother. Growing up, I would hear my mother scream because she was getting hit.”
After some similarly bad school experiences, Abdou regularly played hooky. One day when he skipped school, two Jehovah's Witnesses came by and converted him; he remained a Witness for the next 25 years. After graduating high school in 1978, his attempts at missionary work in Florida didn't pan out. To determine his next move, Abdou decided to throw a dart at a United States map.
“I threw a dart and it landed on Los Angeles, but I hate the Dodgers,” said Abdou, a diehard Mets fan. “I threw it again, and it landed on Atlanta. So in 1981 I moved to Atlanta.”
In 1996, after the rise and fall of his print shop and the end of his first marriage, Abdou began doing puppetry full-time in Atlanta and transformed his outlook on life. “I didn't want to be the old Bob. The old Bob was very arrogant, very chauvinistic and egotistical,” he said. “After the divorce, I did a 180. In 1997, I got a toupee and I became a nudist. … Once you're nude, you've got nothing to hide. You see everybody's flaws.”
The nudist phase lasted about a year, and then in 2001 Abdou met Wilkins, his current wife, at a Beatles convention where he was performing. “I told her I loved her the minute I met her,” he said. The two began a long-distance relationship, and when Abdou proposed to her on “Sally Jesse Raphael” (alongside a dummy), she said yes.
After an eight-year stint as an associate pastor in Austin, Texas, Wilkins came to Columbus to pastor Gethsemane Lutheran Church. Mr. Puppet, of course, came along.
On a weekday evening in late January, a couple dozen residents of Sunrise Senior Living in Worthington watch Mr. Puppet perform a pun-heavy set of material with Junior the farmer and other characters.
Abdou uses a Garth Brooks-style headset mic and is dressed in dark pants, black dress shirt and a colorful tie. The room is warm, and reactions to Mr. Puppet's act are pretty subdued. Early on, he makes a joke about the audience snoring, and later one spectator audibly snores during a punchline. But several people in the crowd, many of whom suffer from memory loss, perk up when Abdou grabs a marionette, Carol the Cowgirl, and has her dance and sing to Nancy Sinatra's “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'.”
“I have friends who get upset if they don't hear applause. I don't. People will clap with their eyes,” said Abdou, who incorporates more music than usual into his shows at senior centers. “I think they know what's going on inside, but their bodies are shot.”
While Mr. Puppet is happy to perform for crowds at both ends of the life spectrum, Abdou said he doesn't do shows for people ages 13 to 21. “They're a tough crowd. The peer pressure is too much,” he said.
Puppets and dummies may seem like comedic relics, but Abdou claims ventriloquism is hot, citing popular comedians like Jeff Dunham, Terry Fator and Darci Lynne, a 13-year-old ventriloquist and singer who recently won the 12th season of NBC's “America's Got Talent.”
Chuck Field, who met Abdou at the International Ventriloquist Convention in the '90s, said Abdou sets himself apart from other ventriloquists by the sheer number of characters he uses and by incorporating marionettes and puppeteering into his shows.
“He never stops creating,” Field said. “Ventriloquism is like watching a sitcom. If the characters are really good, everyone wants to watch. People are looking at your lips the first few minutes, but it takes good, solid material to make people laugh.”
January and February are slow months for Mr. Puppet, so lately Abdou has busied himself by building a singing skeleton in his basement workshop, and writing material for a new character, a “unicow” (i.e. a unicorn cow) named Carmen. He also recently passed the written, phone and Skype interview portions of his application to “The Gong Show.” Next month, he'll perform across Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
Whether tinkering with toys in his basement or performing onstage, Abdou aims to surround himself and others with joy. “In the world we live in, where people are miserable and their joys are squeezed, I think that my shows inflate their joy,” he said. “I'm enjoying it more than ever.”