Jack Beckitt

International Ventriloquist

About Jack Beckitt

Even as a small boy, Jack Beckitt wanted to be a ventriloquist, an ambition inspired by weekly trips to his local variety theatre. He faced a long struggle, but in time he achieved another goal by making appearances at the London Palladium, engagements that led to work in the US, South Africa and Australia. 

John Beckitt was born in Grimsby in 1928. Once he had chosen the path his life would take, he spent hours perfecting his skills in front of a mirror and developing a falsetto voice his dummy might use. At that stage, however, he did not even own a dummy. He bought his first from his local toyshop, a figure called Kenny Tok, who was dressed in a top hat and tails and who wore a monocle. It cost 1s 6d and Beckitt had to save several weeks’ pocket money before he could buy it. After reading books of jokes, he put together an act.

At first, he entertained his friends at parties and, as a result of particular success at a Christmas gathering, he was invited to join a local concert party, the Ragamuffins. He soon bought a second dummy, called Johnny, and a smaller third one, which he named Dickie Shorthouse. Operating Johnny with one hand and Dickie with the other, he sang songs, using his own voice and two different voices for the dummies. After winning a talent contest at the Empire Theatre, Cleethorpes, he was ready to take his act around village halls and working men’s clubs. 

He progressed to organising shows himself and was just beginning to find his feet when he was called up for National Service. After that interruption he persuaded the Bert Aza agency that managed Gracie Fields and Stanley Holloway to represent him. Under the aegis of the agency, the first theatre he played was the Chiswick Empire. There he was seen by the impresario, Harold Fielding, who booked him for a summer season tour called Music for the Millions. 

By 1960, however, he was still occupying what variety theatre managements called the second spot, the worst place on a bill for a comic or a ventriloquist. Dancers would open the programme, but, even by the time the second entertainer came on, audiences were not sufficiently settled to enjoy the show. Variety was, in any case, dying on its feet, a development caused largely by the advent of independent television. Managers tried to revive the format by staging “girlie” shows and Beckitt joined the first strip show to be presented as a summer show in Blackpool, six young women whose routines were interspersed with those of comedians and jugglers.

After a couple of television appearances, Beckitt decided he had to develop a gimmick, something that would set him apart from other ventriloquists. This he achieved by introducing a talking shoe with a face painted on the sole. He soon had a collection of shoes and he decided to make one of them a heavy drinker. While appearing in Worthing, he was practising a fruity voice for his new stage partner when a fellow entertainer on the bill, the magician, Al Koran, suggested it was too good a voice for a mere shoe and should be used instead for a full-sized dummy. Beckitt agreed and there resulted his favourite dummy of all, the bibulous Willie Drinkall. 

Having been signed up by Billy Marsh, the right-hand man of Bernard Delfont and the agent of, among others, Bruce Forsyth and Norman Wisdom, Beckitt began appearing on BBC Television’s long-running music hall show, The Good Old Days, and was booked for an eight-month season at the London Palladium, one of several engagements he enjoyed there. To remind him how fickle show business can be, his manager hired him immediately after one Palladium season to appear at a pub at the Elephant and Castle, where his dressing room was a coal cellar. 

His success at the Palladium helped to secure him an eight-month booking at the Americana Hotel in Miami where he was repeatedly told how close a resemblance Willie Drinkall bore to Joe E. Lewis, not the heavyweight boxer, but the comedian and singer who was mutilated by one of Al Capone’s henchmen and left for dead. When Lewis and Drinkall came to face to face, Beckitt was himself amazed at the likeness as he had not even heard of Lewis when he ordered the dummy to be made. 

Of all the acts at the Americana, Beckitt was the only one to be invited to join a new production at one of the world’s top entertainment venues, the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, where “Two Ton” Tessie O’Shea was topping the bill. Back in Britain, Beckitt was invited to join a summer season at the Opera House, Blackpool, where the star was Ken Dodd. Beckitt and Dodd became good friends and, once the season was over, Beckitt worked with Dodd at many theatres around Britain. Beckitt also began working with Morecambe and Wise and could not understand why from then on Dodd offered him no further work. Someone then told Beckitt that Dodd believed Morecambe and Wise had “stolen” his best scriptwriter, Eddie Braben, from him. Beckitt was particularly upset as Dodd had been best man at his second wedding. 

Having worked around the world, Beckitt eventually decided to settle in Australia and ended his career working on cruise liners. By today’s standards, much of the banter between Beckitt and Willie Drinkall was, to say the least, corny. But there was always the guarantee of one big laugh. Willie used to say: “I told my wife that I was going to buy some Arnold Palmer socks, an Arnold Palmer shirt and some Arnold Palmer gloves. She said ‘Whatever for?’ I said ‘Well, it might improve my game.’ She said ‘Well, let me know if it works and I will buy you some Richard Burton underwear.’” 

He is survived by a son and a daughter from his first marriage. 

Jack Beckitt, ventriloquist, was born on September 24 1928. He died on February 18, 2010, aged 81

Ventriloquist, Author and International Performer




Miami, Florida