Jack Beckitt, who has died at the age of 81, wanted to be a ventriloquist even as a small boy. He faced a long struggle, but in time he realised his dream and made many appearances at the London Palladium, as well as other international venues.
Born John Beckitt in Grimsby on September 24, 1928, he bought his first dummy from a local toy shop. The dummy, called Kenny Tok, was dressed in a top hat and tails and wore a monocle.
After reading books of jokes, Beckitt put together an act and 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.
After winning a talent contest at the Empire Theatre, Cleethorpes, Beckitt took his act around village halls and working men’s clubs and on his return from national service, the Bert Aza agency, which managed Gracie Fields and Stanley Holloway, began to represent him.
By 1960, however, he was still occupying the second spot on variety bills, the worst place for a comic or a ventriloquist. He decided he had to develop a gimmick, something that would set him apart from other ventriloquists.
He introduced a talking shoe with a face painted on the sole and soon had a collection of shoes, deciding to make one of them a heavy drinker.
While appearing in Worthing, he was practising a voice for his new stage partner when a fellow entertainer, 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 his favourite dummy of all, the squiffy Willie Drinkall, was born. Having been signed up by Billy Marsh, the right-hand man of Bernard Delfont and agent of Bruce Forsyth and Norman Wisdom, Beckitt began appearing on the BBC’s The Good Old Days and was booked for an eight-month season at the London Palladium.
To remind him how fickle the business could be, his manager hired him immediately after one Palladium season to appear at a pub in 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, after which he joined a new production at one of the world’s top entertainment venues, the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.
After performing around the world for many years Beckitt, who was married twice, eventually settled in Australia. He died there, in Gosford, New South Wales, on February 18. He is survived by a son and daughter from his first marriage.
Richard Anthony Baker
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