The Mimic's Own Voice
In the halcyon days of professional mimics, shortly after
they'd outpaced their predecessors, the vernacular storytellers, who had,
a decade earlier, wrested the comedic throne from the one-liner royalty,
it would have been difficult to name a town of ten thousand souls that
didn't possess some venue where performed those artists who made their
fame and fortune with stunning mimicry of the period's political leaders
and actors, athletes and musicians, scholars, and men of science. And at
every performance inside those theaters, whether located in the Badger
or Beaver State, all seats were filled, as were the aisles and exits, prompting
accounts of fire marshals arriving with the intent of stopping the show,
only to get so caught up in their own laughter and enjoyment that they
would forget their professional function as disperser of those bunched
so close together as to create a hazard. Even the streets and sidewalks
outside the theaters: they would be massed by citizens who'd shown up too
late to purchase tickets yet wouldn't depart; those closest pressed their
ears to the doors and relayed to the others the identity of whomever the
mimic was, in the parlance of the trade, "doing." And though
many couldn't hear a word from inside the theater, they could content themselves
with memories of routines, reveling in their proximity to the men whose
altered voices entertained them during radio and television broadcasts
To many of today's lay comedy fans, the names of these
mimics are mostly forgotten, yet in no way should that diminish their celebrity.
Banks, the enormous man whose voice could flutter as high as a soprano's,
then, in seconds, plunge to the rumble of a bass. O'Meara, who began life
in an orphanage, where he pioneered his "Dialogue Act," the pairing
of two disparate celebrities-a governor and a gigolo-in an absurd conversation.
Never once did he flub or misspeak. He always maintained a pure pair of
voices, as if he could speak from both sides of his mouth. And Salvatore,
who, at the height of his popularity, would be shot by a jealous lover,
but until then, sang in the voices of the era's best romantic crooners-better
than the crooners, some said-and boasted of seducing thousands of women
and not an inconsiderable number of men. (All this despite his five-foot
height and a set of teeth no dentist had ever seen.) And, of course, Hernandez,
the genius, who with his "Impromptu" shifted from celebrities
to audience members as his subjects (though his mimicry of celebrities
was as perfect as a recording); even when it was discovered that the real
people whose voices he reproduced were indeed part of a paid entourage,
no one could say his talents were fewer than he'd portrayed, only that
his spontaneity was less than presented. After the brief scandal that attended
this discovery-worse for mimics, in some respects, than Salvatore's shooting-Hernandez
returned to celebrities, on occasion trumping O'Meara's "Dialogue,"
with four- or five-way conversations, never once losing track of whose
voice he was to match his to, and his fortunes barely crested.
These giants cast tremendous shadows, in which numerous
others toiled and thrived, most of their names lost even to the most meticulous
of Comedic Studies scholars today, yet it is plain that this period represented
the mimics' greatest triumph, a time when the most hubristic never considered
that they'd wear out their welcome and be replaced, just as they'd dispatched
the vernacular storytellers. But, by and by, the audiences for the mimics
diminished and turned increasingly toward the next group of up and comers,
a group of young men whose penetrating satires and caustic wits earned
them the label of the social critics.
But perhaps the greatest of all mimics did not perform
during these grand old days. By the time of his birth, the social critics
had set the table for their own downfall, and those earning the bulk of
the nation's applause were the observational comics, they who charmed with
brash, often profane humor, taut timing, and the pungent accuracy of their
commentary. Overheard, now and again, from critics who'd straddled the
three distinct decades, was the argument that mimics fell from grace because
even with their different acts they all did the same thing: duplicate voices.
The social critics had variety to their material, but they too became indistinguishable
from one another, as they shared the same targets, and one can only complain
about the government or intolerance or consumerism in a limited number
of ways. It was, finally, the observational comics who aimed their jabs
in a direction that promised endless notoriety: at the people themselves.
"No matter where you go," wrote one anonymous editorial writer,
"laughter spills out of private homes, enormous theaters and tiny
taverns, as long as the featured performer keeps his material fresh. And
as long as the subject is ordinary human foibles, it seems the observational
comic has an endless supply."
At this time, not only did the mimics no longer command
the stage, most had succumbed to old age and disease, leaving behind only
O'Meara, and uncovered in a series of articles appearing in the National
Herald Daily was this unsettling fact: the eighty-seven year old dressed
each morning in his cutaway tux, pinned a dead orchid to his lapel, and
waited by the phone for a call from his agent, a man who'd died in a boating
accident twenty years previous. The next week, this tragedy found its way
into some observational comics' routines, who capped jokes with lines such
as this: "If the phone rings, will he even know which voice to answer
in?" (Quietly, a month after the articles, O'Meara passed away, and
his funeral, paid for by an anonymous patron, was attended by two people:
a Presbyterian minister and the nursing home orderly who'd found O'Meara
dead.) Such jokes typified the new breed of comic: in virtually everything
they found a punch line, including the last days of addled mimics. After
O'Meara's death, critics and comics both predicted mimicry would go by
way of knock-knock jokes, which scholars today consider the advent of professional
comedy but haven't been heard on stage since the days of long beards and
virgin brides. And at that point, who could disagree? Bernard Sikes, a
prototypical observational comic who performed in the days of the social
critics, would claim, "Life is funnier than any joke you could make
up," a fact borne out by a glance at the newspapers of the day.
Shortly after the O'Meara incident, one read of top-level
government figures taking bribes and evangelists caught with mistresses-the
standard fare of social critics-but also of neighbors in subdivisions shooting
at one another during property line feuds, housewives operating gambling
parlors in basements, teens hijacking city buses and toddlers trading baby
sisters for puppies. At such a time, who could foresee anything like a
return to those days of tuxedo-clad men behind bulky microphones, turning
their backs to the audience, then turning around to reveal disguised voices
that embraced the stammers, lisps and strangled vowels of their subjects?
Still and all, it was into this environment that Douglas
Myles was born. Years later, when it was whispered he possessed powers
defying explanation, some facetiously speculated he must have willed his
birth in these times in order to provide himself the challenge he craved.
And though few considered this charge seriously, none could deny there
were aspects of the man that made such a legend appropriate, legend being
the preferred method of dealing with the spectacular figure, as it confirms
he has a fantastic means of acquiring his talents, to which the average
mortal has no access.
When he first emerged in the spotlight, and throughout
his professional career-a total of just over seven years-little was known
about his background, which allowed speculation and intrigue to surround
him like air; but thankfully a manuscript was discovered in his former
house two years ago, ten years after his death, by a team of students led
by the comedy historian Anton Greene. In the years that the two-bedroom
townhouse had been restored and opened to the public, the manuscript and
other papers had been hiding in plain sight. "One of the kids,"
Greene claims, "found a battered-looking umbrella file in storage!"
Myles's composition of it has been authenticated by a number of peer-reviewed
studies, thus replacing the dubious and unauthorized biographies that sprang
up after his death, as Greene joked, "like mushrooms following a spring
rain." In their assemblages of rumor and ill-fashioned fiction, those
biographers would have one believe Myles was a runaway reared by a family
of mesmerists, or that he grew up with an aboriginal grandfather in an
adobe, surrounded by little other than the sound of his own voice and the
wisdom of the ancients. But they are out of print now and should probably
be mentioned as little as possible.
Myles's manuscript, housed now at The Pratt-Falls Center,
Dr. Greene's home institution, excited layman and scholars at first, for
all suspected it had been written for publication. Yet no contract exists
among Myles's papers (and, as the reader shall see, he was quite the saver),
nor can one be found in the files of any publishers. This increased speculation
that a bidding war for its rights would take place, though after the manuscript's
seventy-three handwritten pages were initially read, no offers, save for
the Pratt-Falls's, were forthcoming. From its curious usage of second person,
to its enigmatic opening and closing lines, "Your name is Douglas
Myles . . . . They never really listened," it does not divulge entirely
his secrets, while it raises mysteries all its own. Still, there are a
host of details which offer, for the first time, a definitive glimpse into
his early life.
He was born in the Middle West, in a middle-sized city,
known primarily then and now as a test market for fast food restaurants,
the only child of Angela and Ellis Myles, a black mother and white father.
In those days, such a combination was virtually unheard of, as, at the
time of their only son's birth, the Myles's union was only three years
away from being illegal in many states. Now one sees such couples and their
beautiful broods of children and hardly notices; some insist that interracial
marriages will further increase due to Myles's manuscript, as hopeful parents
attempt to capture a genius as immense and profitable as his in their scions.
However, Myles, during his life, never spoke of this openly. His parents
died when he was eighteen, killed in a car crash, the fault of an intoxicated
driver named Grimes. But to those few who knew him, such as Lamar Jackson,
the famed black comic, and those who simply knew of him, he said he was
a light-skinned black man. According to Peter Szok, who along with Anton
Greene is considered the dean of contemporary Comedic Studies, this demi-fabrication
signals in part why his mimicry may have been so singular and accurate,
as Myles never stopped practicing. "Even in day to day affairs,"
Szok states, "he was mimicking someone he was not." Those who
sought to ascribe a political motivation to Myles's self-identification
as black were overjoyed to discover his parents' community activism -in
particular his social-worker mother-but were disappointed by the following:
"It was easier to tell people you were black." Easier than what,
many wonder. But, as the reader shall see, simple answers are rarely forthcoming
when the subject is Douglas Myles.