John Cooper (1873-1966) - Ventriloquist

John W. Cooper was an African American ventriloquist, born in Brooklyn, New York in 1873. After losing both of his parents at a very young age, Cooper received his education at Professor Dorsey’s Institute in Brooklyn. There he developed into a budding entertainer and took a special interest in ventriloquism, a craft he learned from an unidentified white man whom he met at a Sheepshead Bay racetrack.

Cooper, who was also a singer, joined “The Southern Jubilee Singers.” While touring with the group he also developed his ventriloquism act, writing and performing his own material before mostly white audiences. “Fun in a Barber Shop” became one of his most famous acts. Cooper portrayed six different puppet characters, each with his own voice performed by Cooper himself.

In 1902, when he was twenty-nine, Cooper had his first big break in ventriloquism while traveling with Richards and Pringles Minstrels. In that year he was recognized by the Daily Nonpariel, a leading entertainment magazine, as the best ventriloquist of that era. Cooper went on to create another act with a black ventriloquist puppet named Sam Jackson. Cooper and Sam traveled all over the United States during the next two decades. By the start of World War I he began performing at veteran hospitals, service clubs, and military camps.

Over his lifetime Cooper was a member of the Negro Actors Guild, Knights of Magic, the Colored Vaudeville Benevolent Association, and the International Brotherhood of Ventriloquists. Cooper continued to perform and to create new acts for another twenty-five years. He also taught his craft to Shari Lewis and other young ventriloquists who carried on his legacy. Cooper retired in 1960 at the age of eight-seven after the death of his wife Juliana St. Bernard. John W. Cooper died six years later in New York in 1966.

Fun In A Barber Shop - A Special Ventriloquist Show by Cooper
By W. S. Berger

How would you like to get a 15-cent haircut and a 10-cent shave? Oh, yes, you would have to add a 5-cent tip. These were the prices in the tonsorial shops in 1909, when the veteran ventriloquist, John W. Cooper, originated his colored barbershop for white folks.

The opening of the shop was on the vaudeville stage, with Cooper as the barber and five characters in the organization. In the barber chair is Mr. Haskins, a regular customer. Miss Auto, manicurist, is seated waiting for Mr. Haskins to leave the barber chair. Mr. Jenkins, another regular customer, is seated waiting to be called “Next!” Sam, bootblack, is in the towel box, his head sticking out. Jimmy, the newsboy, is vending his wares.

The figures were operated by fish lines attached to foot pedals and concealed by the bottom of the barber chair. Cooper had many headaches with this production before getting it to function perfectly. The mulatto manicurist was produced by the famous Le Mare & Son, Manchester, England, and cost $35.00. The other figures were produced by Thomas W. Yost, Philadelphia.

The script for the skit is very humorous. Each character had plenty of laugh lines. Mr. Cooper had contrasting voices assigned to each figure-plus his natural voice. Before being placed in the towel box to quiet him, Sam imitated the picking of he banjo, and the newsboy accompanied him in a ragtime song. When Sam was placed in the box, it was all distant-voice business, and Cooper is still very good at that phase of Vent.

The barber shop closed is doors with the closing of vaudeville.

In addition to his ventriloquial talent, he is an accomplished musician and fancy-paper tearer.

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