Gretchen Roufs' portraitThere’s a guy in Johns Island, S.C., named Jerry Magee. Jerry has red hair, wears boys’ clothing, and flirts like crazy with every woman he meets. Jerry never goes anywhere without Bill Fetzer.

Fetzer, an industry consultant and former owner of a Charlotte, N.C.-based manufacturers’ rep firm, started a partnership with Jerry 58 years ago. Since then, Bill and Jerry have been inseparable. Jerry even accompanied Bill to board meetings when Bill was on the ISSA Board of Directors in the 1990s.

Are the two joined at the hip? Not really. Bill is a ventriloquist and Jerry is his dummy.

Bill has been a ventriloquist ever since he was a child. His parents bought Jerry for him, and after that, Bill spent hours sitting with Jerry on a little chair in front of his mother’s dressing room mirror, watching himself as he practiced.

As a ventriloquist, Bill manipulates his voice without moving his lips so that Jerry appears to be the one doing the talking. Bill controls Jerry from the head, and as Bill says, “the secret is to keep his eyes and mouth moving and his eyebrows shifting.” According to Bill, the letters V, P, and M are the most difficult to pronounce.

Hand-carved in Los Angeles, Jerry, who wears a boys’ size 6, has several different outfits. He sees his “doll doctor” about every six months, gets a new wig every year, and has an occasional appointment with Bill’s barber. Bill says Jerry actually sits in the barber chair covered with an apron, but unlike the rest of us, Jerry gets his haircuts for free.

Bill and his sidekick have regular gigs in Charleston, S.C. They volunteer as greeters every Friday morning at the South Carolina Aquarium, among other places. They also appear regularly at the local tourist center and children’s museum. The most common question they get asked is not “Where is the bathroom?” but rather, “Is that really Jerry doing the talking?” Bill’s standard reply is: “Whatever you want to believe.”

The features on a dummy’s face are always exaggerated because a dummy usually performs on stage with a “vent” (“vent” is an insider’s term for “ventriloquist”). The pronounced features make it easier for the audience to see the dummy’s facial expressions from farther away.

Performing on stage is easier than the volunteer work that Bill and Jerry do. “It’s tougher now because I’m close to the people. I try to get the attention off me and on to him,” said Bill. Jerry tells jokes, and he and Bill have a lot of fast back-and-forth banter. Jerry even sings, including an accelerating rendition of “Old McDonald Had a Farm.”

Depending on the audience, Jerry will burp (to which Bill responds, “Jerry, did you enjoy your dinner tonight?”) and swear. Jerry doesn’t like it when a kid asks if it’s OK to put a finger in his mouth, and he spits when somebody makes him mad. “Jerry isn’t allowed to spit while at the Aquarium, but he does when we appear at a jail. The inmates love it,” Bill said.

Many people — including me — have never seen a ventriloquist and his dummy perform “in person.” We’ll have a chance to do so at the ISSA/INTERCLEAN® Show in October. Keep your eyes open for the Fetzer-Magee team. But, don’t stick your finger in Jerry’s mouth, or misbehave. Unless, of course, you want a red-haired, 58-year-old dummy spitting at you on the convention floor.

Gretchen Roufs, a 15-year janitorial supply industry veteran, owns Auxiliary Marketing Services of San Antonio. To suggest someone you think should be featured in “freetime,” contact her at (210) 601-4572.