ROTTERDAM Jake LaMarca is pretty darn good at talking without moving his lips. He realizes, however, that’s only step one on the road to becoming a successful ventriloquist.
“When people go to a comedy club they’re going for laughs, so you have to be funny,” said LaMarca, a 14-year-old Rotterdam resident now in his sophomore year at Mohonasen High School. “The writing aspect is tough, but if you spend an extra couple of hours working at it and writing stuff you know is going to be funny, it’s very beneficial to your performance.”
LaMarca’s act is already gaining in popularity, and not just in the Capital Region. He served for the second consecutive year as master of ceremonies at the national Boys and Girls Clubs of America convention and has already been invited back to do it again at next year’s event in Orlando, Fla.
In May of 2011, LaMarca was named a recipient of the “Hank Aaron Chasing a Dream Scholarship” at the Boys and Girls Clubs convention, a distinction that will earn him $2,500 over each of the next four years to pursue his dream.
“I want to keep up with my ventriloquist dream and hopefully make it a career,” said LaMarca. “I hope I can make enough money to make a living, but I also want to finish school and go to college and have something to fall back on.”
LaMarca would probably make a great history teacher — his fall-back profession — but chances are that won’t happen. He has already met and interacted with some of the craft’s greatest performers at the International Vent Haven, a ventriloquists’ convention held the past two years in Kentucky, and men like Jeff Dunham, Terry Fator, Jimmy Nelson and Sammy King have encouraged him. King, the man who made Francisco, the Mexican Parrot, famous, has offered to teach LaMarca, and it was a TV performance by Dunham a little more than two years ago that got LaMarca seriously involved in ventriloquism.
“When I was 7 or 8 I read a children’s book, ‘Goosebumps,’ by R.L. Stine, and it’s a scary kid’s book about a dummy who comes to life,” remembered LaMarca. “I thought that was kind of cool, but at that time I didn’t know too much about ventriloquism so I just tossed it aside and didn’t think about it. Then, when I was 12, I saw Jeff Dunham on TV and that kind of rekindled my interest.”
LaMarca also joined the Boys and Girls Club of Schenectady that year, and during that summer he attended the organization’s Camp Lovejoy in the Helderbergs. Spurred on by a surprise present from his mother — a booklet about ventriloquism — LaMarca began practicing on his fellow campers.
“The first time I saw Jake he was getting off a Camp Lovejoy bus, and he had a sock puppet on his arm,” said Maria Nadler, area director of the Craig Street Boys and Girls Club. “He walked around camp with it, he went to lunch with it, and most of the kids thought it was pretty interesting.”
Camp show a hit
Then, Nadler discovered that LaMarca was also pretty good at it.
“We saw that he had some talent, so we decided to ask him to perform at our Family Night,” said Nadler. “We weren’t really sure where it was going to go, but he made a dummy and put together this whole act, and he had everybody in stitches.”
A hit at summer camp, LaMarca took things a step further that fall, performing before a crowd of 250 at the club’s annual fundraiser at the Glen Sanders Mansion in Scotia.
“To me, to see someone that young — he was only 12 at the time — stand up in front of 250 people with such poise was just remarkable,” said Shane Bargy, executive director of the Schenectady Boys and Girls Clubs. “And, he was also hysterical. The people were roaring. He has this comedic timing for someone that age that is just amazing.”
In November 2010, LaMarca performed for an hour at the United Methodist Church in Northville, and since then has had gigs at the Red Rooster Cafe in Northville, the Waters Edge Lighthouse Restaurant in Glenville, Mohonasen High School, Orchard Creek Golf Club and various other venues throughout the Capital Region. Then, in May 2011, he was in New Orleans at the Boys and Girls Clubs national convention, accepting his Hank Aaron award and serving as emcee. Aaron — Major League Baseball’s former home run king who played in Milwaukee and Atlanta for the Braves and finished his career as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers — took LaMarca and a small group of other recipients out to dinner after the official ceremony had ended.
“He and his wife were very nice, very gracious,” said LaMarca. “They were both very pleasant to talk to, and I thanked them for the award and for taking us to dinner. It was a lot of fun.”
This year, LaMarca got a professional gig at the Brew Ha-Ha Comedy Showcase at the Holiday Inn in Latham, and then made his second national appearance in San Diego at the Boys and Girls Clubs convention in May. Bargy, quite familiar with LaMarca’s act by that time, was again impressed with his work in San Diego.
“We have directors, board members, staff people who come to the convention from all over the world,” said Bargy. “It’s a really big deal for our organization, and we’re so proud that Jake is representing Schenectady up on the podium in front of more than 1,000 people. It’s a monster stage with all these giant screens. At one point, somebody screwed up and Jake lost his script, but he just simply improvised and went on to something different without skipping a beat. If that had happened to me standing in front of 1,000 people, I would have run off the stage. But Jake handled it, and did it so well nobody even knew there had been a problem.”
Handling such difficulties is a lot easier, according to LaMarca, if there’s a dummy up there with you.
“This is easier than being a stand-up comic because you have someone to rely on, sort of a comedy partner up there with you,” he explained. “As a stand-up, if you mess up, you can’t recover. I would probably freeze on stage, but if you have a puppet up there on stage with you, he can knock you for forgetting something.”
LaMarca knows something about the life of a stand-up comic because he’s become good friends with Greg Aidala, a Latham native and Colonie High graduate who tours the country doing stand-up but still uses the Albany area as his base.
“I met Jake at a career day at Mohonasen in May of 2011 and I could tell he was a super-talented kid,” remembered Aidala. “I gave my card to his mother and told her, ‘stay in touch, I might be able to help you out.’ When I was his age, all I wanted to do was ride my bike. He’s so young and so good. In 10 years he’ll still be just 24. Who knows what he could grow into?”
It was Aidala who put together the Brew Ha-Ha Comedy Showcase in Latham earlier this year, in which, according to Aidala, LaMarca “stole the show.”
“I was blown away by what he did at my show,” said Aidala. “To me, his writing might be truly his finest gift. I guess his mother and his grandmother help him, so they make a great writing team, and I think it’s wonderful his family is giving him so much support.”
LaMarca lives with his mother, Nancy, who along with grandparents Nick and Joan LaMarca serve as test subjects for his material. They may make a few suggestions now and then, but according to his mother it’s Jake doing almost all of the writing.
“When he first started walking around with a sock puppet I was a little mortified,” said Nancy LaMarca, laughing. “But he really is talented, and he’s writing his own material. He’ll go through his routine, and my mother or I will laugh and say, ‘that’s great,’ or we’ll say, ‘no, take it out.’ He’s self-taught, and it’s just amazing what he’s done.”
LaMarca has about a dozen working puppets in his collection but currently only uses three or four when he performs. “Herman,” “Archie” and “Louie” are three of his oldest and most reliable partners, and he’s quickly becoming more and more familiar with “Mr. Winters” and “Nicholas.”
“I figure out which one I’m going to use, I look at his personality, and then I write a script around it,” said LaMarca. “I don’t do a lot of political humor. It’s more about marriage, being middle-aged and farming jokes.”
LaMarca’s demeanor off stage gives little indication of just how good he is while he’s performing.
“He isn’t chatty, but he is a very respectful young man who’s not afraid to be who he is,” said Nadler. “He’s a unique individual. He’s not a follower. He’s a leader, and he’s also grown by leaps and bounds since I first met him. At that first conference you could tell he was nervous a little bit, but by the time of the second conference he was amazing. There was a problem with his script, but he just went on performing and introducing people so well that nobody noticed the glitch. The poise he had was incredible.”
LaMarca isn’t sitting pat with his act. Just recently he and his mother purchased an accordion, although he hasn’t yet figured out how to play it while also propping up one of his partners on stage.
“I wanted to learn an instrument, I thought an accordion was pretty cool, so I’m going to try to incorporate it into my act,” he said. “We’ll have to see how it goes. I may just use it in my routine between puppets.”