Trading law for laughs

Local attorney returns to ventriloquism during banner year for hobby

Bonita Yoder, is shown with her collection of dummies that have become professional tools as well as personal collectibles. The local attorney and real estate agent is scaling back her other lines of work to do more motivational speaking that involves her ventriloquism act.

There are many jokes to be made about Bonita Yoder’s situation.

Oh, so many jokes.

Let’s get it out of our system early.

You see, Yoder has been an attorney in Lawrence for 20 years. Now, she’s scaling back her law practice to step up her ventriloquism act. Yes, ventriloquism.

So, Bonita: How does it feel to trade one group of dummies for another?

Bonita Yoder, a local attorney and real estate agent, is scaling back her other lines of work, in part, to do more motivational speaking that involves her ventriloquism act. Yoder is pictured on Monday at her home.

Ha.

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Yoder is 52 now. She was first inspired by ventriloquism at age 5, when her cousin Clinton Detweiler showed her his act.

Detweiler ended up becoming a famous ventriloquist. Yoder was hooked.

She bought her first dummy at age 16, and read local newspaper articles out loud – one sentence in her own voice, the next in her dummy’s voice.

Lawrence attorney and ventriloquist Bonita Yoder owns eight traditional ventriloquial figures, including B. J. Dharma pictured above, and dozens of soft puppets including hand puppets.

She was living in the small, Mennonite-driven town of Hesston. Her family said being a ventriloquist wasn’t becoming of a church-going family.

Yoder picked up magic tricks instead. The family was fine with that, for whatever reason. Who knows.

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Yoder came to Lawrence in 1975 for law school. She met Foy Brown, a nationally known maker of ventriloquist dummies – which, to their face, you’re supposed to call “ventriloquial figures.” She bought four figures, at $500 apiece, from him.

She signed on with a Kansas City talent agency to do banquets, parties and conventions, as a way to make money during law school.

But when she graduated, she left the wooden dummies behind.

“I put it away,” she says, “so I could be taken seriously as a lawyer.”

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So she was taken seriously as a lawyer. And as a real-estate agent and landlord. And as a workplace conflict mediator. And an author, writing the book “Invest Like a Millionaire.”

But part of her wasn’t happy, with her dummies in storage.

“I came out of law school,” she says, “and saw myself as a change agent. But a lot of the legal practice is working toward the status quo – keeping something they already have, like money, kids or freedom from jail.”

Then, last year, she was cleaning out a house that she had sold. In the garage, she came across some old magic props. And she was inspired.

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Mark Hellerstein was at the top of the corporate world. In 15 years as a CPA and later CEO of St. Mary Land and Exploration Company in Denver, the business grew from an $80 million private company to a $2.5 billion publicly traded venture.

But he always kept a side life, doing about 75 ventriloquist shows a year at various locales.

Earlier this year, he decided to scrap the CEO gig in favor of remaining chairman of the St. Mary board and pursuing his ventriloquist career more aggressively. Now, he’s hoping to do about 150 shows a year, including schools, Scout groups, adult conventions and business performances, incorporating his “Seven Secrets of Success” at St. Mary.

“You get some strange looks,” he admits. “I think people are kind of saying, ‘This is pretty cool that somebody really follows a passion and is not strictly worried about how much money he can make.’ I get more of that than, ‘This guy must be crazy.'”

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So Yoder, with Hellerstein and those scrapped magic props as inspiration, decided to scale back her law practice. From now on, no more clients that involve court dates. Just office work.

And she started advertising herself as a motivational speaker, the type who will talk to corporate audiences.

On stage, she chats with Nick Knack, a small male dummy.

A typical exchange:

Yoder: Nick Knack, tell everybody what you do.

Nick: I’m a down-sized corporate executive.

Yoder: Downsized, huh?

Nick: Yeah, they shrunk the boss.

Yoder: How come?

Nick: They thought I was too big for my britches.

Yoder also employs Flip the Bird, a comedic avian, and Clair Voyant, who retains her childhood dream of writing a book despite the obstacles against her.

“If you can tie it in with your major themes,” Yoder says, “a puppet engages your conscious mind so your unconscious mind is more receptive without bringing out your defenses.”

That means she can address such issues as, say, workplace whiners or saboteurs without pointing fingers.

And she wants to encourage people in the corporate world to pursue their own dreams. Like, say, ventriloquism.

“Seeing me do this gives permission to others,” Yoder says. “I know a lot of unhappy lawyers. I want to help people get back in touch with what makes their heart sing.”

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Yoder makes this transition at a good time in the realm of ventriloquism.

Consider:”The Late Show with David Letterman” featured two weeks highlighting ventriloquism earlier this year.Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s DVD “Arguing with Myself” has hit Blockbuster stores nationwide.Ventriloquist Terry Fator recently won NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”

Even those who are deeply involved in the ventriloquism world can’t explain the shift from an art that many have considered dying since the days of Edgar Bergen and his famous dummy, Charlie McCarthy.

“It’s probably a pendulum-type thing,” says Detweiler, Yoder’s cousin, who recently sold his ventriloquism training school in Colorado. “I think ventriloquists have always been there and active, but from time to time things happen and either doors open or people take notice. This past year has been exceptional, as far as visibility of ventriloquists.”

Even Detweiler notes, historically, that ventriloquism seemed high-tech in TV’s early days. But when TV became more high-tech itself, ventriloquists seemed lame.

Now, in an electronically driven age, it’s possible the nostalgia factor may have kicked in.

“I don’t think it’ll ever die,” he says. “I’ve been asked that question probably once a month ever since the day I got into this business.”

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Sure, trading law for ventriloquism has raised some eyebrows. Yoder admits that.

Maril Crabtree, her friend since law school, isn’t surprised by the change. She was in on the secret.

“She probably didn’t drag out her suitcase with her dummy in it when she visited clients,” Crabtree says. “That was a side of her she kept in her closet all these years.”

But Crabtree thinks Yoder has a lot to offer as a motivational speaker – even if she’s accompanied by a bunch of dummies.

“She one of those people who are put on Earth to try as many things as she could,” Crabtree says. “She’s a woman of great creativity and many talents, and I suspect that’s why the law per se failed to hold her full-time interests.”

Yoder, meanwhile, is trying to shake off the rust that developed after 20 years of only occasionally using her ventriloquist puppets.

Sometimes, Yoder wonders what would have happened if she’d become a full-time ventriloquist after law school. A talent agent offered her a one-year contract when she graduated, but she declined.

“I guess,” she says, “the jury’s still out on that one.”