Make ´Em Laugh
Ex-FBI agent finds a second career as a ventriloquist/singer.
Rick Berger and Friends
Story by MEG NUGENT / Photos by JERRY MCCREA
Edited by Carol Marston
Rick Berger has learned to graciously roll with the unintentional punches thrown by members of his fan base.
Sometimes, they startle him. Like the time an old lady strode up to him right in the middle of his act and declared she wanted to give him a nice tip (46 cents).
Oftentimes, they delight him. "Right now, you own this audience, man!" one guy in a wheelchair boomed in approval during a recent show at a senior facility in Edison, NJ. Occasionally, they dismay him.
Not too long ago, Berger was about to go on stage at an assisted living facility when he was politely posed this question: "Would you tell the elderly gentleman sitting nearby to zip up his fly?"
I´m not Barry Manilow, Berger recalls thinking. But that´s NOT what I was hired for.
Berger works the senior-citizen circuit as a ventriloquist, singer and comedian. He became an entertainer by way of a 30-year career with the FBI.
"He really has a show business gene. He's old-school funny. And he has jokes. All you want, bags of them," says Guy Parker, a composer and creative consultant who helps Berger edit and customize the music he uses in his performances. At least three days a week, Berger, 63, leaves his Parsippany (NJ) home -- where he and his wife maintain a huge collection of ´50s-60s memorabilia. The self-taught ventriloquist rolls out a lively, one-hour blend of songs, gags, dancing and fast-paced exchanges with some of the 75 dummies -- he respect fully calls them puppets -- that complete his repertoire.
The puppets he brings to life include Ceil, a grandma with attitude; Mrs. Wesley Chester (Mrs. Wes Chester), a society matron; Lollipop, her society poodle; Nick, the semi-gangster; and Dino Suaveti, a Dean Martin knockoff who doubles as Mr. David, "The Decorator" when Berger puts an ascot on him.
"I always wanted to be on Broadway as a singer, dancer and actor," says Berger. "I´m told I´m so lucky to be doing what I love. But you know what? I wasn´t always doing what I loved."
Berger entertains the audience at JFK Hartwyck, a special-needs care facility
in Edison, NJ.
Hobby leads to career
Berger grew up in The Arverne Housing Project in Rockaway, Queens (NY), one of two sons born to Ruth, a housewife, and Sam, a World War II veteran airman who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. His father, now 90 and living in Florida, reared his boys, Rick and Dave, to be practical.
"I was raised with a (Great) Depression mentality...get a good job with a good pension," Berger says.
That philosophy didn't leave much room for a calling as capricious as acting, let alone ventriloquism. Berger never went to Broadway shows as a kid. "I never asked -- I was either afraid or I knew it was too costly to go. But once in a while, we'd go to Radio City Music Hall to see a movie and the Rockettes. I'd get a little glimmer. And I was fascinated."
Rick was creative, filling the house with hobbies from woodworking to photography to painting. Berger got hooked on photography when he learned how to develop photos while in the Boy Scouts. "It was magic, seeing a picture develop." His knack for the camera eventually led him to a four-year stint during the Vietnam War as a photographer for the U.S. Air Force. One of his favorite assignments was photographing Bob Hope's USO shows.
After his service in the Air Force, Berger was working as a studio photographer in New York when he received a phone call from an old friend. The friend happened to be the official photographer for famed FBI Director J. EdgarHoover, and he urged Berger to apply for employment with the Bureau. "It sounded cool," Berger recalls. In 1970 Berger was appointed an official FBI photographer. One of his most memorable moments was taking pictures of recovered jewels that had been swiped from Sophia Loren -- who gracefully perched on a gray metal desk while he worked. "I was supposed to be looking at the jewelry!"
As a "spy chaser" in the field of foreign counterintelligence, Berger's taks was to identify spies who had come to the United States to steal classified technology critical to American interests.
As the coordinaator of the FBI's Development of Counterintelligence Awareness (DECA) program, Berger did a great deal of public speaking. These engagements helped satisfy the showman in him, at least a little bit. He even included some jokes in his speeches. "But there was always show business in my head," says Berger.
Finding his 'voices'
Berger was serving as the FBI's Community Outreach Coordinator for the New York office when he discovered a way into show business through ventriloquism.
Part of his job was to visit schools, hosting career days and giving presentations about FBI job opportunities. During one of these event, he noticed a police officer performing magic tricks during a presentation about jobs in law enforcement. The cop told Berger he needed a shtick to hold the attention of his student audiences. "The cop had magic. The firefighters had their equipment. The veterinarian had a poodle. All of them had a grabber. But I didn't," says Berger. I was driving home, thinking, "What am I going to do?"
Then he hit on something he was convinced would make him really stand out -- and it didn't matter that he had absolutely no idea how to talk without moving his mouth. He went home and announced to his wife, Audrey, "I'm going to learn ventriloquism." Her response: "If anyone can, you can!"
He honed his new craft by studying a videotape of master ventriloquist Paul Winchell and spent hours practicing in front of a mirror. "I'd hear voices and it didn't sound like Rick's voice -- but there were people in the house!" Audrey Berger says.
In 2001, Berger decided it was time to give up his day job. He retired two years before the FBI's mandatory retirement age of 57 "to jump-start my show business career." He briefly considered the notion of taking his act on the nightclub circuit but decided instead to focus on senior audiences and schools.
His motto: ''Life is not a dress rehearsal.''
His get-up-and-go: ''I don't know where his energy comes from -- we eat the same food!'' says wife, Audrey.
Vanity license plate: ''Audrick'' (short for Audrey and Rick).
Why he works out every day: ''Your health comes first,'' says Berger, who is a certified personal trainer. ''Whatever you do for a living, your body is the one thing you take with you through life.''
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