Born Wenceslao Moreno, Señor Wences was one of the many acts that were personally hand-picked by Sullivan to appear regularly on his show. Growing up in Spain, Moreno was a bullfighter until he was 15, when he was almost killed in the ring. Not willing to conform to convention, he joined the circus where he juggled, performed as an acrobat, and honed his ventriloquism skills.
Premiering on the Sullivan show on December 31st 1950, a 50 year old Wences helped ring in the New Year by introducing his famous falsetto puppet, Johnny. Johnny consisted of a stuffed body, Wences’ hand as Johnny’s face, and a blonde wig on top. While kids and adults either found him funny or frightening, the one thing Señor Wences succeeded at was keeping viewers captive. With quick and impressive back-and-forth banter between puppet and master, Señor Wences was a pro at with impeccable comedic timing. New York ventriloquist and Señor Wences protégé, Michele LaFong explained his inexplicable appeal: “The main thing he taught me was that it’s not about the jokes. If you wrote down all of his words from any Ed Sullivan Show, it wasn’t funny. He made everything funny by the voices—the cuteness of the voices—and the rapid exchanges. He could do it in any country and it didn’t matter. He was the only international ventriloquist that ever existed. People just thought he was great, hysterical.”
Using his innovative techniques of minimalism, Wences continued to keep the puppetry fresh and introduced quite a few characters along the way including Pedro, a slightly creepy head in a box that always responded with a heavy “S’alright…” and the wisecracking chicken Cecilia that would literally peck him on the cheek. He also incorporated juggling and plate-spinning into his ventriloquism act. His act would often build up to a big finish, with plates in the air and Pedro and Johnny heckling him as he juggled it all.
Señor Wences did as much as he could to prevent copycats from taking his shtick. LaFong recalls that “He was very paranoid, because ventriloquists were always trying to rip him off. He would always turn his back on the Sullivan show and not reveal how Johnny is made and how he works, because the rip-offs that would take place.”
Wences managed to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show fairly consistently with a total of 23 appearances from 1950 all the way through 1971. After the show ended, Señor Wences appeared on The Muppet Show, toured night clubs, did a Broadway show with Danny Kaye, and performed at the White House four times for four different presidents. LaFong remembers, “He was like an overage kid. He would make things out of napkins while we were out to eat—little doves. He always tried to lighten the moment. “
Wences spent his last few years living in New York on 54th Street, just around the corner from The Ed Sullivan Theater . That part of the street is now named “Señor Wences Way.” The Señor died just one day before he would have turned 103.