In the halcyon days of professional mimics, shortly after they’d outpaced their predecessors, the vernacular storytellers, who had, a decade earlier, wrested the comedic throne from the one-liner royalty, it would have been difficult to name a town of ten thousand souls that didn’t possess some venue where performed those artists who made their fame and fortune with stunning mimicry of the period’s political leaders and actors, athletes and musicians, scholars, and men of science. And at every performance inside those theaters, whether located in the Badger or Beaver State, all seats were filled, as were the aisles and exits, prompting accounts of fire marshals arriving with the intent of stopping the show, only to get so caught up in their own laughter and enjoyment that they would forget their professional function as disperser of those bunched so close together as to create a hazard. Even the streets and sidewalks outside the theaters: they would be massed by citizens who’d shown up too late to purchase tickets yet wouldn’t depart; those closest pressed their ears to the doors and relayed to the others the identity of whomever the mimic was, in the parlance of the trade, “doing.” And though many couldn’t hear a word from inside the theater, they could content themselves with memories of routines, reveling in their proximity to the men whose altered voices entertained them during radio and television broadcasts every night.
To many of today’s lay comedy fans, the names of these mimics are mostly forgotten, yet in no way should that diminish their celebrity. Banks, the enormous man whose voice could flutter as high as a soprano’s, then, in seconds, plunge to the rumble of a bass. O’Meara, who began life in an orphanage, where he pioneered his “Dialogue Act,” the pairing of two disparate celebrities—a governor and a gigolo—in an absurd conversation. Never once did he flub or misspeak. He always maintained a pure pair of voices, as if he could speak from both sides of his mouth. And Salvatore, who, at the height of his popularity, would be shot by a jealous lover, but until then, sang in the voices of the era’s best romantic crooners—better than the crooners, some said—and boasted of seducing thousands of women and not an inconsiderable number of men. (All this despite his five-foot height and a set of teeth no dentist had ever seen.) And, of course, Hernandez, the genius, who with his “Impromptu” shifted from celebrities to audience members as his subjects (though his mimicry of celebrities was as perfect as a recording); even when it was discovered that the real people whose voices he reproduced were indeed part of a paid entourage, no one could say his talents were fewer than he’d portrayed, only that his spontaneity was less than presented. After the brief scandal that attended this discovery—worse for mimics, in some respects, than Salvatore’s shooting—Hernandez returned to celebrities, on occasion trumping O’Meara’s “Dialogue,” with four- or five-way conversations, never once losing track of whose voice he was to match his to, and his fortunes barely crested.
These giants cast tremendous shadows, in which numerous others toiled and thrived, most of their names lost even to the most meticulous of Comedic Studies scholars today, yet it is plain that this period represented the mimics’ greatest triumph, a time when the most hubristic never considered that they’d wear out their welcome and be replaced, just as they’d dispatched the vernacular storytellers. But, by and by, the audiences for the mimics diminished and turned increasingly toward the next group of up and comers, a group of young men whose penetrating satires and caustic wits earned them the label of the social critics.
But perhaps the greatest of all mimics did not perform during these grand old days. By the time of his birth, the social critics had set the table for their own downfall, and those earning the bulk of the nation’s applause were the observational comics, they who charmed with brash, often profane humor, taut timing, and the pungent accuracy of their commentary. Overheard, now and again, from critics who’d straddled the three distinct decades, was the argument that mimics fell from grace because even with their different acts they all did the same thing: duplicate voices. The social critics had variety to their material, but they too became indistinguishable from one another, as they shared the same targets, and one can only complain about the government or intolerance or consumerism in a limited number of ways. It was, finally, the observational comics who aimed their jabs in a direction that promised endless notoriety: at the people themselves. “No matter where you go,” wrote one anonymous editorial writer, “laughter spills out of private homes, enormous theaters and tiny taverns, as long as the featured performer keeps his material fresh. And as long as the subject is ordinary human foibles, it seems the observational comic has an endless supply.”
At this time, not only did the mimics no longer command the stage, most had succumbed to old age and disease, leaving behind only O’Meara, and uncovered in a series of articles appearing in the National Herald Daily was this unsettling fact: the eighty-seven year old dressed each morning in his cutaway tux, pinned a dead orchid to his lapel, and waited by the phone for a call from his agent, a man who’d died in a boating accident twenty years previous. The next week, this tragedy found its way into some observational comics’ routines, who capped jokes with lines such as this: “If the phone rings, will he even know which voice to answer in?” (Quietly, a month after the articles, O’Meara passed away, and his funeral, paid for by an anonymous patron, was attended by two people: a Presbyterian minister and the nursing home orderly who’d found O’Meara dead.) Such jokes typified the new breed of comic: in virtually everything they found a punch line, including the last days of addled mimics. After O’Meara’s death, critics and comics both predicted mimicry would go by way of knock-knock jokes, which scholars today consider the advent of professional comedy but haven’t been heard on stage since the days of long beards and virgin brides. And at that point, who could disagree? Bernard Sikes, a prototypical observational comic who performed in the days of the social critics, would claim, “Life is funnier than any joke you could make up,” a fact borne out by a glance at the newspapers of the day. Shortly after the O’Meara incident, one read of top-level government figures taking bribes and evangelists caught with mistresses—the standard fare of social critics—but also of neighbors in subdivisions shooting at one another during property line feuds, housewives operating gambling parlors in basements, teens hijacking city buses and toddlers trading baby sisters for puppies. At such a time, who could foresee anything like a return to those days of tuxedo-clad men behind bulky microphones, turning their backs to the audience, then turning around to reveal disguised voices that embraced the stammers, lisps and strangled vowels of their subjects?
Still and all, it was into this environment that Douglas Myles was born. Years later, when it was whispered he possessed powers defying explanation, some facetiously speculated he must have willed his birth in these times in order to provide himself the challenge he craved. And though few considered this charge seriously, none could deny there were aspects of the man that made such a legend appropriate, legend being the preferred method of dealing with the spectacular figure, as it confirms he has a fantastic means of acquiring his talents, to which the average mortal has no access.
When he first emerged in the spotlight, and throughout his professional career—a total of just over seven years—little was known about his background, which allowed speculation and intrigue to surround him like air; but thankfully a manuscript was discovered in his former house two years ago, ten years after his death, by a team of students led by the comedy historian Anton Greene. In the years that the two-bedroom townhouse had been restored and opened to the public, the manuscript and other papers had been hiding in plain sight. “One of the kids,” Greene claims, “found a battered-looking umbrella file in storage!” Myles’s composition of it has been authenticated by a number of peer-reviewed studies, thus replacing the dubious and unauthorized biographies that sprang up after his death, as Greene joked, “like mushrooms following a spring rain.” In their assemblages of rumor and ill-fashioned fiction, those biographers would have one believe Myles was a runaway reared by a family of mesmerists, or that he grew up with an aboriginal grandfather in an adobe, surrounded by little other than the sound of his own voice and the wisdom of the ancients. But they are out of print now and should probably be mentioned as little as possible.
Myles’s manuscript, housed now at The Pratt-Falls Center, Dr. Greene’s home institution, excited laymen and scholars at first, for all suspected it had been written for publication. Yet no contract exists among Myles’s papers (and, as the reader shall see, he was quite the saver), nor can one be found in the files of any publishers. This increased speculation that a bidding war for its rights would take place, though after the manuscript’s seventy-three handwritten pages were initially read, no offers, save for the Pratt-Falls’s, were forthcoming. From its curious usage of second person, to its enigmatic opening and closing lines, “Your name is Douglas Myles . . . . They never really listened,” it does not divulge entirely his secrets, while it raises mysteries all its own. Still, there are a host of details which offer, for the first time, a definitive glimpse into his early life.
He was born in the Middle West, in a middle-sized city, known primarily then and now as a test market for fast food restaurants, the only child of Angela and Ellis Myles, a black mother and white father. In those days, such a combination was virtually unheard of, as, at the time of their only son’s birth, the Myles’s union was only three years away from being illegal in many states. Now one sees such couples and their beautiful broods of children and hardly notices; some insist that interracial marriages will further increase due to Myles’s manuscript, as hopeful parents attempt to capture a genius as immense and profitable as his in their scions. However, Myles, during his life, never spoke of this openly. His parents died when he was eighteen, killed in a car crash, the fault of an intoxicated driver named Grimes. But to those few who knew him, such as Lamar Jackson, the famed black comic, and those who simply knew of him, he said he was a light-skinned black man. According to Peter Szok, who along with Anton Greene is considered the dean of contemporary Comedic Studies, this demi-fabrication signals in part why his mimicry may have been so singular and accurate, as Myles never stopped practicing. “Even in day to day affairs,” Szok states, “he was mimicking someone he was not.” Those who sought to ascribe a political motivation to Myles’s self-identification as black were overjoyed to discover his parents’ community activism—in particular his social-worker mother—but were disappointed by the following: “It was easier to tell people you were black.” Easier than what, many wonder. But, as the reader shall see, simple answers are rarely forthcoming when the subject is Douglas Myles.
Myles also writes that he knew of his gift for mimicry as soon as he could speak, but he did not share it at first. “You could hear everyone speaking. Your mother, father, your Gran and great-aunts, your uncle from Arkansas. He told stories about giant alligators and raffish river otters. And you could isolate each voice, separating them from the others like tracks on a tape. Whenever you wanted to hear them again, even if they were back in Arkansas with the gators and otters, you could concentrate and hear exactly what they said.” For some time he didn’t think this was at all strange, primarily because the only people he knew in his early youth were his maternal relatives. Rarely did he and his parents spend time away from their small home. He makes no mention of his parents’ friends. Not once was the little family graced by a visit from his father’s wealthy family. But when he moved on to kindergarten, young Douglas would discover that as well as being the only child of an interracial marriage—the class, though, was somewhat integrated—he was also the only one with his gift. This he relays in a charming scene, early on in the manuscript: “A dark-skinned boy approached you at the table. He was interested to know where you lived and what your father did for a living. His family owned a house two streets south of yours; his father worked at the oleo plant. After a few more minutes, you asked him how often he listened to the voices in his head. He didn’t get to answer, because your teacher laid her hand on your shoulder and asked what the voices told you to do.
“‘Nothing,’ you said. ‘They just talk.’”
“‘They don’t tell you to set fires or harm small animals?’
“You shook your head, smiling, noticing without effort that her voice, normally as sturdy as the brick schoolhouse, quavered, then rose and fell. After she asked, ‘You’re sure about that?’, your lips parted to shape your voice to hers, but something told you this wasn’t the time or place, that you shouldn’t tell anyone else about the voices and what you could do with them.”
If for no reason than the above passage, Comedic Studies scholars would be ecstatic about the manuscript’s existence, yet there is more, each successive page filled with evidence of two things primarily. One, that, aside from the cross-cultural upbringing and occasional sense of alienation—due to a skin color and talent no one else shared—Myles had a fairly normal childhood. None of his schools catered to the excessively privileged or prodigiously talented; he was the product of a public school as overcrowded and underfunded as any from that period of time. He earned good but not spectacular grades in subjects he enjoyed—history, speech, Spanish, and literature—though his father, Ellis, a community college algebra instructor, “insisted that if you only applied yourself you’d do better in math and science.” “Imagine,” crows Anton Greene, “Douglas Myles, hailed so often that one rarely said his name without some honorific preceding or following it, lectured in the same manner as so many underachievers!” But, in addition, his ordinary life is revealed in the pages that display him as an avid TV watcher, able at the time of his composition to remember from his youth the sequence of network shows Monday through Friday, as well as a host of Saturday morning cartoons. While no athlete, he was not picked on overmuch, and he did ride a bike, a mode of transport he used to get from his house to the comedy clubs later on. In brief, he was as ordinary a toddler as he was a youth, as undistinguished an adolescent as he was a teen.
This leads, though, to the second area of evidence, or actual lack of it, which is likely a reason why the publishers who had prepared huge bids for the manuscript lost interest after reading it: nowhere does Myles present a step-by-step manual for how to become a mimic, nor does he detail a chance meeting with a mysterious Tibetan monk, skilled at the art of vocal chord manipulation. No magic. No training regimen, no complex system of verbal calisthenics to maintain his skills. Banks, it’s been said, gargled with warm salt water every morning to keep his voice supple, whereas O’Meara drank no beverage warmer than tepid, and before each performance Salvatore said the alphabet in Portuguese, Italian and English, forward and backward. From Myles one finds nothing like these rituals, though he does briefly comment on them, knowing, as he did, as much about his forebears as today’s scholars. He opines: “They were nervous. They feared the day their talent would be gone or that they’d find one voice they couldn’t do. (They didn’t know the greatest risk.) So to make themselves feel safe, they invented elaborate gimmicks and superstitions. You never needed any.” The ominous nature of that parenthesis aside, one surely sees in this quote a man whose confidence in his ability never wavered. One thing Myles insists upon throughout the manuscript—in the few taped interviews one hears similar statements—is that his talent was equal parts a gift from a kindly deity and an accident of genetics. But he guessed that the best thing a budding mimic could have was a house full of people, their voices lifted in squabble or delight.