It’s a busy Thursday night at Mel’s Diner on the Tamiami Trail in Bonita Springs.
A couple sits in one of the restaurant booths and decides what to order. Before the two make a choice, George walks up to them.
“My name is George. Nice to meet you. Are you going to eat the (beef) stroganoff tonight?”
George is neither a waiter nor a butler. He’s a ventriloquist dummy, brought to the couple’s table by Brenda Stelzer, a ventriloquist who, along with George, entertains and wows diners weekly at four Mel’s restaurants in Southwest Florida.
Another couple is sitting across the restaurant with their Illinois grandsons Colt and Kyle.
“Were you mean? Asks the mischievous George. “He is,” Colt said, pointing to his brother.
George and Mrs. Stelzer have been going from stand to stand joking and chatting with customers in restaurants for 17 years. But the ventriloquist and her puppet – she prefers the word to the more quaint and somewhat politically incorrect “dummy” – have been together for nearly half a century. âGeorge and I will be celebrating our 50th anniversary next year,â said Ms. Stelzer, who grew up in Naples and has lived in the community since she was 4 years old.
George is just one of the many puppets she performs with in Southwest Florida, not only at Mel’s restaurants, but also at clubs, lunches, birthdays, senior centers. and other places and events. âSmiles are what it’s all about,â explains Ms. Stelzer, explaining why she enjoys entertaining people as a ventriloquist.
Kyle and Colt tell George that they’ve been to the beach and will be playing mini-golf the next day.
George: “Make sure you wear two pairs of pants.”
“Why?” someone asks.
George: “Because you could get a hole all of a sudden.”
George likes to tell people he’s from London, England. Her dance teachers at the time, Dorene and the late George Church of Naples, bought her there for Mrs. Stelzer in the 1960s. She was about 9 years old at the time.
She had fallen in love with the art of ventriloquism while watching the legendary puppeteer
Paul Winchell performs on television. So she asked Santa for a puppet of her own, which she received on Christmas Day with an old 33-1 / 3 instruction file.
âThat’s how I learned,â she says. âBack then, you couldn’t google it, you couldn’t google it, and you were on your own. I learned it myself. I was determined. It was something I really wanted to do.
Soon Mrs. Stelzer carried her Christmas puppet wherever she went. Churches, show business veterans, were in awe of his talent, so they gave him George after a trip to London, and he and she began to entertain themselves at birthday parties in town.
The Churches wanted Ms. Stelzer to appear with George on the Johnny Carson TV show. âI was so scared,â she recalls. âI didn’t want to be on TV. So instead of introducing George to a national audience, she sidelined him – for two decades.
âGeorge went into hibernation for a while, until about 1997,â says Ms. Stelzer.
She was then married, mother of three sons and a nurse. But the ventriloquist virus never really left her. Her husband, Peter Stelzer, encouraged her to get George out of the mothballs and start having fun again.
It started slowly – a party here, a performance in a senior citizen center there. She worked part time as a nurse, part time as a ventriloquist. But it got to the point where Ms. Stelzer decided she really wanted to perform full time with George.
George is at a booth asking a man about his meal. The restaurant tells George he has the wrong dish.
George: “And they call me the model.”
“Word got out” about Mrs. Stelzer and George, she said, “and I got busier and busier. She also had more puppets. Belle, a southern beauty; Yoyo, a pink alien from Jupiter’s moon on Io; and Buttercup, a little bear cub.
George, who wears a fedora and colorful shirts, is still the star of the family and Ms. Stelzer’s main stage companion.
Brenda, at a booth: âGeorge has a sister. It is a southern beauty.
George: “It’s a dumbbell.”
Brenda: âSay you’re sorry. “
George, eyebrows arched: “I’m sorry she’s being stupid.”
Mrs. Stelzer calls George “sassy” and Sweet Beauty. “One of these days George is going to get me in trouble,” she said to herself, half-jokingly.
George: “I have a song for you.”
Brenda: âLet them eat first. “
George: “No, I’m going to sing first.”
He once created problems – through his absence. Stelzer liked to bring different puppets to the guests. One Thursday at Bonita Springs Mel’s, she left George at home. A grandfather had taken his grandson to a restaurant especially to see George. âHe left the restaurant in tears,â Ms. Stelzer said. “It was traumatic for me, that I had so upset a little boy.” Since Thursday night, it’s always George on her arm.
She and George have their own relationships and sometimes tease each other when chatting with guests.
Brenda: “Can you swim?
George: “No, but I’m floating like a log.”
Some jokes are obviously repeated, but at other times Ms. Stelzer and George have to be quick on guard to keep up with the conversation.
A man asks for a box to bring home his leftovers.
George: âI hate boxes. Guess where I’m going from here – in a box.
âA lot of my entertainment is improvisation,â says Stelzer. “It’s always different, because people are always different.”
Woman in restaurant: “You are so cute. “
George, looking mischievous: “I was going to say the same thing about you.”
He enjoys flirting with women, especially older ones. âThese adorable old ladies are coming, sometimes over 90 years old,â she says. Mrs. Stelzer. “If George flirts with them and makes them smile, it’s worth a million dollars.”
Making people smile at restaurants in Bonita Springs, Naples, Cape Coral, and Fort Myers is one of the joys Ms. Stelzer derives from being a ventriloquist.
âMy goal is to make a difference,â she says. âWhen people come to dinner, I want them to laugh. I want them to enjoy life. I want it to be special. Life is tough, if you can distract people and make them laugh and make them smile and make them feel special for the times you are with them, there is nothing more rewarding. People say, ‘My mom, my dad, they always loved coming to see you, and they went to heaven.’ “
The people George entertained as a child now bring their own children to see him.
Puppets not only have their own personalities, but also their own particular tones and accents. Sometimes Ms. Stelzer doesn’t even realize these unique distinctions until someone mentions them to her.
Diners are constantly asking to have their picture taken with George, who has a fairly diverse wardrobe. It’s easy to shop for him, says Ms. Stelzer, âHe doesn’t hang out of his clothes. “
Darlene Smith, General Manager of Mel’s in Bonita Springs, said, âWe have loyal customers who want to see her. The interaction between her and the guests is excellent, and they keep coming back because of her.
Ms Smith also said, âShe helps when we are busy. It serves as a buffer. I ask her to go to a table when we are busy because she can entertain the guests while they wait for their food.
George and Mrs. Stelzer converse so naturally and easily that one wonders if the ventriloquist sometimes sees George more as a person than a puppet. âIt’s like acting,â says Ms. Stelzer. âIf I didn’t believe in George, I couldn’t expect my audience to believe in George. I believe in Georges. I believe in Belle. I believe in all of them. I have to believe in them. ??