This is an article in the Dothan Eagle and published on their website. It was an interview with Carla Lee.
We appreciate the permission of the Dothan Eagle and Carla to reprint that article in its entirety on our site. It is most gracious of them.
Ventriloquist reaches out to youth
Dothan Eagle, Dothan Alabama
Saturday, Sep 29, 2007
Interview By Carla Lee
Reprinted with permission of the Dothan Eagle at dothaneagle.com
J.J. looks young for his age and acts it too, but his wisdom extends well beyond the scope of his 20-something years.
Thanks to ventriloquist John Yates, who lends a helping hand, or arm, of support, J.J. talks tough as he imparts Biblical truths and leads children toward a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
While Yates teaches children biblical lessons such as the story of David and Goliath, J.J. puts his two cents in. “You know what David said to Goliath — I’m gonna rock your world!”
Laughter erupts and the joke hits its intended target.
“I try to deliver a message on their level,” said Yates, staff evangelist at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Enterprise. “First I entertain, then I taper down into more serious topics.
“Ventriloquism isn’t everything in my ministry, but it’s a big part — often it’s the thing that gets my foot in the door in lots of places.”
Yates has been in professional ministry for more than 20 years. Although his training is in music and he’s served in that role on numerous occasions, his specialty is connecting with kids in first through sixth grades.
“Children are much more sophisticated now,” Yates said.
As a result, J.J. has undergone an extreme makeover. Today he sports camouflage, a do-rag, sunglasses and a new attitude. He is joined by five other figures, each with a distinct personality. Vern the bird often warms up the crowd along with Rufus the rabbit. When Sparky the dinosaur joins the act, things really start happening.
“Sparky is kind of like a 5 year old who’s had too much red Kool-aid and brownies,” Yates said. “He’s probably the most challenging because there’s so much movement.”
Mr. Book and the Professor round out the travelling gang. The Professor is popular at senior gatherings and seminars, while Mr. Book serves a very different purpose.
“I use Mr. Book when I talk to really young children,” he said. “Sometimes a 51-inch rabbit can be a bit too intimidating for a 3 year old.”
Yates says ventriloquism comes with its own unique challenges.
“You are really doing things with your vocal cords that they were never meant to do,” he said. “Vocally, you’re breaking all the rules.”
Different voices require a greater degree of difficulty, which can lead to vocal fatigue in performers.
“I had been doing this (ventriloquism) for awhile and one night everything just popped into place,” Yates said. “When you don’t have to work that hard on the personality, being funny is a whole lot easier.”
Practice is the key to improvement. Yates first started honing his craft at age 8 by talking in front of a mirror without moving his lips. He enjoyed helping out in children’s church and had a flair for puppets. As he grew, he would tell a bible story or do a skit and the laughs would follow.
“I remember the kids giggling and laughing and I thought ‘this is pretty cool,’” he said.
Today he enjoys the ministry aspect of his job much more than the entertainment.
His arsenal of figures began with simple puppets from the Sears catalog. At 16, he received his first professional figure, J.J., from his parents. “Sentimentally perhaps, J.J. is my favorite,” Yates said.
The hand-carved figures operate using a series of strings and springs that will wear out over time. J.J. had to be reconditioned a few years ago but is now ready to take on the rigors of the stage once again.
Each one takes on its own character and personality after awhile, according to Yates.
“You have to meet the figure and then work on the voice,” he said. “When you’re learning ventriloquism, you practice speaking in a voice other than your own. Even when you find the right one, it may take a year to converse freely in that voice.”
As luck would have it, the very words Yates says most in his message are the hardest to do. “When you say words with ‘b’ and ‘p,’ you use all the muscles in your lips and mouth,” he said. “The words I say are like ‘blessing,’ ‘prayer,’ and ‘Bible’ — that’s how I know God has a sense of humor.”
Yates, who remains passionate for trumpet performance, never actually intended to go into children’s ministry.
“For a long time, I prayed about what direction my ministry should go in,” said Yates, the son of a Mississippi minister. “My burden was that I had been given this very entertaining media with the distinct call to spread the word.
“It’s kind of like my mother used to say — a little sugar with the medicine.”
And Yates has seen the “medicine” do a lot of good. During typical summers, Yates witnesses more than 200 professions of faith through vacation bible schools, church camps and churchwide revivals.
He travels from Chicago to Fort Worth to Orlando and everywhere in between. He and his wife Patty travel about 40 weeks a year spreading the love of God.
His ministry grows through word of mouth and often takes him out of the Southeast.
“Sometimes it’s a blessing just to sleep in your own bed,” he said.
Born in Arkansas, Yates grew up in Yazoo City, Miss., where his father was pastor of a large church whose most famous parishioner was comedian Jerry Clower. When Clower started recommending him for jobs at banquets, Yates knew his ministry was bonafide.
His work is taking him to other countries as well. This past April, Yates spent two weeks in India using his talents to minister to street children.
His bookings extend well into next year, for which he credits in part his adopted church family.
“There are prayer warriors there who lift us up daily, especially when we’re on the road,” he said.
Former pastor Mac Amos saw Yates perform and invited him to come to Hillcrest. “The people were so interested in our ministry — we weren’t even getting that from our home church,” Yates said. “Hillcrest is a very unique place.
“When you’re an evangelist, you’re kind of like a minister without a home, but now we feel like we’ve got a whole team behind us.”
The church was so supportive of Yates it created a special position for him as staff evangelist. So in 2001, the couple moved to Enterprise.
“The good thing about this job is that you can do it anywhere, you’ve just got to be mobile,” Yates said.
“Before we moved, we were in an ideal place right outside of Jackson (Miss.), where we could hop on an interstate right there,” Patty said. “It made sense logistically to stay where we were, but we felt we would be blessed if we followed God’s plan.”
Stepping out on faith is something the couple is familiar with.
Patty quit her steady job as a systems analyst 10 years ago to travel with her husband. This cut their income in half, but was well worth it, according to Patty.
“I went from a totally scheduled life to something different every day,” she said. “It really allowed me to see the full scope of his ministry.
“It was a growing-in-faith experience.”
For the first year, she was rather shell shocked and didn’t know where she fit into the picture, although she was sure travelling with her husband was part of God’s plan. About that time, his manager quit and Patty took over bookings and behind-the-scenes operations.
“Technology has come a long way,” she said. “We started with song lyrics on overhead transparencies and now we can handle a power point presentation.
“I thought, finally, this is something I know. This way, I can be responsible for the equipment and John won’t have to worry and he’ll be free to focus on reaching children.”