Friday, May 30, 2003 | 9:39 a.m.
Who: Ronn Lucas.
When: 3 p.m. Saturdays through Thursdays. Dark Fridays.
Where: The Rio's Scintas Showroom.
Information: (702) 777-7776.
Rating (out of 5 stars): *** 1/2
Ronn Lucas calls himself a ventriloquist. I call him a magician.
His ability to make anything appear to speak, from a sock to an unborn child, is as magical as any sleight-of-hand trick.
"I used to torture my mother," he informs his audience. "She would reach for her coffee cup and it would talk to her. She wouldn't go into my bedroom, she was afraid of my doorknob. I made my little brother talk before he was 1. She tried to get rid of me -- you know, taking me to school and day care, but I would call myself out of class on the public-address system and go home."
The veteran performer, who was the original ventriloquist in "Sugar Babies" on Broadway (1979-82), has a solid following for his afternoon show at The Rio.
He works clean, thus inviting audiences of all ages (although a quick survey of one recent performance seemed to indicate he is most popular with an older crowd).
"There is some very, very, very, very, very mild adult language in our show," Lucas tells the crowd. "So if the kind of words commonly used by third and fourth graders on any public school grounds is offensive to you, then you are probably a Southern Baptist and should stay out of the casino."
Lucas, while one of the world's great ventriloquists, considers himself a comedian first, one able to wring the humor out of a turnip. At one point in his performance the microphone on the stand in front of him comes alive.
"That's Mr. Microphone to you," says the mike.
One of his funniest bits is turning a member of the audience into a dummy. Using a fake, moveable mouth over the volunteer's real mouth, Lucas manipulates the device while making it appear the subject says things that are sometimes embarrassing but always funny.
Such gags make it seem that legendary ventriloquist Edgar Bergen probably never dreamed that there would one day be a Ronn Lucas. But Lucas was initially inspired by Bergen, as were countless other ventriloquists, but he quickly moved on to puppets that looked and acted nothing like Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.
But Lucas' conversations with his puppets are reminiscent of those between Bergen and his dolls -- sometimes caustic, sometimes condescending, but always funny.
Puppetry has come a long way since the wooden dummies used by ventriloquists decades ago -- Jimmy Nelson's Danny O'Day and Paul Winchell's Jerry Mahoney, for example. O'Day, Mahoney, McCarthy and others were inanimate replicas of humans. But apart from the jaws and, sometimes, the eyes, the dummies were motionless.
Among the troupe of dolls in Lucas' trunk are featured characters Scorch the Dragon and Buffalo Billy, both of which have expressive movements that enhance their characters.
Scorch and Billy are Muppetlike figures who are caricatures. They resemble nothing living or dead, and yet fans get so caught up in the performances they forget the dolls aren't human.
"Sometimes I will have to actually remind you they are not alive," Lucas warns the audience at the start of the show,
Although Lucas' performance deserves a G rating, it sometimes flirts with blue material.
"Any of you notice I'm naked?" asks Scorch after he and Lucas sing a duet that demonstrates the amazing range Lucas spans without moving his lips.
"What?" Lucas feigns surprise.
"Thank God my fingers are crossed," Scorch says. "I've got an outie. What were you thinking? What were some of you thinking?"
Lucas' performances includes a lot of banter with the audience.
"I see a lot of old goats here," Scorch says.
And a lot of singing, including Billy doing an auctioneer's song that is amazing.
Like so many shows these days, Lucas has the obligatory film clip showing highlights of his life: performing for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton; appearing before the Queen of England; a guest appearance on "Night Court."
"I have performed for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the queen of the Netherlands and several queens in San Franciso," Lucas says.
Not bad for a guy who plays with dolls.
Carnival lasts all year at the Rio. With a float occasionally passing overhead and dropping beads while feathered dancers fire up the gamblers below, the Rio tries to keep its 120,000-square foot casino jumping with excitement. Special Brazilian mixed-drinks are also served throughout the casino. The hotel suites tend to be larger than similar priced rooms on the Strip and many offer excellent views with floor to ceiling windows.
The Rio offers some quality shows like "Penn & Teller" and "Chippendales." Many come to the Rio for the nightlife at the VooDoo Lounge, located on the 51st floor, or McFadden's Irish Pub on the casino level.
Others come for a bit relaxation at the Rio Spa or pool area and still others come to shop at the hotel's 60,000 square feet of shops. In each of these endeavors, the Rio attempts to make the experience a bit more fun and spontaneous.
The Rio also offers guests a variety of dining choices from all-American food at the All-American Bar & Grille to Gaylord India Restaurant for something a little spicier and even Carnival World Buffet for the indecisive.