Dawson man reflects on his years as a pastor, ventriloquist

Bruce Rodrick, 91, of Dawson, with “Little Mike,” the first ventriloquist puppet that he made.
Photo by Scott Thoma

About to turn 91 years old in late December, Bruce Rodrick now resides in an assisted living facility in Dawson with several companions that have traveled nationwide with him during his life.

“This is ‘Little Mike’ McKay,” the personable former pastor said proudly. “I made him myself.”

Little Mike is a ventriloquist puppet (“don’t call it a dummy”) that Rodrick used during several of the children’s television programs that he hosted in the 1960s and 70s in Florida.

Rodrick then maneuvers Little Mike’s head and mouth while speaking in a high-pitched voice that seemingly makes the puppet “come alive,” all while Rodrick’s lips remain stationary.

“And this is Sandy Shore,” Rodrick points out before allowing a female southern drawl to emit from his mouth to reveal the blonde-haired figure’s voice that he used in his former shows.

“I named her Sandy Shore because we lived in Florida by the beaches,” he explained.

Rodrick grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. His interest in puppetry and ventriloquism was kindled by listening to Edgar Bergen and his famous ventriloquist puppet, Charlie McCarthy, on the radio.

“It’s kind of funny that a ventriloquist would be on the radio,” laughed Rodrick. “You sure wouldn’t be able to see (Edgar’s) lips move.”

Once he became a teenager, Rodrick purchased three puppets at a local novelty store in Des Moines, and later bought a book on puppetry.

Rodrick then constructed a few puppets himself out of socks and other items from his mother’s sewing box.

Rodrick’s father was a commanding officer at an Iowa State Guard unit based in Des Moines during World War II.

Bruce with local children on his Uncle Bruce Show in the early 1960s in Tampa. Contributed photo

“They had two Harley Davidson motorcycles at the base there,” Rodrick recalled. “I learned to ride motorcycle when I was about 15 or 16 years old. A state trooper we knew taught me how to ride. I was in the Cadet Corps and got to ride the motorcycles in parades and things like that.”

As several of his high school classmates had done, Rodrick left school early to join the U.S. Marines when he was a 17-year-old senior.

“I went to basic training at Camp Pendleton in California,” Rodrick said. “And since I knew how to ride motorcycle, I was placed in the Military Police unit.

Rodrick served in the military for 18 months, and when he returned back home, he decided to attend college to be near a young lady that he was fond of.

“I enrolled in Minnesota Bible College in Minneapolis, but had no thoughts of becoming a pastor,” he said with a laugh. “I just went because she was in college near there.”

The romance never blossomed, but Rodrick stayed at the Bible College and soon realized that he was being called to become a pastor.

It was while he was in college that Rodrick met his future wife, Marjorie, and the two become “very close,” eventually marrying in 1949.

Marjorie’s brother at the time was the pastor at Antelope Hills Church in Canby in southern Minnesota, but had passed away at a young age.

“They asked me to fill in until they could find someone permanent,” Rodrick said. “So Marj and I drove every weekend from Minneapolis to Canby. It went so well that I took the job full time.”

For nearly five years, Rodrick was pastor of the church. During that time, he utilized his ventriloquist skills to interact with the children of the church and teach them about the Bible through the use of his puppets.

“It worked really well,” Rodrick said. “The kids enjoyed learning through the puppets.”

That was about the time Rodrick read a book by noted ventriloquist Paul Winchell called “Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit”, and decided to make “Little Mike.”

“I made his head out of clay first,” said Rodrick. “And then I made a mold of that out of plastic wood.”

Bruce Rodrick hosted the Uncle Bruce Show in the early 1960s with sidekicks Little Mike and Barney the Clown. Here is a show poster from that show. Contributed photo

In the late 50s, the Rodricks left the church in Canby and traveled around the country holding revivals with Little Mike and other puppets taking part in the program.

They eventually decided to stop traveling after the birth of their son, David, and settled down in Florida. Rodrick was then named the pastor of a Christian church in the Tampa area.

Rodrick became a popular figure in that area with his use of puppets to spread the word of God. He was soon asked to appear on various children’s television programs with his puppets.

That newfound popularity led to Rodrick hosting two programs on the local TV station in Tampa; “Kids Bible Camp” in June of 1961 and “The Uncle Bruce Show” (originally called “Kid’s Carousel”) in September of that year.

“We filmed ‘Kid’s Bible Camp’ on Tuesdays and it was shown on Sundays,” Rodrick recalled. “That way, I could still preach at the church on Sundays.”

That show eventually led to “The Uncle Bruce Show”, which was filmed live five days a week on a local NBC affiliate.

By then, Rodrick had constructed Sandy Shore and Bushy the Squirrel and also used them during the show with Little Mike.

“The studio people would bring grade school kids from local churches in for the shows and we would play games, sing, have contests, read books and things like that,” said Rodrick. “We always had a Bible story for each show using the puppets.”

Rodrick’s programs were a cross between Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers with various talking puppets and inanimate objects — all while teaching friendship, kindness, faith and values to the children.

Bushy the Squirrel lived in a large mock tree on the set. Marjorie would sometimes “work” Bushy on the set while her husband provided the voice.

“Marj made some of the puppets we used, too,” said Rodrick. “I couldn’t have done any of the things I did without her.”

Bruce Rodrick with Little Mike in the 1980s. Contributed photo

The daily show was eventually cancelled, but Rodrick was still doing the Sunday program when he heard a powerful message from a preacher at a convention he and his wife attended.

“The speaker’s message really affected me,” said Rodrick. “I felt like I was being called by God to preach again.”

So Rodrick left show business and worked as a representative for a Christian Publishing Company before becoming a pastor at a church in an Atlanta suburb. He and Marjorie eventually returned to Minnesota in the late 1980s where he was a minister in churches in Minneapolis, Albert Lea, and again to Antelope Hills Church in Canby.

“I was ready to retire,” Rodrick noted. “But I didn’t have the money to retire on. In the late 90s, the church in Canby where I first started happened to need a pastor again. So I decided to go back.”

Marjorie then suffered a major stroke in 2001.

“That’s when I retired so I could take care of her,” said Rodrick. “We moved into a health care facility together in Dawson in 2008. She died later that year. She was the best. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of her.”

Rodrick then looks over at the Sandy Shore figure seated in front of a large window in his resident apartment.

“Marj made Sandy’s blonde hair,” he says sadly. “My wife is buried in the church cemetery in Canby. We will be together again some day.”