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Feeling animatronic—interview with animatronic doll king Robert S. Ensler

The Gemmy James Brown animatronic doll.

Interview—animatronic doll king Robert S. Ensler

The former “smoothie/bagel god of UC/Berkeley,” Robert S. Ensler dropped out of real life in his mid-4os to become a professional impersonator. In the first part of the interview, we talked about his career portraying Dean Martin and Donald Trump at corporate gigs and in nightclubs. In this second installment, the Las Vegas-based entertainer discusses his online retail business, which includes offloading collectibles such as Rat Pack Zippo lighters and the Gemmy line of animatronic dolls of Dean Martin, James Brown, Ray Charles and others.

Made in Germany

Shawn Conner: So what can you tell me about the animatronic dolls?

Robert S. Ensler: Made by Gemmy, they came out in, what, 2004 I think? And they were made out of spit [laughs]. They had a lot of problems. They [Gemmy] sold these things all over the country. They blew ’em out real cheap wholesale. All the major department stores sold the Dean Martin one. All the others were secondary. They had a Rocky Balboa, two Bring Crosbys, the Ray Charles, the Three Stooges doll came and went so fast – they’re worth a ton of money now.

SC: I saw the James Brown [which sings “I Feel Good”] on amazon for $160.

RSE: The trouble with all these animatronics is, the mechanism that controls the mouth – unless they’re in a hermetically sealed environment – disintegrates, and then the mouth no longer moves. Literally, almost everything I have at this point, the mouth doesn’t move. I bought some from this one distributor last year, he was selling them for $40 including shipping. I was selling them for $80, so I bought a whole bunch.

SC: What was the last order you got?

RSE: I got one a couple days ago. For the Dean Martin.

The Gemmy Dean Martin animatronic doll.

SC: That’s the only one you have left?

RSE: Pretty much. I’ve got the 20” Dean Martin, then I’ve got the 12″ Christmas Dean Martins – the mouth doesn’t move, and it’s a one-song version. They’ve been sitting; I don’t care if I don’t sell them. Eventually I know I’ll raise the price, and I’ll still sell them. The Dean Martin Christmas doll is a rarity. The 20″ Dean Martin, it’s extremely hard to find. I just hoard them. They’re collectibles.

It’s like the Rat Pack Zippo lighter. I bought a large quantity of these. Limited edition, 3,000 brass and 3,000 in chrome, they retailed for $40. I was selling one or two a month. I don’t care, I’m not going to lower the price. I eventually popped them up to 60 dollars and 80 dollars and eventually to 140 dollars. I searched the web, and the last retailer selling these things stopped selling them, and that’s when I popped them up to $140. And I was selling a few, now and then. A nice return on my investment.

The Gemmy story

SC: What’s the story on Gemmy?

RSE: Gemmy is mostly into inflatables now. They’ve gotten away from animatronics. They used to do the fish one [the Big Mouth Billy Bass]. Then everybody else ripped them off. Five years ago was when I bought most of my inventory. I bought a whole bunch of Dino and Rodney Dangerfield dolls. I still have those. There was an I Love Lucy one too. Wasn’t much of a seller for me.

SC: Do you have any idea of how many were made?

RSE: Ahhh… of the Dean Martin dolls, when I talked to the manufacturer, they wanted to sell me a whole container of them. Hundreds, or thousands, would have cost me $25,000 to buy a whole container. Didn’t have that kind of money. Wish I had. They made a lot of the Dinos, and a lot less of everybody else. I think Dean Martin was the number one seller for them. As an aside, I gave one to Dean Martin’s son, Ricky. He hated it. He thought it was too much of a caricature of Dino. That was one of his first comments to me, he didn’t like it. He wanted a real legitimate doll, like a Barbie Frank Sinatra doll.

SC: Has he seen your [Dean Martin impersonation] act?

RSE: I don’t know if he has.

SC: Do you have any gigs lined up?

RSE: Yeah, next week, and another coming up. I get a lot of strange inquiries, because I own a lot of websites for real movie stars that never had anything on the web.

Why are you trying to do this thing about Gemmy?

SC: I’ve been fascinated since I bought the James Brown. And then researching on the Internet led me to you.

RSE: I’m a unique personality. My kids cannot figure out what kind of profession I’m in, ‘cos I don’t have a normal job.

Read the first part of my interview with Ensler here.

Published inpop culture

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