Differences between Marionettes, Puppets, and Ventriloquists Figures (Dummies)

Most of us lump marionettes, puppets, and ventriloquist figures under the heading of puppets. However, there are historical, constructional, and operational differences. The similarities are that they are inanimate representations of humans and animals, and have been used to convey sensitive or taboo social behavior, to teach culture and religion, or simply to entertain.

What’s Unique about Marionettes?

(a) Historically

The word marionette is thought to have derived from the role of Mary, mother of Jesus as depicted in the Nativity story. There is also the belief that it stems from mariole, an Old French word for musical instrument.

According to the article “Who created the First Marionette?” written by Marguerite Lance for www.ehow.com, findings in Egypt indicate that marionettes have been around since 2,000 BC. The 800BC writings (“The Iliad” and “Odyssey”) of the poet Homer as well as the 500 BC writings of Plato and Aristotle mention also marionettes. And in ancient Greece and Rome, marionette toys were unearthed from children’s tombs.

In 15th century Myanmar (Burma), marionettes troupes were employed by the king to highlight and correct the misbehaviors of family members, and save them embarrassment. Ordinary citizens also used the dolls as vehicles to respectfully express their dissatisfaction with the king and his Court.

In Europe, Italy is considered the birthplace of the marionette, but dolls were also found in Austria, Germany, and what is known today as the CzechRepublic. In the 18th century, full-length operas were specifically written for marionettes. The tradition is still ongoing in regions of Germany as is the Austria Salzburg Marionette Theater in Salzburg, Austria.

Evidence of marionettes was also discovered in the Americas. Every March, the Native American Hopi Indians performed a ritual called Palu Lakonti in which they paraded huge snakes above the earth and over corn fields.

(b) Constructionally and Operationally

Strings or wires are attached to the head, hands, wrists, backs, and knees of the marionette then to an overhead bar, which is controlled by a puppeteer called a manipulator. Construction materials and decorations depend on culture and usage. Marionettes from Egypt, and ancient Greece and Rome were made of clay, ivory or softwood. Those in Myanmar were wooden with painted (tamarind paste) faces, hands, and feet, and human hair on their heads. Europeans used mainly wood and leather. In North America, it was clay and wood. In addition to the materials mentioned, synthetics and automation with pulley-motors and computer programming are used in the construction of today’s dolls.

(c) Famous Marionettes and Manipulators

Almost everyone has heard of Pinocchio. This famous marionette was created in 1881 by Carlo Collodi the Italian author of The Adventures of Pinocchio. In the United States mainly, we are familiar with Howdy Doody. The voice was first invented by Bob Smith of NBC’s Radio America in the 1940’s. The figure was created by Frank Paris, and E. Roger Muir produced the show in 1947, which featured the figure. There was also the 2004 movie spoof Team America: World Police, in which marionettes played the roles of heroes and terrorists.

What’s Unique about Puppets?

(a) Historically

Some credit India with inventing puppets about 1,000 BC years ago. Others give that distinction to China. Puppets were also discovered in Turkey, Japan, Europe, and North America. Indian stick puppets were used to explain sacred texts and rituals. Chinese shadow puppets were used similarly in specially-designed theaters. European puppets were used mostly in comedic dramas for the theater, especially from the 14th to the 19th century. During those years, the art form had been relegated to the same low class status as gypsies, jesters, and jugglers. In North America, Native Indians used puppets in the same way they did marionettes: for religious rituals and seasonal ceremonies. Today puppetry has been elevated to the status of fine art.

(b) Constructionally and Operationally

In general, puppets are controlled through various means by people called puppeteers. The Egyptians used clay, soft wood or ivory to make their puppets. As mentioned already, puppeteers in India used sticks (wood). Chinese shadow puppets were made of the dried, stretched skins of the donkey, buffalo, sheep or pig. They were painted, and positioned before a translucent screen. They were controlled below from strings attached to necks and hands. The Turks attached strings to the waists of their dolls and manipulated them sideways. Japanese puppets were large with a lot of expression. Europeans used a more intricate pattern of a central rod to which the puppet’s head was attached, and rods in its hands. The body was covered with and connected by clothing.

Hand puppets made an appearance in17th century America. They were cheaper to make, and simpler and easier to operate. Shows could be performed from the backs of wagons and portable stages. This group included the sock puppet. A hand was placed inside a sock and manipulated to indicate a speaking head. Eyes, eyelids, etc. were occasionally added for a touch of realism.

(c) Famous Puppets and Puppeteers

Some of the world’s famous puppets include the hand puppets Kukla, Fran, and Ollie created by puppeteer Burr Tillstrom as a 1947 television show. Jim Henson’s puppets (Muppets television shows and movies) created by the Jim Henson Company in 1955. There is also the musical The Lion King originally directed by Julie Taymor, and debuted in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1997 before going to Broadway later that year. The large puppets were also designed by Ms. Taymor for which she won a Tony Award.

Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney dummy
Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney dummy | Source

What’s Unique about Ventriloquist Figures (Dummies)?

(a) Historically

Ventriloquism began in 6th century BC in Egypt and Greece. According to the article “About Ventriloquism Theater” from the website www.theaterseatstore.com, a Greek priestess named Phyia would enter into a trance, and without moving her lips, would throw her voice before an audience who thought the gods, heaven or their idols were speaking to them. This specialty became known as ventriloquism, which is Latin for belly/ stomach speaking.

From this, so-called prophets created necromancy: spirits residing in and speaking through stomachs. In some cultures, it was considered illegal and punishable by death. People in the Middle Ages called it witchcraft. The Christian Church labeled it taboo. Louis Brabert, a member of the French Court of King Francis I, was the first European to engage in the farce.

Ventriloquism returned to16th century England in the form of comedic entertainment, and spread to North America by the 18th century. The show business genre Vaudeville was in full swing by then. Fred Russell, called “the father of ventriloquism” was the first to create and perform with a ventriloquist figure. Today the art form is popular in nightclubs and on television.

(b) Constructionally and Operationally

Ventriloquist figures or dummies were traditionally made from paper-mache or wood. Over centuries, materials extended to textile, foam, rubber, fiberglass resins, and latex. They varied in size from rather huge to rather small. They were given facial features, expressions, and voice tones to reflect unique personalities as desired by their creators. The figures usually sit on the lap of the ventriloquist or on a stool. They are operated from a hole in their backs through which the hand is place to control the movement of the head and facial features. The skill of voice throwing without lip movement is specialized and requires practice.

(c) Famous Ventriloquist Figures (Dummies) and Ventriloquists

Vaudeville acts of the 19th century included Arthur Prince and his ventriloquist figure Sailor Jim. Beginning in the late 1930’s, American actor Edgar Bergen created international stir with his figure Charlie McCarthy. In the 1950’s and 60’s, actor, comedian, inventor Paul Winchell performed with his Jerry Mahoney figure. Also in the 1950’s and 60’s on American television was puppeteer Shari Lewis with hand puppets, Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse. Today among others, we have comedian Jeff Dunham with his varied, funny, and unique ventriloquist dummies including Achmed the Dead Terrorist, Walter, and Bubba J. He appears frequently on the American television show Comedy Central.

Though America and Europe produced many celebrated ventriloquists, there is also the Padhyes of India. They turned the art form into a family business beginning with grandfather Y.K., followed by son Ramdas, and followed by grandson Satyajit. They are considered the first family of ventriloquism in India.

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Comments 2 comments

Jimmy 2 months ago

I have no idea that all of these dolls have such a long and interesting history. Show with ventriloquist figures makes me feel weird and creepy from childhood. Never liked this. As well as clowns but this at least is the medical term. The least strange are these puppets. I like Jeff Dunham's show and all his puppets characters. He will be in my city soon as part of his grand jeff dunham tour http://livetourtickets.com/jeff-dunham-tour-ticket... so its great chance to enjoy his show with favorite puppets.


beverley byer profile image

beverley byer 8 weeks ago from United States of America Author

Jimmy, thanks for your comments! Jeff Dunham is good. Enjoy the show!

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