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How to be a Ventriloquist

Updated on March 13, 2016

History of Ventriloquism

Today we only think of ventriloquism as a performance act. But history reports that the practice was used in spiritual practices. The name ventriloquism is Latin for ‘speak from the stomach’ or gastromancy. People thought that noises coming from the stomach were voices of the dead. People also thought that only prophets could interpret and pass on these voices. The first known of these prophets was Pythia in Delphi. Through the ages, ventriloquism has also been used for religious purposes by the Zulu, Inuit and Maori. In the middle ages, it was thought to be similar to witchcraft.

According to historical reference, the first vventriloquist was Louis Brabant during the 16th century. He was a valet to King Frances I of France. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that ventriloquism made its way to the performance stage. At first ventriloquists were much like modern day buskers, performing on street corners and in pubs. Joseph Askins, known as the man with one leg and two voices, was the first to perform in a theater in London.

While Vaudeville became very popular in the 19th century, the ventriloquist found that just speaking from the stomach or throwing his voice across the stage was no longer enough. A wooden dummy or other puppet was added which sat on the performers lap. One of the most famous vaudeville ventriloquists was Jules Vernon. He was famous for using multiple dummies; switching his voice for each dummy. Later, Fred Russell went back to using just one dummy which remains popular today. Considered the best vaudeville performer during the time was the Great Lester. It was during this period when the performers added dummies that had moving parts, more like puppets.

Along with the 20th century, different forms of entertainment emerged including TV and radio. Edgar Bergen, along with his dummy Charlie McCarthy, took advantage of television in 1938. He was most famous for adding comedy to the performance which carries through to today. He was followed quickly by Buffalo Bob Smith and his dummy Howdy Doody and Shari Lewis with Lamb Chop.

Today, most recognize that the dummy is only an illusion, so comedy is a major part of the routine; thus creating a ventriloquist comedian. 2007 winner of America’s Got Talent, Terry Fator is known for impersonating famous singers. He vows to bring ventriloquism back to its popularity of the vaudeville age.

Fun Fact

Kermit the frog was first introduced in 1955 during a five-minute TV show called "Sam and Friends".

Jeff Dunham

How the Dummy Head Works

How to make a Ventriloquist Dummy

What is a Ventriloquist Dummy?

Ventriloquist dummys come in a wide range of forms. In the beginning these dummies were a simple wooden puppet. Paper Mache was added to the mix allowing more original forms. Today, dummies can be made of cloth, foam, flexible latex; all with a hard head. Other materials are often used in the creation of the dummy including fiberglass, urethane and neoprene.

Creating a Dummy

Dummies range in size from twelve inches to six feet tall. Typically, the puppet ranges from thirty-four to forty-two inches. This makes the puppet easy to operate. Check out this video on the basic functions of the dummy head. Or how to make a a ventriloquist puppet.

You might be asking 'where can I buy a ventriloquist dummy'? It's actually pretty easy. You can buy a professional ventriloquist dummy such as Walter here. Or you can find others on Ebay or Amazon or you can find kits to make them.

Fun Fact

What do Baby Bear, Big Bad Wolf, Captain Vegetable and Big Bird have in common? They were or are still on Sesame Street. Muppets were created by Jim Henson in the late 50's.

Fear of Ventriloquist Dummies?

Automatonophobia: the fear of a ventriloquist’s dummy

Along with the vaudeville acts, some dummies in history were simply meant to scare you! Check out this video:

With the advent of television, dummies were a natural for scary movies and television shows. These programs include dummies that are said to be alive: Magic, Dead of Night, The Twilight Zone, Poltergeist, Devil Doll, Dead Silence, Child’s Play, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Goosebumps.

Fun Fact

In 1993, what puppet of Shari Lewis appeared before Congress? Lamb Chop, a sock puppet, testified for children's protection on TV.

Who is the Best Ventriloquist?

Here are some of the most famous and popular ventriloquists throughout history.

Jeff Dunham is a ventriloquist as well as a comedian and producer. He has performed on a ton of television shows, has six specials on Comedy Central and has received numerous awards over his career.

Edgar Bergen was most famous for adding comedy to ventriloquist routines with his characters Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. He was also an actor and comic strip creator.

Paul Winchell was most famous during the 1950’s and 60’s. Paul is a ventriloquist, comedian, actor and voice actor. He also worked in alternative medicine and has over 30 invention patents.

Jay Johnson is best known for his character in the television show Soap on which he played a ventriloquist. He has also performed live on stage in a variety of venues and has received numerous awards.

Kevin Johnson started ventriloquism at the age of nine. He is self taught, learning much from parrots. He has performed extensively on stage at theme parks such as Legoland, Disney Cruise Lines and Busch Gardens Tampa.

Shari Lewis used a sock puppet names Lamb Shop to make it big in television. Her work centered on childrens shows during the 1950’s. Her first network program, The Shari Lewis Show, debuted in 1960, replacing the Howdy Doody Show. In 1993, she appeared before Congress during which Lamb Shop was given permission to speak.

Senor Wences, Wenseslao Moreno, was a Spanish ventriloquist. He became very popular with his appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. He was most famous for throwing his voice while his mouth was doing something different like drinking or smoking. He would also add juggling or plate-spinning into his act.

Ray Alan was a ventriloquist and entertainer. He was most famous for his puppet Lord Charles which whom he made frequent appearances on television show The Good Old Days.

Terry Bennett became interested in ventriloquism at age ten. He won numerous talent contests in his youth giving him enough recognition to be invited on television specials. He performed for the military with his character Red Flannels. He tne went on to create Jobblewocky Place, a children’s television show that provided education, moral lessons plus entertainment.

Ron Blaskett was Australia’s answer to ventriloquism. He had his own TV show with Gerry Gee during the 1960’s.

Shirley Dinsdale, along with her puppet Judy Splinters, started out on radio at age 14, then went to live programming. She received the first Emmy award ever given for “Most Outstanding Personality”.

Don Knotts began his entertainment career as a ventriloquist. He entertained the troops during his army enlistment. He moved on to television on the Andy Griffith’s show.

For more ventriloquists, check out Ventriloquist Central.

Fun Fact

Paul Winchell was headed into medicine until polio got a hold of him. While recuperating, he created a dummy for his art class. The rest, is history.

How to be a Ventriloquist

Or how does ventriloquism work. Or learning to speak without moving your lips. Try this:

  1. Relax your jaw.

  2. Open your lips slightly.

  3. In your normal voice, say the all vowels of the alphabet.

  4. You did it! You just spoke without moving your lips!

As you might have guessed, there is a lot more to it than that. For example there are seven letters that are impossible to speak without moving your lips: B, F, M, P, Q, V and W. Just try it. Instead, ventriloquists use sound substitutions. An example for the letter Q, substitute “koo” for the Q. The word Quality becomes, “Koo-ality”. Try it, it really does work. The reason why it works is that the audience’s brains are pre-conditioned. They know there is no such word as koo-ality, but it sounds so much like quality, that they believe that’s what you are saying.

Or better yet, you can simply avoid words that include these letters.

Of course there is a lot more to being a ventriloquist then sound substitutions. For a great DVD with lessons, check out this one by a famous ventriloquist, Paul Winchell.

Are you Ready to Try Your Hand, or rather Lips at Ventriloquism?

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    • Lynn Mobley profile image

      Lynn Mobley 2 months ago from USA

      In my beginning struggles I have found that sub-vocalizations helps me to get my tongue and throat to become more accustomed to letter replacement. I simply walk around talking to myself, practicing very quietly while I work or grocery shop, whatever I need to do!