Fun Ventriloquism Facts
Everything you ever wanted to know about ventriloquism but were afraid to ask!
Ventriloquism is defined as the ability to throw one's voice so that it seems to be coming from somewhere else. Yet there are a great many myths surrounding ventriloquism.
For instance, there is a certain phobia regarding ventriloquism and how it operates--so much so that there have been many Hollywood movies that depict ventriloquism as something evil and scary.
Ventriloquism is more of an art form than anything else. While there is certainly a great deal of "movie magic" going on with ventriloquism, it is also the bread and butter of many a stage performer.
Like all art forms, there is quite a bit of history as well. Now ventriloquism is seen as entertainment, but during the Middle Ages ventriloquism was regarded as akin to witchcraft.
Some of the most notable artists in ventriloquism have been Fred Russell, credited as being the first to use a knee figure, Edgar Bergen and Paul Winchell. Today, masters like Jeff Dunham and Ronn Lucas regale millions.
This hub will explore some of the fascinating history of ventriloquism and reveal some of the things you never knew about this mysterious art form.
Ventriloquist Frederick C. Trappe - with his dummies in the 1920s
Facts About Ventriloquist Dummies - Things you didn't know about that little wooden man on the ventriloquist's knee...
- Although ventriloquism has been used for entertainment purposes for centuries, ventriloquists did not use a dummy in their performances until relatively recently. Ventriloquists performing on stage would make it appear that the voice was coming from upstairs in the attic or down in the cellar or inside a trunk, but no one thought of the idea of using a little wooden character to do the talking for them!
- It is believed that the Baron von Mengen was the first one to come up with the idea of using a doll with a moving mouth in a ventriloquist act (around 1770). He used a plain figure with a nutcracker mouth but with no arms or legs; it was clad in a cloak to give it the appearance of having a body. However, the concept of the ventriloquist's dummy did not become popular until over 100 years later.
- After centuries of not using any dummies at all, ventriloquists adopted the practice of having a whole row of dummies on the stage at the same time, and they would walk from one to the other to perform. These figures were different characters and different sizes, and the ventriloquist would make the various figures speak in turn.
- Fred Russell is credited as being the first ventriloquist to use a "knee figure." He admitted that he did this mainly because it was easier to transport one figure than a whole cavalcade. Russell also originated the practice of the dummy being the focal point of the act, with him playing the straight man, a practice that has been the standard ever since. Russell is known as the "Father of Modern Ventriloquism."
- The most famous figuremakers in American history were the father and son team of Theodore and Charles Mack (after whom Charlie McCarthy was named) and Frank Marshall, a protégé of the Macks who carved Jimmy Nelson's Danny O'Day and Paul Winchell's Jerry Mahoney. Mack and Marshall figures are very collectible today.
- The wife of ventriloquist Herbert Dexter sued him for divorce in the 1930s, claiming that he was physically and emotionally abusive and that his life-sized walking mechanical dummy was used not only to insult her cruelly but to deliver physical blows to her while they were on stage, which left her with severe bruises.
- The Vent-Haven ventriloquist Museum in Fort Mitchell Kentucky was founded by William Shakespeare Berger and today houses one of the largest collection of ventriloquist figures in the world. Tours are available by appointment.
- Professional ventriloquist dummies are commonly made of over 88 separate parts, 44 of them being used in the eyes and eyelids alone.
- There are two main types of ventriloquist figures used by professional ventriloquists, the hard puppets which are typically made of wood and are so familiar to the general public and the soft puppets which are favored by many professional ventriloquists today and are made of cloth and foam- type material.
- Both hard and soft puppets have advantages and disadvantages. Soft puppets get dirty and wear out over time and must eventually be replaced. Hard puppets almost never wear out under normal use and can last a lifetime, but they are more susceptible to damage from falls or temperature extremes. For example, storing a hard puppet inside an automobile on a hot day can cause the glue holding the mechanisms to melt!
- Professional ventriloquist dummies are typically made by hand. A molded figure takes about 40 hours to complete, while a hand-carved figure takes about 120 hours. The prices most figure makers charge do not come anywhere near what a plumber would charge for the same time expenditure. Figuremaking is a labor of love. Perhaps 3-D printing will one day revolutionize the building of ventriloquist figures, as it is predicted to do in so many other fields.
The late Chicago ventriloquist
Paul Stadelman was a master publicist. In 1939, he ran his dummy, Windy Higgins, for governor of Kentucky and got 143 write-in votes!
A Little History
The history of ventriloquism is a rich and interesting one.
In ancient times, ventriloquism was thought to be associated with the spirits, and that the ventriloquist was able to communicate with them. Some even thought that spirits resided in the stomach of the ventriloquist, which is the origin of the term ventriloquism, being composed of the Latin venter, to speak and loqui, meaning stomach.
In the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, the high priestess of Apollo would use ventriloquism to communicate between the Oracle of Delphi and the devotees. Needless to say, ventriloquism assumed a position of high importance in such civilizations.
As society advanced, ventriloquism came to be regarded as an art form for entertainment purposes. Early ventriloquial entertainers performed without a dummy or puppet, making their voice appear to be coming from over the ceiling or under the floor. Only later was the concept of using ventriloquism with a dummy or puppet originated.
Today, unfortunately, ventriloquism is depicted as evil and so many films and TV shows that it has become a cinematic clichÃ©. The reality is that there are a great many Excellent, highly successful entertainers who are at the top of the comedy field and who entertain crowds of millions with the ventriloquial arts.
...is likely the most famous ventriloquist who ever lived! Bergen was the inspiration for Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, who grew up listening to his radio show. Ironically, Henson's Muppets were, in turn, the inspiration for countless generations of ventriloquists who followed him!
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Thanksgiving Special (1950)
Fascinating Facts About Edgar Bergen
- Bergen started out as a magician before switching to ventriloquism (the exact opposite of David Copperfield, who started out as a ventriloquist before deciding to become a magician).
- Bergen's interest in ventriloquism was inspired by an old pulp brochure on magic called Hermann's Wizards Annual, which had a section on ventriloquism in the back.
- Bergen sketched out Charlie McCarthy's features himself, which he patterned after an Irish schoolboy who sold newspapers near his school. He took his sketches to figure maker Theodore Mack, who carved Charlie's head. Bergen later named the figure after the wood carver.
- Edgar Bergen made his debut on the English stage at London's Holborn theater, performing a sketch called "The Operation."
- Bergen had to adapt to the changing times. When he made his stage debut, talking pictures were starting to come into vogue. Later, sponsored radio started sounding the death knell of the theater. When Bergen came to America, vaudeville was dying out due to the Depression and competition from motion pictures, forcing Bergen to perform in night clubs.
- Charlie McCarthy originally started out as a street urchin type character, but Bergen adopted the top hat and tails to give him a more classy, sophisticated persona when he started performing in nightclubs. Bergen dressed in matching garb.
- Bergen's radio debut was on the Fleishman Radio Hour with Rudy Vallee, to which they were invited after performing a private function with Noel Coward.
- Charlie McCarthy feuded with some of the top names in show business, many of whom appeared on Bergen's radio program, including Al Jolson, Orson Welles and WC Fields.
- Edgar Bergen's first full-length Feature film was A Letter Of Introduction in 1938, in which Bergen played an unemployed ventriloquist. His first film appearance was in a series of shorts for Vitaphone. His most successful feature film was You Can't Cheat An Honest Man (1939) co-starring WC Fields.
- In recognition of his creation of Charlie McCarthy, Bergen was given a special wooden Oscar with a moving mouth.
- Bergen announced his retirement in 1978 after 56 years in show business at the age of 75 at his last performance at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. That night, Edgar Bergen died in his sleep.
- Actress Candace Bergen is the daughter of Edgar Bergen. When growing up, she was referred to as "Charlie McCarthy's sister!"
- The most famous ventriloquist in England, Peter Brough, performed his own radio show at about the same time Edgar Bergen Did. Bergen even made a guest appearance on his radio show (although without his sidekick, due to contractual reasons).
- Peter Brough was the son of professional ventriloquist Arthur Brough, whose figure Hugo was used in the horror film Dead of Night starring Michael Redgrave.
- Peter Brough's wooden sidekick, Archie Andrews, turned up missing after a train trip, forcing Brough to alter a TV appearance at the last moment. A £10,000 reward was offered, with front-page headlines in newspapers about the missing dummy. An anonymous tip about the whereabouts of the figure came in with some of the thousands of letters of sympathy that Brough received in the mail.
A Duo of Simon Sez's (photo by author's grandmother)
Achmed the Dead Terrorist Has a Son - Jeff Dunham - Controlled Chaos
Jeff Dunham's routine
...with "Achmed the Dead Terrorist" is one of the top ten most popular YouTube videos of all time, with over 160 MILLION views!
Is Ventriloquism Dead?
I'm sure you've heard it, and if you haven't, you will: the popularity of ventriloquism is dying out.
I've come across this claim many times. In fact, I ran across it in doing the research for this page! This claim is not recent; in fact, it's decades (if not centuries) old!
The reality is that ventriloquism is alive and well! As ventriloquist Tom Crowl says, "Ventriloquism Is the hottest form of variety entertainment around today! Jeff Dunham sells out arenas throughout the world. Terry Fator headlines his own theatre in Las Vegas. Jay Johnson won a Tony Award for his Broadway Show."
There is something truly magical about someone who puts a little Pinocchio-like character on his knee and then seems to bring that character to life.
Check out a list of the most watched videos on YouTube OF ALL TIME and you will find Jeff Dunham's routine with Achmed the Dead Terrorist in the top ten! Yes, that's right, in the top ten!
The fact is that people love to laugh! If a ventriloquist can succeed in making people laugh, then that ventriloquist will be popular, and this is a fact that will never change!
The Paul Winchell Show
started out with Major Bowes in 1938 and went on to become America's top TV ventriloquist in the 1950s. Later he pursued a career in medicine and went on to invent an early artificial heart! You may know him as the voice of Tigger, Scrubbing Bubbles and Gargamel on The Smurfs!
The Great Gabbo (1929)
There have been dozens
of major theatrical releases and TV episodes in which a ventriloquist is cast as a deranged killer, the first one perhaps being The Great Gabbo starring Eric von Stroheim (1929). The ventriloquist's sidekick in these films has always been a wooden dummy (I guess soft puppets are not all that scary)!
Some of the best links related to ventriloquism.
- Vent Haven ConVENTion
The Vent Haven is the world's largest ventriloquist museum. This site is primarily about the annual ventriloquist's convention in Kentucky.
- Ventriloquist Central
Site by Dan Willinger....Ventriloquism Enthusiast & Collector, who owns over a hundred ventriloquial figures (half of them by famous figuremaker Frank Marshall) which he documents and photographs extensively on his site. Nice hard-to-find videocl
Tribute to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy
- Tribute to Paul Winchell
I had some trouble getting this page to load fully, but there's a nice slideshow on the home page.
- Tribute to Paul Stadelman
Paul Stadelman was a Chicago-area ventriloquist and ventriloquism teacher.