Ventriloquists Bring Together Dummies

Festivals, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on June 20, 2004

Meghan Casey’s classmates thought it was weird that the 9-year-old wants to be a professional ventriloquist—until they saw her perform at their school talent show last spring.

Using a furry blue hand puppet and her best comical voice, Meghan’s skit drew laughter and cheers from her school assembly in Westminster, Colo. “Now they think growing up to be a ventriloquist is cool,” she says proudly.

It’s the kind of youthful testimony Mark Wade loves to hear. As a professional ventriloquist for 25 years and executive director of the Vent Haven International Ventriloquists’ Convention, Wade travels worldwide performing his children’s show while promoting the artistry, heritage, and entertainment value of the craft.

However, it has not been an easy mission, Wade admits, particularly during an entertainment age of computer-generated animation and special effects. Ventriloquists were a regular part of the Golden Age of radio, early television, and the variety show format. But many booking agents have long since written off the act, together with accordion players, tap dancers, and plate spinners. They say it’s old-fashioned, tired, even dead—a description that makes Wade wince.

“Ventriloquism is still popular,” Wade insists. “We’re just not on television as much, and some people equate popularity with being on TV. We still reach lots of audiences. A lot of professionals work nightclubs, children’s shows, corporate and trade shows, casinos, and gospel shows.”

Still, Wade of Baltimore, Ohio, (pop. 2,881) acknowledges struggling in recent years to involve young people. Many children have never seen a ventriloquist show, translating into fewer youths developing the skills of the performing art. Professional “vents,” as they call themselves, worry who will pick up their wisecracking dummies and vocal sleight of hand when they retire or die.

“We’re trying now to get resources on the market that will replenish the herd,” says Wade, citing instructional books and videos in development. “We’re trying to be good stewards of our art.”

A gathering of dummies

Encouragement came last July at the group’s 27th annual convention in Fort Mitchell, Ky. (pop. 8,089). More kids signed up to perform at the junior “open microphone” session than in six previous conventions.

Fourteen-year-old Zach Babbe of Rapid City, S.D., was attending his third convention but making his first appearance on the stage with his puppet Trog the Caveman. “For me, it’s a hobby, but I might do it professionally some day–or maybe become a professional skateboarder,” says Babbe, who developed an interest in ventriloquism from his father.

The world’s oldest and largest ventriloquist convention drew 415 professionals, amateurs, and enthusiasts, including teachers, police officers, social workers, ministers, insurance agents, and professional clowns. Most came from the United States, but some traveled from Norway, England, Germany and Japan. Their common tie was the allure of bringing a puppet to life.

Jeff Dunham has attended every convention since he was 13. He’s now 42 and is recognized as one of America’s finest ventriloquists, appearing on The Tonight Show with both Johnny Carson and Jay Leno, opening for top musical acts on tour, and recently hosting his own cable TV special on Comedy Central. “I come to this convention every year because I want to give back to the art,” says Dunham, who offered delegates tips on doing television spots.

It was the ninth convention for Dave Dixon, 42, a police officer in Winnipeg, Canada. Like many who discover ventriloquism at midlife, Dixon got the bug when he became a parent and used stuffed animals and silly voices to make his son laugh. He began practicing talking without moving his lips in front of the mirror, and went to the library to check out books on ventriloquism. His wife bought him a plastic monkey puppet, and his first official audience was a birthday party for a friend’s son.

“In five years, I’ve gone from a little monkey puppet to having my own agent and performing before 200 kids in an auditorium with a sound system,” says Dixon, who works corporate parties, Scout gatherings, community clubs, and day cares. “It’s still a hobby, but it’s more a passion.”

Patricia Bell is a licensed marriage and family therapist who remembers getting a toy Jerry Mahoney figure at age 9 and working up an act that earned her several talent trophies and a string of paid performances. Her interest in ventriloquism was rekindled recently at work while using puppets to teach anger management and coping skills to children. “Sometimes kids will open up to a puppet in ways they wouldn’t to an adult,” says Bell, 47, of Summerland, Calif. (pop. 1,545).

At the convention, delegates trade secrets and offer tips on everything from on-stage liability insurance to throat-soothing teas. Dealers hawk products ranging from magician’s props to ventriloquism home study courses to, of course, puppets.

Professional prop maker

Mary Ann Taylor, the nation’s leading soft puppet maker, produces about 70 lifeless creatures a year that become lifelike props for professionals and amateurs worldwide. For about $500 each, she’s made talking tacos, dinosaurs, Harley riders, Biblical characters, and historical personalities.

“With a puppet, movement and eye contact are important,” says Taylor, of Salem, Va. (pop. 24,747). “I don’t have the performance skills to bring them to life, but it’s amazing what happens when a professional picks them up. They suddenly have character and personality.”

Ventriloquist dummies are called “figures” if made out of wood or hard materials like fiberglass, and “puppets” if made out of soft materials like foam rubber, cloth, or plastic. “The word ‘dummy’ emerged because it looks like a mannequin,” Wade explains. “It’s not the word we prefer, but we don’t get ourselves in a knot about it.”

Last year’s convention commemorated what would have been the 100th birthday of Edgar Bergen, the world’s most famous ventriloquist and a legend to both ventriloquists and comic writers of any format.

It was a Bergen character that helped launch the career of Dunham, who received a plastic Mortimer Snerd figure from Santa Claus when he was 7 years old. Using Mortimer and the Jimmy Nelson album Instant Ventriloquism, Dunham taught himself and started performing at Cub Scout banquets, church gatherings and school assemblies. “The thing I struggled with most when I was younger was just being funny and entertaining. To me, learning ventriloquism is the easy part; learning to be funny is very difficult,” Dunham says.

Still, he views ventriloquism as the ultimate in multi-tasking. “You have to be a technician, ventriloquist, comedy writer, performer, entertainer and, within all that, be an actor who can both act for yourself and for the dummy, and then react to all that’s going on,” Dunham says.

When it all comes together, there’s an element of magic, says Kelly Asbury, author of the book Dummy Days, which profiles America’s favorite ventriloquists from radio and early TV. Asbury recalls the yuk-yuks and anecdotes from Bergen, Señor Wences, Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson, and Shari Lewis, and celebrates their dummies with attitudes and acts without swear words (“shucks” doesn’t count). He describes how First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt met Bergen and his sidekick Charlie McCarthy for the first time, leaning forward to shake Charlie’s hand. Bergen quickly lifted the wooden limb to comply.

“Was there ever a more entertaining character than Mortimer Snerd, or a more engaging character than Shari Lewis’ Lambchop?” Asbury says. “Despite the predictability, nothing brought me bigger belly laughs as a kid than watching these entertainers and characters create magic before your eyes. There were no special effects involved. It was just the talents and abilities of one person making an incredible illusion.”

Meghan Casey understands the magic. She’s understood since she was a toddler and her father used puppets to act out bedtime stories. But she knows that not everybody her age understands.

Asked how she defines ventriloquism to classmates and friends, she says simply: “It’s just playing with a puppet you have fun with.” She pauses then adds: “I think it’s both weird and cool.”