Ventriloquism – What Is It?
Ventriloquism or ventriloquy is an illusion of sound. A ventriloquist uses misdirection to create the impression a voice is coming from somewhere else. Ventriloquism is often called “voice throwing.” (Although that is not technically accurate.)
Ventriloquize: to speak or create sound in the manner of a ventriloquist.
Ventriloquism comes from the Latin words Venter meaning belly, and Loqui meaning to speak. The early Greeks called the art gastromancy. This is why ventriloquists are also known as belly talkers.
The voices ventriloquists created were thought to be the dead. People believed the deceased took up residence in the ventriloquist’s stomach. Ventriloquists would “interpret” the voices as though they could talk to the dead or the Gods. The Oracle of Delphi in Greek history is believed to have been a ventriloquist.
Other cultures also have a history of ventriloquism used in ritual and religious practices.
In the middle ages, ventriloquism was considered spiritualism. Ventriloquists were considered in league with the devil and associated with witchcraft.
In the eighteenth century, ventriloquism along magic, began the shift from spiritualism to entertainment. Performances became more commonplace at traveling fairs and circuses.
By the end of the century, ventriloquism was an established form of entertainment in England. History tells us most ventriloquist performances during this period featured “distant ventriloquism.”
Distant ventriloquism involves the modulation of the ventriloquist’s voice. This creates the illusion the voice originates much further away from the ventriloquist. (Another reason for the common phrase: Throwing The Voice.)
In performances of distant ventriloquism, the ventriloquist would “talk” to invisible entities. The illusion was enhanced by the ventriloquist’s acting skills. He or she would need to act accordingly to convince the audience a voice was coming from a different area.
Some ventriloquists began to incorporate dolls into their acts. They would “throw their voice” into the doll and have conversations. Irishman James Burne is said to be one of the early adopters of this form known as “near ventriloquism.”
In near ventriloquism, the voice appears to emanate from a puppet located near the ventriloquist.
Ventriloquism – As Entertainment
Although several ventriloquists were using puppets and dolls prior to 1886, that is the year Fred Russell began performing at the Palace Theatre in London.
Russell worked with a cheeky-boy figure or dummy called “Coster Joe.” The banter of back and forth dialog has influenced ventriloquists ever since. For this reason, Fred Russell is known as the father of modern ventriloquism.
Following the comedy team format of Fred Russell, British ventriloquist Arthur Prince worked with his figure Sailor Jim. Mr. Prince became one of the highest paid entertainers on the music hall circuit.
In the United States, a ventriloquist, The Great Lester became a famous performing with his figure, Frank Byron Jr.
A student of the Great Lester who went on to achieve even greater fame was Edgar Bergen. Together with his character Charlie McCarthy, Bergen appeared in movies and was also a major star on the radio. Bergen was not only famous, but a saavy businessman. He licensed Charlie McCarthy to create toys and souvenirs which were snapped up by the public. A young Walt Disney got the idea to merchandise his characters based on Bergen’s success.
Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy
Paul Winchell & Jerry Mahoney
Jimmy Nelson, Danny O’Day & Farfel
Bergen’s popularity inspired many other ventriloquists. He was followed by Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson, Senor Wences and Shari Lewis. All of these ventriloquists appeared on television and became major stars of their day.
During the late 1960’s and 1970’s ventriloquism’s popularity waned. Ventriloquist Willie Tyler appeared in Motown concerts and later on television. Perhaps his most notable appearance was a commercial for McDonald’s, which put Willie in front of millions of viewers.
Senor Wences & Johnnie
Shari Lewis, Charlie Horse & Hush Puppy
Willie Tyler & Lester
Shari Lewis took her fame to the television screen as a children’s entertainer. Her educational programs brought millions along for “The Song That Never Ends.” Lambchop, Charlie Horse and “Hush Puppy” became the introduction to ventriloquism for a whole new generation.
Jay Johnson rose to national fame on the television series SOAP. Originally cast for a bit part, Johnson and his character Bob were such a hit, they remained a part of the show.
During this time another ventriloquist named Ronn Lucas took ventriloquism in a new direction. Ronn was working large venues and needed a puppet with a bigger mouth so it could be easily seen. His solution was a large mouth soft puppet, and Cowboy Billy was created.
Jay Johnson & Bob
Wayland Flowers – Talented Puppeteer
Wikipedia listed Wayland Flowers as a ventriloquist, but Wayland was a very talented puppeteer. Sorry Wikipedia, you got that one wrong.
The difference between a puppeteer and a ventriloquist? The puppeteer moves their lips and doesn’t necessarily interact with the puppet.
Today, a new generation of ventriloquists have achieved a level of fame never considered by their predecessors.
Jeff Dunham rose to fame through comedy clubs and television appearances. His first comedy special broke viewing records on Comedy Central. Jeff followed that with the creation of Achmed The Dead Terrorist which made him famous throughout the world. According to Forbes Magazine, Jeff is the highest grossing touring comedian in the world.
Ventriloquist Terry Fator won the second season of America’s Got Talent. He then went on to sign the biggest contract ever awarded to a reality contest winner. As of this writing, he headlines his own theater at the Mirage Casino & Resort.
Following in Terry’s footsteps, two more ventriloquists have won the television competition. Paul Zerdin of the United Kingdom, and Darci Lynn of Oklahoma.
The “Got Talent” program is international in scope. Swedish ventriloquist Zillah & her monkey Totte won Sweden’s Got Talent. Zillah & Totte are now one of Sweden’s most popular family/children acts.
Another ventriloquist who has achieved an extremely high level of fame is David Strassman. An American, David appeared on television in Australia. The public had an instant love affair with David’s character Ted E. Bear. As a result, David now sells out auditoriums all over Australia and New Zealand with his touring show.
Ventriloquist Nina Conti brought her ventriloquism to YouTube and achieved massive fame. In addition to being the rare female ventriloquist, her comedy is extraordinary.
The art of ventriloquism is currently at an all-time popularity high. The International Ventriloquist ConVENTion regularly has between 500 – 600 ventriloquists from around the world. The conVENTion is held every July near Fort Mitchell, KY., the home of the Vent Haven Ventriloquism Museum.
And of course, if you are a ventriloquist or fan of ventriloquism, you should consider joining the International Ventriloquist Society. Click here for more details.