(1862 – 1957)
The Father Of Modern Ventriloquism
Born Thomas Frederick Parnell on September 29, 1862 in Poplar, east London. In 1879, at the age of 16, he took up ventriloquism as a hobby and studied with Frederic Maccabe*, a famous ventriloquist of the day. Later that year, at the age of 17, Parnell performed on stage for the first time.
In 1882, he took up journalism as a profession. Parnell married Elizabeth White in 1883. Over the course of their marriage they would have six children. To support his family, he was working as the chief reporter and later became the editor of the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette.
Parnell made his semi-professional debut as a ventriloquist in August 1886. He changed his name to Fred Russell for the stage. According to his obituary in The Times, he changed his name because of the political flavour of “Parnell”.
Charles Morton, the music hall impresario, saw Russell’s ventriloquism act. He offered Russell a one-week engagement at the Palace Theatre in 1896. Russell quickly dropped his journalism career for the stage.
After what was initially supposed to be a one-week residence at the Palace Theatre, Russell was extended. His run at the Palace turned into an 82-week stint of 400 performances. This run turned Fred Russell into a star.
At the time, most ventriloquists performed with a group of three to ten mechanical figures. Russell felt a quick set-up, along with short, punchy performances would work better on the variety stage.
Russell is often credited with inventing the single small doll, perched on the ventriloquist’s knee. The truth is, there was more to Russell’s genius than that.
Russell started performing with just one character: Cockney ‘Coster Joe’. Russell endowed ‘Coster Joe’ with a personality. This was something that had been lacking in other ventriloquist performances.
With a fast-paced verbal banter between ventriloquist and dummy, Russell established new roles. The ‘vent’ became the ‘straight man’ and the dummy was cracking the jokes. This concept was pioneering and literally revolutionized the presentation of ventriloquism.
Russell’s act set a precedent. His work influenced Edgar Bergen, Paul Winchell, and even Jeff Dunham. The comedy team format for ventriloquism has survived with little variation ever since.
This is why Fred Russell is known as the Father of Modern Ventriloquism.
In 1898, Russell published the book “Ventriloquism and Kindred Arts.” Other editions followed, the second being published in 1910. The book is now a collectors item.
Russell headlined appearances at leading London and provincial music halls. Being a top of the bill act meant he had a voice, and he used this influence to help others.
In 1906, Russell helped set up the Variety Artistes Federation. The VAF was a trade union body that later incorporated The Actor’s Equity. He served as Chairman of the federation from 1915 to 1920. Russell was also founder and manager the federation’s weekly newspaper, The Performer. He held that position until 1945.
Working for the arts, Russell was a major force behind the ‘Award Contract’ of 1919. This act improved terms and conditions for performers. His contribution was indisputable and led to him being called the ‘Father of Variety’ too.
Russell’s career on stage flourished as well. His act went on to tour the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Tasmania and Ceylon.
In 1922, Russell returned to the old style of ventriloquism when he produced “Sylvester vs. Fitzholmondyley” in “Breach of Promise.” This show consisted of a cast of 19, and later he added 2 more. The actors included a Judge, a jury of 12 men, the Defendant, and others. ‘Coster Joe’ even made an appearance. Fred Russell played the council for the Plaintiff and Mrs. Russell played the plaintiff.
The “actors” were made by Russell from clay models, and then finished in papier-mache. Fred and his wife costumed each one.
In 1907, Russell had filed specifications and drawings for a patent in London. It was titled “Improvements in and Connected with Stage Apparatus.” The improvements, were pneumatic controls, operated by foot levers. He also developed screens with slits, and a spiral arm attached to the sleeve of the dummy which would permit a live hand to be introduced.
It should be no surprise the “actors” in this play were pneumatically controlled. Russell had a switch- board under his feet that allowed him to operate them.
The play presented a mock trial in a court setting that represented an English Court of Law. Russell prepared, practiced and refined the program for a full year. In 1923, the show premiered at Ilford Hippodrome Theatre in London.
Depending on who you believe, the show was either a sensation or a disappointment. Either way, it had a run of almost three years.
To his credit, a reporter came to critique the show and wrote that Mr. Russell was wonderful, but the other actors were stiff. The reporter didn’t realize that Fred Russell was all the actors (except for his wife the plaintiff.)
In 1932, Fred Russell appeared on the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. In 1948 Russell was awarded the OBE, which stands for The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. The OBE is an order of chivalry, rewarding contributions to the arts and sciences.
Russell continued to perform, doing televised music hall performances in 1952, billed as “the oldest ventriloquist in the world”. In 1955, Russell made a guest appearance on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” which aired on October 30, 1955.
Fred Russell died in Wembley, England on October 14, 1957 at the age of 95.
To commemorate his contributions to ventriloquism and the arts, a blue plaque was installed by the entrance of Kenilworth Court in Putney, London. Russell lived there from 1914 to 1926.
The Art of Ventriloquism in 1875. It is available on Amazon Kindle if you are interested in owning this piece of history.
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