Unlike the traditional forms of puppetry where the puppeteer is hidden, the ventriloquist performs the functions of both puppeteer and actor, playing a role himself in the performance he presents. The puppeteer must learn to manipulate the character positioned on his knee, arm, or pedestal, while at the same time engrossing the audience sufficiently to give the illusion that the puppet actually lives and speaks. The artist may need to occasionally look in another direction, speak, gesture, and engage in dialogue (written or improvised) as an actor while also concentrating on the task of maintaining the illusion of life as he fulfills his duties as a puppeteer.
A fine ventriloquist must create a voice which seems less human and more appropriate for the most often more diminutive character he is bringing to life. This “diffused voice” is obtained by applying pressure from the diaphragm onto the vocal chords, which necessitates excellent breath control. The word ventriloquism derives from the Latin words ventri (belly) and loquor (to speak) which explains the long held but inaccurate belief that the voice emanated from the stomach. A ventriloquist uses the normal vocal and respiratory apparatus, combined with the utilization of substitute sounds that minimize lip movement and thus removes all evidence that the ventriloquist is actually doing the speaking for the puppet. Ventriloquism is therefore an illusion, and the puppet manipulated in sync to the dialogue becomes the ideal vessel for this otherwise seemingly anonymous voice.
The Ventriloquist Puppet
The ventriloquist’s most common puppet style is often referred to as a “dummy” or a “vent figure”. In the past, the traditional figure was carved of wood. More recently, materials such as Celastic, latex, plastic wood, or fibreglass are utilized to duplicate the appearance and texture of wood. Figure-makers in Great Britain tend to use papier-mâché as the main ingredient, a stylistic choice still found in India, Australia, and the British West Indies. While the American simulated-wood figure uses a movable jaw (slot-jaw), the British counterpart expresses himself with a less pronounced lower lip movement which is sometimes combined with an upper lip movement. The most widely used character throughout the world is a “cheeky” boy or “smart-aleck”. The puppeteer, while furnishing the aforementioned diffused voice, manipulates a stick control extending downward from the neck into the cavity of the hollowed puppet torso, thus protecting it from audience view. Besides the mandatory mouth movement, additional mechanisms may be installed enabling the character to roll eyes, wink, blink, raise eyebrows, wiggle ears, stick out the tongue, smoke, or spit.
Perhaps the world’s best-known ventriloquist was the American, Edgar Bergen (1903-1978). In the course of a long and illustrious career spanning vaudeville (Variety), radio, motion pictures, and television, he created celebrity personalities like Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd, and Effie Klinker, essentially utilizing only lower jaw movement on these famous characters. However, one American ventriloquist of the same era, Bob Neller, boasted in his publicity materials that his figure made by the McElroy Brothers could emit more than one thousand facial expressions by combining different facial mechanisms with different tilts of the head, and body positions.
In recent times, ventriloquist performers have adapted virtually any kind of mouth puppet in their acts, from a simple glove puppet (such as made of a sock) to elaborately sculpted foam latex creations covered in richly coloured and textured fabrics. In the late 20th century, American ventriloquist Shari Lewis (1933-1998) brought her small knitted creations Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse, and Hush Puppy to many international television markets via broadcasts of Lamb Chop’s Play Along (1992-1997) for preschoolers. Lewis had begun her career in the 1950s on New York television with standard vent figures but found the smaller puppets more suited to her diminutive stature and feminine style. Spanish-born Wenceslao Moreno (1896-1999), billed as Señor Wences, enjoyed great success with his vent figure Johnny consisting essentially of his own clenched fist to which he attached eyes and a wig. At the age of 100, he continued to entertain audiences around the world with his unique brand of ventriloquism.
Whatever the type of puppet, to give the best possible illusion the expert ventriloquist relies upon a precise synchronization between the movement of the puppet’s mouth and each syllable of a spoken word. This technique is fundamentally different from those used in other forms of puppetry, in which the mouth is less articulated or not at all. Traditionally used for comedy in the United States of America and Great Britain throughout the vaudeville and music hall era, ventriloquist performers today practise their profession and reside worldwide (see Cabaret, Music Hall, Variety Theatre and Vaudeville). In France, talented ventriloquist Jacques Courtois, with his dog Hercules and his duck Omer, had his heyday in the 1950s and 1960s thanks to television. El Parlanchín (The Chatterbox), a well made Spanish ventriloquist dummy of the 1950s, represented a little cartoonish man of about 50 centimetres in height, whose head was equipped with a manipulation device on which were affixed two mechanical levers that allowed the mouth and chin to move, and the eyes to open and close.
In history, ventriloquism is often noted with a negative reputation. Archaeological evidence from Egypt shows ventriloquism dating back to 2000 BCE. The ventriloquists could exploit popular superstitions by making believe they possessed the aptitude to evoke spirits. This “second voice” was used to create what was often referred to as the “familiar spirits”. In ancient Greece, priests would stand immobile and emit strange sounds “from their stomachs”, a technique called “gastromancy”. In his fifth book of epidemics, the philosopher Hippocrates cites the case of a patient he examined: “The sound seemed to come from the chest, similar to that from those who call themselves ventriloquists.” Ancient Jews forbade consulting with such spirits or even believing in “Obh”, considered to be the spirit of the dead, whom some pretended capable of invoking. Referring to a passage in the Bible (Isaiah 29:4: “Then deep from the earth you shall speak, from low in the dust your words shall come; your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost, and your speech shall whisper out of the dusts.”), “mystics”, sorcerers and fortune tellers, most often motivated by financial gain, could pretend that their voices were those of the dead in their spiritual séances or private consultations. Probably, a number of skilled ventriloquists were burned at the stake for their perceived diabolical talents.
Today, the tricks of ventriloquism are largely considered as a purely entertaining art form. This talent is often used in education and sometimes takes on (as in Japan with the Reverend Ichiro Noda) a new religious dimension. The ventriloquists must above all else continue to adapt to changes in the entertainment industry in order to survive in the face of technological advances in animatronic toys, and computer-generated imagery. The future will tell if the artist can survive, and if the audience can continue to appreciate the mysterious intimacy between the ventriloquist and his dummy.
(See also Voice.)