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By Jon Conlon

Playing with puppets (no matter how old or young) is fun and simple to do. Little girls/ boys have forever enjoyed dolls, teddy bears, toy soldiers–by making them talk the talk and walk the walk. And that is basic , as natural to children as breathing.

It is not difficult to learn for any one, at any age. Most people have the ability to become a beginner ventriloquist with just one hour of concentrated, serious hard work and study. Of course, the performance will improve later with additional practice and experience.

The foremost internationally star of the art in modern entertainment, Edgar Bergen, explained in his 1938 book that there are two types of “throwing the voice,” the near and the far technique. He says that the near art is easy and relies on merely an illusion created mostly by the dummy or puppet who appears to speak; it’s like a short toss of the voice across a table rather than a long pitch to another room. Using this technique, Bergen fascinated much of the world–and always moved his lips.

The following guidelines, based on Bergen and other professional advice, will enable a serious student to learn the “near” style in sixty short minutes and to amaze friends, family–or at least you.

    1. Start by finding a proper puppet voice. Growl deep in your throat–grrr (like a dog) and adjust tone up or down until you find a comfortable range and can speak clearly in your new voice for an extended time. Do not strain too much.
    2. Sit sideways to audience but with your puppet facing forward at them. Look at the dummy when he speaks but look at the audience when you respond.
    3. Move your lips freely (without worry at first).
    4. Make the puppet exaggerate his head, body movements when he/she speaks.
    5. When you reply or explain, however, do it calmly, slowly in order to keep the focus of the audience attention on the figure. This trick glues the audience’s eyes to the puppet.
    6. Maintain, for the most part, a rapid tempo or fast interchange in repartee with the dummy/doll that again forces an audience to watch the dummy and not you. Make the dummy’s speeches long and yours short.

Soon after learning these starting guidelines you will be prepared for a first performance. Of course, later, you’ll want to practice the basics: voice production, easily speaking the memorized dialogue, and careful control of the figure. Paul Winchell, who inherited the crown from King Bergen, suggests several other tips, such as rehersing in front of a mirror, moving your dummy’s mouth with each syllable to speak for it, avoiding words beginning with BMPVF.

No doubt, few students will be ready for network television, New York stage, or Vegas in just one hour of ventriloquism study but most can enjoy the satisfaction and personal enjoyment that the mastery of the art offers. And there are thousands of children in schools, hospitals, orphanages who might be over joyed to hear you and your puppet pal “throwing your voice” at them.

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