How To Become A Ventriloquist In One Hour

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.

The Mysterious, Marvelous World of Ventriloquism

From The Puppet Studio by Jon R. Conlon

As for ancient beginnings, ventriloquism remains highly speculative, and no one really knows details. Historians guess based on interpretations of old Greek/ Roman writings that mention various incidents of “sounds from the belly” and knowledge of various cultures practicing vocal manipulations–from Zulu in Africa to Morie of the Pacific ocean islands. Even in the Bible (Acts.xvi. 16) reference is made to a woman speaking , yet not moving her lips, with a hidden voice. What is completely factual is that the term “ventriloquist” appears defined in English language around 1656: “0ne that hath an evil spirit speaking in his belly or one that BY USE OF PRACTICE can speak without moving his lips.”

It appears, even then, the theatrical, entertainment quality of the art of “throwing the voice” did not go unnoticed. In 1772 facts show, Baron Mengen at Vienna produced a doll with a moveable mouth that could be controlled “by movement under the dress.” What is more, he held dialogues with his figure! Surely this marks the birth of ventriloquism as it is understood presently. However, for the following 150 years the practice did not really flourish.

During that time in the world of puppetry marionette and hand puppet productions gained great popularity; Punch and Judy (in various names and various countries) became a standard, favorite ever lasting popular show. Massive string puppet stage extravagances from England, France, Italy, and Spain toured the world. The ventriloquist, however, played second banana in bars, beach spas, street corners, music halls, and mid ways. A person talking to his doll apparently could not compete with folk opera, stage show, band performance, circus, zoo, and not to mention a cheap street corner riotous Punch and Judy play.

Sadly, it was not until the 1940s in America that the Talking Doll took to the center stage in show biz. Amazingly, it happened on the radio! The ventriloquist Edgar Bergan and his smarty dummy Charlie McCarthy soared to international stardom, playing movies, stages, television screens, magazine/news paper advertisements all over the world. And he MOVED his lips! And remains, in his way, the King.

For the student of vent history, however, he was even more important because he redefined the understanding of “belly” art. He said basically that there was two kinds of ventriloquism, the near and and distant. The near, he explained, depended on the illusion created by the puppet figure not the vocal technique. or trick

During the following years many followed Edgar’s dictate, and hundred of performers popped up on local television stations in America and Europe, one fine example being Stan Freeberg and his space alien. Others, however, did not and perfected the old time “high artistry” to become famous masters: Paul Winchell (assisted by Jerry Mahoney) and Danny O’day and Farfel (assisted by Jimmy Nelson) to mention just two of the greatest.

No matter its old beginnings the “magic” of ventriloquism is still today fun, fun, fun.

Shadow Puppets

Great name for a conspiracy/suspense thriller, right? Shadow puppets are a venerable art form that dates back to China over 2,000 years ago. However, the introduction of shadow puppets to Western audiences is a pretty recent event. Many people are still unsure what shadow puppets are all about. Well, class is in session, pull up a seat.

Shadow puppets were started over 2,000 years ago in China after a mistress of the Chinese emperor died unexpectedly. The emperor was so distraught and forlorn that he brought together his court and demanded that they bring her back to life. While this emperor may have had a screw or two loose, his court was able to devise an ingenious situation that not only pleased their master but allowed them to keep their heads.

The courtiers used leather pieces and painted clothing to create a facsimile of the concubine and then manipulated her image against firelight to bring her shadows back to life. Now, the emperor, despite his questionable mental state, allowed the courtiers to keep their lives and was so pleased by this display he became a patron of the early art of shadow theatre.

Shadow puppetry today is a bit more refined and is widely popular in China, Japan, Taiwan and certain parts of Europe. Essentially a large canvas screen separates the audience from the performers. This screen is lit from the front, allowing shapes held up to it to shine through but preventing the shadow of the performer from bleeding through.

As mentioned before, shadow puppets are still new to U.S. shores and performances of this Asian inspired art form are few and far between. This has led to shadow puppet performances having the dubious distinction of being pretentious or artsy-fartsy. Nevertheless, the popularity of these performances are growing and it is only a matter of time before a shadow puppet troupe appears in or near your town.

It may seem silly, but these performances are very well done and well orchestrated. Puppets, outside of the Muppets, don’t get a lot of love these days but the revival of shadow puppets is putting this art form back on the map.

What is a Puppet? Pt.2

As noted before in this column the definition of “puppet” has become more and more complicated in the modern world. Nowadays with the advent of digital art, computer modeling, and advanced animation techniques, a simple question has grown perhaps beyond our ability to answer it.

However, we can look back and learn something from previous attempts to explain what Shakespeare called “such stuff as dreams are made on.” And that idea is the place to begin–that puppets are real but they are not real. Long, long before great Bard of Avon, a Greek philosopher used shadow puppets in his classic The CAVE as a symbol of what seemed real to mankind but was not.

In 1935, an American scholar of puppetry, Bessie Ficklen, wrote: “Flat or round, simple or elaborate, whether they fit over the hand, or hang from strings, or work by rods, or slide in grooves–all are puppets. Gordon Craig around the same time defined puppets as A MODEL OF MAN IN MOTION. Ficklen then wisely responded: “Puppets are images men contrive/and act to make them come alive.”

That seems to solve the problem. A computer managed robot is a puppet. A  water clock animating a moving figure is a puppet with no operator evident. A dancing string or rope is a puppet with human or electrical management. The question has always been, however, does a puppet need to be controlled directly or not.

And still the question haunts. We know what a puppet is and what it is not, but it remains hard to put into words. As the little boy said years ago at a English Punch and Judy show: “Mother, he’s a man, but he’s little.” Professor Richard Pischel wrote about the same time, “puppet plays are…nourished by strangeness.”

I saw my first puppet show at the age of six. They were performing circus monkeys on a big stage, jumping, swinging, dancing. It was magic. But, I knew something was strange. They were not real, live animals…but they were alive. I asked my mother what was happening. She just said that they were puppets.

What is a Puppet?


What Is A Puppet?

The term “puppet” often confuses people who are interested in learning about this branch of entertainment art. A dictionary explanation defines it as “a small human or animal figure animated by strings, wires, or by hand in a hollow body and head, or a toy like a person — a doll.” Misunderstanding starts with this simple description. The true meaning is far more complicated.

The first principle is that all puppets are dolls in one strange way or another, but not all dolls are puppets. Next, a puppet may be almost anything– a dancing rock, bunch of grapes, sweeping broom, a talking tin bucket, or swaying flower.. but not just merely a human or animal. It basically must be an articulated, moving, not alive object that takes on , no matter how limited, the illusion of life. Should it, necessarily, be controlled directly or remotely moved?

A modern master of American puppetry, Bill Baird, tells us that a puppet is “an inanimate figure that is made to move by human effort before an audience.” Although, he gives us a great working idea of current thinking about puppets, these are much more than that. History, sorry to say, does not offer much additional information.

Perhaps about fifteen thousand years ago a mystic made an animal skull move its jaw and speak to the people about important truths. Ancient Greeks, five thousands years ago, used puppets and animated figures for religious and entertainment effects. But much of this history is murky.

Today, we recognize approximately what this strange thing is. We remember it from the movies staring King Kong, Godzilla, Carrot Top (Lily), Pinocchio, ET, RtoDto; from TV: Ollie, Kukla, Senior Winces and his head in a box, Jerry Mahoney, Alf, Kermit, Elmo, Lamb Chop–all puppets.

Despite this difficulty of exactly defining the term, the concept may be identified and classified in order to help an understand of the word:

1. Hand/clove, fist puppet…2. Rod puppet…3. String puppet or marronette…4. Shadow puppet…5. Water puppet…6. Ventriloquist /dummy puppet…7. Finger puppet…8.Body puppet. See the pictures that illustrate each.


The Art of Ventriloquism

With roots in history reaching back to ancient times, modern ventriloquists, practicing the entertaining art of vocal deception by “throwing” or dissociating the voice, evokes a sense of mystery and wonder in audiences creating a link to the enigmatic beginnings of ventriloquism. Despite modern ventriloquism being generally a comedic form of entertainment, there remains an underlying sense of mystery, as the audience’s perception of reality is set slightly ajar.

The earliest archeological record of throwing the voice appears in ancient temples where tubes have been discovered that allowed one hidden man to project his voice throughout the temple, invoking the voice of the gods or messengers from other dimensions. These hidden pipelines have been found in sanctuaries from ancient Greek and Roman times. In other cultures, the practice continued until almost recent days, as simple tube systems were used to convey a mysterious voice prophesying the future and invoking awe in the beholder.

Intimately linked to religious practices for centuries, the word ventriloquism has a Latin root meaning to speak from the stomach. These belly speakers, who were no longer hidden in another place projecting their voices through a network of pipes, were believed to have the spirits of the dead inside their stomachs. The utterances coming from their mouths were believed to be those of the unliving, allowing communication with the dead. The Greek term, gastromancy, was used in ancient classical times to describe this form of necromantic ventriloquism, used by prophets and oracles.

As with all forms of divination and prophesying, the Christian church attempted to ban the practices and by the Middle Ages had equated ventriloquism with witchcraft. Women who “spoke from their bellies” were executed as witches. Long before the rise of Christianity, Mosaic Law forbade the practice with punishment by death for those who dabbled in it.

Despite the views of the Church and the persecution of ventriloquists, the practice somehow continued until the tides began to turn towards the end of the 1500s, and ventriloquism started to emerge as a form of entertainment, shedding most its centuries-old link with the occult. Once this change occurred, the Church became more lenient, permitting it as a form of amusement. Continue reading “The Art of Ventriloquism”