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.

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.