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.
The first known instance of the use of a ventriloquist’s doll occurred in Austria in the mid-1700s. Baron Von Mengen revolutionized the art of ventriloquism with the use of a simple wooden doll with moving mouth parts. The belly voice was now no longer the voice from another dimension, it was the voice of a companion doll, ready to converse with a human.
By the late 1700s and early 1800s, ventriloquism was a popular act throughout the British Isles, entertaining crowds in pubs and on stage. From there it traveled to the new country across the sea, where ventriloquism was introduced to American audiences in 1801 by Richard Potter. A great advance in this intriguing form of entertainment was launched in the 1820s by Nicholas Mari Vattermare who thrilled crowds in France, Britain and then America with his cast of 13 entertaining characters, all voiced by Vattermare.
By the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, vaudeville had taken America by storm. Ventriloquist acts continued in the pattern set by Vattermare, using multiple dummies, all on stage at the same time. The ventriloquist moved from one dummy to another with a rapid change of voice and personality. This swiftly performed series of vocal changes was meant to thrill and amaze the audience.
Some of these early dummies were a bit naughty. They were specially made to puff on cigarettes or spit at the audience, while others could cry tears from their eyes or drip sweat from the brow. A few were even capable of movement beyond being held in the ventriloquist’s lap; they could stand and walk. Not all were humans either; some were animals, the precursors of some of the most loved puppets like Lamb Chop and the Muppets.
Even at the dawn of the modern 20th century, though, there were still many who thought that ventriloquism must be linked with the supernatural. Skilled ventriloquists were so talented and the dummies infused with such personality, that many in the crowd could not believe it was merely an entertainment act created solely by humans. The underlying sense of the mysterious, even the wicked, remained a part of ventriloquism and was sometimes encouraged by creating sinister dolls.
At the turn of the century, two pioneering ventriloquists stand out as the ones who molded the ventriloquist’s act into what it is today, a single performer with one doll. The ventriloquist now fades into a secondary position, while the dummy takes center stage, engaging the audience’s attention. Both Fred Russell of England and The Great Lester of the United States used this technique with great success. The Great Lester would serve as mentor to succeeding ventriloquists in this country.
As one of the most popular forms of live entertainment, ventriloquism flourished until the introduction of sound movies in the late 1920s, an entirely new form of entertainment that quickly captured a large share of the entertainment world. A revival of interest in ventriloquism grew from the popularity of Edgar Bergen. Hard to imagine today, Bergen and his sidekick, Charlie McCarthy, were made famous on their radio show that ran for almost 20 years. The incredible comedic talent of Edgar Bergen and his Charlie McCarthy could be fully appreciated even over the radio. Charlie with his top hat and monocle were an American icon. An inspiration to many following performers, Bergen continued his ventriloquist routines until his death.
The art of ventriloquism is best appreciated live; the illusion is so complete it is easy to see how for a millennium it was viewed as otherworldly and even nefarious. Some of the most famous ventriloquists and their dummies, though, were popularized through the medium of television. Running from 1947 to 1960, the Howdy Doody Show was an immensely popular children’s television show that featured the puppet Howdy with his red hair, freckled face, and big grin. Bob Smith, the ventriloquist, spoke with Howdy and the rest of the marionettes of Doodyville almost as if they were real to the delight of his vast audience of children.
Shari Lewis and her Lamb Chop were another favorite with children. From the 1960s to the end of the 1990s, children delighted at the endearing sock puppet and the talented ventriloquist Shari Lewis. Following her lead using a puppet form of ventriloquist’s doll, Jim Henson and his Muppets evolved from the art of ventriloquism. As he remained hidden during performances, Henson and his entourage may not technically qualify as a ventriloquist act, rather as marvels of puppetry. Fred Rodgers, another talented ventriloquist, delighted children for decades with his cast of characters in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
With an increase in the popularity of live comedy, ventriloquists continue to treat audiences. One of the latest twists in ventriloquist acts is the use of human “dummies” made popular by the entertainer, Paul Zerdin. With a strapped on faux dummy-mouth, his human dummies are a hilarious and clever development in the art of ventriloquism.
The ventriloquists dummies used by ventriloquists over the centuries started as simple wood or papier-mache mannequins with movable mouth parts. They have ranged from soft cloth puppets to elaborate modern fiberglass and resin models. Most were jointed so legs and arms could be positioned. Heads, the most crucial part, could detach from the body for safe storage during travel. Dummies were designed for the theater, with exaggerated features and oversized mouths so that even from the back row, they could be appreciated. When seen up close, many are a bit disconcerting, an effect well taken advantage of in horror movies featuring ventriloquist dolls! The majority of dolls are male, as the craft of ventriloquism has historically been male dominated.
The supernatural aspect of the ventriloquist’s act has always instilled fear in some. There is even a psychological term for obsessive fear of the dummies, automatonophobia. For those who view the dummies with fascination rather than outright fear, there are at least two major museums dedicated to the craft, one in Kentucky and another in Switzerland. The Kentucky museum has approximately 500 dolls ranging from anonymous characters to Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. The curator of the Kentucky museum explains that performers and their dolls form a very close relationship and donations to the museum are generally not made until the performer has passed away. Sometimes it is not until a third generation inherits the doll that it can be willingly parted with. This underscores the persistent belief that there is more to a ventriloquist’s act than simple entertainment!