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.

Author: Maegen

My name is Maegen and I work in the Customer Service department for Frankel's Costumes. Most of my knowledge for costumes comes from anything ranging from movies, video games and cartoons to period studies and literature. Oh, and I am a nerd.

Leave a Reply