Ventriloquism

Ventriloquism

Introduction

            Ventriloquism is an ancient stage act alternatively termed as ventriloquay. The performer of the stagecraft or ventriloquist manipulates his/her voice so that it appears to emanate from elsewhere-either from a distant source or a ‘dummy’ or puppet held close by. The act of manipulating one’s voice in ventriloquism is termed as voice ‘throwing.’ The puppeteered dummy is now an integral part of ventriloquizing, however, this was not the case in the early developments of the art, whose roots can be traced back to necromancy (Howard 101). Traditional ventriloquist puppets that are technically termed as ventriloquial figures had human-like heads and were made from wood and fabric. The faces of the puppets have moving moths and some can even be made to turn their head and make eye movements. The illusion of the talking dummy relies on the basic mouth movement, which when synchronized the voice offers appearance of a speaking mouth. Mimicry is the essence of performing the art. The illusion is achieved based on the fact that the hearing senses experience difficulty in determining with certainty the exact source and direction of the sounds heard. The ventriloquist takes advantage of this fact by mimicking distant and near sounds, while at the same time misdirecting the audience.

History of Ventriloquism

            Originally, the art of ventriloquism was closely associated with elements of necromancy, and as religious practice it was thought as an art used to communicate with the dead (Howard 101). In the middle Ages the art was thought to be akin to witchcraft. This art was called gastromancy by the Greeks, who believed that the voices produced through ventriloquism were sounds of spirits of the dead speaking through the priest’s stomach where they resided. The term ventriloquism bears some association of this belief because it was coined from the Latin words ‘loqui’ (to speak) and ‘venter’ (belly)-literarily ‘belly speaking.’ In ancient times, the sounds from the belly were thought to communicate information from the dead as well as foretell about things to come (Howard 101).

The first and probably authentic mention of this art is derived from the First Book of Samuel in the Bible. In this book within the Hebrew Bible, King Saul who ruled in the middle of the 11th Century B.C.E. consulted the witch of Endor. According to the book’s account, King Saul was worried about an imminent battle with his enemies. As such, he sought the services of the witch of Endor who supposedly had powers to summon spirits for divination (Mabe 1). In this Hebraic account, the translation of the text states that it was a voice speaking from a wineskin or jug, which typically denotes ventriloquism. In Moses’ Mosaic Law given about 15 centuries before Christ, the consultation of familiar spirits in Jew community was forbidden. However, the Hebrew that had spent a lot of their time in captivity in Egypt were evidently used to the voices in this form of consultation to an extent that one of their prophets likens the voice to the power of a sanctified utterance in the book of Isaiah (Mabe 1). According to Jimmy in the book of Isaiah the prophet states that “And thy voice shall be as one that hath a familiar spirit out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust (Isaiah 29: 4).” The art of gastromancy, which in essence is ventriloquism, is also mentioned in the New Testament’s book of Acts. In Acts (16:16-18), a story is told of a girl that was possessed by a ‘spirit of a python,’ and she followed the apostle Paul and his apostles around the city in Thyatrira, where she cried out after them.

Another of the early recordings of this art in literature also shows that a group of prophets in the temple of Apollo in Delphi were the first to use the art. The priestess Pythia from the temple was one among the prophets that acted as a conduit of communication for the Delphic oracle. Eurykles was perhaps one of the early successful gastromancers in the same period in Athens. Due to his success as a gastromancer and prophet, gastromancers after him were referred to as Euryklides in the honour or Eurykles (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Ventriloquism also found use in other regions of the world where it was used for religious or ritual purposes. In history, the art has been practiced among the Inuit, Maori and Zulu people from South Africa, and thus implying it may have been a globally diverse phenomenon (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The art maintained its religious association till the Middle Ages after which spiritualism laid ground for escapology and magic at the onset of the 19th century. In the 19th century the art started shading off its spiritual association, and ventriloquism started to become more of an art of performance.

The Past of Ventriloquism

            The initial association of ventriloquism with necromancy, gastromancy and spiritualism led to its unpopular view among the Christian fraternity. Though popular, many people have believed that the art was a result of a supernatural gift rather than a talent. As soon as Christianity grew popular, anything associated with the consultation of dead or spirits was termed evil. As such, ventriloquists were considered as witches in the middle ages, and they were punished for communicating with the devil. Due to this consideration, it was not until the 16th Century that the art of ventriloquism made a comeback, but then as a form of amusement rather than an art of spiritualism. The report, “Ventriloquism: A Dissociated Perspective” by Angela Mabe states that ventriloquism started to develop as an amusement art in England during the 16th century. According to Mabe (1), the art developed in to a form of entertainment by the 18th Century both in North America and Europe.

During the comeback in the 16th century, Louis Brabant became the first known ventriloquist. However, at this time the mystical association had not died, and Brabant was regarded as a prophet of sorts. Brabant acted as the valet to the King of France during the 16th century-King Frances I. At the same time, ventriloquism emerged as a form of entertainment in England. King James I often used it as a form of amusement in his royal court. As the art gained popularity the church finally grew lenient towards its earlier stand on the art (Mabe, 1). The art continued to grow and in 1750 Baron Von Mengen introduced the use of a doll figure with a mouth in his performances (Mabe 1). Mengen synchronized the doll’s mouth movements with the voice, and thus giving the impression that the doll was speaking. From this clever trick, a revolution in the art began to take place-a revolution in which the use of a puppet or doll would become synonymous with the art of ventriloquism (Mabe 1). Despite the fact that the 16th and 17th  century ventriloquists were the first notable ventriloquists, all the 16th and 17th century ventriloquists were less known when compared to Fred Russell, who is considered ‘the father of modern ventriloquism’. Fred Russell came into ventriloquism in the late 18th century. He was preceded by other famous ventriloquists of the 18th century such as James Burn-a native Irish also popularly known as ‘Squeaking Tommy,’ and his successor Thomas Haskey. In the same period, other ventriloquists also came up in America including Richard Potter (1801) and Nicholas Mari Vattermare.

Fred Russell is known for being the first ventriloquist to use a sitting puppet in his performances.  Fred started public performances in 1882. After the start off as a hobby, he was offered a chance to make regular performances at London’s Palace theatre, and from this point his career took an upward trend (Mabe 1). Fred is known for pioneering the use of a single figure named Joe. Fred’s performances became a revolution for the art, which drove it to its popular platform. Fred’s style or format would later become a benchmark for most ventriloquists. Following in Fred’s footsteps, Arthur Prince became one of the most highly paid ventriloquists of his time after closely following in the performance footsteps of Fred Russell (Mabe 1). The most popular type of ventriloquay performance in recent times has been that of a nightclub performer sited on a stool with a puppet on the lap. This was a style developed in the vaudeville days within the 19th century. The vaudeville performances focus less on humour, instead they focus on the ability of the performer to change voices and deceive the audience. As such, most performers of this time used different figures or puppets to depict the different personalities by switching the figures and voices. Jules Vernon is one of the famous vaudeville performers known for using multiple dummies.

The popularity of ventriloquism continued into the 20th century courtesy of performers such as Lester and Edgar Bergen. Bergen is noted for being the first internationally recognized entertainer and ventriloquist. He is also famous for popularizing the idea of comedy within the art, and also for pioneering in radio performances in the 1930s to the 1950s. The start of radio airing opened a new front for ventriloquism and Bergen’s show is remembered for being the number one show on radio during its time. Bergen’s work notably inspired other ventriloquists that came after him such as Jay Johnson, Paul Winchell, Willie Tyler, Jimmy Nelson, Shari Lewis, Jeff Dunham, David Strassman, Senor Wences and Terry Fator (Vox 51).

From Europe to America and finally to the whole of the globe, ventriloquism has traversed borders and cultures in its development. One such example is the development of its popularity in India. In India, the art was popularized by Padhye, Y. K. who pioneered the art in the country (Mabe 1). Padhye’s work has been continued by his son who has expanded the performances on to television. The art is now not only popular in India, but also in nations all over the globe (Mabe 1).

The Present in ventriloquism

The development of modern ventriloquism started in the late 19th century when the acts were taken to nightclubs. The performances started with a focus on deceiving the audience, and later advanced into comedy and humour. The next step in the modernization process perhaps began with radio airing of ventriloquists’ shows by Bergen. After this advancement a notable decline and seemingly potential end occurred. The start of the end of popular ventriloquism began in the 1920s due to the development of the film industry. The popularity of the art waned for some time, perhaps because the ability of modern media to convey the voice illusion, which is the special affect that forms the core of ventriloquism (Mabe 1).

In spite of the negative effect from advancements in media, ventriloquism was able to revive its success due to new avenues provided by these advancements. As television and film became popular, performers came up with idea of taking ventriloquism to the people via television and film. Buffalo Smith Bob is one of the popular pioneers that took ventriloquism to television. Buffalo and his cowboy dummy called Howdy Dowdy developed a ventriloquism-based television show, which started in 1940 and aired for about one decade (Mabe 1). This was followed by Lamb Chop, which was Shari Lewis’ dummy in a ventriloquist show by the same name in the 1950s and 1960s (Mabe 1). Lewis’ puppet ‘Lamb chop’ was famous in many children television shows such as ‘Captain Kangaroo’ and ‘Lamb chops play along.’ From radio to television, and finally to the movies ventriloquism has been able to survive the advancements in communication technology and media. These transformations have enable ventriloquism to continue airing through radio, television and movies (Mabe 1).

Another notable transformation in the field of ventriloquism into its modern state includes the changes in puppets and dummies used. Modern performers of the art use different figures in their performances. These range from foam or soft cloth puppets to flexible latex dummies instead of the traditional hard-headed knee figure. The classic figures used by performers vary in size from 10 inches to human-sized figures or even larger (Lincoln 155). This is quite different when compared to the past when figures were normally smaller than human-size. Traditionally, the figures were made from wood or papier-mâché. However, currently other materials such as neoprene, rigid latex, urethanes, and fibreglass-reinforced resins are used (Lincoln 154). In fact, there is a whole industry around the dummy making business. Popular names in the dummy making business include Cecil Gough, Frank Marshall (maker of Bergen’s McCarthy), Kenneth Spencer, and Theo Mack and Son-among many others.  The present prominent suppliers of professional dummies include Conrad Hartz, Albert Alfaro, Tim Selberg, Geoffrey Felix, Steve Axtell and Ray Guyll-among many others (Lincoln 157).

Notably, in the current times ventriloquism is also making a comeback in its original, live form. This is emerging as the art shifts its focus from entertainment on to educative purposes. Ventriloquism is now more than just an art of amusement. The number of uses of the art is ever increasing at a fascinating rate. The current developed uses include therapy for children with speech and social problems, sales and marketing, education, prevention programs, religious and ministry instruction as well as motivational talks (Detweiler 1). All these are new areas of application of the art that have recently emerged out of research and innovative creations. As such, ventriloquism is no longer restricted to entertainment. This new twist has given ventriloquism a new and more serious role in society.

These new avenues have led to the packaging of ventriloquism as one of the performing arts. As such, curriculums and tutorials have developed around the topic as well as further research on application and development. According to Detweiler, now people can read and learn about ventriloquism for the purpose of using it in various ways in life. In fact there is a whole field of knowledge coalescing around ventriloquism and it is becoming a serious profession that offers employment in the training sector, performance sector and authorship of literary material as well as production of films and radio programs centred on ventriloquism. It is also partly a business in which people can organize shows, plan and deliver lessons on ventriloquism as well as sell material such as CDs, books or even dummies.

As professionals, ventriloquists can now work as street entertainers, therapists, social educators or travel as part of carnivals. According to ‘The Art Career Project,’ others may specialize in training of aspiring ventriloquists. Institutions that commonly hire ventriloquists include schools, churches, zoos, youth centres, nightclubs, theatres, radio and television stations, and community centres (The Art Career Project 1). In essence, most of the ventriloquists are a self-employed lot, and they are paid on an hourly rate or contractual manner pegged on the number of shows. Although there is no clear information on pay rates, information recorded for performers in the art by the Bureau of Labour and statistics shows that performers and entertainers in ventriloquism made an average of $23.34 dollars per hour of performance in 2010. However, ventriloquists can make more than this depending on their location, level of talent and the demand for their services. Individuals seeking a career in ventriloquism have various options when seeking the right degree program. The appropriate degree programs may include theatre arts, drama and acting.

In conclusion, ventriloquism has significantly developed from its old roots as a spiritual “belly speaking” shrouded in mystery into a formal art with many uses in society that pervade numerous spheres in life. For decades the dummies have ‘spoken’ and now they have moved out of entertainment circles into classes, therapy sessions, classrooms and on to broadcast media where they reach out to millions for educative, informative and therapeutic purposes-just to mention, but a few. Ventriloquism has now been fully integrated into performing arts and can be taught like any other performing art in any formal institutions. In spite of the decline in ventriloquism performance occasioned by media developments in the early 1920s, the art is still as vibrant as ever. The advances in television, radio and the film industries have provided new avenues for ventriloquism, which have just added to its expansion from traditional live performances. In addition to this, live performances still draw large crowds and audiences in theatres. In fact, according to the Chicago Tribune, the International Ventriloquist Association still attracts hundreds of dummy-lovers each year (Knopper 1).

 

Works Cited

Detweiler, Clinton. “Maher Ventriloquist Course.” mahercourse.blogspot.com/, n.d. Web. 18th Sept. 2013.

General Books LLC. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition, Volume 8, Slice 3 Destructors to Diameter, Volume 8. Memphis, Tennessee, 1911. Print.

Howard, R. Punch and Judy in 19th Century America: A History and Biographical Dictionary, p.101, Jefferson: North Carolina, 2013. Print.

Jimmy Cox. “A Brief Look at the History of Ventriloquism,” Ventriloquist David Strassman, 2008. Web. 18th Sept. 2013.

Knopper, Steve. “Dummy films give voice to dying art of ventriloquism.” Chicago Tribune, October 02, 2003. Web. 18th Sept. 2013.

Lincoln, L. Marshall. Popular Mechanics: January 1954, pp. 154-157, Hearst Magazines, Midtown Manhattan: NY, 1954. Print.

Mabe, Angela. “Ventriloquism: A Dissociated Perspective,” unc.edu/, April 18th, 2000. Web. 18th Sept. 2013.

The Art Career Project. “Ventriloquism Careers for Dummies,” theartcareerproject.com/, 2013. Web. 18th Sept. 2013.

Vox, Valentine. The History and Art of Ventriloquism. Hong Kong, China: Kaye & Ward Limited, 1981. Print.

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