There was a time when ventriloquism was considered evil. It was referred to as “belly talking”. People thought that the spirits of the dead were talking through the medium. Of course, it was really the medium using ventriloquism to fool others into believing in their “powers”. They were using what vents call the “distance voice” effect to make people believe they were hearing the voice of a departed loved one. Some people think the Witch of Endor in the Bible was actually a ventriloquist. From this interesting beginning the art of ventriloquism was born.
There are varied opinions as to when ventriloquism became an entertainment art.
Some say it started in Austria when Baron Von Mengen began using a small doll figure with a moving mouth. James Burns used vent to entertain crowds in the pubs of England.
Fred Russell is known as the “father of modern ventriloquism”. He and his figure, Joe, entertained in the theaters of London. His performances set the style for the ventriloquist acts we see today.
In 1900, L. Frank Baum published a book titled, “The Wizard of Oz”. The wizard was a ventriloquist. But since this was only mentioned in the book, not the movie, most people aren’t aware of this fact.
Vaudeville was the golden age of ventriloquism. Every theater in America had a vent with his wooden side-kick. The Great Lester and his side-kick Frank were vaudeville favorites.
When talking movies became popular vaudeville died off and as did ventriloquism. The difference was – vaudeville stayed dead – but ventriloquism revived! Edgar Bergen surprised everyone by showing that vent could be popular on the radio. Bergen’s characterization of Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd and Effie Klinker seemed so real, and his voices were so distinct, that even audiences who couldn’t see the figures enjoyed his program.
During the 1960s Paul Winchell hosted a children’s show called “Winchell – Mahoney Time”. Jerry Mahoney was Winchell’s cheeky vent figure and they were joined by Knucklehead Smiff. Winchell was a guest on many television shows including, “The Lucy Show”, “Dick Van Dyke Show”, and “The Beverly Hillbillies”. Jerry was always by his side for these appearances, even on game shows such as “What’s my Line?”.
Shari Lewis and her figures Lambchop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy had several successful children’s television shows. Shari also had a well received Las Vegas act for many years.
In 1977 a television show aired titled “Soap” featured Jay Johnson and his vent figure Bob as recurring characters on the program.
The Goosebumps series of children’s books featured several stories about a ventriloquist dummy named, Slappy. When certain magic words were said, Slappy came to life and caused all sorts of problems for the child who currently owned him.
Steve Taylor and Mark Wade are ventriloquists who make a full-time living working school and library shows.
Comedy clubs are home to many ventriloquists such as Ronn Lucas and Scorch and Jeff Dunham and Walter. Terry Fator has a vent show at the Mirage in Las Vegas.
From it’s beginnings as a tool for fake mediums, ventriloquism has come a long way.
Vaudeville, radio, books, television, and movies have all played a part in its history. You can be part of adding to the colorful world of ventriloquism.