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All About Ventriloquism Theater

All About Ventriloquist Theater Header

Ventriloquism is the art of throwing one's voice, or speaking without letting the lips move. It is letting your voice speak through an effigy, or an inanimate object such as a wooden doll or a puppet that you take control of through dialect and movement. When entertaining, the entertaining artist does the talking in reality, but it appears that the doll or object is speaking. You cannot see the lip movement of the entertainer who is in charge of the performance or the dummy. A person who entertains using the art of "throwing the voice" is called a ventriloquist. A ventriloquist is nothing without his dummy or puppet, for the toy takes center stage in the act. However, the wooden doll is nothing without its Ventriloquist. The two become one when performing and entertaining.


Edgar Bergen and Mortimer Snerd

The art of ventriloquism started out in 6th century B.C., in a Greek temple located in Delphi. It was here that Priestess Phyia would go into a trance and speak without showing any movement of the lips. To the spectators, the performance looked like the voice being heard was coming from the heavens or from a sacred object that was worshipped during this time period; appearing as the voice of the god Apollo. However, it was only the trick of the ventriloquist deceiving the audience with her master of voice deception. In early history, this art was referred to as gastromancy, projecting the voice from deep within the diaphragm and without obvious lip movement. Early history tells us that a ventriloquist was called a belly speaker; simply because the word "ventre" meant belly, and "loqui" meant to speak. After the civil war and during the Vaudeville days, ventriloquists showed their talent on stages using objects and live animals when they entertained and deceived their audience. Once these entertaining acts made it to America, the shows were put on live radio, television and in films. One of the most famous or noted ventriloquist of this time was Edgar Bergen and his wooden doll that he called Charley McCarthy.

Ventriloquial Dummies and Puppets

When it comes to a ventriloquist and his dummy, there are three basic and important factors to consider when thinking about giving this form of entertainment a try. The basics are; lip control, manipulation and having a puppet to work with. One must learn to speak without moving the lips, which means learning how to use Axtell expressions, and taking control of your mouth movement. A dummy or puppet not only needs the voice of the ventriloquist to look and feel real, the artist will also have to learn how to manipulate the doll, and bring actions and movement that will bring the inanimate object to life. In other words, the job of the ventriloquist is to give the doll an independent life.

Close Up on Vintage Dummy

One of the first things to consider in creating a ventriloquist act and one of the most important is having a unique doll to entertain with. You have two options to go with, hard figured dolls or soft figured ones that you can order pacifically or make your own. Hard figured dummies are made of wood or some sturdy material which is cast from moulds. Manipulation control takes place in the back of the dummy where there is a hole to slip the hand in. The fingers and thumb are used to control the movement of the head, eyes, ears and lips of the dummy, bringing the doll to life. The doll's facial expression will also show his personality as well as the dialect, his tone of voice and his way with words, which are spoken from script.

When deciding on a puppet or dummy, think of the character that you want to express; include in its profile his or her characteristics, their likes and dislikes. Include the character's disposition and his mental attitude; is it easy going, or is it mouthy, opinionated and funny? Last but not least, when crafting or looking for the perfect dummy for a ventriloquist act, keep in mind who your intended audience will be. After all, you do not want adult material for an audience of children. If you plan on performing for young school age children, you may not want a dummy who looks frightening, evil or something looking like it will bring nightmares. Your puppet and your script will have to be age appropriate or audience appropriate.

Creating Sounds in Ventriloquism

If you are wondering what makes for a good ventriloquist, besides having a unique doll to compliment the act, another aspect is having an act that is laced in humor to wow the audience. The ventriloquist must be original, funny and know how to trick the minds of the audience as to what they are actually hearing when communication is taking place between the dummy and the ventriloquist.

Speaking as mentioned earlier is done without lip movement. Some letters of the alphabet you can already say without moving the lips. But then there are those letters such as B, F, M, P, Q, V and W that are a lot trickier. The ventriloquist remedies this situation by using sound substitutes; this substitute usually happens at the beginning of a word. The artist then forms the word using the back of the throat, substituting letters for sounds. For instance, the letter B becomes a "geh" sound in the back of the throat of a ventriloquist. An example of the substitution is the word banjo. The ventriloquist will do an automatic sound substitution, turning banjo into "gehn-jo" The trick is fooling the audience, making them believe and hear the opposite of what is said as far as word pronunciation and letters are concerned. The ventriloquist must memorize the sound substitute for all the letters of the alphabet. When he and the dummy are in conversation, the sounds must come natural and free flowing when spoken in dialogue. When done correctly, the audience only hears what the ventriloquist intends for them to hear as far as word pronunciations are concerned and when throwing his or her voice.

Fun and Interesting Facts

  • Louis Brabant is the first known ventriloquist though the art dates back all the way to Egyptian times.

  • Buffalo Bob with a Howdy Doody Dummy
  • The first ventriloquist credited with using a "knee figure" dummy was Fred Russell.

  • Ventriloquist dummies are generally made up of 88 parts with 44 of them being used just for the eyelids and mouth.

  • Ventriloquist dummies used by professionals are often constructed by hand; while a molded dummy takes approximately 40 hours to complete, a hand carved dummy can take approximately 120 hours to complete.

  • Fort Mitchell, Kentucky is home to the Vent-Haven Ventriloquist Museum which houses one of the largest collection of ventriloquist dummies in the world.

Further Resources

Links to More Interesting Information on Ventriloquism and Ventriloquists


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