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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

“My mom was a ventriloquist and she always was throwing her voice. For ten years I thought the dog was telling me to kill my father.”

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‘At the Vent Haven Museum the unsettling amazement is unremitting. In one room you almost feel as if you have bumbled onto a stage surrounded by a peculiar audience, each listener gawking in silence. In another the figures are arrayed in rows like Pinocchios who have finally made it to school. Just as no two humans are smart in precisely the same way, no two of these creatures are dummies in precisely the same way.

‘There is nothing quite like walking through the museum’s three small buildings on a residential street here and finding yourself mutely stared at by 1,400 eyes and grinned at by hundreds of painted lips over leathery chins. You are sharing company with beings barely this side of cartoon, bearing long proboscises or protruding goggle eyes, shapeless torsos and eerie charm. Lining the walls are photographs of these very figures perched on the knees or cradled against the shoulders of the men and women who once gave them voice: dummies and their ventriloquists.

‘The Vent Haven Museum grew out of the passion of William Shakespeare Berger, a Cincinnati businessman, who began accumulating the paraphernalia of the ventriloquist’s art in 1910. He later served as president of the International Brotherhood of Ventriloquists and before his death, in 1972, endowed this museum, which began in his home.

‘Ventriloquists, or vents as they call themselves, continue to donate dummies and photographs. In various rooms there are tributes to 20th-century vents like Edgar Bergen, Paul Winchell and Shari Lewis, along with displays about great dummy makers like Charles Mack, Frank Marshall and the McElroy Brothers. And while the 750 or so dummies do not seem overly impressed, their guild’s masters apparently are: every July more than 400 vents gather nearby for a “conVENTion,” which includes a visit to the museum to pay homage.

‘Walk among the dummies though, and you can almost hear the nattering rustle of jests and jokes. Two heads from 1820s London, made with papier-mâché and glass eyes, have the intensity of fine sculpture, with expressions so strong, they could not have been that versatile. Others, demonstrated by Ms. Sweasy, seem like autonomous beings who might consider becoming vents themselves.

‘But as Steven Connor’s 2001 book, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism, shows, such dummies are a recent phenomenon. The word “ventriloquist” comes from Latin roots alluding to speech from the belly — which means speech from anywhere but where we expect. The ability to throw one’s voice is cited by Hippocrates and alluded to in accounts of oracles. Cardinal Richelieu is said to have used a ventriloquist in 1624 to frighten one of his bishops. It wasn’t until the 18th century that it became widely used as entertainment. Modern ventriloquism was a rationalist rebellion against spiritualism; magic was turned into magic show.

‘But it wasn’t until the latter part of the 19th century that the disembodied voice found a secure home in a puppet. Here it isn’t just the voice that is thrown; it is the imagination. Psychological realism generally trumps physical realism: the dummy gives voice to the psyche. It is really the dummy who vents, saying things the vent cannot.

‘In horror films like Dead of Night (1945) or Magic (1978), the dummy, unleashed, wreaks havoc. On the other hand, vents like Shari Lewis cultivated the innocence of the thrown voice, while Señor Wences, with great virtuosity, turned a head in a box into an occasion for playful patter and farce. (Search YouTube.)

‘In recent years ventriloquism itself has come to seem less central. But not at Vent Haven. It is hard to imagine another place so clearly evoking the manifold powers and passions of the inner voice, simply by displaying figures who are its empty vessels — signs awaiting significance.’ — NYT

 

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‘Fear of ventriloquist’s dummies is called automatonophobia. It also includes fear of wax dummies or animatronic creatures. This fear can manifest itself in numerous ways; every individual who suffers from the fear being different. Similar to automatonophobia is pupaphobia which is the fear of puppets. Since inanimate objects do not pose any real harm to people, this fear is considered to be irrational. The cause of automatonophobia is currently unknown though it has been theorized that the fear derives from the members of a society’s expectations for how other human beings should behave. The inanimate objects associated with automatonophobia represent human beings, most being portrayed very realistically. People expect the same type of behavior from one another. These inanimate objects, though closely portraying humans, do not behave quite the same as real humans.

‘The origins of automatonophobia can be dated to thousands of years ago. It has been said that through necromancy, or divination by communication with the dead, “…that ventriloquism finds its origins.” At about 1500 BC the Israelites were outlawed from practicing necromancy. Even with the penalty of death enforced, the practice of necromancy still continued. Very similar to ventriloquists today, belly speakers arose. These speakers, or prophets, would pretend that dead spirits were speaking through them. To convince their audiences, the belly speakers would implement strategies that are still used by ventriloquists today. They would exercise tight lip control along with a voice other than their own. Necromancy, despite the many laws that were passed throughout the centuries, continued to flourish. Eventually it grew into a form of entertainment that the world associates with today.’ — collaged

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‘I’m at the Vent Haven ConVENTion where, each July, hundreds of ventriloquists, or “vents,” as they call themselves, gather from all over the world. For four days, they attend lectures on the business, getting advice on AV equipment, scriptwriting, or creating an audience through social networking. They listen to a keynote address by Comedy Central’s ventriloquist-in-residence, Jeff Dunham, who exhorts his notoriously defensive colleagues to “quit complaining that people say we’re weird. We talk to dolls. We are weird, ok. Just own it.” They eat at a Denny’s off the highway and visit the creationist museum down the road. And they don’t go anywhere without the accompaniment of their alter egos.

‘At the convention, the puppets are a slim but boisterous majority. They crowd in around you. They critique you. They grope you. They chatter continuously. Being around them approximates what it would be like to read people’s minds. It is a most unpleasant experience—a great deal more unsettling, of course, isn’t what they say but that they say anything at all. All over the hotel, in conference rooms, in hallways, at the bar, ventriloquism is practiced in its purest form: not as a stage show, but as an ongoing, unscripted social interaction, a live conversation between humans and their golems. At a drunken party one night, in the hotel’s “hospitality suite,” I witness one dummy operating another dummy, as the human source of both voices sits silently nearby, pretending to compose a text message. The mini bar has lips, which cruelly insult anyone who walks by, the origin of its voice impossible to determine. Almost as soon as I join the party, I am molested by a busty lady puppet, a faded showgirl. She swoons onto my shoulder. “Godaaamn,” she slurs. “Where have you been?” Her vent is a burly, unsmiling dude with a shaved head, a muscle shirt, and camo shorts. He smells strongly of whiskey. …

‘As I later learned, my brain was contending with the “ventriloquist effect,” first noted in a study in the 1890s but named by a research team in the 1960s. The basic insight, that “visual information biases the spatial localization of auditory events,” is a key finding in behavioral and neurological research. When it comes to spatial processing, human vision is, by dint of evolutionary adaptation, generally stronger than the auditory sense. (Which is perhaps why it’s infuriatingly difficult to locate a cellphone that is ringing two feet away from you if it’s concealed under a couch pillow.) Human perception, which functions by fusing simultaneous streams of sensory information, works on the assumption that if auditory and visual stimuli occur in proximity—close in both space and in time—they must be caused by a single source, the one you see. So when we watch lips moving in sync with an unrelated sound, our brain simply denies the confusion, the strange coincidence of these two events, and instead processes them as though they were one very normal speech act. Thus, a ventriloquist can modulate his voice to make it sound near or far, as though it were muffled in a box, or gurgling up from underwater, but he doesn’t actually “throw his voice” in any particular direction; he just tosses it to the audience and they—their eyes, their brain—place it in the lips of the dummy.

‘Ventriloquists tend to think of themselves as living on the cusp of extinction. (Even the word haven in Vent Haven suggests this sense of besiegement). In conversation, they deal with their angst by talking nostalgically of the days of vaudeville and of the era when Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were household names, back when vents were appreciated. But the best contemporary practitioners know from experience that when a ventriloquist act is executed well it is as mesmerizing and oddly irresistible as ever. An audience for it exists, as it always has; vents continue to be disdained and admired. The rise of Terry Fator is a case in point. Fator was a struggling vent from rural Texas who made his way to America’s Got Talent. When he walked up to the mic, one of the judges rolled his eyes and said, “Oh no, a ventriloquist?” By the end of the performance, however, the judges and the audience were on their feet. Fator won the competition and went on to sign a $100 million contract to headline at The Mirage, one of the largest entertainment deals in Vegas history. As long as there are humans and decoy lips, the ventriloquist effect will live on.’ — Avi Steinberg, The Paris Review

 

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‘When a skilled ventriloquist talks with the tongue without moving the mouth or face while sitting beside a figure (or “dummy”) that has a moving mouth, it looks like the figure is talking. It works because humans use their eyes to find sound sources. When the ventriloquist is not moving his mouth but the puppet’s mouth is moving, people think they “see” the figure talking.

‘Sit in front of a mirror and make a slight smile with your lips parted. Make your teeth lightly touch. Your tongue should have room to move. If you see your tongue moving in the mirror, then change your smile until the tongue is hidden. Your goal is to breathe easily and read aloud these 19 letters without moving your lips: A, C, D, E, G, H, I, J, K, L, N, O, Q, R, S, T, U, X, Z.

‘Practice the following sentences until they sound clear but your lips don’t move: “Hey, this rocks, dude! It is sooooo easy. Anything you can say, I can say, too!” If you sound muffled, try making your voice come from some higher place in your head as well as your mouth.

‘There are seven trickier letters: B, F, M, P, V, W and Y. These letters normally require you to move your lips. To say them without moving his face, the ventriloquist borrows from the easy alphabet, some other letters or combined sounds to “fake” the tricky letters. Use these substitutions: B = D, F = “eth,” M = N, P = T, V = “thee,” W and Y = O+I

‘B = D: Instead of saying “The Bad Boy Buys a Basket” the ventriloquist says, “The Dad Doy Duys a Dasket.” Try this in the mirror. At first, this substitution won’t sound right; but with practice, D can be made to sound like B. [Hint: When your tongue rises to the top inside of your mouth to make D, let it stick to the roof of your mouth a little longer before releasing. Also, say D but think B.]

‘F = ETH: Instead of saying “Phil is a Frisky, Funny Fellow,” try saying, “Thil is a Thrisky, Thunny Thellow.” Say the “eth” sound but think F as you do it.

‘M = N: “Mary Mashes Many Mangos” becomes “Nary Nashes Nany Nangos.” Make the N vibrate against the roof of your mouth. Keep thinking M.

‘P = T: “Peter is a Practice Pilot” becomes “Teter is a Tractice Tilot.” Try holding the T a little longer, then release with a little puff of air behind it.

‘V = THEE: “Vinnie Very much Values Victory” becomes “Thinny Thery nuch Thalues Thictory.”:

‘W AND Y = O+I: W and Y are treated alike. By quickly sliding the letters O and I together you can say “O-Aye” and it sounds like Why. Try putting a fast O to the front of the following: “Why Would Wally Walk?” You’ll be saying “O-Aye O-ould O-olly O-alk?” Now drop the O (or say it silently in your head), and you’ll be saying a clean W sound without using your lips.

‘In a short time, these substitutions become automatic. Practice for 15 to 20 minutes a day and in about a week you’ll see some serious results! Practice your ventriloquism with a relaxed puppet-like voice that is higher or lower than your own.’ — Boys Life Magazine





 

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‘At the risk of making a blanket generalization, people who devote their lives to pretending they’re having animated, ostensibly comic conversations with carved and painted blocks of wood tend to be seen as losers, weirdoes, lifelong virgins, and shut-ins. Ventriloquism is generally considered both a much-maligned and increasingly anachronistic facet of show business and a socially sanctioned form of mental illness, where the deeply unhinged are rewarded for arguing passionately with imaginary friends despite being adults.

‘Surely, one of the oddest things about the collision between the world of comedy and filmmaking is the meager supply of quality films featuring a protagonist who is a ventriloquist that aim strictly for laughs rather than fright. The ventriloquist’s dummy has somehow managed to transcend from a figure of humor in real life to an icon of horror on both the big and small screen. If you take a moment for perusal of this disconnect, I think you will agree that it verges on the exceptional.

‘It also raises the question of why audiences have found ventriloquist acts funny for as long as film has existed, but filmmakers apparently have not. True, the popularity of ventriloquism has waxed and waned over the years, but as an example of just well-liked this form of comedic entertainment can be, consider that one of the most popular radio shows of the Golden Age of Radio featured Edgar Bergen interacting with his dummy named Charlie McCarthy.

‘Let that fact sink in for a moment. A man making his living by fooling people into thinking that an inanimate doll is having a conversation with him by perfecting the art of speaking without moving his lips became a radio legend. Of course, in Bergen’s case, radio may have helped since he wasn’t the best at keeping his lips from moving. But the weirdness factor remains in place: Bergen’s massive radio audiences couldn’t have seen Bergen if he’d been moving his lips in the exaggerated fashion of a diction teacher!

‘Over the years, wildly popular ventriloquists who made audiences double over in laughter have included Shari Lewis, Jay Johnson, Willie Tyler, Paul Winchell and Jeff Dunham. You might be surprised to learn that legendary entertainers who performed as ventriloquists early in their career include Johnny Carson and Don Knotts.

‘Now let’s look at some actors who have played ventriloquists in the movies. Erich Von Stroheim, Lon Chaney Sr., Michael Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins. Those actors assaying the role of the ventriloquist are hardly what you’d call icons of comedy. So what’s the deal? Why is the ventriloquist and his dummy in real life right up there among such luminaries of the world of comedy entertainment as the impressionist, the clown, the insult comic, the cartoonist and the song parodist, but in the movies the exact same type of performer exhibiting the exact same talent is usually a psychopath suffering from some kind of multiple personality disorder?’ — collaged

 


‘Magic’


‘The Dummy’


‘The Ventriloquist’


‘The Unholy Three’


‘The Ventriloquist Cat’


‘The Pharmacist’


‘Dead Silence’


‘Tales From The Crypt/The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’


‘The Dummy’


‘Devil Doll’


‘Black Devil Doll from Hell’


‘When A Stranger Calls Back’

 

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p.s. Hey. I made this post back when I was making the theater work ‘The Ventriloquists Convention’ with Gisele Vienne. I think it holds up, no?

6 Comments

  1. I fear those puppets! I’m attracted to them, but I find them truly horrifying. And it is such an odd skill or art to throw one’s voice to another object or area in the room. It’s creepy!

  2. My grandfather’s dummy is called Charlie. He’s a bit more handsome than these guys. He looks like the 12th dummy in the first set of pics, just darker and blushed cheeks and a hat and that typical loose “block” mouth. He has a big grin and a look of total amazement in his eyes.

  3. Don’t know if I shared this before – some awesome ventriloquism here from Keith Harris back in the day.

  4. I’m excited that I will be seeing the new Errol Morris film, THE B-SIDE, at the New York Film Festival next Tuesday.

    I finally re-scheduled my doctor’s appointment for next Wednesday.

  5. Hello Dennis
    congrats, interesting article, by the way concerning the ventriloquists convention performed by Giselle Vienne, first und second of february 2017, I sent you messages via the contact of dennis-cooper.net and your Facebook, I’m conscient that I’m not the only one. But if you have some seconds to check it out and to reply (subject is an invitation to our Festival Bruits de Langues – the same time 30th of January to second of february)
    Grazie mille, Tausend Dank and all my respect
    Martin

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