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Ventriloquism, or ventriloquy, is an act of stagecraft in which a person (a ventriloquist) changes his or her voice so that it appears that the voice is coming from elsewhere, usually a puppeteered "dummy". The act of ventriloquism is ventriloquizing, and the ability to do so is commonly called in English the ability to "throw" one's voice.
Originally, ventriloquism was a religious practice. The name comes from the Latin for to speak from the stomach, i.e. venter (belly) and loqui (speak). The Greeks called this gastromancy (Greek: εγγαστριμυθία). The noises produced by the stomach were thought to be the voices of the unliving, who took up residence in the stomach of the ventriloquist. The ventriloquist would then interpret the sounds, as they were thought to be able to speak to the dead, as well as foretell the future. One of the earliest recorded group of prophets to utilise this technique was the Pythia, the priestess at the temple of Apollo in Delphi, who acted as the conduit for the Delphic Oracle.
One of the most successful early gastromancers was Eurykles, a prophet at Athens; gastromancers came to be referred to as Euryklides in his honour. In the Middle Ages, it was thought to be similar to witchcraft. As Spiritualism led to stage magic and escapology, so ventriloquism became more of a performance art as, starting around the 19th century, it shed its mystical trappings.
Emergence as entertainment
The shift from ventriloquism as manifestation of spiritual forces toward ventriloquism as entertainment happened in the eighteenth century at the travelling funfairs and market towns. The earliest recorded ventriloquists date back to as early as 1753 in England, where Sir John Parnell is depicted in an engraving of William Hogarth as speaking via his hand. In 1757, the Austrian Baron de Mengen implemented a small doll into his performance.
By the late 18th century, ventriloquist performances were an established form of entertainment in England, although most performers threw their voice to make it appeared that it emanated from far away, rather than the modern method of using a puppet. A well known ventriloquist of the period, Joseph Askins, who performed at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in London in the 1790s advertised his act as "curious ad libitum Dialogues between himself and his invisible familiar, Little Tommy". However, other performers were beginning to incorporate dolls or puppets into their performance, notably the Irishman James Burne who "... carries in his pocket, an ill-shaped doll, with a broad face, which he exhibits ... as giving utterance to his own childish jargon," and Thomas Garbutt.
The entertainment came of age during the era of the music hall in the United Kingdom and vaudeville in the United States. George Sutton began to incorporate a puppet act into his routine at Nottingham in the 1830s, but it is Fred Russell who is regarded as the father of modern ventriloquism. In 1886, he was offered a professional engagement at the Palace Theatre in London and took up his stage career permanently. His act, based on the cheeky-boy dummy "Coster Joe" that would sit in his lap and 'engage in a dialogue' with him was highly influential for the entertainment format and was adopted by the next generation of performers. (A blue plaque has been embedded in a former residence of Russell by the British Heritage Society which reads 'Fred Russell the father of ventriloquism lived here').
Fred Russell's successful comedy team format was applied by the next generation of ventriloquists. It was taken forward by the British Arthur Prince with his dummy Sailor Jim, who became one of the highest paid entertainers on the music hall circuit, and by the Americans The Great Lester who used only figure, Frank Byron, Jr., and Edgar Bergen. Bergen popularised the idea of the comedic ventriloquist. Bergen, together with his favourite figure, Charlie McCarthy, hosted a radio program that was broadcast from 1937 to 1956. It was the #1 program on the nights it aired. Bergen continued performing until his death in 1978, and his popularity inspired many other famous ventriloquists who followed him, including Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson, David Strassman, Jeff Dunham, Terry Fator, Shari Lewis, Willie Tyler and Jay Johnson. Another ventriloquist popular in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s was Señor Wences.
The art of ventriloquism was popularised by Y. K. Padhye in North India and Mr M M Roy in South India, who are believed to be the pioneers of this field in India. Mr Y K Padhye's son Ramdas Padhye took from him and made the art popular amongst the masses through his performance on television. His son Satyajit Padhye continues to carry on the legacy of his grandfather. Similarly, Mr Venky Monkey, Mr Mimicry Srinivos and Mr Shanthakumar, the students of Mr M M Roy, popularize this art by giving shows in India and abroad.
Ventriloquism's popularity waned for a while, probably because of modern media's electronic ability to convey the illusion of voice, the natural special effect that is the heart of ventriloquism. In the U.K. in the 2000s there were only 15 full-time professional ventriloquists, down from around 400 in the 50s and 60s. A number of modern ventriloquists have developed a following as the public taste for live comedy grows. In 2001, Angelique Monét performed on Theater Row her one-woman off-Broadway show Multiple Me(Written by Edgar Chisholm) where she portrayed several personalities using multiple dummies to display the shifts. In 2007, Zillah & Totte won the first season of Sweden's Got Talent and became one of Sweden's most popular family/children entertainers.
Making the right sounds
One difficulty ventriloquists face is that all the sounds that they make must be made with lips slightly separated. For the labial sounds f, v, b, p, and m, the only choice is to replace them with others. A widely-parodied example of this difficulty is the "gottle o' gear", from the reputed inability of less skilled practitioners to pronounce "bottle of beer". If variations of the sounds th, d, t, and n are spoken quickly, it can be difficult for listeners to notice a difference.
Modern ventriloquists utilise a variety of different types of puppets in their presentations, ranging from soft cloth or foam puppets (Verna Finly's work is a pioneering example), flexible latex puppets (such as Steve Axtell's creations) and the traditional and familiar hard-headed knee figure (Tim Selberg's mechanized carvings). The classic dummies used by ventriloquists (the technical name for which is ventriloquial figure) vary in size anywhere from twelve inches tall to human-size and larger, with the height usually falling between thirty-four and forty-two inches. Traditionally, this type of puppet has been made from papier-mâché or wood. However, in modern times, other materials are often employed, including fiberglass-reinforced resins, urethanes, filled (rigid) latex, and neoprene.
Great names in the history of dummy making include Frank Marshall (the Chicago creator of Bergen's Charlie McCarthy, Nelson's Danny O'Day, and Winchell's Jerry Mahoney), Theo Mack and Son (Mack carved Charlie McCarthy's head), Revello Petee, Kenneth Spencer, Cecil Gough, and Glen & George McElroy.
Fear of ventriloquist's dummies
Fear of ventriloquist's dummies is called automatonophobia. It also includes fear of wax dummies or animatronic creatures. Films and programs which refer to dummies that are alive include Magic, Dead of Night, The Twilight Zone, Poltergeist, Devil Doll, Dead Silence, Child's Play (1988 film), Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Goosebumps, Seinfeld (the episode "The Chicken Roaster"), ALF (the episode "I'm Your Puppet"), and Doctor Who. Literary examples of frightening ventriloquist dummies include Gerald Kersh's The Horrible Dummy and the story "The Glass Eye" by John Keir Cross.
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- Burton, Maxine et al. (2008). Improving Reading – Phonics and Fluency. National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy, University of London. p. 10. ISBN 978-1-906395-07-0.
Note the lip movement for 'big'. This is, of course, the origin of the ventriloquist's 'gottle o' gear'.
- "Look Inside A Dummy's Head." Popular Mechanics, December 1954, pp. 154–157.
- "Ventriloquism LEGEND Profile: Jimmy Nelson". TalkingComedy.com.
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- Leigh Eric Schmidt (1998) "From Demon Possession to Magic Show: Ventriloquism, Religion, and the Enlightenment". Church History. 67 (2). 274-304.
- Ventriloquism, A Dissociated Perspective by Angela Mabe
- The Catholic Encyclopedia's Necromancy entry
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