‘Hey, strictly speaking’: An inside look at the world of ventriloquism


Design by Alexander Aghayere

An inside look at the evolving world of ventriloquism

By Jeremy Freeman Contributing Writer

It was a cool, fall day in 1985 when Jonathan Geffner, 32, was wandering aimlessly around Manhattan.

He had dropped out of a doctoral program in piano performance at New York University and was unfulfilled despite his achievements as a professional pianist, improvisational actor and teacher of acting.

Everything changed, though, when he came across a ventriloquist performing on the street. He had never seen a ventriloquist live and became mesmerized. “This is what I must do with my life,” he remembered thinking.

“I began going to every ventriloquist performance I could find,” Geffner said. “Luckily, I was a New Yorker, so it was not too difficult to find them.” Within a couple of months, he was performing professionally, first at birthday parties, then at schools and organizations. 

“Within one year, ventriloquism was my main source of income and it remains such today. I truly love it,” he said.

Geffner’s epiphany is not uncommon. Ventriloquists have entertained for centuries, but a notion has taken hold that ventriloquism has fallen to the wayside in today’s technologically advanced society. Geffner, now a successful stage ventriloquist, said he wants people to know ventriloquism is far from dying.

Tom Crowl, who has been a ventriloquist since 2005 and a fan of the perfor- mance art form, agrees that it is making a comeback.

“Ventriloquism has never really been a dying art,” Crowl said. “Just because people did not see it for years doesn’t make it a dying art. If you stop and think over the years, some of the biggest performers were ventriloquists.” Crowl noted the success of Paul Winchell, an actor and ventriloquist best known for voicing Tigger in the original “Winnie the Pooh” episodes.

More recently, the annual “Vent Haven ConVENTion” has seen surges in attendance throughout the last few years, according to Lisa Sweasy, the curator of the Vent Haven Museum, located in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, which proudly displays the biggest collection of ventriloquist dummies in the world with 871 figures.

Sweasy said a few years ago only 400 people attended the convention; now that number has jumped to 600.

Many artists today see the modern face of ventriloquism embodied in Jeff Dunham, a Texan who stormed into the mainstream in 2003 with his first Comedy Central appearance, which featured an array of characters in skits.

Dunham has sold out arenas across the globe with five highly successful tours. His memorable lineup of characters ranges from grumpy old Walter to Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a suicide bomber speaking from the grave. Dunham made ventriloquism accessible to the masses, inspiring a new generation of ventriloquists.

Following in Dunham’s footsteps are “America’s Got Talent” contestant Terry Fator, who won season two of the show with his unique lineup of characters and this year’s “AGT” winner Paul Zerdin. While their characters are risque and topical, the ori- gins of ventriloquism reside in magic.

The art form got its start in the late 1700s and early 1800s when French author Jean-Baptiste de La Chappelle first described it in the book, “Le Ventriloque, Ou L’ engas- trimythe”—French for “the ventriloquist and ventril- oquism”—and explained the art as a magic trick.

The flowering of vaudeville in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought ventriloquism to the United States.

One early American ventriloquist was native Chicagoan Edgar Bergen, who was a foil to his wisecracking dummies Charlie McCarthy, a monocled wise guy, and Mortimer Snerd, his slow-witted character, in his shows.

“Bergen approached ventriloquism in a different way than most ventriloquists in the past,” said Tom Ladshaw, an expert on ventriloquism. 

“Before Bergen, you had a guy with a wooden puppet who would just make jokes. That was the act, and everybody thought ‘Yeah, that’s funny.’ Bergen added another dimension to it; he was really the first guy—particularly in the U.S.—to give those characters personality.”

As Bergen continued to pave the way, more artists joined the scene, including Chicago-native Jimmy Nelson, who instantly became one of the most recognized ventriloquists with the onset of television in the 1950s and 1960s. 

“I had a lot running through my mind during my first television appearance,” Nelson said. “Everything was live. There were very few shows that were taped. It was in Chicago, on a local television show in a studio on top of the old State and Lake building. They had two cameras [and] there was really no format. An emcee said ‘We have a young ventriloquist now on the show by the name of Jimmy Nelson. Jimmy, go ahead and do your stuff.’ So I did my act, and the response was good enough that they had me back the following week.”

Nelson’s characters Danny O’ Day and Farfel the dog changed over the years, reflecting whatever Nelson was going through at the time, he said.

What made Bergen and Nelson so entertaining was the time and effort they put into developing their characters. They didn’t just pick up a puppet and create a voice—they created characters for their puppets that had depth and simultaneously appealed to children and their parents.

“A lot of amateur acts don’t flesh out their main character enough,” Crowl points out. “They will pull a puppet out, spend six to eight minutes on them, then pull out another puppet and spend six to eight minutes with that one. It becomes just a montage of puppets with no real characters.”

Characters often derive from an event or person that impacted the performer’s life. According to Jerry Breeden, a ventriloquist from Spokane, Washington, his character Mildred is 

modeled after someone dear to his heart. “Mildred is an older lady who used to be a neighbor of mine,” he said. “I just remember she made dynamite chocolate chip cookies.”

Using the simple memory of eating chocolate chip cookies, Breeden said he was able to develop a character his viewers responded to because everyone has fond memories of a neighbor or relative who was a baker. That emotional connection is vital, he said.

“If the audience cannot connect with the characters, all you are going to have on stage is someone playing with a puppet,” Crowl said.

Besides offering entertainment, ventriloquism also warms the hearts of people who are in a dark place in their lives, Breeden said. The prospect of making someone’s life even just a bit better is ample motivation to get on stage, he explained.

“It was a warm Christmas Eve in a small Mexican border town in 1990,” Breeden said. “I was part of a team that brought down truckloads of various gifts wrapped in shoeboxes for the children in this town. These kids never received gifts before in the past, so that was a special moment. I brought out Scotty, my young character, and he did a little show with the kids afterwards. It was truly an incredible moment in my life.”

Trish Dunn, a ventriloquist from North Carolina said ventriloquism will continue to gain popularity because of Jeff Dunham and other rising stars. Dunn said she is excited to see what is in store for the future of ventriloquism.

“What makes ventriloquism really exciting in the near future is the fact that our young people and our teenagers spend so much time with everything being perfect,” Dunn said. “Like the graphics on video games are perfect. Everything is computer perfect, and I think the wonder of ventriloquism is that it is still a person that’s creating an illusion, and these up-and-comers are going to be really special to watch.”