||Playing with dolls is probably not a good career path, or so many guidance councilors would tell students, but these entertainers are probably glad they didn’t heed that advice! Ventriloquism became popular in vaudeville in the late 19th century up to the 19050s. For a while, automatonophobia (or fear of the ventriloquist’s dummy) and horror movies seemed to have dampened the rise of ventriloquism as a form of entertainment, with the craft seemingly left to die in the 80s. However, seems ventriloquism has seen another rise in popularity in the last decade (and it’s not just because they got rid of those creepy-looking dummies!). Entertainers who “throw their voice” are taking the craft to the next level, whether they’re singing, impersonating and even doing magic with their ventriloquism and a new generation of audiences can now enjoy this true art form, especially with today’s crop of talented performers:
“Throwing your voice” is actually quite a misnomer when describing ventriloquism, when the direct latin translation actually means “to speak from the stomach”. The first ever “ventriloquists” were actually a religious practice in ancient Greece, where priests and prophets made voices come out of their stomacs, supposedly the dead and spirits who were telling fortunes and predicting the future.
As with many forms of entertainment, it was in vaudeville that ventriloquists came to the attention of the masses. The early ventriloquist shows actually consisted more of showing off of the talent - with the performer showcasing his ability to change voices and make it appear to that the voice is coming from somewhere else, often using several mannequins or dummies. It was the famous ventriloquist Fred Russel who used the popular knee-sitting dummy many associate with ventriloquism today and is credited as the “Father of Modern Ventriloquism.” It was The Great Lester (born Maryan Czajkowski in Poland), probably the most famous ventriloquist of vaudeville, who pioneered the use of just a single dummy (Frank Jr.) as well as being the first performer to drink a glass of water while Frank Jr. was “talking.” Still, it wasn’t until one of The Great Lester’s students, Edgar Bergen, that the comedic element was introduced to the ventriloquist shows. Despite not being as talented in ventriloquism as The Great Lester, it was his comedic timing that brought Bergen fame, and he starred in two radio shows, a comic strip and several feature films.
While entertainment used to be a man’s world, one name is synonymous with women and ventriloquism - puppeteer Shari Lewis and her loveable Lamb Chop. She hosted several children’s shows with various puppets since 1953 but it wasn’t until 1956 when she guest-starred on Captain Kangaroo that Lamb Chop made her debut. During her lifetime, this famous ventriloquist garnered a bevy of awards, including 12 Emmys and a Peabody. Today’s more famous performers, ventriloquist Jeff Dunham and Terry Fator have taken ventriloquism and given it their own spin. Terry Fator, who was a struggling ventriloquist and musician before he shot to stardom when he won America’s Got Talent, uses a unique element to his ventriloquist show - his puppets actually impersonate famous singers and artists, not an easy feat! When Jeff Dunham travels, he’s never alone - he brings a cast of characters onto the stage, performing sometimes with multiple puppets, with multiple personalities. He blends stand-up comedy and ventriloquism brilliantly and is lauded as one of “America’s Favorite Comedians” and is the third highest-paid comedian in America.
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