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"Ventriloquist" redirects here. For the Batman villain, see Ventriloquist (comics).

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.[1] The name comes from the Latin for to speak from the stomach, i.e. venter (belly) and loqui (speak).[2] 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.

In the First Book of Samuel in the Hebrew Bible, King Saul (who lived in the middle of the 11th century BCE) seeks advice about a coming battle from the Witch of Endor, who supposedly summons a spirit. The Hebrew text can be translated as a voice speaking from a jug, or wineskin, typically ventriloquism. One of the most successful early gastromancers was Eurykles, a prophet at Athens; gastromancers came to be referred to as Euryklides in his honour.[3] The New Testament (Acts 16:16-18) relates the story of a girl who had a "spirit of Python" (ἔχουσαν πνεῦμα πύθωνα) and followed Paul and his companions around the city of Thyatrira, crying out after them.

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.

Other parts of the world also have a tradition of ventriloquism for ritual or religious purposes; historically there have been adepts of this practice among the Zulu, Inuit, and Māori peoples.[3]

History of modern-day ventriloquism

The most familiar type of ventriloquist seen today is a nightclub performer sitting on a stool with a wooden dummy on his or her lap. This comedic style of ventriloquism is, however, a fairly recent innovation, which began in the days of vaudeville in the late 19th century. The vaudeville acts did not concentrate on humour as much as on demonstrating the ventriloquist's ability to deceive the audience and his skill in switching voices. For this reason, many of the performers used multiple figures, switching quickly from one voice to another. Jules Vernon was one of the more famous American vaudeville ventriloquists who utilised multiple figures. Englishman Fred Russell pioneered the use of one single figure with his dummy, Coster Joe. (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 success using a single figure and creating a comedy team format immediately began to be applied by other ventriloquists. None became more eminent engaging this new format than Arthur Prince with his dummy Sailor Jim who was, perhaps, the most famous vaudeville ventriloquist and, at the time was one of the highest paid entertainers on the vaudeville circuits. The Great Lester used only one figure, Frank Byron, Jr., and Lester's success popularised the ventriloquist-with-one-figure routine that is ubiquitous today although Lester was only eighteen years old when Russell first introduced his ventriloquist comedy team idea using one figure in 1896.

Ventriloquism was immensely popular in the middle of the 20th century, thanks in great part to the work of one of The Great Lester's students, Edgar Bergen. 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, Ronn Lucas, 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 India, who is believed to be the pioneer of this field in India. His 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.

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. A number of modern ventriloquists have developed a following as the public taste for live comedy grows. In 2001, Sweden's most popular family/children entertainers.

Notable ventriloquists

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".[4] If variations of the sounds th, d, t, and n are spoken quickly, it can be difficult for listeners to notice a difference.

Ventriloquist's dummy

Modern ventriloquists utilise a variety of different types of puppets in their presentations, ranging from soft cloth or foam puppets, flexible latex puppets, and the traditional and familiar hard-headed knee figure. 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.[5]

Great names in the history of dummy making include Frank Marshall (the Chicago creator of Bergen's Charlie McCarthy,[6] Nelson's Danny O'Day,[6] and Winchell's Jerry Mahoney), Theo Mack and Son (Mack carved Charlie McCarthy's head), Revello Petee, Kenneth Spencer, David Strassman, Cecil Gough, Jeff Dunham,[7] and Glen & George McElroy.

Fear of ventriloquist's dummies

Fear of ventriloquist's dummies is called automatonophobia.[8] It also includes fear of wax dummies or animatronic creatures. Films and programs which refer to dummies that are alive include Magic,[9] Dead of Night,[9] The Twilight Zone,[9] Poltergeist, Devil Doll,[10] Dead Silence, Child's Play (1988 film), Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Goosebumps (TV series), Seinfeld (the episode The Chicken Roaster), "ALF" (the episode I'm Your Puppet"), and Doctor Who.

See also



  • Vox,Valentine I Can See Your Lips Moving, the history and art of ventriloquism (1993) 224 pages. (3000 year history of the practice. Plato Publishing/Empire publications ISBN 0-88734-622-7
  • 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

External links

  • Cybervent, website for ventriloquists
  • Vent Haven ConVENTion in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky
  • How Ventriloquists Trick The Brain, the science behind the art

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