“My uncle was a ventriloquist dummy. He died drinking furniture polish… It was a slow death but a beautiful finish.”
Did you know that ventriloquism can date its origins back to ancient Greece? The voices were thought to be the dead speaking beyond the grave and it was the ventriloquist’s job to interpret what the spirits were saying. That person wasn’t actually a ventriloquist they were probably more like an oracle or spiritualist… or what I would call a conman (or woman).
Now fast forward a few hundred years to the late 18th century. “Throwing your voice” had gone through many changes like using props and puppets. The idea of using the puppet or “dummy” to help tell jokes came into play. In this kind of setup the ventriloquist is the straight guy and the dummy is the one who is actually offending people to get the laugh. Eventually it gained prominence as an established form of entertainment.
But who was responsible for making it what it is today? With a dummy sitting on the ventriloquist’s lap? Well, that credit goes to Fred Russell known too many as the father of modern ventriloquism. His stint in 1886 at the Palace Theatre in London is what did it. His act with his dummy “Coaster Joe” sitting on his lap telling jokes is what catapulted performers in the future to adopt the same formula.
Now, I’m a kid of the ’80s and when I think of famous ventriloquists two come to mind. The first is Jay Johnson and his dummy Bob. They were featured on the sitcom Soap which ran from 1977 to 1981 on ABC. In 2007 the original Bob puppet from the show was inducted into the Smithsonian Institute’s collection of pop culture icons.
The second is Willie Tyler and his dummy Lester. These two got their start on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1972. You can see them all over the place in the ’70s and ’80s on TV in such shows as The Jeffersons and The White Shadow. They also appeared in commercials for McDonald’s, Toyota and Rent-A-Center.
I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. This duo began their career on radio in 1936 and remained active for the next few decades. The original Charlie puppet is a mainstay at the National Museum of American History.
Okay, now on to my friend Freddy. Freddy actually belongs to my husband. He received him as a gift when he was a child. After rescuing him from his mother’s attic he gave him to me to try to clean him up a bit. His mouth was permanently open and his clothes were ripped and stained. Freddy started out in life as Willie Talk. He was made by a company called Horsman in the ’70s and some people might think he is a Simon Sez as they do look similar.
There is a string in the back of his neck that you pull to open his mouth and a rubber band inside the head to snap the mouth closed. I watched several YouTube videos and read many articles online to figure out how to fix him. I did the best I could; believe me, it was a lot harder than it sounds. I then outfitted him in a suit because, you know, I wanted him to look sophisticated. As for being able to perform with him… Well, that’s never going to happen. It is really difficult to throw your voice. I tried but with very little success.
Freddy has now become a fixture at our house. He sits at the top of the steps ready to welcome any visitors. Twice now I caught my dog giving him his ball in hopes that Freddy will throw it for him… he’ll definitely be waiting a while.
It’s been a fun adventure learning about the art of ventriloquism. Even fixing up Freddy’s head was interesting. I realize some people think it creepy, but creepy can be fun… and so is learning something new. Try it sometime.