By Elisabeth Vincentelli
The New York Times
From Our NYT Files: What Do 525 Ventriloquists Do at a Convention? Ask Their Dummies
Scenes from an annual “vent” gathering in Kentucky, where puppets rule and their masters crave respect for an unappreciated art form.
ERLANGER, Ky. — For years ventriloquism has held a reputation as being dorky at best, sinister at worst. Even now it summons up horror movies about a homicidal dummy, or a homicidal ventriloquist, or both. We are far from the golden age of the 1930s and 1940s, when Edgar Bergen and his puppet Charlie McCarthy were so beloved that Bergen was given an honorary Academy Award. (Bergen made his name as a ventriloquist on the radio. Think about that.)
But the mood was upbeat the other week among the 525 human attendees at this year’s Vent Haven International Ventriloquist Convention here at an airport Holiday Inn. If the 13-year-old ventriloquist Darci Lynne Farmer could win the 2017 edition of “America’s Got Talent,” maybe their passion has a future. “It’s a little cooler because of Darci,” said Daniel Jay Robison, 57, of Warren, Ohio. “Now kids at least know what ventriloquism is.”
The art form actually isn’t faring too badly in mainstream entertainment these days. Two other ventriloquists have won “America’s Got Talent,” and one of them, Terry Fator, is high on the Las Vegas food chain. Jeff Dunham, whose popular characters include Peanut, Bubba J and Achmed the Dead Terrorist, has nine television specials under his belt; Guinness World Records lists him as having sold the most tickets ever for a standup-comedy tour. “I remember the first time I came to the convention, in 2009, I broke down in my room and wept about 10 minutes,” said Dirk Golden, 59, of Jurupa Valley, Calif. “I couldn’t believe the people I was seeing here.” Mr. Golden now has a popular YouTube channel featuring interviews with conventiongoers.
The gathering is linked to the eye-popping Vent Haven Museum in nearby Fort Mitchell, which houses about 900 dummies as well as playbills, photographs, recordings and props. The annual meetup is the primary time when vents, as they call themselves, can get together, talk shop and display their skills in showcases and open mics. This year there were workshops covering topics like “Working the Library Market” and “Extending the Life of Your Soft Puppet.” I’ve never heard so many men earnestly inquire about cleaning products.
Roaming the hallways and conference rooms, I chatted with a crow, two rabbits, an elderly moonshine maker, three retirees and a monkey. I also learned that centuries after ventriloquism was associated with possession and witchcraft, it is now embraced by many Christians as a teaching tool. Liz VonSeggen led a well-attended workshop titled “Voicing the Gospel” with figures like a cheeky yellow duck.
Over all, the mood was enthusiastic and egalitarian. “This is a unique place in that you will see a professional sit next to an amateur next to a semipro,” said the convention executive director, Mark Wade, who lives near Melbourne, Fla., and is in his 60s. “I’m not knocking magic conventions but the professionals get in their little groups and talk to each other and they ignore all the other people.” (A few others brought up, unprompted, “uppity” magicians. Clowns went unmentioned.)
Mr. Dunham, who attended the very first convention, in 1975, when he was 13, embodied this spirit. He was only scheduled to deliver a lecture (about “the power of funny,” this year’s theme), but he also popped up unannounced at the early-morning Junior Vent University, where kids get one-on-one coaching, and later that day he emceed a raffle drawing with Mr. Wade. The pair’s banter brought to mind the zing-filled routines at a classic Catskills resort.
Ventriloquism is basically a double act in which one person plays both straight man and funny man — a welcome throwback at a time when comic duos are gone from the standup scene. “Ingredients of comedy include tension and conflict, and that’s what creates funny situations,” Mr. Dunham said. “We have an advantage over stand-ups — well, maybe not an advantage but it’s certainly something different — in that we can create that all by ourselves. It’s much more interesting that way: You’re your own little sitcom onstage.”
And that sitcom requires a lot of practice. “Ventriloquism isn’t instant gratification,” Mr. Wade, the executive director, said. “It takes a lot of time to learn the mechanics, and on top of that you have to figure out the right material. You have to know your lines, the puppet’s lines, manipulate the puppet, do two different voices — it’s like juggling.” No wonder, then, that the judges’ comments at the two open mics could be very technical, addressing body language and lip control. The winners of the junior event were a confident 17-year-old Texan named Landon Harvey and his geriatric acolyte, Mervin, who had at one point groaned “I don’t want to be alive.” One judge praised a riff by Camryn Hedge, 10, and her squirrel, Primrose: “I like the running gag of the nuts. There’s a naïveté to it.”
Between panels, two dealers’ rooms offered booths where you could purchase dummies in all shapes and materials. “I have one guy with one eye, but he still wants to work,” said Tonya Traylor, a collector from Miami. Some of the most beautiful figures were made by Austin Phillips, an outgoing 25-year-old from Portland, Me., who admires the classic style perfected by Britain’s Leonard Insull in the 20th century; his prices start at $650 for a customized stock dummy and $3,500 for a one-of-a-kind model. Mr. Phillips learned directly from the masters he’d reach out to. “My dad worked at an airline so I got this pretty sweet free-flight benefit,” he said. “All through high school and college, I would go visit people I’d never met before.”
He added, laughing: “I would get picked up from the airport and hoped I wouldn’t get put in shackles in a basement.”
Apart from a few bold practitioners like the foul-mouthed Otto Petersen, who died in 2014, modern ventriloquism has a somewhat conservative reputation. The last time Broadway welcomed a ventriloquist, it was the quite traditional — and very funny — Jay Johnson, who won the 2007 Tony for best special theatrical event for his wonderful solo “The Two and Only!”
Unlike puppeteering and magic, ventriloquism has not been re-evaluated in hip theatrical circles, even if some practitioners test the boundaries. The experimental Franco-Austrian director Gisèle Vienne took the genre onto dark terrain in “The Ventriloquists Convention,” a 2015 collaboration with the subversive novelist Dennis Cooper. Nina Conti, a brilliant improviser based in London, loves the art’s meta side, as well as its emotional power — her documentary “Her Master’s Voice” is a heartwarming and heartbreaking account of her first visit to the Kentucky gathering.
Unless I missed a radical late-night performance, the convention did not shed much light on the paths ventriloquism could explore. Even the standup circuit feels like a new frontier. At 19, Jeff Goltz, from Indianapolis, has been attending the convention for 10 years, and he is taking his partner, Julio the cockroach, into comedy clubs. But he waffles about introducing his new material to his tight-knit vent community.
As for Mr. Dunham, he was stumped when asked if he knew of a vent equivalent to alt-comedians. “I couldn’t tell you anybody that’s the alternative ventriloquist,” he said after a pause, “but what an interesting thing to become. You could have odd dummies doing odd things.” The gears were grinding. “That is an open door for somebody.”