What is the collective noun for ventriloquists? A gottle, perhaps. And their dummies? A parliament, of course.
William Shakespeare Berger – a name to conjure with – was a Cincinnati businessman whose passion was collecting material related to ventriloquism. Before his death in 1972, he endowed the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, USA, where every year members of an international organization of ventriloquists gather to celebrate their art.
Vent Haven Museum is the only one of its kind in the world. It houses more than 800 figures, thousands of photographs, playbills, letters, and an extensive library of books, some of which date back to the 1700s.
Literally “stomach-speak”, ventriloquism was a quasi religious practice. Ventriloquists were believed to be able to speak to the dead as well as to foretell the future. One of the earliest was the Pythia, the priestess at the Oracle of Apollo in Delphi. Centuries later, the skill had metamorphosed into entertainment. In parliament it often takes the form of politicians mouthing the words of their master (or mistress).
By the late 18th century, ventriloquism was well known in England. At that time most performers threw their voice to make it appear to be coming from far away, rather than using a puppet as a focal point. The man credited with being the first to use a figure sitting on his knee was the English ventriloquist Fred Russell (1862-1957).
Born Thomas Frederick Parnell (he changed his surname because of the political association of “Parnell”), Fred Russell began a career as a journalist (another form of ventriloquism, perhaps). In 1886, while still editor of the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette, he took a professional engagement at London’s Palace Theatre and then switched to a stage career with an act based on a cheeky-boy dummy named “Coster Joe”.
In 1910, Russell published a book titled Ventriloquism and Kindred Arts. His act was so popular that he still was giving music hall performances in 1952, billed as “the oldest ventriloquist in the world”. Coincidentally, the collection now held at the Vent Haven Museum began that same year when William Shakespeare Berger purchased his first figure, “Tommy Baloney” (photo right).
Writing in The New York Times (“Obsessive Visions on Display”, 23 October 2014), Edward Rothstein noted:
“To the initiated, the sight of some 800 dummies arranged in rows in various galleries might seem just a tribute to the tools of the trade. But visit as an outsider and you will leave thinking about sculpture and illusion, about the powers of the human voice, and about the ancient ventriloquist’s art. You will also be haunted by visions of these eerily human or bizarrely comic creatures of wood and plaster and wire.”
Time has muted their voices for ever, except in parliament where some say there are still a few dummies whose bizarre antics and two-faced words provoke humour, if not derision. You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.