Daily Feature

Saturday, July 28

Venting
In a setting free of stereotypes, ventriloquists speak for themselves.

By THOMAS NORD
The Courier-Journal

Photo
Randy seemed to enjoy having his picture taken while his owners, Jennie and Rich Hardesty of Elk Grove, Calif., listened to a speaker during a seminar.
Photo by STEWART BOWMAN
There is a feeling of liberation in the air the minute you set foot inside the Drawbridge Inn in Fort Mitchell, Ky., a couple of interstate exits outside Cincinnati.

It's the kind of liberated feeling you get any time a group of misfits gets together en masse. With no one around to judge them, no stereotypes to dispel, safe in the cocoon provided by motel walls, the vents can just relax and cut loose.

The vents -- it's a welcome truncation of "ventriloquist" -- have come here as they do every summer for the Vent Haven International Ventriloquists Convention.

They come here because Fort Mitchell is the Cooperstown of ventriloquism, the home of Vent Haven Museum, the largest known collection of ventriloquist figures and related ephemera in the world.

For three days, they roam the halls and meeting rooms of the Drawbridge Inn, a tired highway hub located amid a sea of gas stations and chain eateries, many of them carrying their dummies on their arms, ready to chat.

Don't try to tell them that the golden age of ventriloquism has passed. To the vents, this is the golden age of ventriloquism. And no one is going to tell them otherwise.

"Just because it's not on television doesn't mean it's not alive," says Mark Wade, a vent for 42 of his 50 years and the executive director of the convention. "When Ed Sullivan went off the air, vents disappeared from TV. But we were doing things in nightclubs, cruise ships and children's shows. There's gospel ventriloquism. It's as strong as it's ever been; it's just not as visible."

 
Photo   "When you think about it, most of us were shy kids. And, really, the puppets do help us break the shyness. We can talk to people through the puppets."

 

-- Pete Michaels, ventriloquist
While it might be easy for Wade -- who says he pulls in six figures annually working children's show with a hillbilly puppet named Grits -- to say that, his statement easily reflects the attitude of the vents who have come here, some from as far away as Europe and Japan, to commune with kindred spirits.

While the convention dates to 1975, vents have been a presence in Fort Mitchell since the early 1900s, when a local businessman named W.S. Berger became so taken with the art form that he became its most ardent supporter.

Berger amassed a huge collection of dummies, most sent to him by retiring vents or their estates. Before he died in 1972, Berger set up a trust fund to ensure that the museum -- "The Ventriloquist Haven," hence Vent Haven -- would stay around for a good long time.

With 440 people in attendance, this year's confab -- held last weekend -- was the largest ever, according to Wade.

"Birds of a feather, you know?" says Dr. Stevo Sch¨uling, an orthopedic surgeon and part-time vent from M¨unster, Germany. "Like friends and family. This community has become part of me."

BEYOND THE SUBJECT matter, there is nothing that separates the Vent Haven gathering from any other convention of professionals or hobbyists. There are the requisite vendors hawking their wares, from self-teaching videos and books ("Ventriloquism for Dummies" is popular) to custom-made puppets, and lots of people milling around the hallway talking shop.

"Ventriloquists are few and far between," says Schüling, who has been coming to the convention since 1989. "They are pretty isolated."

 
Photo
Alicia Dacoba of Paw Paw, Mich., and Chiquita the nurse entertained Julie VanNess of Sommerville, N.J.
Photo by STEWART BOWMAN
Although the Internet -- as it has done with so many of society's passions and avocations -- has enabled vents to reach out to each other more effectively, the convention is still vital to keeping the family together.

The day is consumed by workshops, like the one run by Mark Merchant, a Vegas-style vent in a royal blue sport coat and garish flowered necktie. He is not pontificating about the latest knock-knock jokes; rather, Merchant is schooling his colleagues on proper vocal conditioning.

It is, one gathers, a problem in the industry.

"How many of you warm up before a show?" he asks. The show of hands is small and discouraging.

"Your body is like a stringed instrument, especially your voice," he explains. "We need to warm up our vocal apparatus every day."

He can't say this enough. He also can't resist a jibe at the hotel, which has started to wear a bit.

"Drawbridge Inn is actually an old Indian word for 'crummy hotel,' I just found out," he says, getting a big laugh.

In another conference room, Dan and Mary Fry are preaching the merits of Web sites and direct-mail advertising in selling your act. The Marysville, Ohio, couple work a circuit of churches in the Midwest, spreading the gospel through ventriloquism.

It may be the riskiest kind of ventriloquism imaginable, given the conservative nature of most church congregations. The Frys seem to have found their niche, though their patter suggests they have learned some lessons the hard way.

"Never, ever, ever, ever, ever preach with your character," warns Dan Fry, evoking images of mortified congregants burning a heretical puppet at the stake.

ASSUMING THAT YOU have an opinion about ventriloquism, there's a fair chance it's not a good one.

 
Photo
Terry Tidwell of Odessa, Texas, looked carefully at The Awesome Opossum, one of several dummies for sale at the recent ventriloquists' convention in Fort Mitchell, Ky.
Photo by STEWART BOWMAN
One image that leaps to mind is that of some drone and his dummy, both in bad suits, telling painful jokes ripped off from Edgar Bergen. Better yet, there's the complete psychopath, a shy fellow who just can't get his dummy to stop killing people.

Even good ventriloquism is still, well, ventriloquism. That creepy wooden head, those lifeless yet piercing eyes, that boyish sing-songy voice. Jokes so corny you could put them in the microwave and pop them.

Years ago -- even further back than vaudeville -- the ability to throw your voice into an inanimate object was an almost mystical skill. Shamans scrupulous and otherwise constructed statues that appeared to speak, which proved useful in getting the callow masses to do their bidding.

It wasn't until much later, the 19th century, that the ventriloquist -- the word comes from the Latin term for "belly talker" -- became an entertainer. Vaudeville, with its insatiable demand for performers, was probably the best thing that happened to ventriloquism, although you could argue that Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy did pretty well in radio and early TV.

Hollywood has treated the ventriloquist like a gift straight from heaven, not unlike the way editorial cartoonists used to have a field day with Richard Nixon.

"Up until the 1960s, we were considered a good variety art, like magic or juggling," Wade says. "Then 'The Twilight Zone' came along."

He is referring to two classic episodes, "The Dummy" and "Caesar and Me," both of which cast ventriloquists in an unfavorable, downright creepy, light. But it actually goes back much further than that, to the early days of film.

Many vents cite "The Great Gabbo," a 1929 flick about a timid ventriloquist who relies on his dummy to express himself before eventually going mad, as the first movie to really exploit the dimestore psychology of the dummy-ventriloquist relationship. Meanwhile, 1930's "The Unholy Three" saw Lon Chaney playing a vent who wasn't crazy as much as he was just plain bad, forming a criminal partnership with a midget and a sideshow strongman.

And so on and so on. Who could forget "Magic," that 1978 groaner starring Anthony Hopkins as a demented ventriloquist with a homicidal dummy? Oh, you have? Well, it appears they have dusted off the premise once again. In "The Dummy," released last year, a murderous dummy wreaks havoc in suburbia.

 
Photo
Mary Fry sold dummies at the convention. The Marysville, Ohio, woman is at the right in the back row.
Photo by STEWART BOWMAN
"They never make movies where the vent is portrayed as normal," scoffs Bill DeMar, a legendary vent who has been performing since the late 1940s. "Well, when you're performing for a school and you hear all the children laughing, that's the greatest thing in the world."

Yet not all vents run away from the suggestion that there is something going on beneath the surface here.

"When you think about it, most of us were shy kids," says Pete Michaels, a pro who has opened for everyone from Jerry Vale to Sinbad. "And, really, the puppets do help us break the shyness. We can talk to people through the puppets."

Some, more than others.

"We had a guy one year who sat in the coffee shop at 2 a.m. having an argument with his dummy," Michaels recalls. "There was no one else there. But he probably would have been a wacko without the dummy."

WHICH IS TO SAY that despite the best efforts to spin this a certain way, after only a few moments at the Vent Haven convention the whole thing starts to take on the air of a Robert Altman film.

Take DeMar, for example. He is, as best anyone can tell, the only ventriloquist interviewed by the Warren Commission, a result of his relationship with Jack Ruby.

DeMar, 69, drops this information casually, just one more detail of his life story that began in Evansville, Ind., when he was somehow possessed to carve a dummy out of balsa wood and enter a teen talent contest. (Which he won, with a routine stolen from Edgar Bergen.)

Some years later, after a stint in the military and a several tours with a vaudeville troupe, DeMar ended up in Dallas, performing at Ruby's notorious strip bar, The Carousel, for $182.50 a week in November 1963.

"Ruby was a nice guy," says DeMar, matter-of-factly. "We used to go out after the club and get a bite to eat. Maybe go with a couple strippers."

DeMar was in town when Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy and was still there when his boss shot Oswald. He has no idea why, a fact he relayed to the commission.

A hammy sort, DeMar works with a dummy he dubbed Chuck Norwood (he liked the sound of "wood" and "chuck" and just ran with it) all the way back in the beginning. It is an enduring relationship, one that outlasted DeMar's marriage.

 
Photo   "Well, when you're performing for a school and you hear all the children laughing, that's the greatest thing in the world."

 

-- Bill DeMar with Chuck Norwood
(DeMar, in fact, can still do that first, purloined routine, in which he grills Chuck about a stolen cowboy outfit. "Where did you get the cowboy suit?" "Well, I, I saved it." "You saved it? First you bought it. Then you found it. Now you saved it. Saved it from what?" "I saved it from being stolen out of Skinny Dugan's basement ...")

They quit working nightclubs in the early 1970s and for the next two decades established themselves as a popular act for schoolchildren, an audience DeMar prefers to the smoky, boozy lounge set.

"I always ended the show by putting the dummy in the case, and you'd hear him yelling from inside," says DeMar, recalling one particular club gig. "There was this drunk at the bar, and he was trying to solicit help from the audience. (Adopts drunken slur:) 'We gotta go up there and get that kid out! We gotta save 'im!' "

All the working vents seem to have at least one great story like that. Michaels recalls his appearance on "Showtime at the Apollo," back when he was working with a black puppet he dubbed Woody D.

Raised in a multi-ethnic neighborhood in Staten Island, N.Y., Michaels, who is white, says he created Woody D as an homage of sorts to the characters he grew up with. To the African-American audience at the legendary Harlem theater, however, it did not make for a good first impression.

"I hear this female voice from up in the balcony," says Michaels. " 'Yo! Why the dummy gots to be black!?' I'm like, 'Oh God, give me a line or I'm gonna die.' So, you're thinking for the puppet. He looks around and says, 'Yo baby, you up there in the nosebleed seats. For your information, the dummy's white.'

"Then they all started cheering, because after that, they knew it was going to be the black dummy picking on the white guy."

BECAUSE EDGAR BERGEN is dead and no one seems too interested in reviving the old Sunday night variety show, the next generation of vents has to carve niches that guys like DeMar never dreamed of.

Just 23, Alicia Dacoba already has appeared on three major television networks with her act, which includes a Vietnamese potbellied pig named Pork Chop and a sassy, Spanish-speaking female dummy named Chiquita.

"There aren't many Spanish-language vents, and only a few are women," says Dacoba, who lives in Paw Paw, Mich., and is a recent graduate of Western Michigan University. "I also work with a miniature horse. I am the only ventriloquist who works with a horse and a pig."

A slight, perky woman of Colombian descent, Dacoba taught herself ventriloquism when she was 15. These days, she and Chiquita entertain various trade groups and work with the Michigan Commission on Spanish-Speaking Affairs. They also have performed scores of gigs for charity, earning so many scholarships that Dacoba finished school with money in the bank.

Dacoba became a minor cause c´el`ebre a couple of years ago when she got into a snit with American Airlines after it refused to allow Pork Chop to travel in the passenger compartment with her. The highlight of the brief media circus may have been when the Kalamazoo Gazette "interviewed" the pig about its flight plight.

The story was picked up by Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," which had a field day with it. But publicity is publicity and, besides, the profession is pretty much slander-proof.

Now that she is finished with school, Dacoba is setting her sights on Miami and the booming Latin-American TV market, where variety shows are still very much alive and thriving.

They will be a good fit, a couple of international ambassadors for ventriloquists everywhere. They've got plenty of material.

"I dated Sammy Sosa," says Chiquita. "But we had to break up. Porque me utilizo como bate. I said, 'He used me as a bat.' "

 

All Content, Materials, Images, Photos & Original Characters Copyright: Pete Michaels