The 21st Annual Ventriloquist Convention

There's a saying that all you need are two ventriloquists and you've got a convention. When more than 400 of them show up at Fort Mitchell, (near CROWD Lexington, KY), it's a raucus, voice-tossing riot. That's recently what happened at the 21st Annual Ventriloquist Convention.

Covering this event may seem the cushy assignment, but let me tell you, it was no puppet show. Ventriloquists are a tad sensitive about their portrayal as shall I say this...silly. They are very serious about their art. I guess they want people to laugh at their well-crafted jokes, not the fact that they have their hands up some puppet's butt. I'll let you make your own decision.

The three day convention gave "vents" a chance to get answers to pressing problems and challenges at workshops on topics ranging from "figure maintenance" to "voice manipulation."

"My Fred is always falling off the stand," complains one attendee during the figure maintenance segment.

"It's probably a heavy shoe problem," another vent responds. "I've seen it happen before."

Pro vents and amateurs intermingled in Kentucky with good humor and respect. Like the diversity of the attendees, there was an equal assortment of dummies. There were hippie dummies like the braided Wally Newton, a Jewish baseball player, Draculas, yuppie dummies in jogging suits, grandpa dummies with young ventriloquists and interracial couples--white vents with black dolls. There are slick, male dummies that target freckled female puppets with lines like, "That's a nice-lookin' figure you've got!" And of course, there are the Howdy-Doodie looking dolls whose looks defy their wise-ass personalities.

What's the difference between a pro and a "not-so-pro?" Well, the vents that keep their figure as a permanent sidekick tend to be the amateurs. They're the ones who have the figure cross its legs and move its head while a workshop is being held. The novelty is still novel for them. Cute.

Ventriloquism, (from the latin,ventriloquus or belly talking,) is funny business. "It's about making people laugh. It's entertainment." explains professional ventriloquist Pete Michaels while his figure Buddy mocks the idea, offering, "No, it's all about the dark side. We sit around with candles, saying 'I am weird. I am weird." Their colleagues are often their toughest crowd. Many vents resort to self-deprecation, to beat them to the punch. Figures sport buttons saying, "I'm with a dummy," while another figure complains, "Most of the other dummies brought real ventriloquists!"

It could be argued that ventriloquism is much harder than traditional stand-up comedy (after all, you're talking for two), but the advantage a vent has over a stand-up comedian is that if a joke bombs, the figure can tell the vent what a lame joke it was. And of course, dummies are handy scapegoats, too. "I know vents who blame the dummy for a bad show," says British vent Paul Zerbin.

"The audience loves a dummy, though." vent Michaels says. There is a well-known story among vents of a drunk who was enraged by a dummy's insults. The drunk tried to injure the puppet, only to be stopped by the audience, who rose to protect the dummy.

But for every performer whose jokes are followed by a groaning "yuck, yuck," there are many masters of the art. Jeff Dunham, who recently performed for the O.J. Simpson jurors, is one name that causes vents and dummies alike to sit up with respect. Dunham was going to make a Kato Kaelin dummy, but said, "It would've been redundant." That's funny.

Let's not ignore the disturbing schizophrenic bent to ventrioquism, but perhaps that's what also attracts us to it. Vents reflect how "...We fragment our own lives, talking differently to our mothers, fathers, friends, bosses and children,'' Ron Lucas told Smithsonian magazine in 1993. A good ventriloquist empowers us to laugh at ourselves.

Belly talking also has more practical applications. Nacho Estrada became aware of the power of throwing his voice when he was used to call himself out of class over the P.A. system. Jay Jurwitz, who brings Izzy, the Jewish baseball player to life, says performing with Izzy gives him the chance to say things he might not normally say. "I walk off and nobody attributes it to me." It's a fine line though, between comedy and torture. A judge once granted a divorce after a wife claimed her husband used his dummy to "taunt her with cruel and unusual barbs."

But whether the motivation is vicarious thrills, passive aggression or just plain fun, when the hundreds of vents gather for a group photo at the hotel pool, the power and simple appeal of their art is obvious. Old women in skirted bathing suits, hover at the pool's edge--mouths wide with Joy. Young children are drawn forward to chat with the short strangers and their taller friends. With that, the vents--modern-day Oz's in front the curtain--smile for the camera.

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