Why is ventriloquism creepy?

Notes from around town.
Sept. 24 2006 11:45 PM

Say Good Night, Dummy

A ventriloquist puts his puppets to bed.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

We often think of puppets at work, slinging wisecracks ("And they say I'm the dummy!") and speaking in a high-register chirp. Jay Johnson, whose new Broadway show, The Two and Only!, is playing at the Helen Hayes Theatre on 44th Street, thinks about them at rest. The other evening, after Johnson had given voice to several puppets—some human caricatures, along with a vulture, a snake, a monkey, a nutcracker, and a tennis ball—and the crowd had filed out of the auditorium, the ventriloquist reappeared on stage in a polo shirt and blue jeans. He was going to put these puppets to sleep.

Johnson has a fair complexion and the unassuming looks of a straight man. First, he picked up Squeaky, a cherubic puppet with tousled black hair who was wearing a tuxedo. Johnson cradled him as if he were making an offering to a potentate. He folded Squeaky's limbs and laid him a rectangular black box about the size of a saxophone case. Before closing the lid, he placed a black shroud over puppet's eyes.

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There's something unnerving about the interactions between man and puppet. Part of it, Johnson contends in his show, comes from ventriloquism's "dark and nefarious past." The earliest ventriloquists were probably ancient Greeks who "threw" their voices to simulate the pronouncements of oracles or give new life to dead bodies. (Author and performer Stanley Burns has claimed that Pythagoras was known to frighten his students by pretending to converse with a river.) By the Middle Ages, ventriloquism—which comes from the Latin word ventriloquus, meaning "belly speaker"—was regarded as a dark art, a devil in the midsection. "It is a wickedness lurking in the human belly and deserving to dwell in the cesspool," wrote Photius, a ninth-century patriarch of Constantinople, "an impure breath which some people, on account of their overwhelming pity, call ventriloquism."

But what most unnerves us about ventriloquists is that they seem to be giving life to an inanimate object—a dull creature with dead eyes. These "wooden-Americans," as Johnson is fond of calling them, take on shadow lives of their own. "While the ventriloquist's dummy merely embodies the extension or expression of the ventriloquist's own personality," writes Valentine Vox, author of I Can See Your Lips Moving,a history of ventriloquism, "it is evident that many artists develop a certain attachment to their figures." For the world-famous Charlie McCarthy, Edgar Bergen maintained a separate room in his house, with a bed, writing desk, and wardrobe. BritishventriloquistArthur Prince was buried alongside his favorite puppet, Jim, in 1948. When Sally Osman, a singer, filed for divorce from ventriloquist Herbert Dexter, she named his puppet, Charlie, as a co-respondent—charging in court that Charlie had shrieked cutting insults during her stage act and even physically abused her.

Squeaky, who is all innocence and warmth, was Jay Johnson's first major puppet. In 1977, Johnson was cast in the ABC sitcom Soap, and the network decided he needed a more despicable partner. Whence came Bob, another puppet featured in The Two and Only. Bob has leaner lines than Squeaky and tends toward the withering put-down. When Johnson travels with Squeaky and Bob, he disconnects their heads and speaking apparatus—called the punchinello, after the character from commedia dell'arte—from the rest of the body. "That's not something I like to say, because people don't think of the head coming off," Johnson said. He added, "The suitcase with two heads in it gets a lot of attention at the airport. It looks like a bomb."

Tonight, the puppets remained intact. The black shroud over Squeaky's eyes was a tradition passed on to Johnson by a ventriloquist named Arthur Sieving who believed, like the ancient Greeks, that a dead man's soul escaped through the eyes. Covering Squeaky's eyes, Johnson explained, would keep him "alive" until the next night's performance.

After Squeaky had been put away, Johnson moved on to Bob, the wiseacre. "He wasn't happy the first few days," Johnson smirked.

"Maybe he didn't want to work with you again," an assistant replied.

Next, came Nethernore, a indolent vulture; Darwin, a monkey who seems to have studied insult comedy under Sam Kinison; and Spaulding, a tennis ball who is unaccountably morose. Johnson is the only one allowed to touch the puppets, and after he arranges them in their boxes, they are carted off by a second assistant, Roger, to a locked vault in the theater basement. ("I think Roger goes out with Bob after hours," Johnson says. "I found some Scores matchbooks in his suitcase.") In the vault, they're placed up off the floor, according to Murphy Cross, one of the show's directors, because the Helen Hayes has been known to flood.

They may seem precious, these bedtime rituals, but the most important part of the man-puppet relationship is mutual self-preservation. A ventriloquist without a puppet is a guy muttering to himself; a puppet without a ventriloquist is a doll. "Itzhak Perlman one time was doing a show at the same time I was," Johnson was saying, after he'd put the puppets to bed and hopped down from the stage. "And there was somebody stumbling through our green room. Perelman grabs for his violin, and I grab for my case. At that moment, our eyes met, and we had the same feeling toward our instruments: Protect the acts! Protect the acts!"

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