A ventriloquist is an artist who practices the art of ventriloquism (also known as ventriloquy), in which the person “throws” his or her voice to make it seem like it’s coming from the puppet or doll he or she is holding. The puppet or doll is usually called a “dummy,” probably because it gets its smarts from its operator. The technical term for a ventriloquist’s dummy is ventriloquial figure.
Ventriloquism got its start as a religious practice amongst the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The name, in fact, comes from the Latin words for “to speak from the stomach.” The Greek phrase for ventriloquism was gastromancy. Ancient peoples thought that noises produced by the stomach were the voices of the dead, which could be interpreted by the ventriloquist.
During the 18th century, ventriloquism became less spiritual and more of a performance art. It gained popularity as an act at traveling fairs. The earliest records related to ventriloquism date back to 1753 in England. The father of modern ventriloquism is considered to be Fred Russell, who began a stage show in London in 1886 and developed the now-familiar technique of using a doll to engage in back-and-forth conversation.
Edgar Bergen popularized a new form of comedic ventriloquism in the 1930s with his favorite dummy, Charlie McCarthy. Over the years, there have been many famous entertainers associated with ventriloquism, including Jeff Dunham and Shari Lewis.
If you’ve ever tried to “throw” your voice to imitate a ventriloquist, you know it’s not the easiest technique to learn. Most ventriloquists perform with their lips slightly separated to allow sounds to emanate from their mouths without moving their lips. This is easy for some sounds and more difficult for others.
For example, the sounds of the letters f, v, b, p, w, and m can be particularly difficult, because they involve the lips meeting to help form the sounds. Professional ventriloquists learn to make these sounds by replacing them with other, similar sounds and speaking quickly enough for listeners not to notice.
Fortunately for ventriloquists, the human ear is not great at locating the source of a sound without visual or other cues. Therefore, if a ventriloquist can keep from moving his lips, it’s very easy to fool the human ear into believing the sound is coming from the moving mouth of the ventriloquist’s dummy!
There’s more to ventriloquism than simply not moving your lips, though. You also have to learn to change your voice so that it sounds different than your normal voice. Doing so allows you to have a conversation with your dummy. Professional ventriloquists develop many different personalities for different dummies, and each one requires a unique voice and way of speaking.