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Tuesday, May 25, 2010


The death of British comedian Ray Alan recalls a lost age when ventriloquists were cosy family entertainment favourites. Today, they are more likely to be found at the cutting edge of subversive alternative comedy.

Go on, try it. Try saying something - "bottle of beer," even - without moving your lips.

Now imagine keeping 30 million TV viewers entertained at the same time.

Once ventriloquism was not just a party trick or a kitsch throwback. It was a major branch of showbusiness.

The passing of Ray Alan - a ventriloquist of rare technical accomplishment - is a reminder of how far from public favour this branch of stagecraft has fallen. With his sidekick puppet Lord Charles, Alan became a prime-time favourite in a more innocent era.

It's a sort of licensed Tourette's

Nina Conti
In the 1950s and 60s there were thought to be some 400 full-time ventriloquists working in the UK - but by the early 2000s this had dwindled to just 15, according to estimates by Professor Steven Connor of Birkbeck University.

But if the act now calls to mind working men's clubs and end-of-pier shows, or nostalgia clip show staples like Roger de Courcey (and Nookie Bear) and Terry Hall (with Lenny the Lion), its latest incarnation is very different.

Nowadays the biggest names in ventriloquism include Americans like the brash, politically incorrect Jeff Dunham and David Strassman, whose Chuck Wood puppet makes Eric Cartman from South Park sound like Larry the Lamb.

The shift in the craft's centre of gravity is symbolised by America's Got Talent winner Terry Fator, an all-round entertainer and singer whose ventriloquism act nonetheless plays with taboos surrounding race and sex.

All have achieved this by tapping into the latent weirdness of the form - let's face it, those puppets are creepy - and refashioning them with an edgy, punk rock sensibility.

One ventriloquist - or, as those in the know would put it, "vent" - who has been at the forefront of this new wave is Nina Conti, whose sweetly-spoken onstage persona is thrown into darkly comic relief by her puerile, foul-mouthed monkey puppet Monk.

Even Keith Harris has updated his act to keep up with the new ventriloquists
Now an award-winning staple of Britain's comedy clubs, Rada-trained Conti turned to ventriloquism when her acting career initially failed to take off.

Initially she dismissed the craft as a throwback to a bygone era, but quickly discovered its subversive potential - and has been working on a documentary, Her Master's Voice, which explores its subversive roots.

"It's a sort of licensed Tourette's," she says. "I'm shocked by what the puppet can get away with - things I could never say to someone in a million years.

"I started this thinking one day I wanted to give it up eventually. But then I realised that there are really no limits to what you can do with it."

Still, Conti's street credibility is far removed from the previous generation of British vents who suddenly found that their work had become unfashionable.

Usually recruited from the working men's circuit or even, if they were old enough, music hall, they suffered from television's move away from traditional variety formats.

One victim of the shift in attitudes was Keith Harris, whose partnership with Orville the duck and Cuddles the monkey had made him a major star before he was dropped from the airwaves as the 1990s dawned.

"All of a sudden we didn't get the chance to be on TV any more," he complains, still audibly bruised. "Running things you had these new, young guys from universities who thought they knew what people wanted."

Whoever was to blame, it still was a long way from the days when the act was so popular that vents like Edgar Bergen and Peter Brough could, bizarrely, deliver their routines on radio to general acceptance.

But perhaps, all along, it was the unthreatening, mainstream entertainers who were out of step with ventriloquism's traditions.

Ray Alan and Lord Charles were more subversive than their image suggested
Dr Helen Davies, a lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University who has studied the subject, believes there was always a darkness to ventriloquism during its peak years, which ran from the late-19th to mid-20th Century.

"The subversive properties are all there," she says.

"It stems from this idea of mimicry and parody and the idea of the dummy talking back, as well as the inanimate becoming animate - it's all about a transgression of boundaries."

In this respect, she says, the most successful modern vents have cannily tapped into the legacy of dummy-themed horror films like 1964's Devil Doll and 1978's Magic, which starred Anthony Hopkins as a deranged ventriloquist.

And, indeed, even the most popular vents of the television variety era appeared to realise this.

Ray Alan may have presented an unthreatening, cardigan-wearing charm, but Lord Charles's drunken, lecherous persona allowed for comedy based around sex, class and alcoholism.

"I dreamed the other day that I was giving a speech at the House of Lords, and d'y'know, when I woke up, I was," ran a typical Lord Charles routine - predating the anarchic, anti-establishment puppetry of Spitting Image by decades.

And even Keith Harris - whose career apotheosis came with Orville's rendition of the sickly ballad I Wish I Could Fly - has moved with the times, offering an adults-only version of his act in which Cuddles turns the air blue.

"Maybe with the Americans coming over - they're a bit more straight-talking," he adds. "But there's nothing new in ventriloquism. The basic gags they do, like leaving the puppet onstage on its own, are ones I was doing 35 years ago.

"It's just about bringing it up to date."

Perhaps, all along, ventriloquism has been about telling the audience to talk to the hand.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


How do I deal with hecklers, particularly if they are unruly children making noise?

Every ventriloquist,storyteller, clown,balloonist and magician eventually has to deal with members of the audience disrupting the show in one way or another. Whether they are drunk, showing off, rude or amateur magicians whispering to their dates how it is done, they can throw the performer off pace.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the rest of the audience may not notice the heckler or attach as much importance to the heckling as you do. Working in night clubs, Mr. Magic has occasionally had to deal with noisy drunks, mainly by ignoring them. The interesting thing is that after the show other members of the audience told Mr. Magic they didn't even hear anyone making noise. So remember that you as a performer are much more sensitive to all this than the rest of the audience.

Let's stop for a moment and consider what a heckler does. Mainly he or she interrupts the show. Now when you're just starting out as a performer, having the show interrupted will definitely throw you off. And thus you'll try to deal with the heckler in an abrupt manner which might not work. Frankly Mr. Magic feels that if you can't ignore the heckler the next best thing is to stop the show and give the heckler some attention. With a smile. Usually these people are jerks and are uncomfortable when everyone is looking at them.

Whatever you do, don't get in a verbal duel with a heckler. If you win the audience may feel that you've somehow put them down. If you loose the audience will feel that you're not as calm and collected as they thought.

Often the audience will be more annoyed by the heckler than you are - after all they paid to get in. And they may eventually turn on the heckler in an attempt to quiet him down, thus saving you the trouble.

When the loud mouth is a child the problem is more delicate. You can't really go around telling kids to shut up since their parents will be likely to take offense. You might consider inviting the trouble maker on the stage to participate in an effect and thus getting them on your side.

However you deal with noisy audience members, keep in mind that the audience will judge you by your actions. They know the heckler is a jerk, but they don't know you and if you react in an unattractive manner they may decide there isn't much difference between you and the heckler.

Enjoy and have a great show!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I believe-
That we don't have to change friends if we understand that friends change.
I believe-
That no matter how good a friend is, they're going to hurt you every once in a while and, you must forgive them for that.

I believe-
That true friendship continues to grow, even over the longest distance. Same goes for true love.

I believe-
That you can do something in an instant that will give you heartache for life.

I believe-
That it's taking me a long time to become the person I want to be.

I believe-
That you should always leave loved ones with loving words. It may be the last time you see them.

I believe-
That you can keep going long after you can't.

I believe-
That we are responsible for what we do, no matter how we feel.

I believe-
That either you control your attitude or it controls you.

I believe-
That regardless of how hot and steamy a relationship is at first, the passion fades and there had better be something else to take its place.

I believe-
That heroes are the people who do what has to be done when it needs to be done, regardless of the consequences.

I believe-That money is a lousy way of keeping score.

I believe-
That my best friend and I can do anything or nothing and have the best time!

I believe-
That sometimes the people you expect to kick you when you're down, will be the ones to help you get back up.

I believe-
That sometimes when I'm angry I have the right to be angry, but that doesn't give me the right to be cruel.

I believe-
That just because someone doesn't love you the way you want them to doesn't mean they don't love you with all they have.

I believe-
That maturity has more to do with what types of experiences you've had and what you've learned from them and less to do with how many birthdays you've celebrated.

I believe-
That it isn't always enough to be forgiven by others. Sometimes you have to learn to forgive yourself.

I believe-
That no matter how bad your heart is broken the world doesn't stop for your grief.

I believe-
That our background and circumstances may have influenced who we are, but we are responsible for who we become.

I believe-
That just because two people argue, it doesn't mean they don't love each other, And just because they don't argue, it doesn't mean they do.

I believe-
That you shouldn't be so eager to find out a secret. It could change your life forever.

I believe-
That two people can look at the exact same thing and see something totally different.

I believe-
That your life can be changed in a matter of hours by people who don't even know you.

I believe-
That even when you think you have no more to give, when a friend cries out to you - you will find the strength to help.

I believe-That credentials on the wall do not make you a decent human being.

I believe-
That the people you care about most in life are the essence of life. Tell them today how much you love them and what they mean to you.


For those of you who work with children this is a must read:
You have to watch this. I'm not giving you a choice. Watch this and marvel at the world so many of us grew up in thanks to people like Fred Rogers. Do our kids get this today? 'Mr. Rogers Defends PBS to the US Senate'

In 1969, Fred Rogers appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications. His goal was to support funding for PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in response to significant proposed cuts by President Nixon.

If you get a chance, check out the WQED documentary "Fred Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor" from 2003. (they have plenty of copies in most all library systems, if you haven't seen it.) It's hosted by Michael Keaton, who got his start performing on the show, and it highlights what an amazing man he was.This clip is included, as well as his induction into the TV Hall of Fame, which is one of the most touching moments ever filmed.

--I just checked in my own (Ft Lauderdale, FL) library system, and they've got a copy of the DVD. I'll be watching it this weekend. And I'll probably get all teared up.

I work with the children in my neighborhood and thanks to Mr. Rogers he has opened many new windows, windows that would not have been opened had it not been for him. Watch this tape for memories of a time that was taken away from us once Mr. Rogers began sharing his magic world with the angels. Many of Mr. Rogers ideals have been incorporated into what I try to teach the kids in storytime I do with the children.

Also go to youtube and watch what it has to offer...

Please after reading this, go directly to your own library and request a copy The Mr. Rogers Doc.'America's Favorite Neighbor'aired on WQED...Please share with us here what you havegotten from this documentary I know others would want to hear it as well.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


For those friends of mine who aren't vents who might be clowns, story tellers, magicians or a ballonie toon artist and you have a club in your area being part of the club has benefitted you in what way.
Jerry N' Jenny Bell I'm a vent, but I joined a local clown club. I was going along with them to some of their shows already so they asked me to join. It gets me into venues I wouldn't be aware of otherwise, and I am able to try out new stuff on them first and get their critique. Our meetings are held once a month.
you forgot to tell me where and when its held how many members and some information to post if they have a business card or post card to add to the blog i will add it as well
Jerry N' Jenny Bell It's held the second Wednesday of every month at the Wellness House here in Yakima. As far as I know, they have no cards. Everything they do is by word of mouth. There are about 12 total memebers, but not all show up for the meetings or for every event.