Humor me. This is a bit of a guilty pleasure piece. I should potentially give this one a warning… If you have a fear of dolls, you might want to close this one. Some could find the coming content… Unsettling.
Ventriloquists are a bit of a relic now. YouTube and the yearly airings of America…Britain… (You get the point’s) Got Talent shows that the art form is still clinging to at least a bit of life. However, with vaudeville not that far in the rearview mirror and variety show culture still very much alive, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a ventriloquist during the middle of the twentieth century.
Ventriloquists have so often been fodder for horror movies so it’s difficult to separate these creators from the uncanny and odd nature of their art form. In ventriloquist Arthur Worsley’s 2001 obituary, even the Guardian reports:
Before ventriloquism became part of dance hall entertainment (it) had been regarded as necromancy. Ventriloquism is mentioned in the Bible and was condemned by the church in the dark ages with many practitioners put to death.
I mean, some of these dummies are kinda terrifying…
With that being said though, I truly enjoy a good ventriloquist act. I always have. They can be strange, surreal and even a little odd. At the same time, a look at the peformers below gives us a little snapshot to the entertainment industry and I would dare to say, culture as a whole during the middle of the twentieth century.
Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Favorite Ventriloquists.
Dennis Spicer (1935-1964) and Various
Dennis Spicer is one of the newer finds for me on this list thanks to a deep YouTube rabbit hole. A number of these men written about below suffer from one thing. By and large, ventriloquism is a live medium. While a few were able to translate their work into bigger things (like TV and radio), most worked in theaters and dance halls with forays into early television and variety shows really giving them their only mass exposure.
There are a handful of Dennis Spicer clips which exist on YouTube. The comedian pops up in early television clips, largely in his home country of England. Unfortunately, his work shines the brightest in the clip above, which is also listed as his last. Spicer passed away after a car crash in 1964 at the age of 29. The above snippet showcases Spicer at his peak during the 1964 Royal Command Performance and gives just a tantalizing hint of what he could do. It’s just a shame we couldn’t see more.
Clips like the one above are one purest arguments as to why we need early television preservation.
Edgar Bergen (1903-1978) and Charlie McCarthy
I would of course be remiss if Edgar Bergen didn’t make this list. Ultimately, he’s the ventriloquist from this period who truly “made it”. Bergen was a radio legend, gracing the airwaves as far back as 1936 and remained active in the industry until his passing.
Bergen is certainly the most remembered figure on this list. Even if you haven’t watched Bergen’s act, you’ve likely at least seen pictures of his dummies, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, at some point in your lives.
Television viewers throughout the middle of the twentieth century couldn’t miss Bergen’s work. Heck, he even graced the big screen– usually as himself. In fact, this was where I was first introduced to his ventriloquism while watching a rickety old VHS of the Disney film Fun and Fancy Free. Though at that age, it’s a little harder to… appreciate…. ventriloquist dummies.
Interestingly, Bergen’s biggest struggle is in his ventriloquism. The clip above goes above and beyond to hide his weakness… his lips move visibly with his character. I mean, he was on the radio for a number of years where clear audio trumps visual skill. So, there’s that. However, despite all of that, the strength of these characters speak for themselves, leaving Bergen as one of the most legendary names in ventriloquism (at least in the United States).
Chris Kirby (1942-2016) and Terry
Chris Kirby is a new discovery for me and to be honest, he’s probably the hardest of these performers to dig into… there’s just not that much currently available (in the United States at least). There are two YouTube clips: one is on The Ed Sullivan Show and the other as part of a larger TV special featuring a number of comedians.
Kirby seems better known in his home country Australia where he was a fixture on television. Based on a study of newspaper articles, his big break came in the United States thanks to the actor Donald O’Connor. According to a 1971 article in the Sydney Morning Herald, the legendary musical star brought Kirby to Hollywood that year to film a pilot. However, Hollywood is an uphill battle and the project seems to have gone nowhere.
Check out Kirby’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show here. After watching this footage, I remain desperate to see more. His sense of timing and his ability to interact with ‘Terry’ is largely unparalleled on this list. My mind is still blown.
Arthur Worsley (1920-2001) and Charlie Brown
Arthur Worsley entered my life (like a number of the performers on this list) thanks to The Ed Sullivan Show. Kids, if you want to get a feel for entertainment culture, few things are better than variety shows.
Arthur Worsley was a staple on television in the post World War II era, finding a home on the host of variety shows in not only his home country of England, but also the United States. Multiple write-ups on the comedian’s career cite that he was on The Ed Sullivan Show the same night as Elvis Presley’s final appearance, which was was reportedly viewed by more than 50 million people.
Worsley’s act is a fascinating… If even a bit meta. I watched it initially in conjunction with Kirby. In truth, I initially struggled a bit with Worsley’s approach in the face of Kirby’s more interactive, dynamic act.
However, with time to think after the fact, Worsley’s brilliance evolved in my mind. His act is quiet with Worsley taking a back seat to his aggressive puppet, named Charlie Brown. In fact, Worsley remains largely mute in his act, muttering only a few words.
On the surface, this seems counterproductive to a form which is often based on the interaction between ventriloquist and dummy. How can one appreciate a puppeteer doing a voice, when you don’t hear the difference?
At first, this is where I found myself on the spectrum. However, as I rewatched the act and contemplated it further, it suddenly made sense. Many of Worsley’s press clippings from the period emphasizes his skill, calling him everything from England’s Premiere Ventriloquist to “The Greatest Ventriloquist in the World”. In his silence, his skill his emphasized. He’s an incredibly smart performer who manages to not only elevate ventriloquism, but deconstruct it. Trust me, it’s deep.
This footage come from one of Worsley’s British clips. Definitely check out his Sullivan clips for the best depiction of his work.
And, last but not least:
Paul Winchell (1922-2005) and Jerry Mahoney
To be honest, this was a particularly hard list to write, but Paul Winchell came out on top.
Okay, not just for that. Though, it was Winchell’s portrayal of Tigger that gradually brought me to his work. While the actor is a particularly delightful voice performer, it’s actually far more interesting to watch his prolific and wide-ranging television appearances throughout the 1950s.
Winchell often appears — even in game shows– with his dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff. They went with him from show to show, from What’s My Line to the many series’ Winchell headlined during the decade. It was really rare to see one without the other.
Like a good number of the men on this list, Winchell started mastering ventriloquism at a young age (purportedly to help him through a childhood defined by his stutter, shyness and a bout with polio). His work (bolstered by television) takes the usual art form (a ventriloquist holding his dummy onstage) and modernizes it. In this footage, Winchell builds not only a voice and personality for Jerry, but also a physicality. This is ventriloquism crafted not for the stage or radio, but for television.
On screen, Winchell is charismatic as anything and shines… dummy or not. In truth, he doesn’t need Jerry to get a laugh and it’s a shame that Winchell didn’t get more of an opportunity to step out in front of the camera on his own. Granted, multiple newspaper sources describe Winchell’s prominent role in designing the artificial heart in the 1980s… so he really didn’t need to act.
I can not stress enough how important YouTube has become in modern culture as it relates to the field of preservation. While the site obviously doesn’t do the same good as the universities and archives of the world, it does allows exposure to rare media on a wide scale. Chances are, if there’s a show you remember from your childhood…. there’s at least a credit sequence on YouTube.
While ventriloquism is a bit of a challenging art to get a feel for, YouTube has allowed a bit of a glimpse into why ventriloquism was so popular throughout the post World War II era. It really is fun, if you can shake the pop culture stigma.
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Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
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