Ventriloquism is an act of stagecraft in which a person (a ventriloquist) manipulates his or her voice so that it appears that the voice is coming from elsewhere, usually a puppeteered "dummy". The act of ventriloquism is ventriloquizing, and the ability to do so is commonly called in English the ability to "throw" one's voice. However, the term "throwing one's voice" is misleading, because it implies that a sound's physical origin has changed, when really the change has been perceptual and not physical.
Originally, ventriloquism was a religious practice. The name comes from the Latin for to speak from the stomach; the Greeks called this gastromancy (Greek: εγγαστριμυθία). The noises produced by the stomach were thought to be the voices of the unliving , who took up residence in the stomach of the ventriloquist. The ventriloquist would then interpret the sounds, as they were thought able to speak to the dead, as well as to foretell the future.
One of the earliest recorded group of prophets to utilise this technique was the Pythia, the priestess at the temple of Apollo in Delphi, who acted as the conduit for the Delphic Oracle. Python subsequently became one of the most common words used in classical Jewish and early Christian writing to refer to necromantic ventriloquism; it has even been used by some early English versions of the Bible to translate the word gastromancy in the Septuagint and in the Book of Acts.
In the Middle Ages, it was thought to be similar to witchcraft. As Spiritualism led to stage magic and escapology, so ventriloquism became more of a performance art as, starting around the 19th century, it shed its mystical trappings.
The most familiar type of ventriloquist seen today is a nightclub performer sitting on a stool with a wooden dummy on his or her lap. This comedic style of ventriloquism is, however, a fairly recent innovation, which began in the days of vaudeville in the late 19th century. The vaudeville acts did not concentrate on humour as much as on demonstrating the ventriloquist's ability to deceive the audience and his skill in switching voices. For this reason, many of the performers used multiple figures, switching quickly from one voice to another. Jules Vernon was one of the more famous American vaudeville ventriloquists who utilised multiple figures. Englishman Fred Russell pioneered the use of one single figure with his dummy, Coster Joe. Perhaps the most famous vaudeville ventriloquist, however, The Great Lester, used only one figure, Frank Byron, Jr., and it is The Great Lester's success that started the ventriloquist-with-one-figure routine that is ubiquitous today.
Ventriloquism was immensely popular in the middle of the 20th century, thanks in great part to the work of one of The Great Lester's students, Edgar Bergen. Bergen popularised the idea of the comedic ventriloquist. Bergen, together with his favourite figure, Charlie McCarthy, hosted a radio program that was broadcast from 1937 to 1956. It was the #1 program on the nights it aired. Bergen continued performing until his death in 1979, and his popularity inspired many other famous ventriloquists who followed him, including Paul Winchell, Wayland Flowers and his famous puppet Madame, Jimmy Nelson, Shari Lewis and her daughter Mallory, and Señor Wences.
Ventriloquism's popularity waned for a while, probably because of modern media's electronic ability to convey the illusion of voice, the natural special effect that is the heart of ventriloquism. A number of modern ventriloquists have developed a following as the public taste for live comedy grows.
Some prominent present-day ventroliquists are:
Many ventriloquists attend conferences, such as the Vent Haven Convention and I-Fest, to hone their skills and to connect with others in their performing community. These gatherings offer performances, competitions, panel discussions, and workshops for beginners and professionals alike.
One difficulty ventriloquists face is that all the sounds that they make must be made with lips slightly separated. For the labial sounds f, v, b, p, and m, the only choice is to replace them with others. If variations of the sounds th, d, t, and n are spoken quickly, it can be difficult for listeners to notice a difference.
Modern ventriloquists utilise a variety of different types of puppets in their presentations, ranging from soft cloth or foam puppets, flexible latex puppets, and the traditional and familiar hard-headed knee figure. The classic dummies used by ventriloquists (the technical name for which is ventriloquial figure) vary in size anywhere from twelve inches tall to human-size and larger, with the height usually falling between thirty-four and forty-two inches. Traditionally, this type of puppet has been made from papier-mâché or wood. However, in modern times, other materials are often employed, including fibreglass-reinforced resins, urethanes, filled (rigid) latex, and neoprene. The most prominent and most prolific modern-day suppliers of professional ventriloquial dummies include Tim Selberg, Alan Semok, Ray Guyll, Conrad Hartz, Geoffrey Felix, Jerry Layne, Mike Brose, and Albert Alfaro. Great names in the history of dummy making include Theo Mack and Son, Frank Marshall, Revello Petee, Kenneth Spencer, David Strassman, Cecil Gough, Jeff Dunham, and Glen & George McElroy.