Friday, January 12, 2024

Ventriloquism – From Dark History to Enchanting Entertainment

By Kathy Kovach

As a child, I was fascinated with puppets. All kinds. From marionettes to hand puppets. Shadow art to large, full-body Muppets—like Big Bird and Snuffleupagus. I’ve seen the Broadway version of The Lion King twice, and the artistry that unfolds on stage is magical.

The Lion King

With my love of storytelling, coupled with puppetry, it wasn’t hard for me to decide, at the age of ten, to learn ventriloquism.

Magic, 20th Century Fox, 1978

While some might find ventriloquist dummies creepy, especially due to movies like Magic and the television series Goosebumps, my fascination began with the children’s program, The Shari Lewis Show. It debuted in 1960, replacing another puppet show, Howdy Doody. Shari was a young, vibrant woman who conversed with the delightful Lamb Chop, the introverted Hush Puppy, and the mischievous Charlie Horse. These were variations of the sock puppet. Each unique voice came from Shari herself.
The Shari Lewis Show, NBC, 1960-1963
Keep those sweet faces in mind.

Ventriloquism has a dark history, dating back to Egypt in 2000 BCE. It was believed sounds emerging from deep in one’s stomach came from the unliving who had taken up residency within the ventriloquist. The name itself comes from the Latin venter (belly) and loqui (speak). The Greeks called it gastromancy. The ventriloquist would interpret the sounds (without a puppet) and proceed to foretell the future. Eurycles was the most famous Greek ventriloquist, and those who came after him were called eurycleides. Another word for which they were called was engastrimanteis, or “belly prophets”.

Other archeological evidence suggests the practice was also used by the Hebrews, although strictly forbidden. It also has origins across the world, including the Zulu (Africa), Maori (Polynesia), and Inuit (Alaska) peoples.

Eventually, ventriloquism moved on to less ominous usages. By the 18th Century, wooden dolls—or dummies—were added to the illusion and the duos could be seen at traveling fairs and circuses. These were meant to entertain, forgoing the unpleasant implication of speaking for the dead.

Vent Haven Museum, Fort Mitchell, Kentucky
In 1886, the spiritual stigma of “belly speaking” was finally shed when Fred Russell performed at the prestigious Palace Theater in London. He, along with his cheeky partner, Coster Joe, enthralled the audience, earning him the right to be called the father of modern ventriloquism. His use of banter between the inanimate puppet and himself set the stage for many vents, as they call themselves, to come.

British ventriloquist, Arthur Prince, debuted at the same theater in 1902 and cashed in on this unique form of entertainment. He, with the help of his figure, Sailor Jim, became one of the highest paid entertainers on the music hall circuit. Such was their partnership, that when Prince died on April 14th, 1948, Jim was buried with him.

During the mid-20th Century, Edgar Bergen made a splash in radio with his wooden partner, Charlie McCarthy. In radio. Who saw him other than those in the studio? At any rate, he soon transitioned to film and television. His daughter, actress Candice Bergen, has said that as a child, she thought Charlie was simply her older brother.

The Bergen Family
Spanish ventriloquist Señor Wences stepped out of the norm by using his hand as a puppet. He drew eyes, nose, and mouth onto his closed fist, placed a wig on his hand, and then rested it on a headless doll. This odd creature became “Johnny”. Wences also created a unique puppet by placing a male doll head inside a box. In his clipped Spanish accent, he would ask the man if he was all right. He’d open the front panel of the box, and the puppet would say, “S’alright”. This puppet was invented due to necessity when, in 1936, a train accident took the “life” of one his full-bodied dummies. The show must go on, so “Pedro”, the bodyless man in a box, was born.

Señor Wences with Johnny and Pedro.
He used the telephone in his act, making the sound of a person squeaking through the line.
By the 1960s, Paul Winchell and his little friends Danny O’Day and the plucky dog Farfel clenched a spot in pop culture when, after the commercial jingle, “N. E. S. T. L. E. S. Nestles makes the very best...” Farfel would draw out the word “Chawwwcklet.” For Christmas one year, Santa brought me a Danny O’Day puppet of my very own. He’s folded up in a small trunk in my basement. I should dust him off and breathe life into him sometime.

Danny O'Day and me, Christmas, 1965
Part of the illusion is the entertaining experience of throwing one’s voice. It takes skill to make the audience believe the vent’s voice is coming from elsewhere. Señor Wences did this effectively with Pedro by pulling his voice back when the box was closed and going full-throttle when it was opened. I recently witnessed this same phenomenon when my husband and I attended a show by Terry Fator, winner of the 2007 America’s Got Talent competition show, when he came to Denver this Christmas season. He would be interacting with one of his puppets onstage, when a voice would sound from behind the curtain that he was in front of. Both man and puppet would look behind them, so the audience would know where it had supposedly come from. The voice sounded muffled as if it were several yards away from Fator and behind a curtain. I honestly thought it was his recorded voice, but he explained near the end of the show that every voice heard that night came straight from him. To which his little buddy, the turtle Winston, shot back from behind the curtain, “No, it didn’t.”

Terry Fator and Winston
From the unliving speaking through one’s belly to surreal wooden dummies exchanging comedy routines, ventriloquism has earned its place in history. When I think of this ancient art, I don’t see the creepy doll faces that one normally associates with it. Sweet Lamb Chop comes to mind, and I’m forever grateful for those who ushered this distinctive form of storytelling from the dark ages into the modern world.

Here is Shari Lewis, Lamb Chop, and Charlie Horse in their 1958 screen test. As I said before, it’s delightful.


A secret. A key. Much was buried on the Titanic, but now it's time for resurrection.

Follow two intertwining stories a century apart. 1912 - Matriarch Olive Stanford protects a secret after boarding the Titanic that must go to her grave. 2012 - Portland real estate agent Ember Keaton-Jones receives the key that will unlock the mystery of her past... and her distrusting heart.
To buy: Amazon

Kathleen E. Kovach is a Christian romance author published traditionally through Barbour Publishing, Inc. as well as indie. Kathleen and her husband, Jim, raised two sons while living the nomadic lifestyle for over twenty years in the Air Force. Now planted in northeast Colorado, she's a grandmother and a great-grandmother—though much too young for either. Kathleen has been a longstanding member of American Christian Fiction Writers. An award-winning author, she presents spiritual truths with a giggle, proving herself as one of God's peculiar people.


  1. Thank you for posting today, and Happy New Year to you and your family. I loved Shari Lewis and Lambchop! I knew a guy in radio who did an alter-ego voice over the air and in certain live shows, but I don't remember if he had a puppet. It sure was strange to be looking at him and his face would hardly move but you could hear the other voice!!

  2. I enjoyed this post! I fondly remember Shari Lewis and Lamb chop!