Perspectives of a Writer and Musician

Issues related to writing, publishing and playing jazz music: One man's muse.
by Al Stevens

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Location: Florida, United States

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Voice

I'm searching for a voice for my new character, Uncle Sweeter Dabney. Finding a voice can be a challenge. If you see me talking to myself as I drive alone down the road, it's not because I have a hands-off cell phone. It's just me in search of that voice. I'm using these guidelines, which I developed a long time ago.

  • Above all, ensure that the voice is different enough from my own voice.

    This doesn't mean it has to be way higher or lower in pitch or that it must have extreme qualities, such as nasal or whining characteristics that such a character would not typically have. It just has to be different.

  • Recognize one's own limitations.

    The figure can't have a voice I can't make. Each person's vocal abilities are limited with respect to range and timbre. We can make some changes, but only within the boundaries of our own limitations.

  • Choose a voice that won't do harm.

    Falsetto, loudness, or too much harsh, scratchy timbre can damage the vocal cords. If it hurts to say it, it's probably doing some damage.

  • Choose a voice that fits the character.

    This one should be obvious, and I shouldn't need to emphasize it, but I find myself spending too much time exploring inappropriate voices.

  • Rate of speech helps to define the character.

    Given the personality that this fellow is developing, he wouldn't speak rapidly. Slowly and deliberately is better, I think.

  • Choose a dialect or accent that fits, is believable, and that I can make effectively.

    This is a tough one. Uncle Sweeter's multiple inspirations are from the Pennsylvania coal region and the mountains of Kentucky. Being from the South and having married a Pennsylvania farm girl, I can do both dialects reasonably well. But I don't want to irrevocably associate the character with only one geographic area. He might then natually assume verbal idioms characteristic of that region that are not well understood by others.

  • Don't choose or eliminate a voice until I've heard it.

    We don't sound like ourselves to ourselves. We're hearing our voices from inside our heads. It's important to record the voices we use to hear what they sound like to others.

An elderly person speaks with certain vocal impairments that come with age. The best way to understand this is to listen to a movie actor whose career spans his young years into old age. Listen to the voice from both eras and pay attention to how it changes with age. You recognize both voices as belonging to the same person, but the vocal artifacts of age are evident in later performances.

An elderly person's voice is scratchy. It is often softer, almost a whisper. There's a lot more breath in an elderly voice than in the strong voice of a young adult. Their dynamic range is narrower, which means their lowest volumes are louder and their highest volumes are quieter. Likewise, their frequency spectrum is narrower, which means they don't change their vocal pitch to the extremes they used when they were younger.

Young people use large differences in vocal speed, frequency and volume to accentuate the urgency of whatever they are saying. They want you to get it. Right now. So they can move on. Older people realize that nothing is all that important, so they slow down and speak in normal tones more quietly. And if you don't get it, what does it matter?

I'm working on it. I've been there before. My wife learned a long time ago not to call from another room, "Who are you talking to?" But it does freak out the cats.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Developing a Custom Ventriloquist Figure

Ventriloquists develop concepts for their figures. Sometimes the figure's character and personality evolve based on a figure that the ventriloquist buys. Other times they take the concept to a figure maker and have a custom figure made based on the idea.

When the ventriloquist is also a figure maker, he can do both. I'll be using this blog to document my progress in developing a character and building the figure to match the character's personality. I'm starting with only a concept. Let's begin there.

The Name

It started with a name. Uncle Sweeter Dabney. That's the name of a character in a novel that I read when I was a teenager. The book is Foretaste of Glory by Jesse Stuart, and I highly recommend it. All that the book contributes to my concept is the name, which has stayed with me for over fifty years.

The Character

My wife's uncle, now deceased, had a fascinating character. He was a Pennslyvania Dutchman who was kind, generous, grumpy, judgemental, humorous, loving, industrious, and intolerant, all these incongruities in one guy. I was raised in the South, and I knew some curmudgeons, too, but each with a Southern dialect and Southern attitudes. The old guys I knew would rather go fishing than to to work. Somewhere in all those people I know from two diverse cultures is the character I want for Uncle Sweeter.

His Age

Uncle Sweeter is in his late seventies and has typical problems of the elderly. I specifically avoided a character that might seem to be too much like Jeff Dunham's Walter, a middle-aged grouch in reasonably good health.

His Culture

He is a country fellow but not a bumpkin. He speaks with country idioms but he is neither illiterate nor stupid.

The Material

Joke books and the Internet are a treasure trove of humorous items from and about old fellows. Everytime I hear another one, I put it in a computer file along with funny things I've heard old people say. Eventually this file will form the basis for a dialogue with Uncle Sweeter. Perhaps none of the archived jokes will find their way into the final work, but they provide a starting place and get me thinking.

The Design

I carry a sketchpad everywhere I go. I draw mostly faces. I've been sketching ventriloquist dummies since I was nine years old. When I began to think about building Uncle Sweeter, I started sketching. I don't know about other artists, but I don't know what a face is going to look like until I draw it. Certainly, there are facial characteristics that contribute to whatever I'm looking for—large or small nose, the age and sex of the character, eyeglasses, hair—but the actual face remains hidden until I draw the lines.

My sketchpad is filled with pictures of old man ventriloquist dummy faces. Three things are common in all these sketches: He has glasses, a longer-than-average nose, and a combover.

This is the face I decided on after many attempts.

This sketch doesn't guarantee that Uncle Sweeter will look exactly like this because sculpting is like drawing—the face kind of develops as the process progresses.

After choosing the face, I observed that the picture does not reflect the posture of a typical old man. I recall how my wife's uncle walked kind of stoop-shouldered with his neck protruding forward. I drew a profile view to see how it might work. The sketch shown here shows how the headstick angles down from the neck straight into the body. This effect requires a specially designed shoulder piece to fit the off-center socket and give a stoop-shoulder appearance.


I envision him in a checked suit similar to Mortimer Snerd's and a pair of those orange work shoes that construction workers wear. His jacket will have to be specially tailored to fit his stooped shoulders.


The figures I build for myself do not usually have moving eyes, and I expect Uncle Sweeter to be the same. I am however considering eyelids and eyebrows that work from a common control rod. The eyelids are normally in a half-closed, sleepy position. When the eyebrows go up or down, the eyelids go up into a wide-eyed look. This provides an astonished look and a really angry look. He might also be able to close his eyes and go to sleep. I haven't worked out the design of this control configuration.

Status Reports

This ia an ongoing work, and progress will be slow. Don't expect an update to the project every day, but, whenever I make significant advances, I'll post about them here.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Recording Audio Demo Clips

Ventriloquists can add sound clips to their promotional web sites featuring a dialog with their figure. This article explains how to record a one-minute sound file on your computer without spending a lot of money or needing a lot of technical know-how.

The Sound Card

This procedure assumes that your PC runs Windows and has a sound card. Here's what a typical sound card looks like outside the computer.

When the sound card is installed the small receptacles, called jacks, are exposed at the back of the PC. One jack is where your speaker cable or headphones are plugged into the sound card. Another jack is for the microphone. The other two jacks are for connecting line level inputs and outputs. We won't need them for this job.

You might have to look closely at the jacks to see how they are labeled. If you have documentation for the sound card, it should tell you which jacks are for which circuits. Some cards have the jacks color coded to match the plugs on an integrated system.

Laptop PCs have internal sound circuits with similar jacks. This procedure works as well with a laptop PC.

The Microphone

The microphone is probably the only thing you need to buy. The one shown here is available at Radio Shack for $9.99. It has the
correct cable plug to fit the sound card's microphone input jack.

It is best, although not absolutely essential, to use a microphone with an on/off switch like the one shown here.

The more you spend for a microphone, the better your audio sounds. But this recording is of your voice only. The human voice does not have the frequency and dynamic ranges of musical instruments. Therefore, you don't need studio-quality equipment to make a good-sounding recording of a spoken message.

Do not, however, use one of those small PC microphones intended for web communications. Many PCs include one in their audio bundles. Those microphones are for talking to other people on the Internet. They support telephone quality communications only and do not have the dynamic range needed for good spoken audio recordings.

Make sure your microphone has the 1/8" mono plug that fits the sound card's microphone input jack. If it has a 1/4" phone jack instead, you can buy a plug adaptor at Radio Shack.

The Pop Screen

The next piece of equipment can make the difference between a good sounding audio recording and a poor one. When you speak into a microphone from a close position, the plosive B and P labial sounds (yours not your figure's, assuming you use labial substitutions) make a popping sound when the burst of air produced by the labial hits the microphone.

A pop screen device suppresses those noises. You place the screen between your mouth and the microphone and the screen filters the burst of air that the labials produce There are expensive professional studio pop screens as shown here.

Make your own pop screen with a wire coat hangar and an old nylon stocking. Make a round frame from the coat hangar. Rig it with a stand to mount or place on a table in front of the microphone. Stretch two layers of stocking tightly over the frame, one on each side, and stitch or glue the stocking pieces in place. That's all there is to a homemade pop screen, and it's as good as the expensive professional ones.

The Recording Environment - Your Studio

Unless you are willing to move your PC, you are stuck with wherever you have it set up. If the acoustic properties of your computer room are really bad, reconsider packing up the PC and moving it to a better environment.

The ideal sound studio is sound proof, which means outside noise can't get in. Sound proofing your bedroom or study might not be practical. Since this is a one-time project, plan to record when background noise is at a minimum. Unless you live in a city, nighttime is the quietest time. If you live near a railroad, learn when the trains go by. If you live next to an interstate or in the departure path at an airport, it's best to take your equipment somewhere else unless you can pick a day when the traffic is at a minimum. (Airplanes take off into the wind, so pick a day when you are downwind of the airport, that is, when the wind is blowing toward your house from the direction of the airport.) Choose a day when it is not raining. Rain on the roof makes a lot of noise.

The ideal sound studio has an irregular room shape, which means that sound doesn't bounce off the walls and ceiling at right angles. The idea is to eliminate natural reverberation, which can compromise the quality of sound. The room should not have a lot of exposed glass surfaces such as sliding glass doors. Lots of books in bookcases are good because they deflect the bounce of sound. A carpeted floor is ideal. Wall tapestries help. Hard, flat surfaces that bounce sound are bad; textured, irregular surfaces that absorb sound are good. You can eliminate some of the right angles by putting up a couple of those folding screens that people in old movies get behind to change clothes.

Close all the windows and draw all the drapes. Turn off flourescent lights, ceiling fans, and the air conditioner during your recording session. Point the microphone away from the PC and put it as far away from the PC as possible to minimize having the cooling fan noise get into your recording. Unplug the telephone. Disconnect the doorbell. Hang out a "do not disturb" sign and alert your family and neighbors about your project and that you and your dummy need some uninterrupted quiet time. Put out the cat.

Preparing to Record on Your PC

  1. Turn the microphone's on/off switch to the off position.
  2. Plug your microphone into the sound card's microphone input jack.
  3. Open the Windows Volume Control applet.

    1. Click Start on the taskbar
    2. Click Programs
    3. Click Accessories
    4. Click Entertainment
    5. Click Volume Control

    These actions open the Volume Control applet shown here.

    Your Volume Control applet might look somewhat different from mine. But the parts of it we are interested in should be in about the same place.

  4. This step is very important. Click the "Mute all" check box so that it is checked. If you don't do this, you are likely to get feedback through your speakers when you get ready to record.
  5. On the Options menu, click the Properties command to open the Properties dialog box shown here.

  6. Click the Recording radio button control so that it is selected.
  7. Click OK. The Volume Control applet changes to the Recording Control applet as shown here.

  8. Click the Select radio button under the Microphone column. This sets you up to record from the microphone.

Don't close the Recording Control applet just yet.

The Windows Sound Recorder

Next you must get the Windows Sound Recorder applet running.

  1. Click Start on the taskbar
  2. Click Programs
  3. Click Accessories
  4. Click Entertainment
  5. Click Sound Recorder

This procedure opens the Sound Recorder applet shown here.

The Sound Recorder applet is capable of recording sound clips of up to one minute in length.

Recording the Clip

First you must set the recording quality that you want for your clip. Vocal recordings do not need to be stereo and high fidelity. By lowering the settings, you substantially reduce the size of the file you are going to produce.

  1. From the File menu, choose the Properties command. This action opens the "Properties for Sound" dialog shown here.

  2. Click the "Convert Now..." button. This action opens the Sound Selection dialog shown here.

  3. From the Format dropdown list box, choose PCM. (Note that the Format option includes MPEG Layer 3. This option rarely works because few computers have enough memory to support it.)
  4. From the Attributes dropdown list box, choose 11,025 kHz,16 Bit, Mono.

    (The last two actions produce a smaller WAV file than is usually recorded. They also produce one with lower fidelity, which should not be a problem with vocal-only recordings. If the quality is not acceptable, return here, change the settings, and try again.)
  5. Click OK to close the Sound Selection dialog.
  6. Click OK to close the Properties for Sound dialog.
  7. With the Sound Recorder and Recording Control applets open, reopen the Volume Control applet as you did earlier. This is a second copy of the applet. The first copy is now running as the Recording Control applet. You should have all three visible on your desktop like this.

  8. Ensure that the "Mute all" checkbox is checked on the Volume Control applet.
  9. Ensure that the Select checkbox under the Microphone column is checked on the Recording Control applet.
  10. Slide the Microphone column's Volume slider on the Recording Control applet to about the midway position.
  11. Turn the microphone's on/off switch to the "on" position.
  12. Hold the microphone four or five inches from your lips. If you have a pop screen, place the screen between your lips and the microphone.
  13. Click the Record button on the Sound Recorder applet. The record button is the button with a red ball as an icon. You are now recording. The Sound Recorder's slider moves to the right, and the horizontal waveform registers your audio in real time as shown here.

  14. Speak into the microphone. You have up to one minute to speak.
  15. Observe the value in the Position display on the Sound Recorder applet. Make sure you complete your recorded speech before it reaches the 60.00 second mark.
  16. When you are finished speaking, click the Sound Recorder's Stop button. The Stop button is the button just to the left of the Record button. It has a rectangular icon.

Reviewing the Audio Clip

Now that you've recorded a clip, you should listen to it to be sure it sounds right to you before saving it in a file.

  1. Turn the microphone's on/off switch to the off position.
  2. Uncheck the Mute All checkbox in the Volume Control applet.
  3. Click the rewind button on the Sound Recorder applet. The Rewind button is the one with the two left-facing arrows.
  4. Click the Play button to listen to the audio clip. The Play button is the one with the right-facing arrow.

Editing the Audio Clip

You can remove unneeded parts of the signal from the beginning and end of the waveform. Perhaps there is silence (or background noise only) at the beginning of the waveform that was recorded after you clicked the Record button and before you started speaking. Perhaps there is other unwanted audio at the end.

To remove unwanted audio from the beginning of the audio signal:

  1. Listen to the clip and watch the Sound Recorder's Position indicator as you do.
  2. Note the Position seconds setting where the unwanted audio ends.
  3. Click the Stop button to stop playback. The Stop button is the one with the rectangle icon.
  4. Use the mouse to move the slider control to a position where you want to truncate the audio.
  5. From the Edit menu, choose the Delete Before Current Position command.

To remove unwanted audio from the end of the audio signal:

  1. Listen to the clip and watch the Sound Recorder's Position indicator as you do.
  2. Note the Position seconds setting where the unwanted audio begins.
  3. Click the Stop button to stop playback.
  4. Move the slider control to a position where you want to truncate the audio.
  5. From the Edit menu, choose the Delete After Current Position command.

Saving the Audio Clip to a WAV File

Now you must save the audio clip to a file with the filename extension .wav.

  1. From the File Menu choose the Save command. This action opens the Save As dialog shown here.

  2. Navigate to the location on your hard disk where you want to store the wav file.
  3. Type a name into the File name edit box.
  4. Click the Save button.

Compressing the WAV file to an MP3 File

The WAV file of one minute occupies 1.26 megabytes of hard disk space assuming you used the recommended settings to record it. It takes more than three minutes to download a file of that size on typical dialup connections. Readers of your website might not be willing to wait that long.

You can make smaller WAV files with lower settings in the record properties, but the audio quality will be unacceptable.

But all is not lost. You can compress the WAV file into a format that virtually all Internet browsers can play back.

To reduce the size of the file, you must compress it into the MP3 format. To do that you need a compression program. One such program is Wav2MP3 available for free download from Download and install the Wav2MP3 Installer version. Once you have it installed:

  1. Run the installed Wav2MP3 program.
    (You might see several dialogs asking you to install an Easy CD Creator cd. Cancel these dialogs.)
  2. The Wav2MP3 program opens like this.

  3. Slide the Speed vs. Quality slider all the way to the left.
  4. Slide the Bitrate slider all the way to the left.

    (The last two actions produce the smallest possible MP3 file. They also produce one with the lowest possible fidelity, which should not be a problem with vocal-only recordings. If the quality is not acceptable after compression, return here, change the slider settings, and try again.)
  5. Click the Browse for File button to choose your WAV file to compress. This action opens a standard Windows File Open dialog from which you can select your file. The file name is displayed in the Wav2MP3 application window.
  6. Click the Encode button to begin encoding the MP3 file.

When compression is completed, the compressed MP3 file is located in the same folder as your WAV file. The MP3 file is about 250 kilobytes, which takes about a half minute to download with a typical dialup connection. That's a significant improvement.

The mp3 file can now be uploaded to your website. Send a copy to your webmaster to install.

Here is a demo recording I made by using the procedures in this

But What About the Laughter?

Your demo audio clip is supposed to be a comedy dialog, but, like the example clip here, there is no laughter because you recorded it at home. What if you want to add a laugh track?

Here's your dilemma. You want your demo to sound like you have a gig. You have a web site to help you get gigs but you don't have any gigs yet. None of your performances so far have been in front of a live audience. You could get some family and neighbors in and tell them to laugh at every joke, but here's an idea that involves a bit more effort and technical know-how and that can result in something sounding more professional.

  1. Visit a local comedy club. Carry a concealed portable tape recorder and lapel microphone. You must have this stuff concealed or they'll make you leave. They'll think you are there to steal jokes.
  2. Record the performances of some funny comics. You aren't interested in what they say; you want to capture the laughter.
  3. Record the applause at the end of each performance.
  4. Record several minutes of crowd noises when no one is performing.

In other words, put in a 90-minute cassette, which records for 45 minutes on each side, turn it on in record mode before you go in, and leave it running until you leave. If you need to flip or change the tape, do it in a stall in the restroom so no one sees you do it. Have a drink and enjoy the show.

Try to sit some distance from other patrons and try not to laugh too loudly yourself.

You'll need audio mixing software for the next several steps. I use Adobe Audition.

You might need to enlist the aid of a nephew who is a techno-geek and who understands the technical parts of audio recording. Everybody has a nephew like that.

  1. Record selected portions of your tape into WAV files on your hard drive.
  2. Mix the background crowd noises with your demo audio track. This makes it sound like you are recording in a night club.
  3. Mix laughter clips in after every joke. You should have recorded your demo with pauses for the laughter.
  4. Mix an applause clip in at the end of the demo.

Monday, May 22, 2006

All You Never Wanted to Know About Microphones

There are many different kinds of microphones for all kinds for applications. These kinds range from the cheapest small microphone that you plug into your computer's sound card for voice mail through the most expensive studio microphones. This article attempts to explain the kinds of microphones you might encounter as an entertainer and demystify some of the jargon that identifies microphones.

Microphone Stands

The typical microphone setup has a traditional handheld microphone mounted in a stationary stand. You position yourself near the microphone when you perform. Many ventriloquists prefer this configuration. Others find it limiting because it is stationary, and their act requires them to move around the stage.

Headset Microphones

A headset microphone is mounted at the end of a support that attaches to your head and wraps around your face. The microphone is directly in front of your mouth. Some varieties of headset microphones are flesh colored to blend in with your face.
Many ventriloquists swear by headset microphones because they facilitate freedom of movement around the stage and provide the best sound pickup for such acts. Others hate them because there's this permanent appendage on their faces. You'll have to decide for yourself.

Lapel Microphones

Lapel microphones are designed for lecturers. They are usually of low quality and generally not acceptable to ventriloquists because their quality is poor, their position is too far from the speaker's mouth, and they are omni-directional, which means they pick up ambient noise.

Microphone Holders

A microphone holder is placed around your neck and has a holder in which you can insert a handheld microphone. It offers the advantages of a handheld microphone but leaves your hands free for other things.

Wireless Microphones

A wireless microphone has a built-in transmitter. The receiver is a separate box that plugs into the amplifier. Handheld wireless microphones, which can be mounted on a microphone stand or in a microphone holder, have the transmitter built into the microphone shaft. Some headset microphones are wireless.

A wireless microphone has no microphone cable, which is an advantage because you are not tethered to equipment and there are no cables on the floor to trip over.

Microphone Impedance

The impedance of a microphone is how much of a current load it puts on the amplifier. Microphones come in two impedances, high and low. Dual impedance microphones have a switch that changes the impedance. High impedance microphones have high resistance, which limits the current flow, and limits the operating length of the cable to about twenty-five feet. Low impedance microphones have low resistance, which allows a higher current flow. The cables for low impedance microphones can be much longer than those for high impedance microphones.

Phantom Power

Some microphones require an external power source, which the amplifier supplies in the cable. This power source is called “phantom power.” Some microphones have flashlight batteries embedded in the microphone shaft and provide their own power.

Condenser and Dynamic Microphones

Microphones that require power, either phantom or battery, are “condenser” microphones. They are usually more expensive than “dynamic” microphones, which require no power source to operate. For stage applications, you usually have a dynamic microphone. Studios typically use condenser microphones.

Cardioid and Omnidirectional Microphones

A Cardioid (unidirectional) microphone tends to pick up sounds from directly in front of the microphone and, to a lesser extent, from the sides of the microphone while rejecting sounds from behind the microphone. An omnidirectional microphone picks up sound from all around the microphone placement. A stage microphone is usually cardioid so that it picks up mostly the instrument or vocalist using it. Studio microphones are often omnidirectional to pick up room ambiance and the balance of an instrumental ensemble.

XLR vs Phone Plugs and Jacks

A jack is the connector receptacle that accepts a cable's plug. Plugs and jacks are classed as male and female for obvious reasons. Jacks are usually female and plugs are usually male, but not always.

Some microphones have no fixed cable attached. They require a cable with a male three-prong plug on the end that connects to the amp and a female three-prong plug on the end that connects to the microphone. The microphone itself has a male three-prong jack. Such cables are called XLR cables. Other microphones have a cable attached with a single ¼ inch male phone plug to plug into the amplifier. Such microphones are said to have RCA ¼ inch phone jack cables, which means the amplifier needs a phone jack input.

An XLR cable carries two copies of the audio signal with a common ground. One of the signals is inverted at the microphone, which puts it out of phase with the other signal, which means that when one signal's waveform is positive, the other signal's waveform is negative. The system puts the signal back in phase at the amplifier and combines the two signals. Here's why.

Long lengths of cable, such as you can have with low impedance microphones, tend to pick up noise. The two signals in an XLR cable will pick up the same noise because they have a common ground, the third lead in the cable. The system reinverts the phase of the inverted signal and combines the two signals at the amplifier end. This process puts one signal's noise out of phase with the other signal's noise. Combining two signals that are the same except that they are out of phase cancels the signal to zero amplitude. Thus, an XLR circuit is a noise-cancelling device.

The amplifier must have a microphone jack that accepts the plug on the microphone cable and matches the impedance of the microphone. Many amplifiers have both kinds of jack and support both impedances.

You sometimes see a cable with a female XLR connector on one end and a ¼ inch phone jack on the other. This cable is usually for connecting a low impedance microphone to a high impedance microphone input jack. This connection works only for short cable lengths, and the signal delivered to the amplifier is not optimal. For optimal performance in this situation or for longer cable lengths, you need an impedance-matching transformer, described next.

Impedance-matching Transformers

Impedance-matching transformers convert low impedance microphones to high impedance and vice versa. These transformers are typically tubular in shape and have the correct plug on one end and jack on the other. You can plug the transformer into the amplifier's microphone input jack and the microphone cable into the transformer's input jack

Comparing Microphones

To compare the difference between the quality of microphones listen to the two audio clips shown just below this paragraph. I recorded the two clips under identical circumstances with respect to the room and the recording equipment. The only difference between the two is that the first one uses a consumer grade dynamic high-impedence microphone such as you might buy for less than $10. The second recording uses a studio quality condensor microphone that costs in the hundreds of dollars.

Cheap Microphone

Studio Microphone

So, do you hear hundreds of dollars worth of difference? Probably not. But you hear a difference in the quality of the sound. You'd hear a much bigger difference if the application was for music. The application for this example—and for most ventriloquist acts—is speech, which does not have the dynamic range requirements of vocal or instrumental music applications.

Now, listen to this clip, which I recorded with a professional dynamic, low-impedence stage microphone designed for vocalists and which is about what a ventriloquist should use:

Stage Microphone

You can hear some difference between the stage and studio microphones, but not much. Which is a good thing when you consider that you can buy a good stage microphone for much less than the cost of a studio microphone.

The industry standard for vocal applications onstage is the Shure SM58, a cardioid dynamic low-impedance vocal microphone.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Audio Feedback

Feedback is an audio phenomenon that occurs when you point a microphone at a loudspeaker and turn on the amplifier (assuming they are connected, of course).

Here's what happens. The room is quiet. Then almost immediately something makes a sound, even a tiny sound. The air conditioner cuts in, someone taps their foot, a car goes by outside, a mouse burps, or whatever. The microphone picks up that tiny sound and sends it to the amplifier. The amplifier amplifies the sound and sends it to the loudspeaker. The loudspeaker produces the sound louder than the original. Now the loop begins.

The microphone picks up the louder sound produced by the loudspeaker, combines it with the earlier sound which hasn't faded out, and sends it to the amplifier, which amplifies and sends it to the loudspeaker. The microphone picks up this louder combined sound, the loop iterates endlessly, and in a matter of milliseconds a high-pitched squeal resonates throughout the room as all the components in the system are being driven at their upper limits. And all the dogs in the neighborhood go nuts.

You might wonder why that doesn't happen every time an active microphone is connected to a powered-up amplifier. Most public address microphones are directional, which is to say they pick up sound that originates only from the direction in which they point. If the microphone is behind or pointed away from the loudspeaker, or if something is between the loudspeaker and the microphone, you get feedback only if you turn the microphone's gain control on the amplifier way above its normal operating limit causing it to pick up more than it should.

Two ways to prevent feedback are to place the loudspeakers ahead of the microphones or to keep something—a warm breathing body, for example—between the microphone and the loudspeaker.

Loudspeaker placement is the ideal solution, particularly if you like to move around onstage. But it introduces another problem in that you probably can't properly hear your own performance if you are behind the loudspeaker. This problem can be solved by the use of monitor speakers, which is another discussion.

Audio Distortion

Distortion is an unpleasant audio playback that results when one of the components in an audio signal is overdriven, that is, subjected to a signal that is louder than the component's capacity for volume. Here are examples of an audio clip that sounds normal and the same clip when distortion is somewhere in the system.

Normal Audio

Distorted Audio


Distortion happens when the audio waveform is clipped. Refer to the waveform graph from the previous article that introduces this series. Here is the same waveform when the signal has been clipped.

Observe those flat spots at the top and bottom of the waveform. Compare this waveform with the other graph. That waveform is nicely rounded off. This one is clipped.

Overdriving the Signal

Clipping occurs anywhere in the sound system when the amplitude of the waveform is greater than the limits of a component.
  • Shouting into a microphone or getting too close to it can vibrate its diaphragm beyond its limits.

  • Setting an amplifier's input gain too high can overdrive any of its internal components.

  • Setting an amplifier's master gain too high can overdrive the loudspeaker, vibrating its coil and cone beyond their limits.

  • A loudspeaker with a torn cone or damaged coil can produce distortion all the time irrespective of the signal it receives. You commonly hear this effect in old car radios in which the loudspeaker has simply worn out.

Dealing With Distortion

Here's what to do when you hear distortion in the sound system:

  • Ensure that all your components—microphone, amplifier, loudspeakers, cables—are in good repair and are of sufficient quality to handle your sound requirements

  • Move farther away from the microphone

  • Don't shout

  • Turn down the input and master gain controls on the amplifier

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Audio and Sound Systems

This article is the first in a series that explains how sound systems work. Entertainers need to know more about sound systems than simply that they make your voice louder so folks in the back row can hear. The more you know about the subject, the better equipped you are to deal with sound problems when they come up in your work.

This article explains the basics of sound amplification. Subsequent articles address problems common to the operation and use of a sound system and specific sound system equipment that an entertainer uses. The next two articles are about distortion and audio feedback.

What is Sound?

When you speak or when anything makes what we call a “sound,” the source of the sound—your vocal cords, for example—vibrate. Those vibrations move air near the source. The air moves back and forth replicating the vibrations of the source. When those air movements reach a person's ears, the eardrums vibrate with the air, and the auditory system sends signals to the brain, which interprets the signals into perceived sound. Our intelligence takes over and translates the perceived sound into information, which our brains interpret and process as words, music, bird calls, train whistles, and so on.

The farther away a listener is from the source of the sound, the less distance the air moves back and forth. The air movements are less intense and the listener hears the sound at a lower volume. Get far enough away from listeners and they don't hear your voice at all because the air movements are too small. That's why you need a sound system.

What is a Waveform?

When your vocal cords vibrate, they move back and forth. The louder you speak, the further they move back and forth. The higher pitched your speech, the faster they move back and forth. When you hear speech, your eardrums move back and forth in the same pattern as the source of the sound. These back and forth movements are represented graphically as a waveform as shown here.

In the waveform graph, the horizontal axis is time. The vertical axis is the amplitude, or volume, of the sound (how loud it is). The red line in the center represents zero volume, or when the speaker's vocal cords are at their rested position. As the vocal cords stretch one way, the waveform goes above the center line. As the vocal cords stretch the other way, the waveform goes below the center line.

What is Sound Amplification?

When you speak into a microphone, the air movements created by your speech vibrate a small diaphragm inside the microphone. The microphone converts those vibrations into a small electrical current that flows back and forth replicating the vibrations. The microphone sends these current fluctuations to the amplifier through a cable.

The amplifier takes the small current fluctuations and produces large current fluctuations by producing a signal with an identical waveform but at a higher voltage, which is a higher amplification. Then the amp sends these larger current fluctuations to a loudspeaker through another cable. The current fluctuations cause the loudspeaker to move its coil back and forth, and the coil vibrates the loudspeaker's cone. These movements move the air in front of the loudspeaker. The vibrating air reaches the listener's ear resulting in a louder perceived sound than the listener would have heard without the amplifier.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Blogging vs Listing

In the past I posted my ventriloquism-related comments on the WorldVents discussion group. Now I post them mostly here, on my blog.

To encourage readers to visit my blog, I often post notices about blog articles on the Worldvents list. Since I do that almost daily and since members might consider such posts to be gratuitous plugs, I asked whether anyone thought they were annoying or inappropriate.

One member responded that he does not read blogs and said further, "If everybody put there [sic] comments on their blog and used the list to say they put their comment on their blog then the WorldVENT[s] list would be worthless."

This is a valid observation, and it begs the question, "Why post articles to a blog instead of to a list?" It also suggests that one should not use a list to promote a blog. I'll address both issues here.

Since this article is way off-topic and has nothing to do with ventriloquism, I'll delete it after everyone who cares has an opportunity to read it.

Here are some of the reasons I chose to blog rather than list:
  1. A discussion group/list is a public forum. If I wish to respond briefly to a list member's question or comment, the list is the place to do it. A blog is a publishing medium. If I have an article of general interest to ventriloquists, the blog is the place for that. Often, however, an article results from a list discussion, so a fine line of distinction exists. But...

  2. My articles tend to be lengthy because I prefer to give comprehensive coverage of a subject. Worldvents is a Yahoo group, which is an email list. In such lists, members receive and respond to comments by using email. One can choose to use the website archives to read and respond, but most members do it with email for various reasons.

    If I post my lengthy articles on an email list, individual copies are sent to all such participants, and I contribute to the clogging of mail servers and Internet traffic. Those not interested in the subject would still have to deal with my stuff in their inbox. With a blog, a reader logs on only if said reader is interested—or not as the list member quoted above chooses to do.

  3. A blog collects and publishes the author's articles in one durable place. Anyone wishing to browse its archives can find them easily. A blog's archives represent the continuity of its author's contributions. A list's archives, however, is simply one huge container of messages from all members organized by date and time. There is a search facility, but finding some obscure discussion from the distant past can be a cumbersome and time-consuming procedure.

  4. Groups such as Worldvents allow only members to read their contents. A blog is open to everyone who has Internet access. Some of what I write is of interest to all entertainers, not just ventriloquists, and some interested readers might not be members of a list about ventriloquism.

  5. Lists are attended by people some of whom are pure of heart and deed and all that. Adult content can be unwelcome on some such public lists. Some of what I have to say involves adult content. With a blog, I don't have to stop and think about whether a moderator will admonish me if I say something suggestive or explicit.

  6. A blog stays on topic if its owner wants it to. (This article is an example of when an owner willingly goes off topic. I'm using my blog to explain why I use my blog. Go figure.) Lists, however, go all over the place with inspirational posts, religious and political messages, personal health problems and family situations, jokes we've heard a hundred times, messages that just say, "yeah," "tee-hee," "I agree," and so on. These are good things for a list, because they reflect the community spirit and fellowship of the group, even though some members would rather not read such messages. A blog, however, concentrates on its subject matter. Visitors to the blog know what to expect.

  7. When opinions differ on a list, debates begin, and tempers flare. More often than not, such flareups deteriorate into discussions about negative posters and bad manners. I've been accused of both. I've been called an asshole and a know-it-all. I admit to both. As one prominent member of the ventriloquist community observed, it all resembles a "food fight." One such food fight on the VENTmail list in October, 1999, resulted in the formation of Worldvents and a mass exodus to the new list. This can't happen on a blog. There are no members. There are only visitors. Visitors can comment if the owner permits it, but comments are not a part of the body of articles. And the owner moderates all comments.
Now for the second issue. Should one use a list to promote a blog? Here's why I think it's okay: A blog is a website in journal format. Posting links to a blog on a list is like responding to questions or comments with links to pages on one's personal website. Many of us have websites with pages of hints, procedures, and so on, related to ventriloquism. In time-honored tradition we often respond to comments on lists with links to those pages. I'm not sure how this is any different.

If I allowed advertising on my blog, which is an option and which earns money for the author, then using someone else's forum to plug the blog would, indeed, be shameless promotion. I don't allow advertising, so that's not an issue.

However, if the objections outnumber the supporters, or if the moderator objects, I'll cease and desist.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Promotional Videos

Recently, I put together promotional videos of my ventriloquist shows. During the process, I learned a lot, much of which comes from the advice of other entertainers. One such friend, Lee Cornell, is also a professional video guy, so he had many technical tips that proved valuable. Here is a summary of the most important lessons I learned. I wasn't able to take all this advice myself—I had only one stationary camera, for example, and it doesn't support an external microphone.

  • Use a digital camera with an external microphone input. Use a good quality clip-on lapel microphone connected directly to the camera or with a remote receiver. This way, you are more likely to get a good audio track of your show without too much ambient noise from the environment.
  • Learn how the white balance correction feature works on your camera and use it to get the best color video possible.
  • Use the highest quality record speed (usually SP) when recording to tape. You won't have as much record time, but the quality is far superior to the lower quality record speed settings.
  • Promotional videos should be short. Three minutes is ideal. Five minutes is the longest that one should be. Agents and potential clients don't have time to review lengthy videos.
  • Put the playback time of the video on the package. The viewer wants to know how much valuable time to set aside for watching you.
  • Videotape all your performances. You never know when that magic moment will happen that enhances your promotional material.
  • When the audience laughs, don't cut off the laughter to allow more time for more jokes. Keep all the laughter in and use fewer jokes.
  • Use video transitions to segue from bit to bit when the scene doesn't change
  • Don't overdo video transitions and don't use really flashy ones.
  • Choose bits that represent the variety of your performances. Use your best stuff.
  • Use plenty of audience shots during the laughter. This might require you to have two cameras operating, one to shoot your performance and the other to get shots of the audience. It might also require that the house lights be up enough to get good shots of the audience members. Sometimes the front row gets enough ambient illumination from the stage to suffice.
  • Make sure that your position on stage is well-lighted. Make sure, too, that nothing onstage harshly reflects the lighting back into the camera.
  • Set up two cameras pointed at you. One shows you and the dummy from about your waist up. The other is a closeup of the two of you from a different angle. If you have a camera operator, the second camera can move around the room to get different shots. From these two tapings you can piece together a more varied video during the video editing procedure.
  • Allow the second camera to record audio directly with its built-in microphone. During editing use this audio track and the audio track of the other camera to get a good balance of your voice and the audience reaction.
  • You and your dummy should wear the same clothes when you tape various performances. That way you can piece together clips from different times and still preserve the continuity of the video.
  • Good video editing software is free. Windows Movie Maker, which comes with Windows XP, has all the features you need for such a project.
  • You'll need software to compose and master a DVD. There are many such packages available. I use Nero 7. Don't get carried away with flashy menus and intros and all that. Set it up so that the video starts when the viewer inserts it in the player. If you put more than one promo on a DVD, however, you can start with a simple DVD menu that lets the viewer choose which one to watch. Include the playback times on the menu selections.
  • If you want to make VHS tapes, use Windows Movie Maker to write the finished video out to your digital camera. Use the digital camera tape as a master with which you can make VHS copies by connecting the video and audio outputs from the camera into your VCR's inputs.
  • Put professional-looking labels on the video media. Make sure the labels include your contact information. Wal-Mart sells kits for making CD and DVD labels.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Great Mask Debate

In about 1955 I invented the ventriloquist mask. A ventriloquist mask is a device you put on the face of a volunteer from the audience. The ventriloquist operates the mask's mouth with a string or rod suspended from the bottom of the jaw. With this device, the ventriloquist makes the volunteer seem to be the dummy.

So, how did I come to invent the concept? In the 1950s, a breakfast cereal—probably Wheaties or Cheerios—had cut-out masks on the back of its box. After the box is empty a child cuts out the mask, cuts out the eyes, attaches a string to the ears, and wears the mask. The two images I recall are Howdy Doody and Clarabelle the Clown.

To create a vent mask, I modified the cereal box mask by adding a moving jaw. I cut out the jaw and re-attached it with a jerry-rigged slot mechanism. Coat hangar wire was the control rod. I used this mask in performances in church. In one such performance my kid brother was the volunteer, something he remembers clearly because I kind of made him volunteer when no one else would. He was not happy about it.

The late Colonel Bill Boley built such masks and sold them to other ventriloquists.

Ventriloquist Ronn Lucas also uses such a mask. He has laid claim to ownership of the concept of using a mask on an audience volunteer in a ventriloquist act. You can read his claim at his Mighty Mouth Mask web page.

You can read the account of how Lucas's lawyer dealt with Boley's actions with respect to masks, after which Boley masks went underground.

Lucas also says, "Nobody had done this, exactly like this, until I did it first." He is wrong. Although he has no way of knowing this until now, I did it fully thirty-five years before he did it. And I was only twelve or thirteen. The concept is so obvious that I don't understand how any reasonable person can lay claim to it.

In the meantime, other ventriloquists use masks.

Here are some links:

Paige Parnell uses several masks in her shows and has trademarked the name Ventrilomask.

Pete Michaels puts Sonny and Cher masks on volunteers from his audiences.

Stephen Knowles uses Julio Iglesias and Willy Nelson masks. Stephen also designed, patented and markets a pad of tear-off disposable vent masks.

Many other ventriloquists use masks. Mostly they use those underground Boley masks.

What's the point of all this? I don't want all those ventriloquists worrying about lawyers and all that disagreeable stuff. So, as the originator of the concept of using a mask on a volunteer from the audience in a ventriloquist show, I hereby place the concept in the public domain. If you get sued, call me. I'll testify on your behalf if you pay my expenses, which will be exorbitant. Don't worry. The plaintiff can probably afford it.

I don't think my brother will testify, however. He still hasn't gotten over the embarrassment.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Adult vs Family Comedy: Standards of Morality

Those who champion family comedy and denegrate adult comedy often form some kind of imaginary moral scale upon which adult comedy occupies a lower position. The imagined higher ground is, in their view, morally superior to the choices that others make.

(It's called being "holier than thou." Or, in this case, than me.)

Then, to nail down the purity and superiority of, and thus their dedication to and belief in, clean material, they hold up as examples the work of past comedy masters such as Bob Hope, Red Skelton (they always use him), Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and others who forged successful TV careers without ever uttering a single on-air expletive or sexual innuendo.

First, those squeaky clean comedians from days of yore used clean material on TV because they had no choice. Censors watched their every word. Those who saw nightclub and casino performances by some of the same performers often had a different experience. So much for that.

Second, I disagree with the moral issue or that there even is one. Adult comedy is not morally deficient. We are talking about words and ideas here, words and ideas that are about what all people do routinely as often as they need to. We do the things we aren't suppose to talk about. What sense does that make?

Comedy feeds a human need to deal with things that generate anxiety. That's its purpose. We laugh about the things we fear. Think of any joke you know, adult or family in content, and look at its underlying premise. Most jokes are about things happening that we fear and things we do or wish we could do that make us feel ashamed.

Now for a comparison. Suppose you know a joke that uses the explicit name of a soft, mushy, disgusting substance that comes out of a person's bodily orifice with regularity. The word itself makes people laugh nervously, particularly when it is spoken by someone who is not expected to use such words, someone like the person represented by a puppet. Could you tell this joke to an audience of children? Could you tell it in church? At a PTA banquet?

You couldn't? Why not? You probably already have. The word is....


So, what's the difference?

Sex is funny. Actually, it's fun, but as a topic of conversation it can be funny.

Sex is funny when a little child seems to know about it. We all laugh when our children innocently say things with unintended sexual meaning. "Where did he get that?" It's funny because we worry about our kids learning about sex too early. It's funny because we worry about our daughters getting pregnant and our sons having to support families before their time. It's funny because it addresses those fears.

Sex is funny when an elderly person expresses an interest in sex and discusses personal sexual exploits. Jokes about Viagra are funny. They are funny because men fear impotence and (some) women fear a new generation of regenerated horny old men running around pestering them. These jokes, like all jokes, address fears.

Body parts are funny. Anything you have to cover in public is funny. We give these parts funny names so we can discuss them without getting clinical—which is definitely off-limits—then we make the funny names themselves off-limits in family venues. Body parts are funny because we fear discussions of them because we don't want others imagining what ours look like. A family ventriloquist's dummy can react to the suppository in his ear by saying, "I think I know where I lost my hearing aid," but he cannot tell the joke that begins, "I went to the doctor. There was a string hanging out of my asshole."

So, what's the difference?

Bodily functions are funny. Anything you can't do in public is funny. They're funny because they embarrass us, which translates into a fear that others will think about, or, worse, actually see us doing those functions. A family comedian can joke that he takes a gallon of prune juice to fight a cold because it makes him think twice about coughing. But he can't tell the adult comedian's joke about hitting the fan with his excrement.

So, what's the difference?

A baby puppet can use its water spray mechanism to pee all over the front row, but the same ventriloquist can't have a drunk puppet who says, "I unbuttoned my vest, pulled out my necktie, and pissed my pants."

So, what's the difference?

Incontinence is funny. The notion of an adult messing his or her underpants makes us laugh. We fear the inevitable time when we are in the same boat. Oddly, if an adult comedian tells a joke about incontinence, it's considered "dirty," but when a family comedian tells the same joke, it's okay as long as the comedian omits the graphic language.

So, what's the difference?

Dementia is funny. When an old man forgets his wife's name or where he lives, we make a joke about it. Depending on the joke, it's appropriate for either adult or family audiences, but the premise is the same and the image that the joke conjures is the same.

So, what's the difference?

The gay lifestyle is funny. Straight people fear the gay lifestyle because it threatens their notion of right and wrong. How can what those folks do to one another be right? Worse, what if one of them wants to do it to one of us? Egad! Even worse yet, and almost unbearable to contemplate, what if their advances stimulate our latent, suppressed tendencies and turn us, even for a fleeting moment, into the very thing we fear and despise? We're talking about suicide here; what choice do we have? And what about the unbearable shame if, heaven forbid, one of our children or parents turns out to be gay? This is the daddy of all fears. So we make jokes about it. "Two queers walked into a bar..." But these people whom we fear and disapprove of were created by the same force, deity, whatever you prefer, that created us. How can that be? Did God make a mistake? How can that be, indeed? Such a notion shakes the very foundations of our faith, which, apparently, can't withstand much such shaking. So we fear these notions. And, as usual, we deal with our fears when we joke about them.

So, what's immoral about dealing with our fears so they don't worry us into an early grave? Seems like a healthy practice to me.

So, the point is, whatever kind of comedy you choose is okay. But please don't say, please don't imply, please don't even think that because you choose innuendo and euphemisms over explicit language, because you choose not to tell my kind of comedy, and because of our differing choices, that you are somehow morally superior and that your standards are higher than mine. That's just plain bullshit, er, I mean, bovine droppings.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Resources for Comedy Writers

The Seven Laws of Comedy Writing by David Evans

Writing Sketch Comedy That Sells by Brian Luff

Romantic Comedy Writing Secrets by William 'Bill' Mernit

Adult vs Family Comedy: Which is Easier?

A common opinion surfaces whenever ventriloquists discuss comedy material. The opinion, expressed mostly by family venue ventriloquists, holds that adult comedy is easier to write and perform than family comedy. All you have to do is tell dirty jokes and use profanity to get adult audiences to laugh. They call it "going for the cheap laugh," or "taking the easy road."

I disagree. Adult comedy is not easier.

No comedy is easy, either to write or to perform. A poorly written and organized dialogue has no guarantee of success just because it is an adult dialogue. A limited performer will not be well-received simply because the jokes are adult in nature.

In some ways adult comedy is more difficult. Adult audiences tend to be more demanding and, in some cases, jaded by what they are accustomed to seeing. They have specific expectations. Network sitcoms nowadays use mostly adult material, and that's what adults are used to. Adult comedy needs to be current, too, particulary when it includes references to politics and current news events. Paris Hilton jokes won't last forever. Monica Lewinski jokes are almost dead. OJ? Who's OJ? Adult comedians must routinely change their material to keep it up to date.

Family performers often have to make only the kids laugh. When the kids are happy, their parents are happy. Grownups laugh at kids laughing. How easy is it to make kids laugh? Be silly. There is, of course, more to it than that, but you get the idea.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Family and Adult Comedy: A Discussion

This article is the first of several I have planned to discuss family and adult comedy. In the series, I will address their differences with respect to content, morality, and the relative difficulty each presents to comedy writers and performers.

This article defines adult and family comedy for the purpose of this discussion, which continues in the days to come.

Adult comedy includes jokes about sex, body parts, and bodily functions and sometimes uses words commonly classified as profanity. Few subjects are off limits. Adult comedians can be politicially incorrect and insensitive. There is usually no "message" in adult comedy. Its purpose is only to make people—adult people—laugh. Adult comedy is not usually considered proper fare for children. An adult comedy routine can include a mix of purely adult material and family material.

Family comedy includes jokes that can be told in venues where children might be in attendance. Its venues include birthday parties, community events, family entertainment complexes, church, schools, libraries, fairs, and any place where children or families gather to be entertained. Family comedy is not, however, restricted to audiences that include children. Some adult organizations prefer family material and do not welcome entertainers who use adult material as it is defined in the previous paragraph. Family entertainers often use comedy to deliver messages in support of personal or organizational agendas, which include messages of religion, self-help, learning, and so on.

I welcome your comments about these definitions and the issues of adult and family comedy.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

TV Shows About Ventriloquists

(This article was planned for Thursday. Inasmuch as I'll be driving tomorrow and have the article already written, I'll post it today. This concludes the article series about Ventriloquism in Literature.)

TV blatantly perpetuates the notion that all ventriloquists are loonies. Few fictional TV productions about ventriloquists cast them in a positive light. The tradition goes back to the early days of television.

The Rival Dummy

This Westinghouse Studio One production from 1949 was based on the 1928 Ben Hecht short story of the same name that inspired the movie, The Great Gabbo. A ventriloquist, Gabbo the Great, played by Paul Lukas, has a dummy named Pepe. He meets a pretty blonde performer named Wichita Jones, played by actress Anne Francis. The ventriloquist is a hit at the Palace vaudeville theater, but now insists on including Wichita in his act. Pepe objects and refuses to perform, and the act bombs. Throughout the story, Pepe speaks and moves without the assistance of Gabbo, implying that either Pepe is alive or Gabbo believes he is. Gabbo argues with Pepe over Wichita and destroys the dummy with an axe.

The story is told in flashback after Wichita meets Gabbo in the restaurant where they used to meet. Gabbo denies that he is Gabbo. We learn later that he thinks he murdered Pepe and is in hiding. He has become blind, but the script neglects to explain the significance of his blindness. The show concludes with the bartender showing Wichita what Gabbo always leaves behind, a drawing of Pepe on the tablecloth.

Among other improbabilities in this story is a kindly booking agent who doesn't seem to care about money.


In a 1952 episode of the George Reeves Superman series, a ventriloquist's dummy is used to transmit the routes of armored cars, which are robbed and which then disappear. Syd Saylor, plays the ventriloquist in the Superman episode. (Saylor played Lullaby Joslin in the first episode of the Three Mesquiteers movie series in 1936. His portrayal of Joslin as a Mesquiteer was not, however, as a ventriloquist. Max Terhune added that element to the series beginning with the second episode.)

The Twilight Zone

There were two Twilight Zone episodes about ventriloquists. One stars Jackie Cooper as a ventriloquist whose dummy, Caesar, talks him into a life of crime to improve their lot in life. When the ventriloquist gets arrested, the dummy, which can walk and talk without assistance, finds another ventriloquist.

The other episode stars Cliff Robertson as yet another demented ventriloquist whose dummy interferes with his professional and personal life to the frustration of his agent. The vent tries to destroy the dummy but smashes the wrong one in the dark. The episode closes with the act on stage but with the faces of the vent and dummy switched. The dummy that looks like Cliff Robertson is a modified Insull figure.

Both episodes used the same dummy, a Revello Petee figure.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents

An episode in 1957 titled The Glass Eye stars William Shatner as a man who finds a glass eye among the possessions of his departed sister, Julia, played by Jessica Tandy in flashback. Julia falls in love with a ventriloquist. When she meets Max, played by Tom Conway, who is the person she believes she loves, it turns out Max is really the dummy, and the little guy, George, played by Billy Barty, is really the ventriloquist. During the encounter, Max loses a glass eye, which Julia keeps as a souveneir. Director Robert Stevens won an Emmy for this episode.

Love American Style

This is a cute episode with a common theme. Paul Winchell and Shari Lewis play shy ventriloquists who let their dummies do all the talking. They fall in love, and a happy ending ensues.

Surfside Six

A ventriloquist's dummy is kidnapped just as the ventriloquist is about to perform his first big-time gig. His former agent, angry about losing out on the big money, murders the new manager and kidnaps the dummy, hiding it in the theater basement with the new manager's body. He knows that the ventriloquist, who is a nut, cannot work with a duplicate dummy because its eye color is wrong. The former manager tries to extort dummy ransom from the ventriloquist. A detective, played by Troy Donohue, conducts a search for the dummy and turns up the dummy and the body. The bad guy is arrested and the show goes on.

Ventriloquist Russo Lewis was the technical consultant for this episode. The dummy was played by Russo's “Brooklyn Birch” figure.

The Dick Van Dyke Show

Paul Winchell plays a TV kid show ventriloquist who wants to hire comedy writer Rob Petrie (Van Dyke), who thinks he is about to be fired from his job from the Alan Brady variety show. The kid show stars a puppet named Jellybean the Snail who infuriates Rob by continuously hitting him on the head.

The Lucy Show

Lucy visits the home of Paul Winchell who plays himself. Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff appear as themselves, too, as dummies who talk and wave their arms around even though they are positioned across the room from Winchell.

Barney Miller

A crazy gunman makes Barney and his crew serve time in their own jail cell with a nutso ventriloquist and a foul-mouthed dummy.


Soap, a weekly comedy sitcom about two loony families, featured among its repertory company Jay Johnson as a ventriloquist whose dummy insults everyone. Chuck, the ventriloquist, thinks Bob, the dummy, is a real person. Most of the other characters treat Bob as a separate personality, too. This role is not as demeaning to ventriloquists as other portrayals because all the characters in that program are wackos. A sane ventriloquist would have been out of place.

Mrs. Columbo

In an episode of this lady detective series, Jay Johnson of Soap fame plays a demented ventriloquist, whose two dummies are engaged in a bitter rivalry, resulting in the murder of the puppet maker who built the dummies. In this one, the killer turns out to be the ventriloquist, but his dummy made him do it.

Murder She Wrote

In an episode titled Where Have You Gone, Billy Boy, Grant Shaud, better known as Miles on Murphy Brown, plays a successful but shy young nightclub ventriloquist who depends heavily on his dummy to express himself. The show is technically good because although Shaud did not do his own ventriloquism, he was coached to make it look as if he was speaking ventriloquially, including small lip quivers common to some ventriloquists. Shaud gives it away in one closeup scene, however, when he allows the dummy to speak clearly while Shaud's lips are tightly closed.
In this episode, the dummy is missing and then later found along with the club owner's body. Naturally, the shy ventriloquist is the main suspect. True to form, Jessica Fletcher reveals the real killer and proves the ventriloquist innocent at the end of the show.

L.A. Law

Ronn Lucas, a professional ventriloquist, plays a shy ventriloquist who gets into trouble with the police over an alleged assault. He is unable to speak to anyone on his own, letting his dummy do all the talking. This malady confuses the police who confiscate the dummy and lock up the ventriloquist. It all ends up in court and we are expected to feel sorry for the ventriloquist because of his acute shyness.

Ray Bradbury Theater

A 1988 episode titled And So Died Riabouchinska is about a ventriloquist's dummy that won't keep quiet even when his ventriloquist wants him to. The dummy spills the beans about a murder to a detective investigating the crime. The dummy was created in the image of a ballerina whom the ventriloquist had once loved. The ballerina disappeared mysteriously years before. The murdered man knew the truth about the ballerina and the dummy. The ventriloquist had murdered the ballerina and created the dummy in her image. Alan Bates plays the ventriloquist.

The episode received high marks among reviewers, but to ventriloquists it is the same old story repeated yet another time.

This Bradbury story was broadcast earlier in 1959 on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In that version, the ventriloquist is played by Claude Rains, and Charles Bronson is the detective.

Tales From The Crypt

An episode features Bobcat Goldthwait as an aspiring ventriloquist and Don Rickles as his hero from whom Goldthwait seeks advice. The punch line of the story is that Rickles is not a ventriloquist at all. His dummy is really his conjoined twin, a mutant dwarf attached to Rickles where his hand ought to be. An amputation was bound to happen. This is probably the most bizarre and disgusting of all the vent-related stories. What else should we expect from the Crypt Keeper?

When A Stranger Calls Back

This TV drama, released in 1993, was a sequel to the 1979 movie When a Stranger Calls. It involves a teenaged baby sitter who is stalked by a nut while she is babysitting. The incident naturally affects her emotional stability, and she keeps her doors locked after that. Years later, when she is a college student, the stalker seems to be back. She gets help from her guidance counselor and a detective. They suspect a disturbed ventriloquist. Why are we not surprised?

Night Court

In an episode titled The Next Voice You Hear, Judge Stone has some ventriloquists in his courtroom. He is distracted from the case when he receives a letter from his mother, who abandoned him when he was a child. The letter was mailed fifteen years earlier, though, and Stone's mother is now dead. Most of the ventriloquists are simply actors waving Juro dolls around and yelling a lot. Two of them, however, are played by real ventriloquists Ronn Lucas and Rickie Layne. Lucas has no dummy, speaks only without moving his lips, and refuses to do otherwise until he finds an appropriate character. When he meets Bull, the court’s baliff, he is fascinated by Bull’s character and has a dummy built to look just like Bull. Layne’s dummy, played by Velvel with a mustache, wants to disassociate himself with Layne and find another ventriloquist because of Layne’s moving lips. Velvel commits suicide by jumping off the ledge outside of Judge Stone’s office. The episode never really explains why the courtroom is full of ventriloquists in the first place.

Nash Bridges

A wimpy ventriloquist calls the cops because his dummy has been receiving threatening calls from the dummy of a lady ventriloquist. Wait, it gets better. The two ventriloquists had been romantically involved. Eventually someone steals and hides the dummy's head. It turns out to be the work of the male ventriloquist's son in a bid for attention. Sorry to spoil the ending.

This show is particularly bad, not only for its stereotypical portrayal of ventriloquists as weirdos, but also because neither of the actors seems to know how to be a ventriloquist. This is shameful since there are many talented ventriloquists who would have been willing and able to play the roles convincingly even given the improbable story line and weak script.

She Spies

This TV series, which failed on prime-time network TV and is seen now in syndication, is about three beautiful ex-convict woman who have been released from prison to rehabilitate themselves by spying for the government. The episode in question has a crooked nightclub owner, some government employees gone bad, and other goons. One of the club's performers, played by Jeff Dunham, is an Elvis-impersonator ventriloquist with an Elvis-impersonator dummy. Dunham plays a bit of a dimwit with an unbelievably exaggerated southern accent, thus perpetuating the stereotype of all ventriloquists as morons.

In one improbable sequence in the show, Dunham complains to the manager about having to follow another ventriloquist on the bill. It is far-fetched to suggest that a nightclub would actually employ one full-time ventriloquist. But two? Not likely.

Everybody Loves Raymond

In an episode of this sitcom, Ray's brother Robert uses a ventriloquist dummy to teach driver's school for traffic offenders. He practices his class on his family who are not particularly cooperative and who make fun of his dummy. Actor Brad Garrett, who plays Robert, is clearly not a ventriloquist and does not try to conceal his lip movement, but his manipulation, character voice and separation are better than you'd expect from a novice.

By showing ventriloquism in an adult teaching role, one of the ways the art is often used in real life, this program puts ventriloquists in a more positive light. But the show's writers could not resist the opportunity to poke fun at the anachronism represented by a tall, macho cop talking to a doll sitting on his lap.

My Kid's Graduating!

I'll be on the road for a few days. Sharon is graduating from college. If I get a chance to post something from there, I will. If not, I'll be back soon.

Movies About Ventriloquists

There are a few movies about ventriloquists. As with other fictional accounts, they tend to treat ventriloquists as criminals and candidates for the funny farm.

The Unholy Three

Hollywood released two versions of this film, both starring Lon Chaney. The first version, from 1925, was silent, and the second, released in 1930 and Chaney's last film, was a talkie. The story is about a ventriloquist, a strongman and a midget who work in a carnival sideshow. They form a crime syndicate and bilk the wealthy. One crime has the ventriloquist disguised as an old lady and the midget disguised as a baby. They trick their way into people's houses to rob them.

The Great Gabbo

The Great Gabbo, starring Erich Von Stroheim, is a 1929 film based on a short story, The Rival Dummy, written by Ben Hecht and published in Liberty Magazine in 1928. Gabbo is an abusive ventriloquist who uses his dummy Otto first as Gabbo's only conduit for acceptable behavior and then later to heap abuse upon his girlfriend, who leaves him because of the way he and Otto treat her. In a delusional rage Gabbo destroys the dummy and spends the remainder of his life as a fugitive, believing he really killed someone. The film takes ventriloquism outside the realm of reality by having Gabbo eat, drink, and smoke across a table while Otto moves and talks.

The Three Mesquiteers and Range Busters Series

These two series of identically themed movies featured ventriloquist Max Terhune and his dummy Elmer Sneezeweed. Both series were about a trio of cowboy heroes who defended the underdogs against the bad guys.

First came The Three Mesquiteers series from Republic Pictures, which ran from 1936 - 1943. Terhune was not in the first of these movies. He joined the cast in the second movie after the series was established.

When Terhune and Crash Corrigan had contract disputes with Republic in about 1940, they bolted to Monogram pictures and launched the Range Busters series with the same format. Terhune appeared in all the Range Buster movies. The Mesquiteer series continued but without a ventriloquist in one of the starring roles.

Terhune played the character Lullaby Joslin in the first series and Alibi in the second. Elmer kept his name in both series. John Wayne was in several of the Mesquiteer movies.
Many youthful ventriloquists, this author included, got their first exposure to the art when these movies were shown on television in the 1940s and 50s.

Harmony Trail

In 1944, in between the Mesquiteer and Range Buster roles, Terhune and Elmer starred with Ken Maynard, Eddie Dean, Rocky Camron, and Ruth Roman in “Harmony Trail,” a movie from Meridian Pictures that resembles the Mesquiteers and Range Busters in format and plot, except there were four cowboy heroes instead of only three. Elmer gets a lot of exposure in Harmony Trail

All the Bergen and McCarthy Films

Edgar Bergen made many movies with Charlie and sometimes Mortimer. In most of these movies Bergen plays a ventriloquist. Charlie and Mortimer play active roles in the plots, not merely as the dummies of the ventriloquist. Bergen is sometimes the male lead in these movies, often in a romantic role.

Bergen's movies and those with Max Terhune are the only ones that portray ventriloquists as normal, law-abiding people. Perhaps this is because they are the only ones that cast real ventriloquists in the roles of fictional ventriloquists.

From 1930 to 1937 Edgar and Charlie appeared in thirteen Vitaphone one-reeler short subjects:

  • The Operation, 1930
  • Office Scandal, 1930
  • The Eyes Have It, 1931
  • Donkey Business, 1931
  • Free and Easy, 1932
  • Africa Speaks -- English, 1933
  • At the Races, 1934
  • Pure Feud, 1934
  • All-American Drawback, 1935
  • Two Boobs in a Balloon, 1935
  • Nut Guilty, 1936
  • A Neckin’ Party, 1936
  • Double Talk, 1937

Bergen's career in feature films began in 1938. Here is a list of movies he made with Charlie and his other dummies.

  • The Goldwyn Follies (1938) with Adolph Menjou.
  • Letter of Introduction (1938) with Adolph Menjou, Eve Arden, George Murphy
  • You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) with W. C. Fields
  • Charlie McCarthy, Detective (1939)
  • Look Who's Laughing (1941) with radio personalities Fibber McGee and Molly and Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve.
  • Here We Go Again (1942) with radio personalities Fibber McGee and Molly and Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve.
  • Stage Door Canteen (1943) with an all-star cast. Bergen appears with Charlie and Mortimer in a brief cameo performance entertaining the troops at the canteen.
  • Song of the Open Road (1944) with Jane Powell and W. C. Fields.
  • Fun and Fancy Free (1947) a Disney animated feature
  • The Muppet Movie (1979) featuring, of course, Jim Henson's Muppets

The Dummy Talks

In this British thriller from 1943 starring Jack Warner, a blackmailing ventriloquist is murdered backstage at a vaudeville show. A midget disguises himself as a ventriloquist's dummy in order to solve the mystery.

The Dead of Night

The Dead of Night from 1946 has five short stories bundled into one movie with a common thread. One of the stories is about a ventriloquist named Frere, played by Michael Redgrave, and his dummy Hugo. It seems that Hugo wants to find another ventriloquist. When Hugo shows up in a hotel room with another ventriloquist, Frere accuses the other fellow of stealing Hugo, and a fight starts. As a consequence, Frere is arrested.

Knock On Wood

The fact that Danny Kaye is a ventriloquist in this 1954 movie is incidental to the plot, which is a comedy about international intrigue and espionage. Kaye plays a slightly unbalanced American ventriloquist performing abroad. In the stereotypical image of a neurotic ventriloquist, Kaye cannot control what his dummy says. Unbeknownst to Kaye, stolen blueprints for a top-secret weapon are hidden in his dummy's head. Kaye is eventually accused of a murder he did not commit and runs around in several disguises eluding cops and dodging spies who want the blueprints.

Devil Doll

Devil Doll, produced in 1964, is about yet another stereotypical demented ventriloquist. The Great Vorelli is a ventriloquist and hypnotist whose dummy Hugo can walk. When not on stage, Hugo is kept in a cage from which he escapes one night. He threatens Vorelli with a knife. He turns out to be possessed by the soul of a once-alive Hugo. Vorelli has somehow transferred the soul into the dummy. It gets worse after that.


Magic is the 1978 movie version of the William Goldman book. Anthony Hopkins plays Corky, Ann-Margret is his high school love interest, and Burgess Meridith is the agent who gets murdered. Hopkins was coached on how to look like a ventriloquist. It is often said that he did the ventriloquism himself, but he did not. His coach manipulated the Fats dummy and provided the voice. Besides showcasing the profound acting talents of a young Anthony Hopkins, this movie has little to redeem it except for a brief scene with Ann-Margret in the nude in a steamy bedroom scene.

Cradle Will Rock

Comedian Bill Murray plays washed-up vaudeville ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw in this 1999 story about people, politics and events during the Great Depression. The plot, based on actual events, involves the Federal Theater Project, which was funded by the Works Progress Administration. Several subplots are interwoven dealing with a troupe of actors, some wealthy capitalists, government bureaucrats, and the belief that Communists have infiltrated the project.
Murray's dummy is an evil-looking Marshall figure. Murray did not do his own ventriloquism while the film was being shot, but he did dub the dummy's voice afterwards including labial substitutions. During filming Murray moved his Adam's apple in sync with the dummy's speech.
Figure maker Alan Semok made six copies of the Marshall figure for the production. Todd Stockman provided the Marshall figure from his collection and handled the manipulation for many of the close up scenes.

Everything is almost believable until, typical of Hollywood’s portrayals of ventriloquism, the dummy turns on the ventriloquist during a performance.


This movie, produced as an independent in 2000, was not released because the empty suits that control such things thought no one would go to a movie about a nerdy ventriloquist, and no distributor would touch it. But when its star, Adrien Brody, won an Oscar in 2003 for his role in The Pianist, they tried to give this film another chance. It is about the typical wannabe ventriloquist loser who quits his job to take up ventriloquism full time and then finds love. After a couple of preliminary releases in test market areas, the project went back into the can. Eventually Dummy found a small audience in the home video market.

The dummy itself is an Alan Semok creation from his Marshall tribute line of vent figures. Semok also coached Brodie, who did his own ventriloquism during filming.

    Tuesday, May 02, 2006

    Here's to the ladies

    On Saturday I said, “Most ventriloquists are men and most ventriloquist dummies are male. During the so-called “golden era” of ventriloquism there were many well-known male ventriloquists but only one really famous female” A reader asked me to explain why.

    I can't explain it. All I can do is speculate. There are many reasons why males dominate certain professions, and those reasons reflect cultural biases that go back eons. Let's look at that situation from the perspective of the entertainment arts.

    Men dominate the arts from the first recorded histories of artists. How many famous women painters, composers, musicians, sculptors, etc., can you name from prior to the twentieth century? Female roles in the earliest Greek plays were played by male actors. The subordinate role that women play even today in some cultures is reflected in the evolution of the arts.

    Ventriloquism as a purely entertainment art form flourished in vaudeville and in traveling circuses. Ventriloquism is a solo art. Most vaudeville entertainers who performed solo were men. This is probably because such performers traveled from town to town. In those days it was not considered proper, much less safe, for women to travel alone, and those salaries did not support an entourage except for the famous.

    Those women performers who succeeded in vaudeville usually did so with a male partner. Gracie Allen comes to mind. A woman performer would not travel with and support a man, though. That would have violated rigid social mores of the times, which identify the man as the breadwinner.

    These are, of course, generalities, and there were exceptions, but they begin to explain speculatively why males dominated ventriloquism in the golden era and, consequently, why we still do.

    But to use an analogy to address the reader's question, why do males dominate ventriloquism, one might ask, why do women dominate quilting?

    Books About Ventriloquists

    A search of books on with the search keyword, “ventriloquist” turns up several how-to books, a few novels, and one book of poetry. But most books about ventriloquists are no longer in print and available only through used book channels. Following are reviews of some of the better-known books about ventriloquists.

    Wieland, or The Transformation

    Charles Brockden Brown, considered to be America’s first professional author, published in 1798, Wieland, or The Transformation, his first and most famous book. It is a story about an evil ventriloquist, thus establishing the enduring tradition of nutty ventriloquists in fiction. Based on an actual case of a New York religious fanatic who murdered his wife and children, “Wieland” tells the story Theodore Wieland, who lives with his wife, Catherine, his sister Clara, and his brother-in-law Henry Pleyel. The family lives in peace and contentment. Francis Carwin, a ventriloquist and associate of Henry’s, appears on the scene, after which the family starts hearing voices. People think they hear other people saying things they would not be expected to say, plotting murders and such, creating chaos in the family. Henry is in love with Clara and she with him, but Henry thinks he hears Carwin and Clara speaking to one another of love. Henry breaks off their relationship. But Clara doesn’t even like Carwin. Then Henry finds Carwin hiding in Clara’s bedroom closet reinforcing his suspicions. But Carwin is not there for Clara; he has been using the hideout to employ ventriloquism to create the voices that everyone hears. After believing he heard Catherine saying things she wouldn’t say, Theodore murders her. When Theodore attempts to kill Clara, too, Carwin uses ventriloquism to persuade Theodore to spare her. Theodore kills himself instead.

    The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox the Ventriloquist

    This text, written by Henry Cockton first as a serialized story in the 1830s and released in book form in 1841, relates the story of the title character from birth to death. The print is small and the prose is ponderous, typical of popular writings of that era. The book, which is intended to be funny while it comments on social issues of the day, chronicles the character's penchant for using his skill to make mischief, perform practical jokes, and bring down the high and mighty as he corrects social injustices. You can open to any page and find an episode wherein Vox fools someone into believing an animal or inanimate object is speaking.

    Goosebumps, Night of the Living Dummy

    The Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine comprises many fictional books with occult themes for younger readers. Three of those books are numbers 7, 31 and 40 in the series and are subtitled Night of the Living Dummy. They are about Slappy, an evil, possessed ventriloquist dummy.

    In the first story, a young girl finds Slappy and learns to be a ventriloquist. Her twin sister wants to be a ventriloquist, too, and their father buys her a dummy, which she names Mr. Wood. Weird things begin to happen around the house, mostly caused by Mr. Wood who is brought to life when one of the girls reads a mystical chant written on a slip of paper in his pocket. Eventually the girls dispose of Mr. Wood by throwing him under a steamroller. Slappy, in the meantime, is waiting his turn.

    Slappy's turn comes in the next book, which, along with the third, follows much the same theme of the evil dummy that comes alive and does evil deeds. Later, the author wrote a fourth sequel named, Bride of the Living Dummy.

    The Goosebumps books are popular with children, and you can purchase a ventriloquist doll made to look like Slappy.


    This book, written by William Goldman in 1976, is about Corky, a successful nightclub ventriloquist who believes his dummy, Fats, is alive. Troubled by his career and life, Corky takes some time off, returns to his hometown and rents a lakeside cabin from a woman who was his teenage crush in high school. The former high school beauty queen is stuck in a dead-end marriage to a former high school jock, and she is impressed that the high school geek, now a famous entertainer, actually remembers her. They renew their friendship and have a brief affair. Corky's manager drives up from the city and threatens to have Corky committed based on his obsession with his dummy. Under the influence of Fats, Corky murders the agent and then his girl friend's husband.

    A well-written book, Magic is the typical story of the demented ventriloquist who believes his dummy is alive and commits evil deeds at the urging of the dummy.

    The Ventriloquist

    This children's book by Mary Blount Christian is about a boy and his talking dog who are trying to break into show business.

    The Ventriloquist

    Comedian Red Skelton wrote this short novel. It's about a vaudeville ventriloquist who uses his skill to thwart a bank robbery by throwing his voice into the bank vault, making the robbers believe that cops are in the vault. Apparently the book did not sell well. The only copies available are autographed first editions.

    Bunter the Ventriloquist

    This is a paperback book written by Charles Hamilton under the pen name Frank Richards. The book was published in 1961 as one of a series of novels about the character Billy Bunter.

    Phil the Ventriloquist

    This is a cute children's book by Robert Kraus about a bunny rabbit named Phil who is a ventriloquist. He makes everything at home talk, causing his parents to worry. They buy him a dummy, but he'd rather make other things talk. When a burglar breaks into the house, Phil uses his skills to scare the burglar off, pleasing his parents and providing a happy ending.