Two Ventriloquist Films

DumbstruckI just watched two documentaries about ventriloquism. The first, Dumbstruck, is about amateurs and the normal professionals. One of those normal professionals, Terry Fator, went from unknown to winning America’s Got Talent and becoming one of the highest paid comedians in history during the course of the film. On the other end of the scale is a 13 year old boy, Dylan Burdette, who dreams of being a professional ventriloquist. There is also Wilma Swartz, a 6’5″ tall woman who does a lot of charity work with her puppets. And Kim Yeager, a former beauty queen who does hundreds of gigs at schools every year.

One thing that really stuck out to me in this film was what dicks many of the family members were. Swartz’s siblings have disowned her, at least partly because of the puppets (she is otherwise quite eccentric). Burdette’s father is very concerned that his son plays with dolls and is short. (Burdette has since grown taller than his father but he still plays with dolls.) Yeager’s mother never seems to say anything other than that her daughter ought to give up the dolls and have babies with the first man who passes by. (Yeager has since married.) And Terry Fator’s father wouldnn’t even show up to one of his gigs after Fator signed a $100 million 5 year contract with The Mirage.

The most impressive of the ventriloquist featured in Dumbstruck was Dan Horn. But before I tell you about him: his wife of 25 years left him during the making of the film. (Andrea claims this is because he’s gay. But he’s not gay; he’s a ventriloquist; there’s a difference.) Anyway… I’m not that fond of ventriloquism. What I love is puppetry. And Horn is as good a puppeteer as I have ever seen. His characters come alive in ways that frankly I’ve never seen with a ventriloquist. Here his is back in 1988, although I think he is better now:

I liked Dumbstruck more than the other movies, because I liked seeing the real world of ventriloquism. Most people, however, would prefer the second film, I’m No Dummy. It is more the view of ventriloquism from the perspective of the stars. It does a good job of providing a history of the last century of the art form. There are also interviews with historians and a museum curator. Plus there is lots of old footage of Paul Winchell, Edgar Bergen, Arthur Worsley, Wenceslao Moreno (Señor Wences), and Jimmy Nelson (still alive and performing). It is all great fun to watch.

About half the film is made up of interviews with modern practitioners. I’m very fond of Lynn Trefzger and Jay Johnson, so that was all very enjoyable. Unfortunately, a lot of screen time was devoted to Jeff Dunham. I’m not just being a contrarian here. Terry Fator is now as big as Dunham and I have a high regard for Fator. Dunham is funny enough—amusing but not hilarious. As a ventriloquist, he is barely acceptable at the professional level. As a puppeteer, he is terrible. Watch him with Walter, Dunham can’t even get his lips to sync up with the voice. Whatever.

Both movies are quite enjoyable and worth a watch. There is far more actual comedy in I’m No Dummy, but Dumbstruck is also quite amusing with all the human drama of real lives. Plus: really unpleasant family members!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Two Ventriloquist Films

  1. You’re right: Dan Horn is a really good ventriloquist, and incredibly good at making that puppet come to life. One of the things I liked about the performance was the way he used subtle expressions to make it seem real. A good example is how he’d laugh suddenly at something the puppet said, as if he were surprised by it.

  2. @Mack – Right! Jay Johnson is very good at that too, but it seems very staged. With Horn it seems entirely natural.

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