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Ventriloquists in Old Time Radio

Charlie McCarthy

Ventriloquism has a long history in human culture. The art of Ventriloquism is based on tricking the eye and ears to believe that a dummy or doll can speak. Harry LesterA Ventriloquist with great skill can have their audience believe that their dummy has a mind of its own.† But how does Ventriloquism which is a visual trick work on old time radio which is auditory in nature? Shows like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy took great skill to convince the audience that the dummy was a separate entity from the Ventriloquist himself.

How many forms of entertainment began not only as a religious practice but an explanation for what the French refer to as "Belly Noises"? The Greeks called it "Gastromancy"; the noises originating from the stomachs of religious figures were thought to be the voices of the dead, which could be interpreted to predict the future. The Roman's referred to this practice with the Latin word for belly (venter) and speaking (loqui), which became Ventriloquism.

Let's skip ahead through the centuries to the Vaudeville houses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ventriloquism has lost its religious over tones (did we mention that the practice was thought to be witchcraft during the Middle Ages, but then again, what wasn't considered Witchcraft during the Middle Ages?) Comic ventriloquism became popular with audiences. The early Vaudeville ventriloquists emphasized tricking the audience with their ability to throw and change their voices, largely ignoring the comic potential of the craft. Popular vaudeville ventriloquist Jules Vernon had as many as seven puppet characters on stage who would exchange dialogue with each other as well as Vernon. British ventriloquist Fred Russell is credited as the first to have a single figure perched on his knee.

"He's a ventriloquist on the radio -
how do you know he's not moving his lips?"

- Woody Allen's Film "Radio Days" (1987)

Fred Russell and Edgar Bergen are both considered as Fathers of Modern Ventriloquism, but the "Grandfather" was Harry "The Great" Lester. "Ventriloquism is a matter of artful deception wherein the tongue is quicker than the ear" was the Great Lester's description of his craft. Lester had been a circus performer as a boy in Europe, and didn't see a ventriloquist until he was 20. He became entranced with the craft, and began to study it intensely. He is credited with developing the wooden dummy when his paper mache' figures were destroyed in his luggage before a Chicago performance. Because Lester played the "straight man" in the routine, he made his dummy, Frank Byron Jr., as lively and expressive as he could. The Great Lester's claim to be the first to have his dummy talk while he drank water from a glass is in dispute, but he did develop the routine of having Frank blow out his matches while he tried to light a cigarette, as well as the three way conversation between himself, Frank, and a distant voice on the telephone. Unfortunately the Great Lester only made a single television appearance, and no know radio appearances, so his work is mostly lost.

Bergen & McCarthyThe Great Lester was an enthusiastic teacher of ventriloquism, and developed an almost zen-like course of articulation and breathing exercises which would give the student at least the technical knowledge of ventriloquism. One student was a kid from Chicago who would become known as Edgar Bergen. At the age of eleven, Bergen taught himself ventriloquism from a pamphlet (years later he would share with audiences of the Rudy Vallee program that he had learned from none other than the Great Lester). Later Bergen would commission Chicago woodcarver Theodore Mack, in whose shop Lester created Frank Byron Jr., to sculpt a head which resembled a wisecracking Irish newspaper boy form his neighborhood. This head would become Bergen's lifelong side kick, Charlie McCarthy.

Young Edgar Bergen entered Northwestern University in Chicago, financing his education by performing with Charlie. Soon enough show business got into his blood and he dropped out of school in 1924-25. While playing parties and night clubs in New York he was discovered by Rudy Vallee, who booked him to appear on his Fleischmann's Yeast Hour. Bergen first appearance on Dec 17, 1936. The act was sucha hit that Vallee wanted to sign it for the next 13 weeks, Unfortunately Bergen only had about three weeks worth of material! The following May, Bergen and McCarthy began an 11 year run as the centerpiece of The Chase and Sanborn Hour. 3

Bergen McCarthy:
370606 W C Fields Joan Blondell

Charlie McCarthy & ChildVentriloquism has long been associated with supernatural forces; its very beginnings were as a religious practice of divination. As Spiritualism grew into stage magic and escapology, so grew ventriloquism as stagecraft. Writers of Radio Thrillers never lost track of the potential for ventriloquism to be frightening.

The Phyl Coe Mysteries give us a fun ghost story with the ghost playing the ventriloquist's voice. When an American and British ventriloquist develop a dislike for each other on Escape, it is the dummy who is really making trouble. (One of the best quotes of the show is when they dummy announces: "If you're worried that I'm going to make love to your wife, don't! I WILL!!")

Escape
470324 Dead Of Night

Ronald Colman presents a Favorite Story which involves a sad woman who has fallen in love with a handsome young ventriloquist, but the dummy has a surprising end for the tale "The Glass Eye". Ray Bradbury's story "Rhiabouchinska" is another creepy tale of murder and a ventriloquist's dummy that isn't all it appears told on Suspense.

Suspense:
471113 271 Riabouchinska

Murder and deception are always part of the scene on Quiet Please, but the phony sťance racket in "3000 Words" is especially chilling, with the crippled con-man and his evil dwarf brother, who are both ventriloquists! As if the Inner Sanctum could ever get creepier, when the ventriloquist is murdered by his wife and her lover, the dummy finds a way to get justice.

Inner Sanctum:
490124 406 Deadly Dummy

Paul Winchell & Jerry MahoneyVentriloquism is more about deception than evil, so there should be no surprise when heroes learn enough ventriloquism to fool the bad guys. Superman revealed the ventriloquistic secret of the "Invisible Man" on Nov 22, 1940. The Cisco Kid learns that the ventriloquist is running a double-cross in his medicine show, fooling the sheriff but not Pancho and the Kid! And Blackstone the Magician knows enough about deception to expose the ventriloquist who tried to frame him for robbery!

Blackstone Sanctum:
481031 05 Educated Dummy

Paul Winchell was on a path to similar success as Edgar Bergen. Winchell learned ventriloquism while recovering from polio at the age of 13, and when he returned to school his art teacher allowed him to built his dummy in class. The dummy, Jerry Mahoney, was named for the art teacher. Winchell and Mahoney had a short lived program on the Mutual network, and the pair played substitute host on a few morning shows, but found their real success on television during the 50s and 60. Paul Winchell also did voice work, best remembered as the voice of Tigger in Disney's Winnie the Pooh.

Paul Winchell, Jerry Mahoney Show
440710 Jerry's Birthday Bicycle

We hope that you enjoyed these free samples of Ventriloquist on old time radio and a brief history of the art of ventriloquism.† The trick of ventriloquism continues to intrigue, fascinate, and frighten audience today with a new crop of Ventriloquist comedians such as Jeff Dunham. However, Ventriloquists of today stand on the shoulders of the great masters of ventriloquism in old time radio.

For additional listening, see also:

Ventriloquists collection
Ventriloquist
Collection
Bergen & McCarthy
Edgar Bergen &
Charlie McCarthy
Paul Winchell
Paul Winchell &
Jerry Mahoney Show
Paul Winchell
Educating
Archie

Listeners may also enjoy the related series:

The Player
Paul Frees' The Player
(Paul Frees plays all the voice roles)
Big John & Sparkie
Big John and Sparky

(a fantasy world of puppets)
Mel Blanc
Mel Blanc Show

(Blanc was voice of Bugs Bunny and hundreds others!)

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