Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Cavorting With Mortimer and Charlie
Believe it or not, the world’s greatest collection of ventriloquist dummies is located across the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky, less than ten miles from our back door. We’d known about if or a long time but finally got to visit it recently. The collection was amassed by a Cincinnati businessman and amateur ventriloquist nicknamed W.S. by his friends who bought his first dummy (“Tommy Baloney”) in New York City in 1910. Over the next half century W.S. accumulated a collection of over 700 dummies, along with photos, posters, books, and other memorabilia. Lacking heirs in his later years, he created a foundation to make the collection available to the public in perpetuity.
I didn't know it, but ventriloquism originated as a religious practice in ancient Greece. The word in Latin means "to speak from the stomach" (“venter” = belly; “loqui” = speak). Noises produced by the stomach were believed to be voices of the deceased, and the ventriloquist would interpret the sounds and use them to predict the future. By the nineteenth century Spiritualism had spread into stage magic, and ventriloquism became a performance art. The modern comic approach to ventriloquism started in vaudeville in the late nineteenth century. Famous vaudeville ventriloquists included Jules Vernon, Fred Russell, Arthur Prince, and the Great Lester. It was one of the Great Lester's students -- Edgar Bergen -- who (with the help of Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd) made ventriloquism extremely popular by the middle of the twentieth century.
As you can see from the photos below, the dummies are wonderful, many of them exquisite works of art. Our tour guides demonstrated their facial expressiveness, not only talking motions, but pursing their lips, wrinkling their foreheads, raising their eyebrows, wiggling their ears, bobbing their Adams’ Apples, winking, smoking, even spitting. Some dummies were able to walk or scratch their heads, and Baby Snooks could wet her diapers. Made of wood, paper mache, latex, or soft cloth, some figures look like cartoon characters; others are very realistic. With a little help, of course, the dummies have a lot of opinions about all kinds of things. None of them spoke to us during our visit, but who knows what happens when the lights go off. With hundreds of pairs of eyes focused on us during our stay, the scene was a little eerie. When we next get visitors to Cincinnati, we’ll have to do another trip.
Who are those dummies in the back row?
-Donna D (5-9): this is fantastic, david. you were right!
-Linda C (5-8): This was just great, I'd love to see these dummies, love the last page the best.
-Jennifer M (5-7): Looking at the pics, that place seems creepy! Alice especially. An interesting experience and entry.