July 28, 2010

It takes place the middle of July every year, at a non-descript hotel in an obscure suburb of Cincinnati on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River.

It is a convention of ventriloquists.

Go ahead and start making your own jokes. There are approximately 422,397 “ventriloquist convention” punch lines, and almost 7 of them are funny. I’ll pause as you explore your psyche for some hilarious monologue material. Yes it’s funny.

And yes, the “art” of ventriloquism is beyond random. It doesn’t scale. It’s just odd. The shy guy with a puppet, and all these facets of his personality come out as he makes his sidekick talk.

Uh, not quite. The modern ventriloquist is a comic, a musician, a director, an actor and a writer. He (and she – there are lots of excellent female ventriloquists – check out Lynn Traefzger ) works in movies, theatrical productions, television commercials and on television, often having to work as part of a team or company or revue. The quirky weirdo with the goofy alter ego has been replaced by a slick professional who knows as much about story and character arc and improvisation as any Hollywood player.

Ventriloquists headline shows in Las Vegas, in London’s West End, in comedy clubs and on cruise ships. The single most-popular live entertainer in the U.S.A. for 2008 was a ventriloquist named Jeff Dunham – yes, you’ve seen him – he has the “dead terrorist” which was one of the first viral YouTube sensations.  The truth is that there are more people making more money than ever before as professional and semi-professional ventriloquists.

Sit down. This will come as a shock. We’re living in “The Golden Age of  Ventriloquism.”

So a few hundred “vents” (as they call themselves) gather every year in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, and throw themselves a kind of puppet party. They network. They have classes in writing and acting and performance tricks. They perform for one another and for the public. One of the great things about ventriloquism is that there are no six degrees of separation. The “stars” of voice-throwing (there is no such thing as “throwing your voice,” by the way) are accessible and friendly and are often sincerely giving of their time and advice.

Yes, there are icons in the field. The afore-mentioned Mr. Dunham; Terry Fator of “America’s Got Talent” fame (after he won, Bill Maher opened his TV program with the joke, “A ventriloquist won America’s Got Talent. Proving that America doesn’t have any talent.” The real joke: Fator does better numbers on his website than Maher’s TV show does!); Ronn Lucas does a world-class show in Las Vegas; Jay Johnson (from “Soap”! Remember?) has an award-winning show that played off-Broadway and in London; Dan Horn and Kevin Johnson are two of the most popular cruise ship acts in the business; Mark Wade is perhaps the most successful children’s show ventriloquist in history. The business is expanding. The convention gets national media coverage. So many people are getting into the business it can truly be said that it is one of the few “growth industries” in the country today!

The convention features the most un-heralded members of the community, although they’re the most important: the dummy-builders. The puppet-makers. It’s a small group, an eclectic group, and a very, VERY busy group. You might have to wait months for a new, custom-made figure. If you’re a ventriloquist? It’s worth it!

The business is changing. I never thought I would say this, but it’s true: ventriloquism is “hip.” It’s cutting-edge. They’re had a convention last month for pete’s sake!

Wish I could have been there…