In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!
The little boy’s name was both a pun and a challenge. My grandmother had given him to me as a birthday present and even at six years old, I knew right away he was no ordinary doll. The slots running down each side of his mouth gave him away. I’d seen others like him on TV, often trading insults with an adult, and while that comic set-up always seemed a little odd, the illusion the doll could speak was undeniably exciting, a wondrous combination of puppetry and magic I couldn’t resist.
Willie Talk soon became my most prized possession, accompanying me wherever I went. He’d arrived with a pocket-sized tutorial on how to speak without moving one’s lips and, studying that assiduously along with a smattering of books from the local library, I gradually mastered the art of ventriloquism, an ancient discipline that stretches back to the temple prophets and priestesses of ancient Greece.
My own ambitions were more innocent and less glamorous than communion with the gods. I wanted Willie to be my friend. Part of me earnestly felt that by speaking through him, I could in some sense really bring him to life. This way of thinking is common to ventriloquists and can occasionally get out of hand. Candice Bergen, the former star of Murphy Brown and daughter of famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, recalls in her memoir that her father’s dummy, the sharp-tongued Charlie McCarthy, had his own bedroom, which was bigger than hers. When the elder Bergen passed away in 1978, Charlie inherited $10,000; Candice got zilch.
As a child, I worshipped Bergen and McCarthy, watching and re-watching their old black and white routines and memorizing them word for word. Edgar Bergen made practically no effort to control his lip movement and yet he brought so much life and energy to Charlie that his poor technique somehow rendered his act even more impressive. You could see him talking and the dummy still seemed alive!
When I tragically misplaced Willie (the exact circumstances of his disappearance remain mysterious and I can’t dismiss the notion that he somehow engineered an escape from the demeaning, exploitative existence that is the ventriloquist dummy’s lot), my parents fittingly replaced him with a toy “pull-string” Charlie McCarthy. A few years later, that Charlie was replaced by a far classier “head-stick” Charlie. Countless talent shows and birthday performances later, Charlie received a final upgrade when, as an intern for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, I asked propmaster Bill Tull where I could find a ventriloquist dummy wig and he promptly ordered one custom-made.
Soon, I began to think about ways I might be able to earn cash from my fairly niche skill. I removed Charlie’s monocle and top hat and bought him some new clothes, distancing him from Edgar Bergen’ iconic creation. I kept the name Charlie, however, along with his wiseass personality, which, let’s face it, is common to most ventriloquist dummies. I honed my act and have since performed at hotels, universities, weddings, bat-Mitzvahs and, of course, comedy clubs.
On some occasions, I’ve gotten unexpected mileage out my ability. When I met one of my favorite rock musicians, Joseph Arthur, I mentioned I was a ventriloquist and then wound up shooting a music video with him (of course it was Charlie who would appear in the clip, not me!). When I was between jobs, I tried busking with Charlie in Central Park and had a blast. To make the experience more memorable, I sought out collaboration with other street performers, and soon Charlie and I were freestyling with clown-percussionist Lenny Hoops, flamenco dancing with burlesque performer Grace Gotham, and singing improvised lyrics to the lilting Spanish melodies of guitar virtuoso Javier Escudero.
Being a ventriloquist does have notable drawbacks, though, and you can probably guess what they are. I still remember the teenage girl who walked by me in the park and called out, “That’s creepy!” Indeed, for many people, the only thing scarier than ventriloquist dummies are clowns, and for plenty of other people, it’s the reverse. One time a roommate walked in on me rehearsing and asked if I could keep the dummy out of the living room because “those things freak me out.” When I’m introduced to women, I would rather speak about anything other than being a ventriloquist. Also, people are always asking me to “make something talk.” I’ve taken to responding that, alas, I can’t perform without my dummy. While it’s true that the illusion is more effective with the distraction of a puppet, I mainly don’t want to look like an ass.
There are also annoying assumptions people make about you when you’re a ventriloquist, including the old cliché that the dummy operates as the ventriloquist’s id, saying the things he or she would like to but could get never get away with. To that, I have only two responses. 1: Don’t believe stereotypes. 2: In my own case, this stereotype is entirely true.
Lately, my “vent” act has taken a backseat as other interests and pursuits have crowded it out. In addition to conversing with inanimate objects, I’m also a writer and musician, with a day job in the movie biz, and balancing all these activities out can be both a practical and mental strain.
However, my bifurcated existence is perhaps not as disjointed as it may seem. While there are obvious connections between writing prose and writing songs, there are also connections between both and being a ventriloquist. A ventriloquist, like a musician, must win over the audience with a compelling performance, and both art forms present various opportunities for improvisation and crowd interaction. (I should mention that my musical partner, the brilliant multi-instrumentalist David Steiner, is a far more rewarding collaborator than Charlie, who makes me do all the work.)
With regard to writing fiction, the connection is less apparent, but may run even deeper. Both mediums involve the creation of character, dialogue, and an overarching narrative. Both mine much of their drama from conflict. Both demand good beginnings and better endings.
However, I think I ultimately prefer writing, where the creative landscape is so much more vast. Instead of giving voice to one character, you’re speaking through dozens and you aren’t limited by the severe temporal and spatial limitations of a five to twenty-minute public performance.
Still, I won’t be throwing out that old suitcase just yet, nor the little dude who lives inside it, even if he’ll always embarrass me just a little. I can’t hide what I am. I’ve been a ventriloquist ever since my grandmother bought me that strange-looking doll. His name was Willie Talk and yes, he did.
Joseph Helmreich is most recently author of The Return (2017, Thomas Dunne Books). In addition to his writing, he is a member of the alternative folk duo Honeybrick and of course a ventriloquist. He lives in New York City and works in film distribution.