A whole bunch, many of them with the help of a good old-fashioned live audience. But what about the greats of Hollywood’s theatrical history? The best? None. And yet they’ve all held to their respective professions. So what gives?
It’s been said that Hollywood itself was a ventriloquist, that some of its greats were puppeteers. The truth seems to be far more prosaic. According to John Rauch of the University of Toronto, the profession of being a ventriloquist was not always so competitive, but it did take on a competition-driven quality in a time long ago when it mattered. And even if competition came more slowly now, it seemed to be coming with a vengeance. “The very rich in Hollywood came to understand their roles as characters were being written in the script,” Rauch says. “There was a competition between actors and the actors would beat the other actors in the roles.”
As with any profession or profession’s history, the number of outstanding ventriloquists is far too small to make a case for their prominence. Yet they all fit. When you’re talking about Hollywood’s pre-Hollywood period, ventriloquists were often the only people who could speak English (the language of the trade), and they often spoke Shakespeare. They spoke from the heart, and they were often in the character they were playing. A few of them were so skilled in speaking to real people that they won or maintained their positions as ventriloquists long after they’d left the stage. It’s said that the most famous ventriloquist, Jack Benny, worked as a waiter for a very famous entertainer named Charlie Chaplin because Chaplin knew Benny would be better equipped to speak to people than the actor.
The best ventriloquist may have been Frank Lloyd Wright, who was not only the first American architect, but one of the most talented. In 1903, as a young man, he was so impressed with the way he conducted his ventriloquist demonstrations that he began teaching. Today, his famous Pritzker Pavilion is named for him.
There are a lot of reasons for Wright’s success as a ventriloquist beyond the fact that he was an incredibly talented one. “He really got to know the people and the place, and he knew what made people laugh,” says Michael Bostock, an expert on Hollywood’s ventriloquists and curator of the