Ventriloquism in Old Time Radio: Who’s the Dummy?

Ventriloquism is an old and respected form of stagecraft, closely related to stage magic. And like magic, which depends on simple misdirection, ventriloquism is a skill that can be learned. One of the great vaudeville ventriloquists, The Great Lester, was also known as a great teacher of ventriloquism. In fact, it was probably one of The Great Lester’s pamphlets that Edgar Bergen used to begin learning the art.
Like stage magic, ventriloquism, or more precisely, the disbelief in ventriloquism, is a popular plot device for mystery and thriller writers. The device goes something like this: there is no way the ventriloquist can be as talented as he appears, so instead of a wooden dummy he must have the assistance of a midget or dwarf. This device is one that probably wouldn’t work in live action movies or TV. It would just be too hard for a midget to make a convincing ventriloquist’s dummy. So this is another example of the power of radio drama in an audience’s suspension of disbelief.
There are quite a few ways the plot device can be used. In both The Cisco Kid and Blackstone the Magician the ventriloquist and the dummy/midget work together to create alibi’s for robbery and even murder. Wyllis Cooper‘s Quiet, Please uses the plot device for a con-game which leads to murder in “Three Thousand Words”. Suspense treats us to a diabolical midget/dummy as they introduce actor DeForest Kelly (Star Trek’s “Dr McCoy”) in “Flesh Peddler”.
As dark as these stories are, they really are only a reflection of the real fun of ventriloquism on the radio. Comic ventriloquism depends on the wit of the ventriloquist as much as his skill at speaking without moving his lips.
The standard for radio ventriloquist acts is Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Bergen wasn’t always a technically great ventriloquist (Charlie McCarthy would often chide him about moving his lips). But it was Bergen’s humor and interaction with his dummies that made him successful. There were listeners who would see the act live for the first time who would be surprised to find out that Charlie McCarthy was actually a puppet.
As a dummy, Charlie could get away with saying things that a real actor never could. He could, and did go toe to toe with the likes of W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx, and would flirt shamelessly with the pretty girls and movie goddesses who would be guests on the program.

Charlie: May I have a kiss good-bye?
Pretty Girl: Well, I can’t see any harm in that!
Charlie: Oh, I wish you could. A harmless kiss doesn’t sound very thrilling!
(Bonus: Try to say “Bottle of Beer” without moving your lips. If you get anything except “Gottle of Gear”, you may be the next great ventriloquist star!)
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