Whose Influence?

By Dave Miller

"Who has influenced you the most with your ventriloquism?" Have you ever been asked that question?

In 1954, I was getting ready to start high school when I received a party invitation from Youth for Christ, an inter-denominational Christian ministry organization. The invitation said ventriloquist Bob Bradford (left) would entertain. I had recently taken up ventriloquism, doing shows at school, church, scouting events, any place that needed an entertainer. Any chance to see a live ventriloquist act was a real treat to me. Bob was technically the best ventriloquist I had ever seen, and had been taught by The Great Lester. Bob would bring out a trumpet and have his figure "Jiggers Johnson" play it. Obviously, it was Bob making the trumpet sound. I watched with amazement as he completed this feat without showing a single facial movement. After "Jiggers" was through playing the trumpet, Bob placed the trumpet back in the case and made the sound of the trumpet just fade away as he closed the lid. At age 13, I was blown away by Bob's mastery of ventriloquism. Following Bob's show there was a question and answer session. Some of my classmates told Bob that I was a ventriloquist too. He spent a great deal of time talking with me and giving me information about The International Brotherhood of Ventriloquists, W.S. Berger, The Great Lester, etc. Information on ventriloquism was scarce in Portland, Oregon in 1954 and his conversation opened up a whole new world to me. Bob helped me to hone my skills as a budding ventriloquist and that help lasted a lifetime.

Bob invited me to join him on the big Saturday Youth for Christ show. It was hosted at the Portland Civic Auditorium (now known as the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.) It seated more than 3,000 people and was, at that time, Portland's largest auditorium. Bob wrote a few jokes for me to use and coached me in timing, delivery and anything else I needed to do a good show.

Bob introduced me to the audience for my short little show. When I was done, Bob asked me if I would like to sing for the audience. I said sure and that I loved to sing. I started "singing" a spiritual song called "He's the Lily of the Valley" and of course it was Bob that was really doing the singing as I moved my lips, I walked off the stage "singing" the song and the voice faded away with me. Soon, though, the voice changed and started getting louder and louder as Bob brought his figure "Jiggers Johnson" out of his trunk. Bob's skill as a distant vent pulled this little stunt off brilliantly and when Jiggers finished the song, Bob called me back on the stage and shared the applause from the audience with me. I am just one of many that Bob Bradford has had a profound influence on. The Great Lester told me that Bob was one of the best ventriloquists he ever coached, and I'm sure he was. It was such an honor to have known Bob Bradford and to have had his influence in my life.

Who has influenced you the most with your ventriloquism?


  1. I would have to say Clifford Guest, although The Great Lester in 1955 stopped a lot of us from clenching teeth and stressed frozen jaw to freeze lips. Although I never met Guest I saw him do the Fox Hunt on TV in the 1950's, hounds baying, horses hooves in distance, getting closer, then away, and I must say he was the best in polyphony I ever saw, which is vent mimicry. But if I had known George W. Callahan who wrote Ventriloquism and How to Acquire This Amusing Art, also from Australia, I would probably say he was main influence, but he was before my time and Guest too. He explains the bee, mosquito, fly, planing saw and other sounds, and his little book still published explains still lip and jaw thus:
    "Keep the lips in a natural position, opened but a little. The teeth should almost touch each other; hold the jaws rigid, and in this position, you will find that the tongue can, be used almost as readily as in ordinary conversation. There should be no apparent effort. The countenance should appear perfectly at ease." Lester was excellent at this, and the distant voice, but Guest could do the double voice so well in the Fox Hunt, the old dog bark, and young dcg yelp, using vocal cords and folds together, respectively, at same time. I saw Fox Hunt only one time and only hope a video film of it survives. How great he was.

  2. Philip Grecian1/25/2010

    When I first began, there were no other vents in my city of whom I was aware.

    But television had just come into American homes a few years before, and it didn't take long before Paul Winchell was on the air. I watched him religiously and had a Juro Jerry the first Christmas they were available.

    Edgar Bergen turned up on TV quite a bit as well, but Winchell, who had his own show, was on more often and was my big influence.

    Jimmy Nelson was on the Berle show and later the Nestle's commercials. Farfel was a favorite...and Jimmy could do rapid voice changes back and forth in dialogue with Danny.

    And, of course, Senor Wences was on Sullivan. Each contributed to my interests and skills. I watched them closely and learned. Bergen's lips, of course, flapped all over the place, but his figures' were so alive, it was tough to pay any attention at all to Bergen!

    Before long, Shari Lewis had a show of her own, and since her vent buddies were sock puppets, the camera got in close. Wow. Perfect lip control.

    When I reached junior high age, my high school art teacher made arrangements for me to meet Lucille Elmore, who had been a prominent vaudeville vent and had retired to my hometown. I spent some time with her, her gorgeous vent figures (I wonder what happened to the figures? Dan Willinger's probably got them!), and a young vent (older than I) named Tod Hunter (Real name, John Todhunter), who had just won Ted Mac's Amateur Hour (He died only a few years later of liver disease). I immediately repainted my vent figure, Louie, so that his skin tones matched those of their figures.

    I still have one of Ms. Elmore's promotional programs with a now very dim autograph.

    They taught me that there could be a career in vent and show business...and they provided me my very first up close look at professional figures.

    In my adult life I've sat tenth row back and watched Jeff Dunham...and I've corresponded with Jimmy Nelson (A "giver," and a true gentleman) and with Jay Johnson (Who has a deep and abiding love of the history of the art).

    Influence? What would a whole generation of vents have done without television, our window to an art?

  3. My sister, an excellent, trained vent, has always inspired me and I love Shari Lewis, who doesn’t? I am kind of a “home-made” performer/storyteller/puppeteer who branched out to ventriloquism many years ago. My sister tells me I am a professional because I have been paid for it. I love it. Dave Miller’s article made me think. Who has really influenced me? My answer is: Clinton Detweiler! He has no idea, but I have no doubt. In 1996 he repaired Blueberry’s mouth and sold me “Prisilly” my favorite figure, formerly called Dannette. Through him I joined NAAV. I purchased a used his “Maher Home Study Course” though I never sent in for the certificate. Recently I was delighted to find his blog and learn that the course with still offered. I intend to study it again from start to finish and really be certified. Even retired, Dr. D is still helping and influencing us all with his generous blog giveaways and daily journal. Yes, I would have to say when it comes to promoting ventriloquism I think of him first. Who knows, maybe someday I will yet meet him in person. Thanks Dr. D! Gratefully, Muffin(Susan)and Blueberry

  4. Dave and I are about the same age, I started High school in 1954 as well. And like Philip the TV set , that magic window on the world taught me the fine art of ventriloquism. The early days of TV were full of puppets and ventriloquists; Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson, Shari Lewis, Willie Tyler, and a host of others on the Sullivan show. Puppeteers like Bil Baird, Burr Tilstrum, Paul Ashley and latter Jim Henson were there to learn from. So, I guess my biggest influence and teacher was the television set. Oh, how I miss the old days of variety shows and real entertainment on TV.

  5. Anonymous1/25/2010

    After reading the responses to Dave Millers question I am "jealous" of the amount of ventriloquists you had on TV "overthere". However here in Australia we did have Shari Lewis & Lampchop, they were great! I started late but perhaps my greatest influence has been a dear friend Ron Schravemade who has been a travelling evangelist to children for over 30 years on the eastern side of Australia, it was his inspiring way with children that really got me going. I then, of course, found Clinton Detweiler on the net & duly completed the Maher course. Clinton's inspiring puppet creations have caused me to go on & attempt my own creations & his blog is a daily encouragement. Since then I have met David Strassman twice (in Australia) but I prefer the "cleaner" humour of the great Jeff Dunham (I hope to meet him one day too). Keep venting, kind regards, Geoffrey Moran, Australia.