Freaky Friday - The Eerie World of Vent Dolls
A tool of the devil, direct from hell itself, condemned, feared and revered by all, ventriloquism has for thousands of years been treated with trepidation. Join us in the eerie world of vent dolls
We were just reminiscing about some of the weirder things we’ve had the pleasure to have come across in our time. Like the time we went to photograph a collection of antique and vintage vent dolls. I remember vividly being left alone, in a bedroom, surrounded by them… fascinating - but very creepy indeed. We present for your reading pleasure - Vent Dolls.
There are many references made in the bible to these ‘belly speakers’ and ventriloquism has played a major role in studies of the occult. Ancient sages and other exponents of the ‘art’ believed that spirits lurked within their bodies and that a combination of magic and divination allowed them to foretell the future. As ancient magic played a large and important role in many religions, these so called soothsayers were often nothing more than tricksters and clever charlatans, taking advantage of ignorant people. Those that witnessed believed what they saw and accepted it as nothing short of miraculous. Not wishing to delve into the virtues of the occult, from the point of ventriloquism, it is easy to understand how people were often baffled by what in modern terms is nothing more than clever sound transmission.
It was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that ventriloquism was finally accept- ed as a form of entertainment. Towards the end of the 19th century during the golden era of theatre, not only did the ventriloquist headline on almost every variety bill, but also became a common sight at the fairs and seaside towns across the country. Along with entertainers playing popular songs on barrel organs, Punch and Judy shows, acrobats, musi- cians and other showmen, was the ventriloquist and sidekick, performing throughout the summer; a few coppers in a hat on the floor; dreaming of greater things.
The growth in popularity of using only a single figure was due to the precedence set by Fred Russell and ‘Coster Joe’. In 1896, Russell debuted at London’s Palace Theatre accompanied by just one figure, which sat on his knee.
The quick fire banter of the two characters on stage was immensely popular and was to have a profound effect on future ventriloquial acts... no wonder Russell is now regarded as the father of modern ventriloquism.
The most famous of all was probably the American duo of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Created by an American woodcarver Theodore Mack, Bergen and his alter ego McCarthy spent many years touring the vaudevillian theatres of the US before landing a spot at a prestigious New York night- club. Dressing identically in top hat and tails the duo went on to become fantastically successful, producing a number of movies and a wide range of merchandise. Today, McCarthy memorabilia is very highly sought after.
As both the ‘straight man’ and scripts began to develop, so too did the figures and the lavish attention to detail bestowed upon them. It was not long before figures were able to express an extraordinary variety of facial movements and were even known to be able to smoke and spit. The dummies themselves are made from a variety of substances, most common are carved wood, composite and papier mache. Some performers preferred to make their own dummies, but a there are a few makers that have become synonymous with the craft.
The most prominent English manufacturer of dummies was a gentleman called Leonard Insull. Following a successful career in the theatre as an illusionist under the stage name of Hinsle, Leonard Insull opened a theatrical property business in Wolverhampton shortly after the First World War. Having already served his apprenticeship as a joiner, Insull became renowned for his incredibly detailed workmanship that enabled the dummies to make a series of very complicated facial gestures. The delicate leather moving parts and finely executed facial painting became a signature of his work that is now in high demand. Arguably his most famous creations are ‘Lord Charles’ whom he created for the ventriloquist Ray Alan and Peter Brough’s ‘Archie Andrews’.
Collecting ‘Vent’ Dolls
Dan has been collecting for over 30 years, and his collection of ventriloquist figures now numbers over 80.
Because of his love for the art of ventriloquism, Dan created the website Ventriloquist Central: www.ventriloquistcentral.com.
We asked enthusiast and collector Dan Willinger what he looks for when adding to his 80-plus collection of ventriloquist’s dolls In the world of collecting one of the most important factors in the valuation of an item is originality. Just because a ventriloquist’s dummy has a head, body, hands and legs does not always mean you are buying a complete figure. As with any other collectable if parts have been changed or replaced with parts from something else, devaluation occurs.
If you purchased a Jaguar car for example, and replaced the Jaguar engine with a Chevrolet engine, yes the car may run much better, but it will never be worth what it was prior to the swap. Also, when a car gets reupholstered, new paint, new chrome and engine rebuild etc, you certainly bring back the value and sometimes, more often than not, the vehicle will become more valuable than the actual value of the antique car.
With ventriloquist’s dummies just the opposite occurs. If you redo an original dummy’s paint it will lose value automatically. Originality is the key to greatest value – a ventriloquist’s dummy with original paint, wig, body, hands, even clothing, will command the highest price.
I have myself purchased a ventriloquist’s dummy that was stored away in a basement and when you touched it, the dummy literally fell apart. It had to be totally disassembled and put back together and is now a wonderful example of a Mack figure, but is it worth the same as a totally original figure? In most cases the answer is no. This particular Mack figure is such a premium figure that after the restoration it still has great value but the restoration costs far exceeded its value. This is also a fact you must take into consideration.
Restoration by a real professional can be very costly and takes a lot of time. You must make sure that the ventriloquist’s dummy is worth the cost and time before you proceed.
Keeping all of this in mind will bring you a clearer understanding of the true collector’s aspect of buying antique ventriloquist’s dummies. Not everything you find for sale is ‘correct’ and to make the dummy a correct representation of the original build can sometimes be a real challenge. But the love of the hunt is the same for ventriloquist’s figures as for any other antique. As most of us know, the true definition of an antique is to be over 100 years old (with the automobile being the only exception). Most of us in the vent-collecting world will consider any ventriloquist’s dummy made prior to 1970 an antique, although it truly is just collectable. – Dan Willinger.