They work in pairs. One is the master of an ancient tradition wielded by the Pharaoh’s magicians to give voices to unseen gods and by Greek prophets to speak to the dead. The other requires neither food nor drink, but only long, deep sleep locked within a tattered black case. But if this pair were to meet you in a dark alley, there remains a good chance they wouldn’t kill, possess, or bewitch you—chances are they would tell you a Bible story.
The world of ventriloquism has often been perceived as a world of the unknown, the strange, and the bizarre. Beginning with The Great Gabbo, a 1929 musical drama recounting a ventriloquist’s spiral into insanity, the topic has provided inspiration for a long line of horror media, including everything from The Dummy, an episode of The Twilight Zone, to The Ventriloquist, a Batman comic book villain. But amidst all this strange fiction is one strange fact: a surprisingly high percentage of ventriloquists today practice the art as a method of Christian ministry.
The Makings of a Ventriloquist
Bill Strom, Ph.D., looks normal on the outside. He has, however, been a ventriloquist since he was 14 years old. In medieval Europe, he would have been a magician, but as a communications professor at TWU, Strom’s ventriloquism is a fine combination of performance art and the science of illusion. But when he and Archie, his 39-inch tall plaster composition dummy, keep an audience of 900 elementary school-aged children completely attentive with a rendition of the story of Jonah, it’s hard to deny there isn’t a little bit of magic at work.
Strom’s first audiences were significantly smaller, made up of other children from his neighbourhood crowded around his front steps. At age eight, he stumbled upon the world of ventriloquism in his grandfather’s dusty attic, finding a 1940 Charlie McCarthy imitation doll that had been a gift to his grandfather from one of the suppliers to his store. “Its head lay tilted to one side,” says Strom. “The eyes had been specially painted to appear to look directly at you.”
Over the next three years, Strom became familiar with the act of missionary ventriloquist, Wally Schoon, at local summer conferences. Schoon’s exceptionally skillful “non-lip movement” inspired Strom to begin studying You Can be a Ventriloquist: A Complete Manual of Gospel Ventriloquism, a book by Robert H. Hill, an experienced ventriloquist and a missionary to Greece.
Motivated by his ability to do something his older brother couldn’t, and encouraged by laughter from his front-step audience, Strom gave his first official performance at age 14. “It was the kind of performance that only your mother and your closest friends compliment you on,” says Strom. “I usually go through a gig eight to ten times before the first performance. Once you learn a skit, you remember it like a singer remembers a song, but that time I had only practiced maybe two or three times. Halfway through, I forgot my next line and limped to an ugly, awkward end.”
Strom didn’t give up. As the mid-show feature of his Youth for Christ choir, he gave over 60 presentations before graduating from high school. His confidence was further boosted by winning first prize at a gospel ventriloquism convention in Indiana while in grade 11 and later at the annual Wheaton College talent contest as a communications major.
Now, as a TWU professor of communications, Strom is an expert on the value of ventriloquism and how it empowers individuals such as youth leaders, school teachers, drama instructors, children’s ministry pastors, and even police officers with an audience-pleasing craft that can be used to communicate any number of important messages. His summer ventriloquism camp is evidence of his belief in the importance of keeping the art alive. Some of his “VentCamp” students go on to become skilled ventriloquists; others do not. While, as Strom puts it, “almost everyone is born with the oral capacity to speak ventriloquially,” it takes a special kind of patience to master the art. At the very least, everyone who attends the camp goes home with an introductory education in lip-sound substitution, as well as one plush hand puppet with a large movable mouth, two skit books, one “how-to” ventriloquism workbook, and a practice mirror.
The Science of Illusion
But to return to the really pressing question, how do you keep 900 children attentive to one man and a puppet? “There’s something about the immediacy of it,” says Strom. “When there are no screens and no speakers separating you from the audience, it’s somehow mysterious.” As a college student, Strom proved the impact of the live act over the screen. He brought Archie to the opening night of a horror movie, starring a murderous dummy, and successfully terrified the two women seated behind him.
When’s the last time you saw a ventriloquist in action? We’ve gone behind the curtain to show you Dr. Bill Strom and Archie preparing for their big show.
Filmed & Edited by - Jay Jameson '08 and Jared Crossley '07. Lighting - Mike Rathjen '04. Special thanks to - Bill Strom, Ph.D., Archie, and Theatre at TWU. © 2009 Trinity Western University.
At Wheaton, Strom built on his technique through the study of linguistics. One of the big challenges of ventriloquism is saying certain sounds that require both lips to pronounce, such as “b,” “p,” and “m.” In the “ventriloquial alphabet,” these sounds are replaced. For example, “p” becomes a flat “t” and “m” becomes a flat “n.” A good ventriloquist speaks the ventriloquial alphabet skillfully enough that the audience never notices the changes in pronunciation. “No matter how good you are at non-lip movement, one giveaway is the Adam’s apple,” says Strom. “It’s a lot more difficult to cover neck movement now that turtleneck sweaters are out of style.”
Clearly, ventriloquism, or as Archie calls it, “ventricklism,” is based in science, but watching Strom and Archie’s show makes it apparent that it really is all about the humour. According to Strom, what makes his shows funny is the blatant self-derision. “Archie makes fun of me, and the audience knows it’s really me making fun of myself. It’s a psychological shift that creates a unique kind of humour.”
The Accomplice Revealed
“After I open this box, there’s no telling what may happen.” This is Strom’s warning to those who ask to see Archie. Inside the small case, Archie is protected by various types of padding, including a giant orange BC Lions “1st down” foam hand. Archie begins to speak the moment Strom removes the padded flower-print cover from his head. When Archie asks a questions, it requires significant mental energy to resist automatically responding to the dummy rather than Strom.
Archie’s plaster composition head and body are factory made, but his face is hand painted. When Strom ordered Archie from a catalogue in 1975 for $275, he chose brown hair, brown eyes, custom movement for one arm, and blinking movement in one eye. “Two blinking eyes were quite expensive,” says Strom, “but Archie definitely needed at least one winker.”
Other custom features Strom passed up when he ordered Archie included moving eyebrows, spitting action, and extreme jaw drop. Strom, however, has made his own modifications to Archie over the years, adding foam to his thin molded legs and exchanging his preppy paisley shirt and tan slacks for a black hoodie and jeans. But for some reason, Strom has never opened up Archie’s head. This leads to the question that people want to ask him, but feel silly doing so: does Strom ever think of Archie as having a personality of his own? The answer: only once. “When I was performing at Wheaton, I asked Archie a question and, for a moment, I was genuinely waiting for him to answer—just for a moment.”
by Caleb Zimmerman
photography by Mike Rathjen '04
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