While not exactly a dead art form, it’s safe to say that ventriloquism these days is, at least, a marginal one. Gone are the days when Vents were the mainstay of any variety show, and those who are still around – like Nina Conti – tend to use dummies that are more animalostic or fantastical than the humanoid dummies of yesteryear. And with good reason: those old dummies are the stuff of nightmares. It’s hard to imagine how someone talking in a stiff-lipped manner while holding a poorly-carved little man could have ever been considered family entertainment, but ventriloquism used to be huge – they were on TV – and, bizarrely the radio – all the time, and a mainstay of light entertainment.
1970s kids inspired by TV Vent acts could beg their parents for Mr Parlanchin, a ventriloquist dummy sold in high street toy shops. I was one of those kids, and soon regretted my request when I got one for Christmas. Mr Parlanchin was overly large for a kid’s dummy, heavy, cumbersome and difficult to operate. And he looked, even by ventriloquist dummy standards, pretty unsavoury. He was also not built to last. Within six months, his jaw had broken and one of his eyes no longer worked. I then spent the next few months with this droopy-eyed, slack-jawed ginger degenerate staring at me from across my bedroom all night. It was rather unnerving. Inevitably, working Parlanchin’s now sell for a pretty penny, and equally inevitably, I’m in the market for one.
Even while ventriloquism was at its height, people knew that there something inherently creeoy aboutbthe whole thing – the dummies and the ventriloquist’s odd relationship with this second personality was readily exploited in movies like Dead of Night, Devil Doll, Magic and other imitators. By the end of the 1970s, ventriloquists must have been fed up with seeing themselves portrayed as unbalanced schizophrenic killers. The traditional Vent act started to go into decline at that time too, and while the likes of Spit the Dog, Nookie Bear and Orville kept the tradition alive in new forms, it would never be quite as popular again.
Below is a gallery of unsettling and downright terrifying vintage ventriloquist dummies and their sometimes equally unsettling owners.