While teaching a printmaking class at a senior home, I encountered a woman named Phoebe who’d lost her right arm. She shared her story. She’d been a ventriloquist of some renown in the early 1970s, appearing with her puppet Rudy on television programs like Captain Kangaroo and Hobo Kelly. By 1980 her career slowed and the TV appearances ended. Her husband convinced her to give up ventriloquism and she settled for a job as a secretary.
“I put Rudy in a big wooden box and stored him in the back of the closet. At night I heard him screaming, ‘Let me out, let me out.’ After a few weeks Rudy started threatening me, saying things like ‘you’ll be sorry’ or, ‘if you don’t let me out, I’m going to hurt you.’ I cried every night. I told him how sorry I was. But I never let him out.”
In 1981, Phoebe felt pain in her right arm, her puppet arm. She was diagnosed with advanced bone cancer. She had emergency surgery and her arm was removed at the shoulder. Her life was saved, but her performing career was over. “I killed Rudy,” Phoebe said. “He tried to kill me.”
Ventriloquism dates back to classical Greece. Early ventriloquists were called “engastrimyths” (gaster for stomach, mythos for speech). Onlookers believed ventriloquists had demons in their stomach belching forth language from the host’s mouth.
In the book I Can See Your Lips Moving: The History and Art of Ventriloquism, author Valentine Vox writes that the roots of ventriloquism lay in necromancy. It was believed that ventriloquists channeled the spirit of the dead through holes in their body via nostrils, ears, mouth and anus. Biblical law specifically forbids necromancy as is written in Deuteronomy: “To seek truth from the dead is abhorred by God” and is punishable by death.
Early ventriloquists sought to convince people their practice was religious in nature. At the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, the Pythia (high priestess) translated strange utterances from her mouth as if they were prophecies from the gods. Centuries later, ventriloquists were consulted as a means of speaking with lost loved ones.
In 16th century-France, a nun named Elizabeth Barton uttered worldly predictions via ventriloquism. She openly stated that King Henry VIII should not marry Anne Boleyn. She was hanged and the king…