It all started with a toast at my wedding. My mother-in-law, who is extraordinarily shy, shocked our 200 friends and family when she held up her white-gloved hand, and it began to speak. Her lips didn't move, so it really looked like the white-gloved hand was delivering a toast. And it did so with humor, charm and grace. I know how hard it is for her to address a crowd in public. So for her to stand in front of all our friends and family, and move us to tears with essentially a sock puppet, well, this began my adventure into the world of ventriloquism.
It turns out ventriloquism is rising in popularity across America. It's hard to miss ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, whose YouTube channel views are in the hundreds of millions, and his "A Very Special Christmas Special" became Comedy Central's highest-rated comedy special ever. Jay Johnson, who starred as a ventriloquist in the '70's hit TV series Soap, recently won a Tony award for his autobiographical Broadway show, The Two and Only. Miss Arkansas and Miss America runner-up Elyse Eady's yodeling 'vent' act earned her an appearance on Letterman.
What draws people to ventriloquism today? Why is this art form, which was the top form of entertainment 50 years ago -- Edgar Bergen, Paul Winchel, Howdie Doodie -- becoming relevant again? These are the question I asked as I began my film and traveled to Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky, to the largest (and only) annual ventriloquist convention.
Close to 500 ventriloquists and their dummies greeted each other like family in the registration area. The hotel itself looked like something out of medieval times, and the 'vent' museum was founded by a man named William Shakespeare Berger. This world had all the makings of a Christopher Guest film. But it was real, and filled with hilarious and enchanting figures.
I decided to follow five professional ventriloquists. Where did they perform and what did a vent career look like? It had to be tough. It's hard it is to make a living in any form of entertainment. I struggled for years as a writer before catching that life-changing break to write for The West Wing. But, making a living as a working ventriloquist? What does that really look like?
So we traveled to the places where working vents lived -- Corsicana, Texas, Mansfield, Ohio; Trevose, Pennsylvania; Kentucky, and of course, Osaka, Japan and cruise ships. We discovered that in these small towns, and smaller venues, the art form still resonates. There is something pure about ventriloquism. It is family entertainment, and all of the characters in our film take great pride in the wholesomeness of their acts.
Given the family emphasis, I wondered what a vent family was like. How did they react when told their child was going to pursue this unusual career? I still remember when I told my family that I was shucking my Kennedy School degree to write in Hollywood. They were supportive, but reminded me on many occasions that I could always move back to D.C. to get a real job (I'm skeptical about the number of real jobs in D.C., but that's another movie). I related to Dylan, the 13-year-old, whose father wished he played football and rode motorcycles. I felt for Kim, a former Miss Ohio beauty queen, whose mom often suggested it's time to have real kids instead of her 'puppet children.' Watching these characters soldier on in pursuit of their dreams, in response to and sometimes in spite of their families, became the real heart of the film.
And then, something amazing happened as we continued to film. Terry Fator, who had been painting houses and mowing lawns in Corsicana, Texas to scrape by, won the million dollar grand prize on America's Got Talent. A few months later, I found myself filming Terry in the President's office at the Mirage Hotel, where he signed an unimaginable $100,000,000 headliner deal. So much for ventriloquism only in small towns, and so much for barely scraping by.
Terry was just the tip of the iceberg. Every one of our ventriloquists went through some kind of cathartic, life-changing experience. Dumbstruck isn't really about ventriloquism. It's about five people who happen to be ventriloquists. They pursue their dreams, and they rely on their friends and family along the way. As the film shows, that dream is one of self-expression, of the deep-seated desire to have one's voice heard, to speak out and overcome struggle, even if one's medium is thought to be... well, a little wooden.
Mark Goffman is the director of Dumbstruck and executive producer for the hit TV series White Collar. He has also written for The West Wing, Studio 60 and Law & Order: SVU. Mark's play, Me Too, from the producer of Thank You For Smoking, premiered in Los Angeles, and has had subsequent runs in other parts of the country. He is a graduate of Emory University and has a masters from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
Dumbstruck opens in theaters across the country in April, 2011. DumbstruckTheMovie.com