Ventriloquists Staying Alive, Keeping the Faith

Wilma Swartz and Sandy Twinkletoes
PHOTO BY VINCE BUCCI

At 6 foot 5, Wilma Swartz cuts a singular figure in the courtyard of the Egyptian Theatre. Attached to her is a 6-foot-tall, green-eyed ostrich puppet named Sandy Twinkletoes. They commandeer the spotlight as photographers snap away along the red carpet.

A ventriloquist in Hollywood is a bit like an embryo's tail — an atavistic endeavor apparently at odds with today's limitless CGI entertainments. Apparently.

Swartz is here for the premiere of Dumbstruck, director Mark Goffman's documentary about five ventriloquists — "vents," as they are known to each other. Centering on the annual Vent Haven Convention in Fort Mitchell, Ky., the film is compelling, essential car-crash viewing, which is to say that it's like watching a car crash in which you care deeply about everyone in the cars.

The film shows that after winning America's Got Talent in 2007, vent Terry Fator signed a five-year contract worth $100 million with the Mirage in Las Vegas. He remains endlessly kind and generous.

Fator's father once told him, "You're really not that good, but you're really good at making people think that you're good." Fator's dad threw out his boy's magic tricks when he was young. Even now, after his success, his father never sees him perform — not in Vegas, nor during his triumphant homecoming in Corsicana, Texas.

Corsicana, it turns out, is the Fruitcake Capital of the World. Fator: "All my life, I thought I was a fraud." Forbes ranks him as one of the 10 richest comedians working today.

Dylan Burdette's dummy, Reggie, is black. "He sees himself as kind of a pimp," the slight 13-year-old reveals. Dylan lives in Kentucky, down the street from where the Vent Haven Convention is held. Dylan tries out for a circus and bombs, hard. His father maintains a stony, disaffected simmer throughout. Parental revulsion walks hand in hand (suitably enough) with ventriloquism, as Dumbstruck rather grimly demonstrates.

Kim Yeager is a former Miss Ohio whose mom is constitutionally mortified by her and her "puppet children." As optimistic as an accordionist with a pager, Yeager is 31. She did 482 shows last year, mostly for children. She wants more in life than Ohio offers. She's hit the felt ceiling. Cruise lines are her brass ring.

Dan Horn works those self-same cruises along the Mexican Riviera. His command of his puppets' lifelike movements is world renowned. He travels to Osaka, Japan, to impart the subtleties of his craft.

In Mexico, Horn finds out that his wife of 25 years is leaving him, partly because that brass ring tethered him to the road seven months a year. "I would do it differently if I could," he admits dejectedly, "but I don't know how to do anything else."

Swartz is a former security guard who performs with her dummies at retirement homes. Beaten up on the job one year, she had her jaw wired shut. The experience inspired her to try ventriloquism.

In the film, she returns home from one of her performances to find an eviction notice taped to her front door. She owes more than $1,000 in back taxes. "Pretty much the rest of the family wants nothing to do with her," says her nephew Rob. "But I was in rough times, and my aunt was the only one who helped me out."

Her ventriloquist friends are her only family now. She appeals to the members of the vent community for help on their Yahoo Groups discussion board. With a massive outpouring of charity, they save her when no one else will.

Swartz's story is shot through with absolute misery. Her son Billy was taken away at age 5 by her ex. When he got older, he came looking for Swartz. He was told that she had died, that she had been cremated, leaving no trace and nothing to find.

"When I heard that, I died emotionally," Swartz says in the film. "Because of Billy, I've dedicated my life to entertaining children."

After the film ends, she tells the gathered admirers in the foyer that she's finally been reunited with Billy. It was a reunion made possible when he saw her performing on YouTube and realized she was still alive.

It would seem that ventriloquism's role in a society that creates increasingly better and more convincing fictions through technology is a waning one. And yet ventriloquism is, at its heart, a matter of faith. What is ventriloquism if not society's last remaining embrace of animism, the belief that buried somewhere in that sock is something possessed of a soul?

Asked about technology as the crowds trickle away, Swartz says, "How do I compete with CGI? When you take a puppet out onstage, the audience sees that there are no special effects around."

I ask Sandy Twinkletoes the same question. "How do you compete with CGI?"

She thinks for a moment. "I pull the plug!"

Belief speaks through technology, and now Swartz's life has improved immensely. Even her jokes got better.

Dumbstruck opens at the Landmark Regent in Westwood on May 27.

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