In the early 20th century, a puppet fervor slowly crept across the America, like rust on a Chevy Nova, as travelling shows made puppeteers into full fledge celebrities, particularly the self-proclaimed “America’s Puppet Master” Tony Sarg who was instrumental in creating visually appealing versions of classic children’s tales and bringing to life puppets in live action and animated films. Concurrently, ventriloquism acts were breaking from music halls and vaudeville shows to find superstardom led by duos of Arthur Prince and Sailor Jimmy, the Great Lester and Frank Byron Jr., and, of course, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. America got wood for talking wood.
The rise of radio, television, and film provided even broader platforms for puppeteers and ventriloquists to spread their infectious amusements. In a world before special effects, making inanimate objects come alive felt magical and more real than still nascent animation. It was children’s television that really embraced puppets as Howdy Doody and Burr Tillstrom's Kukla and Ollie were beamed directly into the impressionable minds of the baby boomers. Lambchop lovin’ Shari Lewis, sweater-clad Fred Rogers, and googly eyed Jim Henson all followed suit shortly after making themselves and their creations into international superstars.
At about the same nuclear age time frame, you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a socially awkward (and probably sexually frustrated) kid unsuccessfully practicing throwing his voice with a shiny new Emmett Kelly or Mortimer Snerd dummy emulating their heroes like Jimmy Nelson, Bil Baird, and Paul Winchell. They would spend hours listening to instructional records on letter substitutions and tongue positioning. The craze permeated far and wide as even Miss America contestants chose ventriloquism for the talent portion of the show. We even got so lazy that we decided to let robots run our puppets as animatronics started popping up all over place like Disneyland, Showbiz Pizza, and Chuck E Cheese.
In this episode, we are going to stare into the cold dead eyes of the dummies. We are going to explore why and how adults mimicking mannerisms into lifeless masses became the preeminent evangelical apparatus. And how things went so far off the rails. So, dim the lights and focus the spotlight. Put on your duck tail tuxedo. Tip your top hat jauntily askew. Straighten your bowtie. Stick your hand up the bottom of your favorite inanimate object and throw your voice as far it goes. Join as we walk through the uncanny valley of the dolls. Just don’t let us see your lips move. Today, the wacky world of puppet records, you dummies.