Throw Your Voice

This ad has always had special meaning for me. The ad appeared on the last page of most every comic book I read as a kid. It shared space with ads for stink bombs, joy buzzers, whoopee cushions, sea monkeys and a live miniature dog “so small it fits in a tea cup”. All the ads had a similar look. They were the same size, about 20 filled the inside back cover of the comic. The cartoon graphics for all the ads looked like they were drawn by the same artist. It’s very familiar to any comic book reader.

The intention of the ad is to depict the kid as a ventriloquist. It is after all a comic book ad, but that’s never the way I saw it. To me the man carrying the trunk is the ventriloquist and he is performing for the kid, not the other way round.

Even as a child I instinctively knew the rules of ventriloquism. Rule #1 you can’t throw your voice past the ear of the listener. Since the trunk is on the man’s back and the boy in front of him it is impossible to make the man believe there is a voice coming from his trunk. However the reverse it quite easy. The man can easily pull off the effect being between the listener (the boy) and the object of mystery (the trunk).

If there is one symbol that says ventriloquism to me it is this ad. It has in some way become my life. The first time I saw it I was a little boy wanting to be a professional ventriloquist. Now looking at it I am the old man carrying around a trunk with a voice inside. My role has changed but the feeling I get looking at the piece of art will always be the same.

Learning ventriloquism at such a young age I never felt the need to send off for the 25ยข “instrument”. In reality the device was a leather and cellophane “swazzle”, basically a whistle fitted inside the mouth at the juncture of the teeth and gums. With the proper air current directed by the tongue the cellophane vibrates and makes a loud high pitched tone. With subtle changes in air stream and tongue position, actual notes can be crafted. Certainly it can make a great whistle sound and imitate birds but as far as helping anyone “Throw your Voice” it can not accomplish that claim. The free book on “How to Be a Ventriloquist” never once mentions the swazzle in creating a ventriloquial voice.

swazzleThe swazzle has long been used to make the voice of Mr. Punch in a “Punch and Judy Puppet Show”, a show steeped in history and symbolism. Traditionally the voice of Mr. Punch, who represented the King, was high pitched and basically incomprehensible. The swazzle made the perfect sounds for this voice. Seasoned Punch performers joke that a good swazzle is not broken in until you have swallowed and passed it a couple of times.

I have seen a swazzle used on stage three times. Once on television and twice live. On the Ed Sullivan Show a man lampooned concert violinists by playing a violin with no stings using a swazzle to make the violin sound. It worked, was funny and very convincing. The other two swazzle experiences involved carnival performers.

My parents always took the family to the Ice Capades when it came to Lubbock Texas, near where my family lived until I was 14. The Ice Capades toured every year during the County Fair, performing in the arena adjacent to the Lubbock Fair grounds. After the show the carnival vendors would line up to hock items to the exiting crowd. Once as we came out of the arena a man stood at a small table demonstrating wind-up mechanical toy dogs . He wound up a dog and it hopped mechanically around the table yelping like a hurt puppy. We had seen mechanical toys before but it’s sounds created a very real personality for us. The whimper slowed down in rhythm to the hops. It stopped hopping but the whimper continued. With everyone watching the vendor grabs the mechanical dog by the cotton ball tail, brings it to his shoulder and strokes it as the sound calms down to silence like a puppy going to sleep. He would sell a few then wind it up again and let it yelp. My sister fell in love with the mechanical dog and Dad bought it for her. As Daddy paid for the dog the man handed my sister something in a small envelope. He said, “This is very important. This is what makes the doggie cry.” Inside the small envelope was a swazzle. We were tricked. We assumed like everyone else that the sound was coming from the mechanical dog itself. Not so. The vendor was making the yelp that was so enticing. It was a very clever deception by a mechanical ventriloquist. It was very effective and very profitable. The vendor sold many mute dogs that evening.

The next “swazzle dazzle” took place at the State Fair of Texas in a side show ten-in-one tent. The talker/pitch man did a little magic in-between the acts and at one point mounted the stage for his own set. I noticed he placed something in his mouth as he pulled up a chair and opened a trunk. Out of the trunk came a rather worn ventriloquist puppet. The routine that followed was not memorable and he was not a great ventriloquist but I watched intently. At the end he said that he was not a ventriloquist but was able to perform the routine we just saw using an amazing device. From his mouth he extracted a very moist and well worn swazzle . He made such unbelievable claims for the little device I was surprised it only cost fifty cents. A pamphlet on “How to be a Ventriloquist” was a dollar. However, purchased together with the “amazing device”, the entire package could be owned for a buck and a quarter. It is the last and only time I ever saw the swazzle pitched as the instant ventriloquism device. To this day as a professional ventriloquist I wonder how he was able to do an act with such an obstruction in his mouth.