Our antiques expert Allan Blackburn looks at a slightly unsettling antique...
Halloween is fading, but some terrors linger. A recent visitor confessed the spooky collectable which gives them the most shivers. With apologies to them, it gave me this week’s irresistible topic: the ventriloquist’s dummy. Why do we find them so unsettling?
Coming from the Latin words ‘venter’ for belly, and ‘loqui’, to speak, Ventriloquism started as a religious and spiritualist practice in classical antiquity. Early Greeks called the art ‘gastromancy’.
Over the 18th century, ventriloquism shifted into entertainment, becoming a mainstay of travelling fairs and circuses. By the 19th, it was established music hall entertainment in England, and vaudeville in America.
Acts included Fred Russell with ‘Coster Joe’, the Great Lester with Frank Byron, and Arthur Prince with Sailor Jim. Edgar Bergen, with puppet Charlie McCarthy, had a successful career as radio ventriloquist (really!).
‘King of TV Ventriloquism’ was Blackpool-based Arthur Worsley, by the simple effect of letting his dummy, Charlie Brown, do all the talking. The cameras could zoom in as close as they liked on Arthur’s face, which never betrayed a twitch. A real local hero, he inspired and entertained millions, me included. Who collects ventriloquist dummies?
Entertainers, mostly, or those interested in the history of the profession. Here is my own wonderful satirical 1930s dummy, modelled on the Hitler Youth. He was intended to take a daring swipe at the rise of Fascism, and still scares people, especially when he winks at them! A fascinating piece of history, worth about £1,000, he is absolutely not for sale!
Provenance and original condition are key to the serious collector; it is rare to find a vintage dummy where nothing has been replaced, repaired or repainted. Prices start at several hundred pounds, rising to thousands for models with original paint, wig, mechanism, even clothing.
As few are labelled, experts learn to recognise tell-tale characteristics for leading makers such as Frank Marshall, Finis Robinson, Leonard Insull, Theodore Mack and George and Glenn McElroy.
The largest private collection of dummies (250) was auctioned in America in 2015, with prices averaging $250 - $3,000 per dummy. Famous individuals such as Cy Leonard’s ‘Happy Hazard’ fetched $47,000 and the whole collection nearly $500,000. Not bad for a ‘silent auction’!
Over 1,000 dummies enjoy a happy retirement at the world’s only ventriloquism museum, Kentucky’s Vent Haven. May I suggest it’s somewhere my more squeamish readers avoid!