Can you make a living as a ventriloquist? | New


The Scene: A scene at an American Legion post in southeastern Minnesota. The cast: longtime comedy duo David Malmberg and Simon Spencer.

“What do you get when you mix holy water with prune juice? asks Malmberg.

“A religious movement,” says Spencer.

Sounds corny on paper, but in the after-dinner entertainment at a holiday party for grocery store employees in Plainview, Minnesota, this joke killed.

Maybe it’s because Malmberg and Spencer have worked together for decades. Their material has been honed through thousands of performances. Their comedic timing is precise, as if the partners can read each other’s minds. Well, they might if Spencer’s head wasn’t made of wood.

“I’m a ventriloquist,” Malmberg, the outfit’s mastermind, tells the audience.

“You’re a hypnotist,” Spencer replies.

“No, I’m a ventriloquist. Hypnotists put people to sleep,” says Malmberg.

“What do you think you’re doing?” said Spencer.

For the past 26 years, he has been one of several dozen people in the country working as a full-time ventriloquist. Malmberg calls St. Paul home, but he often lives out of a suitcase, working up to 100 gigs a year, from the Dakotas to the Dells. Spencer, who is nearly 60, lives out of the suitcase.

Seems like an old-fashioned way to earn a paycheck, because it is. Ventriloquism was a staple of 19th-century English music halls and early 20th-century American vaudeville shows. But wowing an audience by casting your voice is even older than that.

Gastromancy, the ancient Greek practice of guessing the future from the sounds coming out of a prophet’s stomach, is considered an early form of ventriloquism. The roots of the word “ventriloquist” are derived from Latin and mean “belly talker”.

Malmberg is not a Delphic oracle, although Spencer plays a diviner named Swami Simon.

Malmberg: “Swami Simon, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke and I don’t joke. Will I live long?

Spencer: “No, but it will look like it.”

Malmberg, 70, grew up in a showbiz family. Her father, Larry Malmberg, was a world-class accordionist who performed for presidents and kings and was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. His brother, Denny, is a jazz accordionist. Another brother, Al, was a longtime talk show host on WCCO radio.

As a child, Malmberg learned to play accordion and guitar, performed magic tricks and escape numbers. “I was still tied up and thrown into the neighbor’s pool,” he said.

Naturally, he was also fascinated by ventriloquists.

“It spoke to me when I was 10,” he said. “I was watching these guys on TV and I was like, ‘I have to do this.’ ”

After all, he was growing up in the golden age of ventriloquism when stars like Edgar Bergen, Shari Lewis and Senor Wences were household names.

He began haunting magic shops and bookstores looking for how-to books on ventriloquism. He practiced with a black sock (named White Jaw Harry) which he accented with white paint. He mowed lawns to earn money to buy a ventriloquist doll from the Sears Roebuck catalog. And he started performing in talent shows.

Eventually, he met an old vaudeville ventriloquist named Ken Spencer who had moved to Minneapolis to sculpt professional, custom mannequins. (They are also called “figurines” or “dolls” by ventriloquists, who sometimes refer to themselves as “vents.”)

Spencer sculpted a young, intelligent doll with moveable eyes and eyebrows that Malmberg named Simon Spencer, after its creator. It cost $115, an anniversary present from Malmberg’s parents. (Today, professional vent dolls can cost thousands of dollars.)

Malmberg bought a cashmere tuxedo for his teenage years, a Beatles suit for Simon, and began charging for performances.

A funny thing happened while Malmberg was hosting fairs and fundraisers in a small town: ventriloquism became popular again.

You do not believe it ? Witness the rise of ventriloquist superstar Jeff Dunham, who now packs arenas and stars on Comedy Central shows. Three of 14 ‘America’s Got Talent’ winners are ventriloquists, including 2007 winner Terry Fator, who Forbes ranked the eighth highest-paid comedian in 2019, with estimated earnings of $17 million . (Dunham was in ninth place with $15 million.)

Another “America’s Got Talent” winner, teenage Darci Lynne Farmer, will take to the stage at the Minnesota State Fair this summer.

“It’s extremely popular,” Malmberg said. “We are in the midst of a renaissance right now.”

Yet Malmberg knows of only one other full-time ventriloquist in Minnesota.

Like Malmberg, James Wedgwood, who lives near Alexandria, became fascinated with ventriloquism as a child. He got a real job as an adult, but then decided later in life to take up modeling again. Wedgwood, 64, has been a full-time ventriloquist since 1988. Both men are represented by the same talent agency, GL Berg Entertainment.

They both do a lot of fairs and corporate events, often in rural areas, far from urban comedy clubs.

“Everyone comes after you milk the cows, and you put on a show,” Wedgwood said.

Many who see Malmberg perform have never seen a ventriloquist live before. At the Plainview American Legion, Malmberg got laughed at just for pulling the dummy out of his suitcase.

“It’s a phenomenal connection with the audience,” he said. “People become children again.”

But ventriloquism isn’t just about putting words in a mannequin’s mouth.

For 50 minutes at Plainview, Malmberg, Spencer and two other characters, goons Lars Gunderson and “America’s Grumpiest Farmer” Leonard Cribble, kept up a stream of high-speed gags, trying to elicit eight to 10 laughs per minute.

“I create a character and I myself am a character,” Malmberg said. “Our job is to make people laugh.”

Malmberg, who studied classical guitar in Spain, sang a goofy song about a colorectal surgeon. He and the models called members of the public by name, making people laugh at their bosses and colleagues.

He’s well aware he’s in the service industry — entertainment hired to boost corporate morale at $1,500 to $3,500 a show. But he also tries to keep alive what he describes as ancient and noble folk art.

“As long as the phone rings, I will continue to do so,” he said.

Malmberg: “One of these days my name will be in the spotlight.”

Spencer: “What are you going to do? Change your name to Quit?”

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