Grown men playing with dolls. When you read it like that, it comes off a bit creepy. But when you attach names like Jeff Dunham and Terry Fator to the picture you’d be surprised at the number of people lining up to watch grown men playing with dolls.
Ventriloquists have become the hottest tickets in the entertainment industry these days, which surprises these guys probably more than anyone. It’s a testament to the creativity of ventriloquists and the lengths these artists will go to get people to connect with characters that spend most of their time in a trunk.
Add to that mix ventriloquist Kevin Johnson, who has been making waves in the entertainment world with a technique that is unique to the point people think he's faking it — and even guys like Dunham appreciate it.
Johnson got into ventriloquism in a most unusual way, by watching a parrot. He developed his skills as the opening act for his magician grandfather, Harley Noles, but really got serious about this working-with-a-dummy thing when he became the “official” ventriloquist for Legoland Theme Park in Carlsbad, California. While this wasn’t Broadway, it was a gig Johnson held for nine years — giving him the opportunity to hone his craft while making a living at the same time. Those of us who caught his show there couldn't help but wonder why this guy wasn't more well-known. He was twice honored as the “Best Male Performer” at any amusement park in the world.
His technique not only has audiences scratching their heads asking the silent question, "how does he do that," but fellow ventriloquists are befuddled by it.
"I used to visit a pet store as a kid and I was amazed that parrots could talk like us but they didn’t have lips," he told the Laughlin entertainer. "They used their tongues and throats to talk. It’s a theory I adopted and taught myself to talk all over again using my tongue and throat.
"I learned ventriloquism in the same way I believe all ventriloquists should learn — I’m self-taught," he added. "It is wild. I get accused of being recorded because there’s no lip movement whatsoever. Other ventriloquists don’t get the technique I use and don’t understand or believe how I got to the point of no lip movement at all. This is the hardest to do on the letters 'B,' 'P,' 'M' and 'V' because those usually require your lips. But I’ve got the technique down so I can make those sounds without using my lips.
"I was on 'America’s Got Talent' in 2006, and at the same time the show aired, there was a ventriloquist convention in Kentucky. Jeff Dunham was lecturing at that time and a friend called me from the convention. He said they were watching my 'Godzilla Theater' performance and that the people at the convention thought it was impossible for me to be doing what I was doing. They were convinced I used a voice-over track. They didn’t believe it was real because it’s so different.
"My friend told me that Jeff said, 'I’m thankful for Kevin because he makes ventriloquism cool again.' I was like, 'Jeff said that?' It was nice to get that recognition and I thought, now is the time to move on," he said.
"Because of that show, I was asked to be on ‘Letterman’ during his Ventriloquist Week. It was cool to be recognized as part of the reason for the return of ventriloquism and to be featured with the top ventriloquists in the country. Jeff Dunham and Terry Fator have kicked the door open for ventriloquists.
"I just think it’s interesting that an old-school vaudeville act is competing with the high tech of some of the Cirque shows that use holograms … that here we are using dummies … oh, excuse me, “mannequin Americans."
As if ventriloquism wasn't enough of a challenge, Johnson deals with the lion's share of skeptics as well.
"It's weird, even on a ship, the first five to seven minutes, people are really timid and they're like, ‘OK, what's going on?' They're very critical and they look for any mouth movement, throat movement. It's a real sober opening until they realize, ‘OK, he's actually not going to move his mouth, so this is how it's going to be.' Then all of a sudden they fall in love with Matilda and boom — hook, line and sinker, we have a good ride for the rest of the show. You hope people fall in love with the characters and forget about the ventriloquist."
Of course, Johnson loves performing, but he loves converting the skeptics even more.
"Every cruise I go on it happens, I run into people after the show and they go, 'You know what, I was not gonna go to that show. I did not want to go to the show, my husband made me go, and I'm so glad he did. I was pleasantly surprised. You turned my mind around, and I'm actually a big fan now.' It happens all the time. There are a lot of skeptics. ‘America's Got Talent’ has really helped by kicking the door open, and showing a variety of ventriloquists. And there are still some bad ones, too.
"I love turning the skeptics," he added. "I love hearing the people come up and talk to me after the show and they say, 'This is not what I expected.'
"To be able to turn people around on their whole perspective it's like mimes or clowns, you either love 'em or you hate 'em. Ventriloquists are the same way. Ultimately you love the audience's response. I'm so happy and so lucky to be able to do what I love to do. There's so many people that hate their job, Mondays are bad days and to me, I don't have a bad day. The only tough part of this job is the travel days."
Working with "mannequin Americans" presents a different set of challenges, especially now when Johnson travels across the country and the ocean. A portion of his travels include regular annual visits at the Riverside Resort. He has become a popular performer because he's funny and exceptional at bringing the audience along for a fun trip through the suspension of disbelief. The show is clean, and suitable for all ages.
"We've been working about 30 cruises a year, which is a lot," he said. "I commit most of my year to cruises these days. But I'm very excited to be coming back to the Riverside. "They allow me to come back now more frequently. The show is about 80 minutes — that's a chunk of change, but it's so much fun, I love it because I get to air out the show and do everything, bring all the characters. It's a challenge for me and I like to be challenged."
Those characters will include Clyde and Matilda, of course.
"Clyde and Matilda are my most popular characters, my birds," Johnson added. "With my birds, it’s like I have an angel and a devil on my shoulder. Whenever I come up with a new character, I do a whole character analysis — who are they, where did they grow up, who are their parents, how much schooling did they complete, what kind of job do they hold, their interests and hobbies — I come out on the stage with their history in mind.
"Harley and Haley were introduced in Laughlin a few years ago and last year audiences saw my latest character, Zeke."
Female characters are particularly difficult to create.
"They are difficult because I have one falsetto range and with a male voice I can go different heights and different ranges. It's easier to do with a male voice," he explained. "I'm bringing Haley back this year and she's very challenging because her voice is very similar to Matilda, but I've made her a little more whiney and more of a Valley-girl style, without going to a complete accent. Haley is Harley's granddaughter. Harley is my old man character. She's a know-it-all, she thinks she's smarter than everybody so we're gonna go through some of that and reintroduce her. I think it's time to bring in some new challenges."
Johnson is seeing a new respect for his ventriloquism craft these days.
"I attribute that to ‘America's Got Talent.’ They're bringing out new acts every year and people are starting to utilize it," he said. "They're being used a lot more in television and film these days, but in the past it's been a scary thing, like the movie “Magic” with Anthony Hopkins. “Dead Silence” was another one.
"Mostly ventriloquism is associated with horror movies. Now it's becoming more of a thing, and it's comedy and it's funny. However, there are a lot of ventriloquists that think the puppets are real. Stop taking your dummies and putting them in car seats and taking them to restaurants and putting them in highchairs, you freak. That happens.
"I just ask people to take a chance on the show — even other professional entertainers I see on the ocean, who have been doing this for 25 or 30 years at sea, come up to me and say, 'I've seen a lot of ventriloquists over my time and I've never seen anybody do what you do. This is refreshing.'
"So if you've seen another ventriloquist great, this is still a different show than you'll ever see," he said. "I want people to take whatever stereotype they have about ventriloquists, throw it out the window and give it a shot, give it a try and you'll be pleasantly surprised. Now again, it's not for everybody, someone will go, 'Nope, can't deal with puppets.' Then come up to me after the show and tell me what you think."