For a viewer of a certain age, the idea of a documentary about ventriloquists that never mentions Edgar Bergen or Paul Winchell is about as unthinkable as a film about stand-up comedy that doesn’t mention Bob Hope. But unimaginable as it may be, that is exactly the case in Mark Goffman’s documentary, Dumbstruck which opens April 22 in Manhattan at the Cinema Village and the 29th in Los Angeles. There is a scene at the ventriloquist’s museum in Kentucky where I’m sure I saw Charlie McCarthy and Jerry Mahoney in a gaggle of other dummies (or puppets the “politically correct” term that seems to be the preference of most of the ventriloquist “wanabees” and aficionados interviewed in the film). Of course Dumbstruck is not meant to be a history of the art; it is not a film about the past. It is a film about the present. It is a film about an art form that was at one time quite popular, but seemed to have lost some of its cache in recent years; it is a film about those people who still devote themselves to the practice of that art form. It is a film that suggests that perhaps it was a good deal too early to bury the old girl yet.
Dumbstruck opens at the 2007 annual gathering of the faithful, the Vent Haven Convention in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky, the ventriloquism capitol of the world. It introduces us to five more or less professional ventriloquists and their puppets in various stages of their careers and then follows them during the course of the year as they go about plying their trade and attempting to move up in the business. They are a mixed group. Their skills vary, but they are all passionate in their pursuit of their pursuit of their dreams.
There is Dylan, a thirteen year old with a black puppet named Reggie and a father who would prefer it if he took up football. There is Wilma, a six foot five woman who performs for senior citizens and seems to bring her puppets with her wherever she goes. Kim is an ex-beauty queen from Ohio now in her thirties, who performs for children and dreams of working on the cruise circuit. Dan has appeared on television and is working on the cruise ships, but while he is making a living, it keeps him away from his family for long stretches and is having a devastating effect on his personal life. Finally there is Terry. Terry has spent 22 years struggling to “make it,” when he gets his big chance when he appears on NBC’s America’s Got Talent.
Terry gets the opportunity and Terry makes the most of it. The film shows a clip from his first appearance on the show. They cut to the judges. David Hasselhoff and Sharon Osborne are clearly less than thrilled. “Oh lord, another ventriloquist,” they seem to be mouthing.” Then, in what is one of those Susan Boyle moments, Terry’s puppet begins to sing and the reaction in electric. Terry of course is Terry Fator. He wins the million dollar prize on the show and even more importantly he gets himself a 100 million dollar deal to perform in Las Vegas. If computer nerds can look to Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg for inspiration, Terry Fator and his fantastic success after years of toiling in obscurity is no less an inspiration, for the Dylan’s and the Dan’s. Not that they need any inspiration other than their own love of the art. Still one thing that is abundantly clear, it is that ventriloquism is not dead.
Goffman’s film is an engrossing portrait of a group of people who are willing to give up quite a lot to follow their bliss. They may never get to Vegas. For some Ft. Mitchell may well be the zenith of their careers, but that probably doesn’t matter. They are doing what they love, and even with the disappointments that they meet along the way they are happy to be doing it. Goffman’s script treats them with respect. Poor performances, unrealistic expectations, he never ridicules them. There is an honesty about the film and the central characters that endears them to the viewer. There is no Edgar Bergen. There is no Paul Winchell. There isn’t even a Shari Lewis. But in truth, you don’t miss them. Dylan, Wilma, Kim, Dan and Terry will do just fine.