Floyd, Yoko, Danny, Ezra. While they all work with Jonathan Geffner, none of them gets paid. And get this -- Geffner manipulates their every move and even speaks for them. What a bunch of dummies! Literally.
Floyd and company belong to Geffner, a Great Neck ventriloquist who performs for adults and children at schools, libraries, camps and other venues in the tri-state area. He also teaches children of varying ages the craft of throwing one's voice.
During a recent class at the Great Neck Music Conservatory, with help from a clingy monkey puppet named Chippy and a dummy named Shmendrik who sports a distinct Eastern European accent, he went over the basics, such as talking without moving the mouth or lips, substituting sounds for challenging letters such as "B," "P," and "M," and voice experimentation.
Geffner also offers private lessons. "Jonathan is really great and was so helpful to me," said 17-year-old actor Nat Wolff ("The Naked Brothers Band" TV series and movie) via email. Last spring Geffner was brought onto the production set of the upcoming Tina Fey feature film, "Admission," to teach Wolff the craft. "My character in 'Admission' was a ventriloquist, and without Jonathan I could never have played that part of Jeremiah realistically," Wolff wrote.
Ventriloquism might look simple, but mastering the nuances -- not only creating a puppet with an independent voice, but also bringing it to life with movement, facial expressions and a distinct personality -- requires patience and, said Geffner, "a lot of practice, much like learning a musical instrument. It's a process."
Started in music
It's a logical analogy, for although ventriloquism is now his main profession, Geffner, 59, is also an accomplished musician with a master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music. In 1985, while pursuing a PhD in piano at New York University, Geffen lost interest and abruptly dropped out of the program. He was 32. "I left the school that afternoon feeling pretty despondent about what to do next," he said. But while walking aimlessly around the city, he came upon a ventriloquist performing in Columbus Circle. "I was transfixed and suddenly very inspired. I had a flash feeling that this is what I should be doing."
The abrupt switch from manipulating a keyboard to manipulating a puppet might seem random, but Geffner had dabbled in performance art, in the early 1980s training with the New York City improv comedy group Chicago City Limits. And "I performed as an improv actor with various pickup groups around Manhattan, especially at Folk City, a comedy club on West Third Street." But shyness prevented him from pursuing stand-up comedy. "I wasn't free on stage, I was somewhat inhibited," he explained.
Working with dummies "took away the responsibility of being alone onstage," Geffner said. With the pressure off, "through puppets you can really express aspects of your personality that are latent or hidden and yearning to get out."
Creating the illusion that there are two distinct individuals onstage is key to becoming a successful ventriloquist, an art form that dates back to vaudeville and then the early days of television, when masters of the craft such as Jimmy Nelson, Paul Winchell, Edgar Bergen and Senor Wences would appear frequently on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Making a comeback
We don't see as many ventriloquists in pop culture nowadays, but contrary to what people may believe, it's not a dying art, and it's making a comeback, according to Jennifer Dawson, curator of the Vent Haven Museum in Kentucky, which touts itself as the only museum in the world dedicated to ventriloquism. "Ventriloquism, like other art forms, ebbs and flows in popularity," she said.
For examples of renewed interest, she pointed to "America's Got Talent" 2007 winner Terry Fator, who now headlines at The Mirage in Las Vegas, and to ventriloquist and stand-up comic Jeff Dunham's popularity among young audiences. Not to mention Jay Johnson, who starred with dummy Bob in the 1970s ABC sitcom "Soap" and whose 2006 Broadway show, "The Two and Only," won a Tony Award for best special theatrical event.
Art changes, but it never dies, Johnson said in the documentary "I'm No Dummy," which traces the history of ventriloquism up to today through clips, photos and interviews. Dunham, who was also featured in the film, pointed out that innovative material can keep ventriloquism fresh and interesting for audiences. And the more kids get interested in it, the better for the future of the craft.
Dawson agrees. "It's not a dying art form if kids want to learn to do it," she said.
And here on Long Island they do. The evidence is in Geffner's Great Neck classes, where the old art of bringing an inanimate object to life is, well, alive and kicking. Surely Floyd, Yoko, Danny and Ezra are thankful for that. After all, as Johnson's dummy Bob said in the documentary, "I'd rather do this than be a chair."
The Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Ky., houses about 700 figures, thousands of photographs and playbills, and a library of books on ventriloquism. It's open from May to September. Guided tours are by appointment only.
The museum also hosts an annual ventriloquism convention with workshops, lectures and performances. According to museum curator Jennifer Dawson, the 2012 convention, held July 18-21 at the Cincinnati Marriott Airport Hotel, had a record 610 attendees, more than 100 of them first-timers. For more on the museum and conference, visit venthavenmuseum.com.