3 stars out of 4
Of all live entertainment mediums, ventriloquism enjoys the least popularity, respect and reward. Viewed less as a true art form and more of an outlet for obsessed eccentrics, it has never fully disappeared from the public radar but will also never command the attention, accolades or wealth available through stage acting, music or stand-up comedy.
The closest anyone has ever come to achieving the kind of ventriloquism superstar status last enjoyed by Edgar Bergen more than 60 years ago is Terry Fator, one of the five performers profiled in this offbeat and oddly endearing documentary by Mark Goffman.
For those of us who don't watch reality TV, Fator achieved instant notoriety after winning the second season of "America's Got Talent." In addition to receiving $1 million, Fator became an immediate draw in Las Vegas, which led to a five-year, $100 million contract with the Mirage Hotel and included having his own theater named after him. It's safe to say that Fator is the most successful ventriloquist of all time.
The biggest drawback in choosing ventriloquism as a career is that you probably won't end up like Fator. If you want a better analogy, imagine that Fator is Michael Jackson squared and every other ventriloquist in the world combined doesn't quite equal Tito Jackson. The risk vs. reward factor is almost incalculable and second best is inconsequential. That doesn't stop thousands of others from seeking fame and fortune and the double-edged sword consolation prize of success in ventriloquism: cruise ship gigs.
If you're like Dan Horn and fortunate enough to become a staple on cruise ships, you'll be well compensated but you also better be unattached or love being single. Taking a job on a cruise ship means extended stays away from home. If you're married, you're probably in for a nasty professional/personal trade-off.
For former beauty queen Kim Yeager, that's even not a problem. Although eternally hopeful, Yeager has all but given up on finding a husband because no candidate could ever be more alluring to her than her dummies or the pursuit of a passion few of us could ever fathom. If you consider steady work a measure of success, Yeager is doing well. If those gigs are mostly at schools and day care centers, you might not.
Compared to Wilma Swartz, Horn and Yeager are Fator. She's physically as imposing as an NFL linebacker with a flaming red Dutch-boy haircut who uses a dummy that looks a lot like Big Bird from "Sesame Street."
Swartz is at the undesired far end of the success extreme and could easily provide the inspiration for a horror film franchise. Having been disowned by her family, Swartz's segment mostly concerns itself with her impending eviction and barely attended performances at assisted living facilities. What happens to her eventually also provides the film with its most heartwarming and inspirational moment.
The final "vent" (the insider term ventriloquists use to describe themselves) in the movie is Dylan Burdette, a young teen who, solely because of his age, lacks the physical wherewithal and subsequent talent to be truly convincing. Burdette's multiple stabs at making it to the big time are crushingly heartbreaking to watch and made even worse by the dismissive attitude of his father who would rather see him become a professional dirt biker.
"Dumbstruck" is a testament to the human spirit that could also be viewed as a slow motion train wreck. With the stratospherically noted exception of Fator, these are people that will likely never make the major bucks, but are highly dedicated to their craft (and it is indeed a craft).
They flatly refuse to ever throw in the towel. Some may see them as delusional or impervious to reality and that opinion is entirely valid, but these folks just don't care. They'd rather fail at doing what they love than succeed at something they don't. Here's to a collective bottom's up to all of them.