The following story was performed live for Stories Under the Stars at Burritt on the Mountain on July 27, 2017. The theme for the evening was “When Disaster Strikes”. All stories were presented by Out Loud HSV.
Imagine, a poorly disguised King Saul seeks anonymous consult with the Witches of Endor about an upcoming battle. The last necromancer and magician had mysteriously “disappeared” from the kingdom when their powers fell short. You see, soothsaying does not work on demand. Recognizing Saul through his make-up, one of the witches improvises by grabbing the closest inanimate object (which happened to be the wine flask) and begins making it speak. The battle weary and superstitious Saul believes it to be the work of sorcery and evil spirits, but we all know it to be the wiggling of the bottle and the throwing of one’s voice. This was the birth of VENTRILOQUISM.
Vengeful for being put on the spot, she then goes on to tell Saul (through the talking wine flask) that his armies will fall and that he and his sons will be cast into the abode of the dead… and guess what, she was right. Next battle, Saul’s armies are defeated and as a direct result he commits suicide. King Saul – 0, Witches of Endor – 1. This story only quickens the gut feeling that I had many Christmas’s ago. Ventriloquism will betray you.
It was November 1985. I was sitting on the floor of my grandparent’s living room as I snacked on a small plate of Ritz crackers and sipped ginger ale. While my parents talked politics and books with Granny and Pop, I perused the middle section of the holy tome that was known as the Sears Catalog Wish Book.
I scanned each page carefully even though I had no idea what I was looking for. I thought that I was growing too old for the menagerie of stuffed animals that I called close friends. I had yet to bridge my adolescence with wish list items that may have been more age appropriate for a child in the deep south such as a camouflage tent, duck boots or even a .22 rifle. At most I was a budding 7 year old artist in a 9 year old’s body.
Somewhere between Cabbage Patch Dolls and Gobots, something caught my eye. The callout was huge. “Can you say ‘It’s Howdy Doody time’ without moving your lips?”
OF COURSE I CAN DO THAT!
This may have been the thing that I was looking for.
I kept reading…
“Everyone Loves a Ventriloquist! Pick your favorite character and become the life of the party. Instruction booklet included.”
Later I would question my desire for this awkward toy. Through the muffled bedroom door, I could hear my father’s many interesting questions for my Mom about my Christmas list. I could also hear her verbal melee in defense of me expressing myself creatively. Aware of their different parenting styles, my 9 year old self would have known to direct these questions to the more responsible party, SEARS.
ME: Dear SEARS, why are you selling Charlie McCarthy dolls to the children of the 80s?
SEARS: Market research shows us that kids genuinely love the same Vaudeville characters as their grandparents.
Christmas morning, 6 AM. I run down the stairs, wake my parents and make quick work of the wrapping paper that’s keeping me from my gifts. I finally made it to the long, rectangular box that held my new, more mature pal. I opened the box more slowly than the others to savor this important moment. With the front flap pulled down, I saw it. It was a vinyl headed, dead-eyed doll, laid neatly in its own cardboard coffin. In an instant, I felt that I had betrayed my worn and familiar stuffed friends who sat waiting loyally for me on my bedspread. I gingerly closed the flap and placed the heavy box back on the floor behind me. Although a smile was placed on my face, my true feelings were still handsomely gift wrapped in paper and sealed with scotch tape.
After thanking them, my parents went back to bed and I went to my room to play with my new gifts. As I sat on my bedroom rug, I fanned out each present from left to right in order of appreciation. The dummy had not even made it to the sprawl. Curiosity finally bested me and I unboxed the toy. If the blank stare from the painted eyes hadn’t clued me in to why I felt so queasy, then the blonde hair should have. All of the family that was coming over later that day for our traditional lasagna lunch had dark hair or at one time in the past had dark hair. This Devil Doll with a head of yellow was some sort of Rolf type from the Sound of Music. He may have been in love with Liesl, but he was fated to RAT OUT the entire Von Trapp family. One good thing about stuffed animals is that their fur color had never been a point of derision.
I had always carefully named each of my stuffed animals. Kinderly, Cubbie, and Big Eyed Dog had all quickly become part of an adoptive network. We may have not been related, but by God we were family. I dared not name this new character, for I knew he would not be staying.
Although, this oversized, hinged-mouth abomination made me feel physically ill, I knew that my family would soon be here and they would want a performance. I had to practice. I pulled the figure to me, slid my arm inside the cadaver and then began speaking through clenched teeth.
Family arrived. Lasagna was eaten. Manischewitz put way. I reluctantly brought out the dummy for my visiting relatives, tried on a voice and then realized, in front of a live audience that this gift mirrored my uneasiness of outgrowing my childhood things.
After lunch, I snuck the dummy into an opaque garbage bag with the ripped wrapping paper, ribbons and other boxes. Even though my dad didn’t see me do this, I’m sure that if he had, he would have been politely silent.
I spent at least one more year playing with my stuffed animals before they made their short journey into our attic.
Perhaps most children who are given ventriloquists dummies are destined to sneak them into the garbage when their parents aren’t looking. Maybe Sears was obligated to sell these antiquated toys due to an ancient contract between their corporate shareholders and the Witches of Endor.
But nevertheless, when you are home next holiday, after your presents have been opened, your wine drunk and your lasagna eaten; if it is an option, make your way into your attic, find your old stuffed animals, look at them directly in their cute button eyes and thank them for standing beside you on your path to growing up.