by director Mark Goffman
It all started with a toast at my wedding. In front of some 200 people, my mother-in-law shocked us all when she held up her white-gloved hand and it began to speak. The white-gloved hand delivered a moving, heartfelt toast, with humor, charm and grace. I know how hard it is for her to speak in public, and to move the room to tears, with essentially a sock puppet, well, so began my adventure into the world of ventriloquism.
We followed her to the annual ventriloquist convention—the only ventriloquist convention in the world—in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky. Close to 500 ventriloquists and their dummies meet, greet and share stories. The hotel looks like something out of Medieval Times, and the museum was founded by a man named William Shakespeare Burger. This world had all the makings of a Christopher Guest film, but it was real. A world filled with an enchanting figures that begged to be captured on film.
I decided to focus on professional ventriloquists. Where did these people perform, how did their families react to their chosen careers, and how hard was it to make a living as a ‘vent’? I know from personal experience that making a living in any form of entertainment is a challenge. I struggled for years as a writer before catching that life-changing break to write for “The West Wing.” But, making it as a ventriloquist? What does that even look like?
And how did one’s family react when told you’re going to pursue a career as a vent? I still remember when I told my family that I was moving to Hollywood. They were supportive, but reminded me on many occasions there’s no shame in leaving Los Angeles and getting a real job. I related to Dylan, the 13-year-old, whose father wished he played football and rode motorcycles. I sympathized with Terry Fator, who after signing the largest deal in Las Vegas history, confessed that his father never told him he had any talent. And I felt for Kim, a former Miss Ohio beauty queen, whose mom jokingly suggested she get married and have real kids instead of her ‘puppet children.’ Watching these characters soldier on in pursuit of their dreams, in response to and sometimes in spite of their families, became the real heart of the film.
We discovered that there is something pure about ventriloquism. Perhaps because of its prominence in the ’50s, when performers like Edgar Bergen entertained the country on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It takes you back to a simpler time, especially because we found vents in small towns like Mansfield, Ohio and Loomis, California. The performers prided themselves on creating family entertainment. I worked hard with George Reasner, our Director of Photography, to make sure the look of the film captured this Americana.
However, something amazing happened as we continued filming. Terry Fator, who had been painting houses and mowing lawns in Corsicana, Texas to scrape by, won the million dollar grand prize on “America's Got Talent.” Only a few months later, I found myself filming Terry in the CEO’s office at the Mirage Hotel, where he signed an unimaginable $100,000,000 headliner deal. So much for ventriloquism only in small towns, and so much for barely scraping by.
Every one of the five ventriloquists we were following went through some kind of cathartic, life-changing experience. Dan, a thriving cruise ship performer, is at sea when he receives an email from his wife that he’s away too much, and she wants a divorce. Dylan, an introverted, Kentucky 13-year-old gets the chance to audience for a local circus; Wilma, a 6’5” former security guard, has to call on the aid of the vent community when her home is threatened.
I couldn’t be more proud of this first joint project with my wife, literally conceived the night of our wedding and born almost four years later. Every puppet-filled frame feels charmed, and we’re thrilled that it’s been embraced not only by the vent community, but by audiences around the country.
Dumbstruck isn’t really about ventriloquism. It’s about five people who happen to be ventriloquists. They pursue their dreams, and they rely on their friends and family along the way. As the film shows, that dream is one of self-expression, of the deep-seated desire to have one’s voice heard, and, as seen through the efforts of the ventriloquists in this film, to speak out and overcome struggle, even if one’s medium is thought to be...well, a little wooden.