The scene: A scene at an American Legion post in southeast Minnesota. The Cast: Longtime comedy duo David Malmberg and Simon Spencer.
“What do you get when you mix holy water with prune juice?” Malmberg asks.
“A religious movement,” says Spencer.
It sounds cheesy on paper, but as part of the after-dinner entertainment at a holiday party for grocery store workers in Plainview, Minnesota, that joke killed off.
Maybe that’s because Malmberg and Spencer have worked together for decades. Their material has been refined by thousands of performances. Their comedic timing is precise, as if the partners could read each other’s minds. Well, they could if Spencer’s head wasn’t made of wood.
“I’m a ventriloquist,” Malmberg, the mastermind of the outfit, explains to the audience.
“You are a hypnotist,” Spencer replies.
“No, I’m a ventriloquist. Hypnotists put people to sleep, ”Malmberg explains.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Spencer said.
This is how Malmberg makes a living.
Over the past 26 years, he has been one of a few dozen people across the country working as a full-time ventriloquist. Malmberg made his home in St. Paul, but he often lives in a suitcase, working up to 100 concerts a year from the Dakotas to the Dells. Spencer, who is almost 60 years old, lives in the suitcase.
It seems like an old fashioned way to earn a salary because it is. Ventriloquism was a staple of 19th century English music halls and early 20th century American vaudeville performances. But astonishing an audience by casting your voice is even older than that.
Gastromancy, the ancient Greek practice of guessing the future from sounds coming out of a prophet’s stomach, is considered an early form of ventriloquism. The roots of the word “ventriloquist” are derived from Latin which means “talk-belly”.
Malmberg is not an oracle of Delphi, although Spencer plays a diviner named Swami Simon.
Malmberg: “Swami Simon, I don’t drink, i don’t smoke and i don’t joke. Will I live long?
Spencer: “No, but it sure looks like it.”
Malmberg, 70, grew up in a showbiz family. His father, Larry Malmberg, was a world-class accordionist who performed for Presidents and Kings and was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. His brother, Denny, is a jazz accordionist. Another brother, Al, was a longtime host of the WCCO Radio television show.
As a child, Malmberg learned to play the accordion and guitar, performed magic tricks and escape numbers. “I was still tied up and thrown into the neighbor’s pool,” he said.
Of course, he was also fascinated by ventriloquists.
“It spoke to me when I was 10,” he said. “I was watching these guys on TV and I was like, ‘I have to do this.’ “
After all, he was growing up in the heyday of ventriloquism when stars like Edgar Bergen, Shari Lewis, and Señor Wences were household names.
He began to haunt magic shops and bookstores looking for how-to books on ventriloquism. He trained with a black sock (named White Jaw Harry) which he accented with white paint. He mowed lawns to earn money to buy a ventriloquist doll from the Sears Roebuck catalog. And he began to perform in talent shows.
Eventually, he met an old vaudeville ventriloquist named Ken Spencer who had moved to Minneapolis to sculpt professional and personalized models. (They are also called “figurines” or “dolls” by ventriloquists, who sometimes refer to themselves as “vents.”)
Spencer sculpted a smart young doll with movable eyes and eyebrows which Malmberg named Simon Spencer, after its creator. It cost $ 115, a birthday present from Malmberg’s parents. (Today, professional ventilation dolls can cost in the thousands.)
Malmberg took on a paisley tuxedo for his teenager, a Beatles costume for Simon and started charging for performances.
Malmberg: “Swami Simon, some people say I’m going to have a beer belly. What do you think?”
Spencer: “You don’t have a beer belly. You have just created a liquid grain storage facility.
But Malmberg’s nascent showbiz career was cut short by the Vietnam War.
He was drafted and was about to be sent to serve on a minesweeper when a Chief Petty Officer overheard him doing a bit of ventriloquism.
This was enough to convince the Navy that Malmberg’s talents could be better used to entertain the troops. He became a disc jockey for American Forces Radio and was stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Spain.
After leaving the service, he returned to Minnesota and stayed on radio, becoming director of operations for two stations, K102 and WDGY. While he was successful, he failed to perform – spin records and tell jokes. He decided to try this ventriloquist thing again.
With a wife and a child, it might not seem like the safest thing to do, especially since 1990. At that point, ventriloquism was seen as a little old-fashioned, maybe even a little scary.
For example, in disturbing episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and the 1978 horror film “Magic”, starring Anthony Hopkins, the ventriloquist dummies were given a malicious will of their own. The term “automatonophobia” has surfaced to describe the fear of ventriloquist dummies.
“Sally, who suffers from automatonophobia, had a nightmare where the ventriloquist’s dummies chased and killed her. She had a heart attack and died ”, is the way Urban Dictionary used it in a sentence.
“We’ve been through a period of weird ventriloquism,” admitted Malmberg.
Spencer: “Damn it! The scene!”
Malmberg: “What about the stage?
Spencer: “It’s made of wood. “
Spencer: “He’s my uncle.”
Over the years, Malmberg has forged a career hosting variety concerts at places like the Hesper-Mabel Steam Engine Days and the Kellogg Watermelon Festival. He played on a pool table and a flatbed truck, in churches, schools, sheepfolds and slaughterhouses. Four guys attending a Canadian Dental Association event in Minneapolis once hired him to perform in a hotel suite while their wives watched from home via Skype.
“I killed. I mean I even thought I was funny and had heard the jokes a thousand times,” Malmberg wrote of the experience in a memoir he published in 2018. entitled “BellyTalker: The Life and Times of a Ventriloquist. “
A funny thing happened while Malmberg was entertaining himself at small town fairs and fundraisers: Ventriloquism has become popular again.
You do not believe it ? Witness the rise of ventriloquist superstar Jeff Dunham, who now features arenas and stars on Comedy Central shows. Three of the 14 winners of “America’s Got Talent” are ventriloquists, including 2007 winner Terry Fator, who Forbes ranked eighth highest-paid comedian in 2019, with an estimated income of $ 17 million. (Dunham was in ninth place with $ 15 million.)
Another winner of “America’s Got Talent,” teenager Darci Lynne Farmer, will appear in the gallery at the Minnesota State Fair this summer.
“It’s extremely popular,” said Malmberg. “We are currently in the midst of a renaissance.
Yet Malmberg only knows of one other full-time ventriloquist in Minnesota.
Like Malmberg, James wedgwood, who lives near Alexandria, became fascinated with ventriloquism from childhood. He got a real job as an adult, but then later in life decided to take over the model. Wedgwood, 64, has been a full-time ventriloquist since 1988. Both men are represented by the same arts agency, GL Berg Entertainment.
They both do a lot of fairs and corporate events, often in rural areas, far from urban comedy clubs.
“Everyone comes in after you milk the cows, and you put on the show,” Wedgwood said.
Many who see Malmberg play have never seen a live ventriloquist before. At the Plainview American Legion, Malmberg laughed just for taking the mannequin out of his suitcase.
“It’s a phenomenal connection with the audience,” he said. “People are becoming children again. “
But ventriloquism is more than putting words in a model’s mouth.
For 50 minutes in Plainview, Malmberg, Spencer and two other characters, fools Lars Gunderson and Leonard Cribble, “America’s crankiest farmer,” kept up a rapid stream of gags, trying to trigger eight to ten laughs per minute. .
“I create a character and I am a character myself,” said Malmberg. “Our job is to make people laugh. “
Malmberg, who studied classical guitar in Spain, sang a wacky song about a colorectal surgeon. He and the models called out to members of the public by name, making people laugh at their bosses and co-workers.
He’s well aware he’s in the service industry – entertainment hired to boost company morale at $ 1,500 to $ 3,500 per show. But he also tries to keep alive what he describes as ancient and noble folk art.
“As long as the phone keeps ringing, I will keep ringing,” he said.
Malmberg: “One of these days my name will be in the spotlight. “
Spencer: “What are you going to do? Change your name to Quit? “