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  • Writer's picturedavid malmberg

David Pendleton, Messenger

It was early in the morning when David and I sat down to chat at the 2023 ConVENTion.

He was thoughtful, genuine and transparent in his approach to my questions. Many have called David a “Gospel” ventriloquist. He takes issue with that term, as do I. Later in the interview you will find out why.

David is one of the few vent’s out there today who works regularly with a McElroy. He is a master at manipulating these very complex figures. The story, (and it’s a good one) of how he acquired his figure is also in this interview. Frankly, it is a story that legends are made of.

Make no mistake, David is a Christian who also happens to be a very fine ventriloquist. The synthesis of his beliefs and Vent is unique in todays’ performing world. It was refreshing to hear him expound on his ideas of destiny as it relates to his life course in performance.

Vent-o-gram is pleased to present, David Pendleton, Messenger

How old were you when you discovered Vent?


Believe or not, I was five years old.  I was at a friend's house and this friend had a Danny O’Day doll. This is a vivid memory.  The doll was sitting on the mantel of the fireplace at my friend's house.  I pointed at it and said, “can I see that?”  He pulled it down and I remember being very captivated by this doll. 


Prior to this, did you have any interest in puppets?


Yes, I was already a kid who loved puppets of all kinds.  So, on my birthday or Christmas I would always ask for puppets.  I was delighted by that.  So, I asked for one of those dolls for my birthday.  On my sixth birthday my grandmother got me a Charlie McCarthy and she also found the Jimmy Nelson record, ‘Instant Ventriloquism.’


A lot of vents have that “ah HA” experience when they were children.  When you reflect back on that now, what was going on with you ?Something must have resonated inside you…


No doubt about it.  I would actually refer to that as the hand of God.  There was something that I would say the Lord wove into my personality or being if you will that drew me to this art.  As I look back on it now I would say that it was the hand of God directing me in ways that I couldn’t possibly understand at that age.  But in retrospect, I can see a sense of destiny that came from that.


You bring up the idea of ‘spirituality’ in that statement.  Is ventriloquism a spiritual vehicle for you?


I think so.  (David smiles reflectively) The phrase ‘spiritual vehicle’ is an interesting phrase.  I think the ability to do what I do is not, as you well know, just the skill of speaking without moving my lips, but also the skills that you have to combine as a ventriloquist…. characterization, voice, dialog, acting, not to mention puppeteering.  All of these skills have to be brought to bear with this art. 


So, you felt a certain destiny then?


I think those were things that the Lord gifted me to do.  Now, the only reason I say it like that is because I don’t think I have worked at it so hard.  This was something that just came to me very naturally.  So, it seemed to be innate in me.  So, when you say spiritual, I would attribute that personally to God. 


Through the years, has it always felt that way?  Meaning, a God directed destiny?


As I look back now I see the trajectory of my life and how God put me on a path where eventually I felt called to use what I do in a ministry capacity.  Meaning that ventriloquism became more than just a vehicle to make people laugh.  But also, to turn a corner and to bring some kind of a meaningful message to my program.


Tell me about some of your early shows?  After you felt the call to do this, there must have been some kind of desire to complete the process so to speak.  Meaning, performance.


Yes, that’s right.  My first show was a talent show when I was 8 years old.  It was put on by my Scout troop.   I remember sitting on the stage behind the curtain, listening to the emcee introduce me.  And then the curtain opened, and I did my act.  I thought that was so cool!  (Laughter). 

So, there I was with my Charlie McCarthy doll and a memorized Jimmy Nelson routine from the record.  (At this point, from memory, David begins recounting some of the gags from the Nelson record)


David, do any of those jokes still play?


(Laughter). I still do some of Jimmy’s stuff as exercises in warming up.  You know, ‘ventricolist, ventriloquist, linoleum…Honestly, I’m not ashamed to tell you that I still use some of them in my act.


Well, if it gets laughs…


Exactly. But also, I want to be ethical in what I am doing.  Of course, I don’t believe in stealing somebody else’s material, but at this point, some of this stuff has become public domain!  (Laughter) So my earliest stuff were canned scripts.  I remember ordering scripts from Maher Studios.  They had all those options where you could order ready made scripts.


How did you find out about Maher?


That was when I was older.  First there was the talent show when I was 8.  And then, during that time, I would incorporate other fun things.  In other words, I started supplementing the material with novelty songs and things like that.  My goal was to find bits I could put in a performance and entertain people.  Of course, when your eight years old, and your this red headed kid that looks like Opie Taylor (Andy Griffith Show) it was just a novelty to those around me.


Did people associate you with Opie?  

Well yeah.  You know I was this red headed kid…there most have been some of that going on.

But to continue, when I was 11, in Cincinnati a grandmother on the other side of my family saw an article on Vent Haven.  They clipped it out and sent it to me.  I read the article,  gave it to my Mother, and she read it. Then I said, “Can I go?  Can I go?”  She said, “Sure, when we visit grandmother and grandfather, I’ll take you over there.”


Why was it important for you to go there?


Believe it or not, I was wondering whether they would have information about how you can find people who make professional puppets.  And sure enough they did, they had a list of the current figure makers. 


So, this is when you were 11?

Yes.  Interestingly, we got a private tour.  They were a lot looser about letting people handle the figures.  I did put Jocko on my knee and try my hand at the mechanics.  I remember thinking that was just the coolest thing in the world.  Like YEAH!  Look at all this stuff.  Just cool!


What did you do with the list?


Well, I wrote to everyone. Some would write back and say, “Thank you for your kind letter, I no longer make puppets.”  But I remember that magical time when you would write the letter and then wait for the response. 


Do you remember anyone you wrote now?


Conrad Hartz, Alan Semok, Maher, Ken Spencer, Howie Olson, Foy Brown…I still have the letters because I made carbon copies. The Maher catalog was impressive but I really was attracted to the work of Alan Semok. There was something magical about his figures.  Plus, he too had an impressive brochure.  I actually talked with Alan, and when I started telling him about all the features I wanted on a figure and he replied with the cost of each I quickly realized that the most bang for the buck was going to be Maher! I eventually went with a Lovik character. Chester in the catalog.



Tell me the story of the McElroy figure. 


Greg Claassen had acquired his McElroy.  I think it was in 1997.  He was at the convention.  We were talking about McElroys.  Greg told me he had acquired one and that he was considering selling it for a fairly heavy some of money.  I was tempted to take out a loan and make that purchase.  My wife talked me off the ledge. 


So, it didn’t happen.


Correct.  Now fast forward to 2001.  I was doing a show at a church.  Afterward a woman came up to me and said, “my grandfather was a ventriloquist and I actually have the dummy he used in his act.”  Now we all have these experiences, but, I asked her do you know who made the dummy?  She didn’t know but thought it was made by a couple of brothers in Ohio.  All the blood ran out of my head.  (Laughter)



I told her I would be interested in seeing it.


She said, “come by the house tomorrow morning.” 

I said, “Are you thinking about selling it? “

“Yes, it's just sitting in my basement.  It's not doing anything for anybody.”


I then explained to her that if it was what I thought it was, it was a valuable figure.  That there would be people willing to pay top dollar for it. 


So, you were being very transparent about this.


Totally.  I spoke to my wife about, and expressed my insecurity that someone was going to sweep in before the next morning and scoop it up!  (Laughter) Lynda knew I was excited to see this and I barely slept that night. 


So, the next morning?


I got there a half hour early!  (Laughter). But I exercised discipline so as not to knock on the door before our appointed time.  When I did go in the house, there he was, sitting on the sofa.  I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.


So, it was in good shape?


Incredibly so.  I literally started to cry and said, “this is exactly what I thought it was.”  I was completely geeking out.  Now here is the really incredible part.  She said, “You know I was driving home from church last night having a conversation with God.  God said that he had been specifically saving this guy for you.”  Well, then I was just a mess.



Of course, now you have a dilemma.  You are looking at a figure that is worth thousands and thousands of dollars, with no real means to come up with that.


Correct.  I said to her, “I can’t afford to pay you what this is worth, but here is what I can pay.”  Lynda and I had talked about it, and we had come up with the amount that we thought would be affordable.  I said to the lady, please understand a collector would pay much more, but I am a performer and I plan to use this figure.   And she said, that is exactly why I want you to have it. The dollar amount works for me.”

David with his McElroy


Wow, what a story.  More than just a story.  Let’s move on.  How did you evolve to vent as a ministry and how did those markets open up for you?


In college I got involved with Campus Crusade for Christ.  They are known for their boldness in evangelism.  They would have numerous events for students all over the country where the focus was sharing their faith.  I became intrigued. At first, I was reluctant, but then I discovered that a lot of people were open about talking about these things.  Frankly, some of these discussions were life changing for people. Now I was performing my act at the same time at a theme park in Cincinnati.  I was a strolling ventriloquist.


Tough work.


Very tough work.  So this was happening concurrent with my involvement with Campus Crusades.  So, I decided to join the staff at Campus Crusades. Those folks had also seen what I do so I began think about how I could use vent with Campus Crusades.  Eventually, I would go to these colleges do my act and then say, if you’ll allow me I would like to share with you some things that would be a little bit ‘deeper.’  Adding that the show was sponsored by Campus Crusades and that I would like to let them to know what more they have to offer.  So, it was a nice bridge to gather students.  And frankly, it was pretty effective. Meaning that I could use vent to build that bridge with people. 


It is curious.  In the history of the church, ventriloquism was often times viewed as one of the ‘deceptive’ arts.  Did you ever run up against any prejudice about that?


Only in very ‘extreme’ churches.  I didn’t let that bother me.  Campus Crusades was pretty progressive.  They had an illusionist on staff, Andre Kole, who had started in the late 50’s.  I think he helped to pave the way for other performers in educating the church in general about this kind of thing.  Acknowledging that yeah, there is deception, but it is deception on purpose.


Andre Kole

For lack of a better term, this market, concurrent with your own career, has greatly expanded.  How would you define that market today?


Well, evangelical can evoke a negative reaction amongst some people.  More now than when I was coming up.  I think evangelicals today look around at entertainment options and see some good. Meaning they don’t feel like they are watching a bunch of filth.  But there are other options where the church is essentially saying, “I’m not interested in this.”  Where are the alternatives?  And so when someone comes along who is an entertainer and has skills, in other words can deliver and also happens to be a Christian, the church is saying, “yes, we are looking for someone like this.”  So, as the world goes one way, the church is asking is there anyone that can provide entertainment that we can feel comfortable and really enjoy bringing our children, our parents and our grandparents to?




Do you know this was Walt Disney’s model? He wanted to provide entertainment that wasn’t just for kids but something that would cross generations.


How do you feel about the term ‘gospel vent?.


I don’t consider myself to be a gospel vent.  A gospel vent from what I experienced is someone who would almost exclusively be involved in doing their act to bring some sort of a Bible message.  Many of them would put together routines that were expressly for kids at vacation Bible schools.  Same thing for gospel magicians. 


Andre Kole. When I watched him perform I saw a very talented illusionist. He would put on a great show for the masses if you will. But then at the end of his show he would do one illusion that would be tied to a message.

Is he a model for you?

Yes. He was with Campus Crusades and that was another reason why I was on staff there. After the show he would say, “this concludes my show with the exception of something I’m going to share with you.” And then he would explain there would be a short two minute intermission, and that after that he was going to talk about what he considered the most important thing in life. Knowing God. He would do this in a way that would peak your curiosity. And he would add that it was perfectly fine for anyone not interested to step out and leave. No problem.

What do you do?

Well, I finish up. And then I say, “Ladies and gentlemen, that is my show.  I hope now that you will indulge me for just a few minutes while I share with you what is the most important thing about who I am and what I do.” It’s brief, not heavy handed and straight forward.


What you do is unique.  It is a unique area of performance.  If someone wanted to get into your area of work, are there any people or organizations out there where one could start?


Curiously, I am involved with the Christian Comedy Association.  I am actually the Executive director.  I am to that organization what Mark Wade is to the Vent convention. I’m very passionate about the association.  So, there is this whole market if you will that is there and can be tapped into for anyone wanting to go into this area of work. 


So, advice to a young person then is?


Reach out to other people that are doing this type of performing.  Ask them for help and input.  In a nutshell, association.  Find other people and learn from them.  This is what we do at the Vent Convention. 


Final question.  How important is it to follow your heart, in life?


(Pause). That’s a loaded question.  Here is why.  It is important to first think about what is IN your heart. 

When the drug addict is asked why he takes drugs he might say, “Well, I’m just following my heart.”

In that case I would say, “well, I don’t think you should be following your heart!”  (Laughter). More importantly, seek God.  With that said, I do believe that God has put in our heart, things that he wants us to follow.  The key is discernment.



To find out more about the Christian Comedy Association go here:

To find out more about David, go here:

To read the complete story about how David acquired his McElroy, go here:

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