The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox... Pt II
It is a Thursday afternoon in January 2020 and I have spent the better part of the day putting together Part II of my interview with Valentine Vox. What follows is a short discussion about the International Ventriloquist Association (IVA) which Valentine formed in the 90's and the subsequent Vegas Vent conventions. Then we delve into the long and fascinating journey that resulted in 'I can see your lips moving, the history and art of ventriloquism.' Frankly, it is one of my favorite books on the subject. Every couple of years I take it off the shelf and reread it cover to cover. I think the history of our rich craft is important. I hope you'll enjoy Part II as much as i have.
Let’s talk about the International Ventriloquist Association. The IVA, late 90’s early 2000’s. Obviously Val, you are a real self-starter. Tell me about the why and the wherefore of the IVA and the Vegas conventions. Why did you start it all up in the first place.
This would have been in the 90’s. I had built this museum in Vegas, the Magic and Movie Hall of Fame. There was a section in that attraction which was a ventriloquism museum. I designed that. What happened was this: I had heard Vent Haven had dropped the idea of doing the convention for a couple of years or so. I’m not sure, you would have to look that up. My assistant at that time suggested that we do a convention in Las Vegas. I said, oh no, I don’t want to do all that. He said, no, no, we can do it. We can send out letters...after all Vent Haven is not doing it. I thought yeah, but it’s a big responsibility. But then I thought, ah, what the heck, let’s do it! So, I did it.
People were very generous. I met with Jeff Dunham, whose been a friend for years. He said, ‘I won’t charge you, I’ll open for you.” I thought, “great!” We had all this great feedback from people. Dick Weston was around at that time and said to me, “Just give me something to do and I’ll help out.” So, it was one of those things where everyone was chipping in.
Were you surprised when Paul Winchell and Jimmy Nelson showed up?
Well yes. I had met Paul through a friend of mine. We had lunch a number of times and when the convention came along I said to Paul, “I would really like you to come out to the convention.” And he said, “Yeah, I guess I could do that.” Well, it happened. It was touch and go whether he would show up or not, but it did happen and everybody was just in awe.
Ok, let's talk about 'I can see your lips moving.' How did you make the transition from ventriloquist to historian?
For some reason, I seemed to have a gift or knack to write. When I was thirteen I wrote a scientific article on atomic particles. Where this came from, I do not know. My science teacher wanted me to become a laboratory technician after he read the article. Well, I don’t know anything about atomic particles. (laughter) I’d love to see that paper now. Then when I was fifteen, I wanted to be an astronomer. So, I wrote another article on the solar system. The teacher read it and accused me of plagerizing. I was so annoyed that I decided I would never write another paper again.
Obviously, you did write again.
Yes, the book on ventriloquism came about this way: I had been reading in a number of books that ventriloquism was used by the Egyptians. I thought, well what did they do? And I couldn’t find an answer. I wrote to several people including WS Berger. He mentioned the ancient oracles and a couple of other things. But he didn’t really seem to know. Well, it was bugging me and I thought there has got to be an answer to this. When I met Edgar Bergen he had an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica where he mentioned the Athenian priests. I asked Bergen about it and he kind of skirted around it a bit. I kind of got the impression that he really didn’t write the entry himself. You know, people with notoriety will often have things written that they put their name’s to.
I got really curious about that. Then, one day I was asked to make a record on how to be a ventriloquist.
The producers said to me, “before you begin to teach us how to do ventriloquism on the LP, tell us a little about the history of ventriloquism.
You were still Jack O’Reilly at this point?
Yes. So, I said, the history of ventriloquism, hmmm. That is when the light bulb went off. I thought, wait a minute…so I went to the library and sought out a publication called the ‘Library Guide’ or something like that. It was published each year. And if you looked up the word ventriloquism you would get certain references of things that had been previously published. It usually came up with Winchell or Bergen, and that was it.
So, that began my quest. I started writing letters and then realized I would have to go back to England to do research because I wanted a balanced history of ventriloquism. I didn’t want to write it from just the American point of view. I determined that the two most influential cultures on the ventriloquial arts was Britain and America. So, I figured I would have to go back. I went back with the idea that I would be there for a month and I ended up staying for fifteen years.
When you first went back to Britain to start doing your research, did you find a treasure trove of information on ventriloquism?
Not immediately. First, I went to the Davenport Magic Shop in London.
I got kind of a cold shoulder from them when I told them I was researching a book on the history of ventriloquism. And then, I joined the British Museum library. I started pin pointing things. Then, I went to the London University. This is where the treasure trove happened.
Well, I was talking to a librarian there and this fellow tapped me on the shoulder. His name was Mr. Alan Wesencraft. He said, “I understand you're doing research on ventriloquism? You might be interested in a library we have here. It is quite secretive. We don’t like many people going into it. It’s called the ‘Harry Price Library.’
It’s a library devoted to psychic phenomena.” Harry Price was actually a ghost hunter. So, he took me into this place and I found a treasure trove of books and manuscripts. And there were a couple of books on ventriloquism. Mr. Wesencraft taught me the art of research. Which is almost a lost art now with the internet. But he taught me how to do research, how to cross reference, how to find the next step and the next step.
This is how it began.
So, how long did it take you to write ‘I can see your lips moving.’
About 12 years.
This was an education for you as well?
Oh, a complete education. I was writing to people all over the world. I’ll tell you what it was like. It was like having a jigsaw puzzle with all of the pieces, but you don’t have a picture to follow. It was a process of putting it all together until the picture began to reveal itself. There were no guidelines because there was no previous history of ventriloquism.
Usually when one starts off alone on a new and unique project there are a lot of naysayers. Did you find that to be true with your book?
Yes. I would meet other people doing research on other things you know, and they would always say to me, “Well, I don’t think you’ll ever get your book published.” All discouraging things. But I just went on believing.
How many different languages is the book now published in?
Three so far. German, Japanese and English. There is also a prototype going out in French.
Do you consider the book one of the seminal accomplishments in your life?
Oh yeah. When I finished the book, no publisher wanted to touch it. I was turned down by every publisher in the world. Then someone said, “You have to make a dummy” HUH ? Yes, that is the official term for a book prototype. It’s usually a blank page bound book with a few pages in the beginning that are illustrated to give the idea of the book.
So this is what I did- and this is what Steve Allen mentions on that HBO Dummies program I did.
But, in spite of this publishers were still not interested. So, I said I’ll do it myself.
Now let my explain: At that time no self-respecting publisher would touch or even entertain the idea of an 'author designed book’ This was an absolute NO-NO in the publishing world. Undeterred, I went ahead; I figure it must have taken me close to two years to lay it out. The typesetting was complicated. When I found a mistake, I had to cut out the new line, word, or sentence and paste it carefully over the top of the typesetting using tweezers and a light box to position the type. I would print the pictures by hand in my darkroom under the stairs in my house in London carefully cut them to size and paste them in place. Even the captions and the page numbesr were cut and pasted. It took me about two years.
Was anyone helping you at all?
Well, I met a man who became a friend and mentor…Peter Stockham. (Editors note: Peter Stockham 1928-2003 was a bookseller with a particular interest in children’s literature)
He really encouraged me throughout the process. He was so knowledgeable about the publishing world.
Anyway, I had prototypes made up and bound and rented a booth at the Frankfurter Book Fair. (The Frankfurter Book Fair is the world's largest trade fair for books. It is considered to be the most important book fair in the world for international deals and trading.)
Peter came to help me. I have a photo of Peter and I in the booth at Frankfurt which bring tears to my eyes now. (see above) While I was away from the booth, the director of Simon & Schuster came by and picked up a copy of the book and began to read the credits- he asked Peter how old I was?
Peter was confused. But the guy from Simon and Schuster said, "So I have an art department employing dozens of people and this guy does this whole book himself? Here’s my card. Tell him to come and see me.
Did you meet with Simon and Schuster then?
No, I never did meet with him. He left on a plane the same day.
However, Kaye & Ward in London saw the prototype and bought the world. The deal was done. Frankfurter and all those years following this dream came to a success.
So, you have a new edition of the book now?
Yes, I do, because there was a seismic change that happened to the art between the 20th and 21st century. Ventriloquists have become superstars. People like Jeff Dunham, Nina Conti in the UK, and Sascha Grammel in Germany, who is called the Jeff Dunham of Germany. The art of ventriloquism has moved from an opening act to star status. This is a big thing and I thought it should be included in the book. I revised the book, put in new pictures and addressed these stars. Showing where the art has come to today. I think that is very important.
Do you think we are in another renaissance of ventriloquism?
Hmmm. People keep saying this. I think it has actually been a steady art. The idea that it is a dying art...that term started around 1975. People started saying that because the Ed Sullivan show went off the air in 1972. If you don’t see someone doing ventriloquism, you conclude it is dying off. It has never been dying off. There are exactly the same amount of ventriloquists around as there were say in the 20’s. People say, “Oh no, there were many more then.” No there wasn’t. Let me give you an example: How many ventriloquists do you think appeared on the Ed Sullivan show?
I have no idea.
I think there were 32. I have named them all in the book.
You mean, there were actually 32 different ventriloquists on Sullivan?
Yes. 32 different ventriloquists.
Well, Mr. Vox, you have been a photographer, a historian, an organizer of conventions, museums, an author, television personality and a ventriloquist. You are kind of a Leonardo Da Vinci of the 21st century. What drives you?
Well, I have always been an artistic creative person. I’m actually on another project right now. I designed the first traveling exhibition on ventriloquism. We premiered it in Phoenix a couple of years ago. I’m just putting the finishing touches to it. Hopefully it will start touring the country in a year or so.
And so, this brings to a close another edition of vent-o-gram. Valentine Vox, at age 81 today is still as active as ever. We look forward to seeing his future contributions to our art.
Order the new edition of 'I can see your lips moving' at valentinevox.com or through Amazon.
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