Directed by Mark Goffman
In 1986, at the age of 11, I received a dummy for Christmas. The dummy, Lester, was made famous by ventriloquist Willie Tyler. The dummy I received was not a professional model; all he had was a string in the back to move his mouth. But it was good enough for the eleven-year old kid on Christmas morning.
It was without hesitation that I added Dumbstruck to my instant queue on Netflix when it became available a few months ago, but it was not until last night that I finally hit the play button to watch it. This documentary grabbed my attention less than thirty seconds in because of the location: Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, which is less than fifteen miles from my home. Little did I know that an annual ventriloquist convention was held locally, or that there was a ventriloquism museum in the area. Given the geographic setting of the story, I couldn’t possibly turn it off.
Following five ventriloquists (or “vents”) at differing levels of experience and ability, Dumbstruck tells a story that is at times heartwarming, and at others gut wrenching. There is the young teenager Dylan, still developing his craft and showing improvement throughout the film. At the other end of the spectrum is Terry Fator, who won the million dollar prize on the second season of “America’s Got Talent” and went on to sign a 5-year, $100 million contract with the Mirage in Las Vegas.
You read that right. Five years, $100 million. To play with puppets.
Of course, not everyone is as fortunate as Fator. There is Wilma Swartz, whose own family (with the exception of her nephew) refuses to accept her because of her interest in ventriloquism. And Kim Yeager, a former Miss Ohio pageant winner, whose goal is to get booked on cruise ships. And Dan Horn, who is a cruise ship performer, but at a great cost.
As with all hopes and dreams, goals and aspirations, the journey to become a successful ventriloquist has many ups and downs. Dumbstruck does a great job of capturing some of those highs and lows, which include financial burdens along the journey and emotional ecstasy when success is found, through the lives of five unique individuals bound together by their love of dummies.
And in case you are wondering, yes, Lester is still a member of my household, much to the chagrin of my wife.