I have bought my share of ventriloquist dummies (or puppets. or whatever it is you want to call them that helps you sleep at night) over my years as a ventriloquist. When I was younger I was really satisfied with just the plastic Juro and Horseman figures that I purchase at my local Hill Department Store or received as a Christmas present. BTW, you can still purchase many of these figures today, check out ThrowThings.com or just go to our Dummies page. My first show was at the age of 12 and I used a Charlie McCarthy by Juro and removed the top hat and monocle. My routine was not original. I used some Bill Boley scripts and a few Flip Wilson routines. But we're not here to talk about me, we're here to talk about how to buy a professional ventriloquist dummy.
I didn't purchase my first professional ventriloquist figure. My father did. At the time I was interested in magic as well and ordered a lot of magic from Abbott's Magic Company in Colon, Michigan. My father called me one day to go see him at work and, when I got there, he had a semi-professional ventriloquist figure sitting there waiting for me. It was purchased from Abbott's. He said he figured if I was going to be getting paid for doing shows then I should have a professional dummy.
Which brings me to point number one in purchasing a professional dummy.
1. If You're In A Hurry, Purchase A Figure That Has Already Been Made
What that means is, if you are just starting out and want a figure that's better than just the plastic figures that you buy at a department store or, now a days online for $60-$100. I suggest going to one of the many figure makers listed above and find out what they have available. Something already made. Something you won't have to wait for. If it doesn't matter whether it's a hard or soft puppet Axtell Expressions is a great place to start out. Steve has a variety of latex puppets at a very reasonable price.
Another place you can find a figure is on eBay. Many people are selling off their old puppets and you can often find some deals on here. I personally have sold half a dozen figures on eBay from basic cloth puppets to novelty puppets (masks and such) and wooden figures. Here's a nice figure that I found when I typed in ventriloquist in eBay just a minute ago.
A third place that is a great place to research figures in on Ventriloquist Central's Ventriloquist Marketplace. Mind you many of these figures may be out of your price range but you might find one that fits in your price range as well. And, if you hit it right, it might just be a unique figure!
The last place to find a ventriloquist figure already made is at the annual VentHaven Ventriloquist ConVENTion. There are many dealers there with plenty of puppets to choose from including wooden, latex, cloth and everything in between. If nothing else, do what you can to make it to the convention to hone your skills and rub shoulders with many of the professionals in our industry.
2. Order From A Professional
Now back in the day, before the dark times, before the empire ...... wait!....... WHAT?! Sorry, had a Star Wars moment. Back before the internet you used to have to do a lot of research to find a professional figure maker. If you were a member of the NAAV or SAV or subscribed to Dialogue Magazine you could find some figure makers there. Now a days you just Google ventriloquist figure maker and you get a big list. But how do you know the kind of work they do and if they're trustworthy? Good question. The best thing you can do is go by past experience and talk to some of the figure makers previous clients. With Facebook you can now just post in one of the ventriloquist groups and you will get many responses. You can also ask the figure maker for some references (although guess who they'll give you, only people who have had a good experience with them.) You can also look to the right of this website and scroll down where you will see the top rated figure makers. Check with some of your ventriloquist friends and see who they would suggest. Or go to the conVENTion and meet them in person. Bottom line is if you are going to have a figured made from scratch you want a professional. My first custom made professional figure was made by The Dummy Doctor - Alan Semok. He was a great consultant and I still use Ziff to this day!
3. Start With A Deposit
When you are purchasing a custom made ventriloquist figure some figure makers want a deposit, some want half and some want the whole payment before finishing your figure. My suggestion is to start with a deposit, at most half down. You are going to invest a big chunk of change for your puppet and you don't want to pay for the whole thing up front. First, there is no incentive once the figure maker gets his/her money to finish the figure in a timely manner. Not to say that some of them wouldn't still finish in a timely manner because they have morals. That being said, I've had enough experience in purchasing custom figures and have not had positive results once the figure maker received full payment before the product was at least 90% finished. When I purchase Ziff from Alan he didn't ask for full payment until he was ready to ship him out. Mary Ann Taylor gets full payment when she is about ready to ship her puppets out. I have had two experiences where I have given the figure makers the full payment before the product was almost ready to ship and neither one of them ended positively. I had to listen to excuse after excuse and with the first indecent the figure maker told me he would make it up to me by sending me another cheaper figure along with the one I ordered at no charge (guess what, I never got it) and the second incident has still not been resolved. It just so happens that both of these figure makers don't have good ratings on our website, imagine that! Bottom line, do not give full payment until you are comfortable that the puppet is ready to ship fairly soon.
4. Be Specific And Ask For Suggestions
Now a days you can email, chat, text, Skype or just make a phone call. Key is to consult with the figure maker. If at all possible send a drawing of the figure you want. This helps the figure maker know what you want your figure to look like. One of the key things that happened to me when I was ordering Ziff from Alan was I talked to him on the phone and told him exactly what I wanted. I wanted a figure that was Italian with an afro and I wanted it to have these features; moving eyes, blinking and winking eyes, realistic leather lip, upper lip sneer and raising eyebrows. Alan was a great consultant. A few of his suggestions were not to clutter the stick. Just have a few movements. I asked him which he would suggest and he said moving eyes and eyebrows. I took his advice on that and am happy I did. A couple other suggestions that I didn't take were not to make his skin dark because people might think that he was African American with the afro and not to do the leather lip because it doesn't play as well on stage. Looking back, I should have at least taken his advice on the leather lip. You want to make sure that the figure maker is really concerned about getting you the best possible product you can get. When it's custom made you want it to be the best it can be and when the figure maker gets all the information it's very easy for them to make sure you're satisfied.
Once I sent a picture to have a figure made and once it was finished and shipped to me it didn't have the hair I wanted. It was really my fault. I wasn't specific enough. It was a simple fix and I never even let the figure maker know about it. I just went to my local costume shop and bought a wig. Problem solved! Point is, if I was more specific this wouldn't have happened. On another occasion, I ordered a wooden figure and never asked for Mortimer Snerd teeth but when the figure arrived it had them. This was not an error on my part. I never asked for this but I got it anyway. It was easy enough for me to pull the teeth right out but it was frustrating none the less.
5. Ask That It Be Shipped With A Tracking Number When You Order
Self explanatory but worth mentioning. If you are having your figure shipped to you make sure it is shipped with a tracking number. Now most figure makers will do this automatically but the reason why I said to ask for it when you order is because then you know for sure that you told them so they don't come back with,"It got lost in the mail." Sound silly? I've had it happen!
This is a fantastic art and hobby. There are a lot of great people in the industry. Most every ventriloquist whether novice or professional is willing to help you advance your hobby or career. We here at Cybervent want to make sure that you have the best experience possible when ordering a dummy and we have sat down with many and have heard the horror stories as well as the kudos. Below is a list of some of our favorites. We know that when you order from them you will be treated professionally and will get a quality figure in a adequate amount of time.
- Alan Semok - The Dummy Doctor - Alan has been making and repairing puppets as long as I can remember and is a great friend.
- Axtell Expressions - Steve got his inspiration through Jim Henson and it was his goal to come up with a unique type of puppet. His latex figures hit a home run and almost every ventriloquist we know owns at least one of Steve's creations.
- Conrad Hartz - I remember first seeing Conrad at the 1980 VentHaven Ventriloquist ConVENTion and loved his work then. He still makes quality figures today.
- Creative Ministry Solutions - Dale and Liz VonSeggen, former owners of One Way Street, opened Creative Ministry Solutions in 2011 and are still supplying many ministry items as well as some of the best quality puppets available. If you are looking for a great convention that has an emphasis on ministry check out I-Fest!
- Mary Ann Taylor - Her soft puppets are the best in the industry. Now that may just be my opinion but mine is the only one that counts on Cybervent! Seriously though, Mary Ann is professional and her puppets are awesome! She is a true professional and her figures are worth every cent and then some.