Did you know when Mike was little, he had a ventriloquist figure named Willie? It’s true. Lucky for us he was a better picker than a puppeteer!
Now we know that ventriloquist dolls can be a little spooky. OK a lot spooky. Maybe it’s the shifty eyes that follow you, how they wiggle their ears or worm-like eyebrows that freak you out. But you should know that underneath all that shifting and wiggling there’s a sophisticated network of strings and levers calling the shots and dating back to the 18th century.
There are only a few people in the world who still know how to restore and repair these dolls with historical accuracy. Tyler Ellis is one of them.
For the last 10 years, Tyler has been hand-making ventriloquy
“I grew up watching Edgar Bergen movies that my mother would rent from the library,” explains Tyler. “I was captivated by him and his character, Charlie McCarthy. Edgar had an incredible skill, bringing such a presence and personality to a figure. Edgar made you almost forget that Charlie was just made of wood and paint. Charlie was a feisty fella, and audiences fell in love with him. In fact, Edgar used to say that when he would get invited to parties that the invitations would always insist on Charlie’s presence as well!”
While kids were participating in intramural sports or attending sleepaway camp, young Tyler spent his summers working at his father’s business so he could afford his ventriloquy figure. At work, he’d practice on the customers, talking without moving his mouth or facial muscles.
Fun Fact: ventriloquism (Latin for “speaking from the stomach”) was originally used as a religious practice for communicating with the dead.
By the early 2000s, Tyler was ready to try building his own figure and he apprenticed with Greg Claassen, one of the world’s greatest dummy mechanics. Greg is best known in the ventriloquy community as one of the few craftsmen in the world who can replicate the mechanics of the historic McElroy figure.
Created by brothers Glenn and George McElroy in the 1930s, these iconic dolls are considered the rarest and most valuable ventriloquist figures ever made. They had 13 different animations including winking, moving their tongues, wiggling noses, and raising their wigs. Some could even smoke!
“When Greg invited me to come out to his house and see some of his work, I couldn’t allow the moment to escape,” explains Tyler. “I had just begun creating my first figure and I really hoped to get some free advice, so I brought the clay head of the figure with me. We got along incredibly well and and he eventually became my good friend and mentor. Over the course of two years, Greg guided me through each step of the building process, and eventually helped me complete my first figure, Earl, a drunk hillbilly.”
Since then, Tyler has gone to create more characters, most recently Walter, a wisecracking old man. Back then figure makers would use any type of materials they could get their hands on. Nowadays it’s brass and string.
“Building a figure is powerful experience because you’re the creator,” shares Tyler. “You decide every detail of the figure’s hands, shape the eyeballs and head, give himfreckles… It’s all thought out and intentional for giving that character its personality.”
Most old figures are wood, but when Tyler builds his, he sculpts them in clay and then casts them in fiberglass, which requires a different technique from wood. Building with wood, you have to be gentle so the wood doesn’t crack or the mouth doesn’t stick in the humidity. Depending on the figure, Tyler will either hand-paint ping-pong balls, wooden balls or glass for the eyes.
Right now, he’s is working on 13 figures: nine repairs and four original pieces. The most common repair? Paint.
“I work on these figures out of my home,” explains Tyler. “I have a 3-year-old who loves to sit in front of the figures while I paint them in the kitchen sunlight and waits to talk to them. The eyes are my favorite part to paint. It’s challenging, and takes the longest, but it’s the most important part of establishing the character’s personality.”
While Tyler enjoys building one-of-a-kind figures, he gets the most joy out of restoring vintage figures to the original style of whoever built them.
“When I get a service request on a figure, I research its creator,” he explains. “I’ve seen too many incredible McElroys in person to know that when something is a classic, not to do it a disservice by thinking you can improve it. It would be like putting a bumper sticker on a Bentley. What good does that do for such a cool car? Same goes for ventriloquist figures.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by the history and entertainment of ventriloquy,” says Tyler. “As a figure builder, I can appreciate on all levels the art, the talent, and the magic it brings to the masses. It’s not just the originals like Edgar that impress me, it’s performers like Jeff Dunham and Darci Lynne Farmer, the most recent winner of America’s Got Talent. They’re leading with humor and allowing the audience to connect with the characters.”
Now that you know a bit more about the craftsmanship and history behind these lovable characters, maybe you can appreciate them with new eyes. See? Not so scary!
Have a request or repair? Here’s how to send an inquiry to Tyler.