‘Hey, who said that?’

In addition to looking after children’s teeth, Allan Blumenstyk is a professional ventriloquist, which can turn ‘going to the dentist’ into a whole new experience.

Jazz singer puppet 521 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Jazz singer puppet 521
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
At first glance, Allan Blumenstyk appears to be a perfectly normal guy. A successful 51-year-old pediatric dentist treating children and adolescents, Blumenstyk is married with two daughters aged 24 and 13, lives in a big comfortable house in Hod Hasharon, drives a big SUV, and of course has a dog.
On a recent visit to Dr. Blumenstyk’s home, however, we discovered a crowd of rather unusual characters living in his downstairs study.
The first to greet us was Haim, an elderly retired lawyer with a Yiddish accent straight from New York’s Lower East Side. A black jazz singer came next, dressed in formal evening clothes, who introduced himself as Jeremiah Jr.
A beautiful young woman named Suzy jumped down from her perch on top of a bookcase and began to wink at us fetchingly while saying how happy she was to see us. A guy whose name we didn’t catch remained seated on top of a bookcase and didn’t talk much, while a turtle named Shraga greeted us warmly before withdrawing back into his shell.
There was even a talking book, with blue eyes and a rather big mouth.
It turns out that Dr. Allan, as he is known to his youthful patients, has another life. In addition to being a dentist, Blumenstyk is also a professional ventriloquist, one of perhaps three professional ventriloquists – or “vents,” as they call themselves – in all of Israel. And the characters that inhabit his study are some of his “figures.”
“We never call them ‘dummies,’” Blumenstyk explains. “That’s not politically correct.”
More than a hobby or even a profession, ventriloquism has been a fixation for Blumenstyk since he was a child growing up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and watching the great ventriloquist Paul Winchell on TV.
“That was the first thing that caught my eye – seeing the figures he used and the characters he created from them.”
HIS MOMENT of full epiphany, however, came at Hanukka one year when he and his parents joined the great winter migration of Jews from the northeast US, heading southward en masse to vacation in the warm sun and fun of Florida.
“We were at Waldman’s Hotel in Miami Beach,” he recalls.
“One night, there was a ventriloquist performing there. It was the first time I ever saw a live acting vent. It was amazing.
“I had seen it on TV, but I had never really thought about the fact that a vent is acting for himself and acting for the figure, carrying on a conversation with a character that’s actually coming from him.
“I loved it. I fell in love with the art. And that night, I went back to the hotel room, put a little sock on my hand, looked in the mirror and started to have a conversation with my sock.
“And I realized, ‘Hey, I could learn how to do this.’ And then I started to practice and teach myself. I was nine years old.”
Blumenstyk was soon able to graduate from sock to figure. At that time, there was a firm on East 18th Street in New York called the Juro Novelty Company that manufactured plastic toy versions of famous ventriloquist figures like Edgar Bergen’s Charley McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, and Paul Winchell’s Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff.
Blumenstyk’s parents got their son Danny O’Day, a popular TV figure and alter ego of ventriloquist Jim Nelson. Like all Juro figures, Danny O’Day was operated by a string coming from the back of the neck and hidden inside the sport jacket, which caused the mouth to move. Blumenstyk was permanently, hopelessly hooked.
Later, when the time for his bar mitzva drew near, a friend of his mother asked what Allan wanted for a gift.
Blumentstyk’s answer was short and to the point: “I’d like a figure.”
Blumenstyk recalls, “I had no idea where to begin to become a professional vent. There was no Internet. But I was also into magic at the time, so I did know that a magic store in New York called Tannen’s also carried ventriloquist figures.
“So, my mother’s friend got me one, and I started to perform with it, doing birthday shows for little kids. I was, like 13, 14 years old.”
At around this time, the Blumenstyk family made aliya. The pleasures and pressures of growing up, adjusting to Israel, going through school and the army all combined to put Blumenstyk’s ventriloquism “on hold” for several years.
“After I finished dental school and started my pediatric training, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I have to find a way to do my ventriloquism in the office. This is something kids would love!’” He found a new figure and began using him – Blumenstyk distinctly says “him,” not “it” – in his practice. Occasional TV appearances followed. A writer whose kids Blumenstyk was treating began to write material for him for use in adult shows – private shows, corporate shows. A producer saw one and wanted to build a talk show around Blumenstyk and his figures, and even made a pilot on the dentist’s 40th birthday.
The idea ultimately went nowhere because Blumenstyk was not well known.
In 2003, he began seriously surveying the world of ventriloquism on the Internet and discovered the seemingly unremarkable town of Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. Ostensibly little more than a nondescript suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, Fort Mitchell is the home of the fabled Vent Haven Museum, an almost sacred pilgrimage destination for ventriloquists from all over the world.
Housing the largest collection of old ventriloquist figures and memorabilia on earth, the place is like a temple for true, dedicated ventriloquists.
In addition to figures and photographs, the museum features books, scripts, recordings, films and even woodcarvers’ tools. So what better place in the world could there be to hold an annual international gathering of ventriloquists? The Vent Haven ConVENTion – that’s the way it’s spelled – attracts hundreds of vents from around the world, including Blumenstyk.
“The first time I went there, in 2003, it was amazing. I was like a kid in a candy store,” he recalls.
Since then, he has gone every year, forging friendships with people ranging from a German ventriloquist who is also an orthopedic surgeon, to the legendary ventriloquist Jim Nelson, whose figure Danny O’Day provided the model for Blumenstyk’s first childhood toy dummy.
Through the ConVENTion, he is also friendly with most of the leading and best known contemporary vents, like Jeff Dunham, who has rocketed to fame on TV and the Internet with his perhaps all-too-contemporary figure, Ahmed the Dead Terrorist.
Throughout its 34 years – the 35th annual meeting will be held this coming July – the ConVENTion has drawn a diverse array of working and aspiring vents, everything from X-rated, no-holds-barred comedy club performers to a large contingent of – believe it or not – evangelical Christians, who use dummies and ventriloquism in their church ministries.
The conclave itself, Blumenstyk says, is “four days of seminars, workshops, trade shows; and every evening there’s a big show in which different vents perform.”
What is a vent “workshop”? “It could be anything and everything related to professional ventriloquism,” Blumenstyk explains. It could be about technique – which covers things like enunciation and finger manipulation – or it could be about the business side of ventriloquism. A lot of different issues – preparing yourself for kids’ shows, preparing yourself for adult shows, figure making, figure fixing.”
BLUMENSTYK IS a self-taught expert in technique. He says, “First of all, there’s a myth that skill in ventriloquism is something inborn, or due to some kind of physical or emotional defect. I always compare ventriloquism to singing.
“Anybody can sing. You may not sound great, but anybody can sing. But to sing well, you need to study and practice. Ventriloquism is simply learning how to speak without moving your lips.
“You always start out by practicing in front of a mirror. You begin by practicing all the easy, non-plosive letters and words. Then you realize that it’s not all that difficult to say ‘car’ without moving your lips. Then you get to the plosives – “b,” and “p” – and letters like “v,” “f” and “m.” What you start out doing with these is learning how to substitute. You substitute “d” for “b,” “n” for “m.”
“A common practice phrase is ‘a bottle of beer.’ You think ‘b,’ but you’re saying ‘d.’ When you’re starting out, it sounds like ‘a dottle of deer,’ but you learn to soften the ‘d’ and make it sound more natural, more like a ‘b.’ And when it’s in context, nobody hears the ‘d.’ They’re hearing ‘b,’ unless you’re really new at it and you’re doing it too sharply.”
Do audiences want to participate in the illusion, or are they looking for a ventriloquist’s points of weakness? “I would say that in the States, everyone wants to buy into it. That’s what they’re there for, to be entertained by a vent,” Blumenstyk says.
“In Israel it’s a problem, especially with the kids. It’s as though they want to catch you because they feel that you’re trying to put one over on them. Instead of just enjoying the art, they yell things like, ‘I know how you’re doing that! You’ve got a tape recorder back there somewhere!’ “It’s a tough crowd. I learned this early on when I first came to Israel and was also doing magic shows.
The kids didn’t want to just sit back and enjoy the show, they wanted to know how you did it.
“But, fortunately, most Israeli adults want to buy into the illusion of ventriloquism, and after the first few seconds they almost seem to forget that the figure isn’t real. You get audiences where people are talking to the figures.”
Ventriloquism ultimately springs from the illusion that the vent’s voice is coming from the figure and not from the vent. Asked whether this is something achieved by the ventriloquist or induced as auto-suggestion by the audience, Blumenstyk replies, “Both. When I speak, it’s natural that you’re looking at me moving my lips as I speak. When someone speaks up in a crowded room, it’s only natural to look for the person whose lips are moving. The fact that I’m moving my lips means to you that I am the person who’s talking, saying the words you’re now hearing. If I were to have someone else moving his lips, you’d be looking at him, not at me.
“So on the one hand, it’s an audio illusion, because we’re used to hearing things from people whose mouths are moving. On the other hand, when I’m talking to a figure and make him answer, I’m looking at him while he answers, and then everyone else is too.
“If I have a voice that I want to have coming from backstage, I’m looking behind me, and everyone else is looking where I’m looking. That’s the whole idea of throwing your voice.”
TRADITIONAL ventriloquist dummies, called hard figures, have heads carved from wood, with faces still largely modeled after those made by the legendary McElroy brothers, Glen and George, back in the 1930s.
Hard figures, both past and present, are operated through a cavity in the back, into which the vent puts his hand to move levers that open and close the figure’s mouth and eyelids, as well as other levers that move eyes, raise and lower eyebrows, and perhaps even wiggle the figure’s nose and ears.
These dummies, according to Blumenstyk, can cost anywhere from $2,000 upward for “a nice figure from a real figure maker.”
The majority of new vents working today prefer softfigure dummies, with heads and faces made variously of cloth or latex. These are operated almost like hand puppets, with the vent’s arm going into the figure, his or her hand directly inside the head.
These figures permit a far greater range of facial expressions than hard figures, allow for more body animation, and are much lighter weight and easier to carry. They are also cheaper. Soft-figure dummies start at around $400.
“Soft-figure characters provide a degree of animation that makes it easier to sell the illusion of ventriloquism to an audience,” says Blumenstyk, “but most professional vents use both. Jeff Dunham, for example, who performs in thousands-of-seat venues for huge audiences, uses both hard and soft figures.”
So does Blumenstyk, as we see when he introduces us to several of his favorite figures.
Jeremiah Jr. and Haim, for example, are soft figures, one made of cloth and the other of latex. Suzy is a hard figure, with brass levers on the head rod that open and close her lips and eyelids.
When not in use, the figures are carefully placed in chairs – to sit comfortably, like people – or hung carefully on a wall. Like virtually all vents, Blumenstyk would never carelessly toss a figure on the floor, or even onto a sofa.
“It’s about respect,” he says simply. “It’s funny, but when my German friend came to visit, he saw that I had my hard figure, Suzy, wrapped up in plastic. He said to me, ‘Do you realize that you’re suffocating her?’ He was completely serious.”
Blumenstyk loves to perform. “I do private shows, corporate shows, lately I’ve been doing jazz clubs. I have a jazz show called The Audition.
“I like jazz and a few years ago I was sitting in a club and all of a sudden it hit me, ‘Hey wait a minute, what if I had figures singing jazz?’ “I spoke to the owner of a jazz club in Jaffa and told him I wanted to try something. So, I went there with Suzy and did a Sarah Vaughan-style rendition of the song ‘Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets.’ It was very well received.”
HE WAS later booked to do a show, only to have the booking canceled when the star singer of the evening heard that a guy was coming to the jazz club to perform with “puppets” and said, “Over my dead body!” However, in one of those strange twists of fate that change people’s lives, the angry singer promptly telephoned a friend to tell her about the incident. The friend, Daphne Levy, also a jazz singer, listened to her friend’s indignant recital of the story and decided that performing with a ventriloquist sounded intriguing and fun.
So Levy and Blumenstyk met, rehearsed, performed together a couple of times, and then decided to put together a whole show featuring Levy, a small jazz combo, and a bunch of dummies.
When not entertaining publicly, Blumenstyk continues to perform for his young patients. “I’ve been incorporating ventriloquism into my practice since I became a pediatric dentist. I use it to teach oral hygiene to kids – that’s a whole act I’ve been doing for years – and sometimes as just an icebreaker. When a child comes into my office, she doesn’t see just a lot of cold, white walls. She sees a lot of colorful figures on the walls. The kids love it. It calms them down, especially on their first visit.”
Blumenstyk was featured a year ago in a documentary about vents and ventriloquism, called I’m No Dummy, and is presently gearing up for future performances of his jazz show, The Audition, with Daphne Levy.
“The friends I see at the ConVENTion every year tell me I should be a lot busier,” Blumenstyk says. “But I don’t have to be. I’m not a starving artist. When you make your living doing just this, then you have to run around, knocking on doors, putting yourself forward and getting known.”
Blumenstyk laughs, switches to the voice of his character Haim and says, “Tenks God for pediatric dentistry!”
The next performance of The Audition is scheduled for today at 12:30 p.m. at the Arim Mall in Kfar Saba. For further information, visit http://drallan.co.il.