The performance art known as “ventriloquism” is just something I have never been able to grasp. I’ve read a few books about ‘throwing the voice’ but it is something that I could never seem to master on any level. I am impressed by those who can capture the audience via a puppet and an attitude. The film Dumbstruck is about five different individuals who are at different parts of their career, trying to make it up another rung of the performance ladder.
The most famous of our five is Terry Fator, the winner of the American’s Got Talent competition. He was just another struggling entertainer stuck on a lower rung who got a big break that made him a one million dollar winner and a contract in Las Vegas. That contract led to a one hundred million dollar offer from another casino. His stratospheric rise is just one part of Dumbstruck.
The film starts at the Vent Haven Convention in Ft Mitchell, Kentucky, the ventriloquism capital of the world. There are different performers, both professional and amateur, who are trying to get to the next level. Director Mark Goffman then focuses his camera on five different entertainers.
Kim Yeager is a former beauty queen who used ventriloquism as her talent. She is now in her early thirties doing hundreds of shows a year, most of them are in elementary schools. Her dream is to break into the next level – cruise ship entertainment. Dan Horn is at that level. He has been performing for decades, doing ships and Vegas. He admits that the hardest part of being a performer is being away from his wife and family, a struggle to be both a family man and an entertainer. In one scene, Terry Fator and Dan Horn meet with Terry telling Dan that he saw Dan’s show many years ago and was in awe of the performance. Even with years of exertion, Dan has still not broken into the big room in Sin City.
We also get Dylan Burdette, a shy teenager who uses his puppet to express things that he cannot. His African American dummy hits on the girls off-stage, something that the young man could not do. Dylan’s father does not understand his son, but still tries to support him. Finally there is Wilma Swartz, a gigantic female who uses her skills to entertain churches. While not technically proficient in the art, she has a beloved attitude from the community of performers. The estranged family will not help her so she has to turn to the ventriloquism community to help her out of financial jam. Her story is tinged with sadness.
Everyone in this world has ‘their deal’, that little quirk that sets them apart. Whether it is being a football fanatic, going to haunted houses, attending quilting shows or working on an act with a dummy – it seems that everyone has this non-familial group they are attracted to. Director Mark Goffman never judges his subject, he just shows them in an honest light, warts and all. The performers are all a community with different levels of skills but who all support one another. They are a makeshift family.
The reason most will attend this film is for Terry Fator who is in a good quarter of the production. It shows all the back stage work to get the act ready for a headlining slot. Terry now has a comedy writer, working out bigger laughs. There are scenes of working on the sets and working on the act. The audience is even treated to Fator’s hometown return with a series of sold-out shows in Corsicana, Texas, where he once did birthday parties.
Dumbstruck was a part of many festivals and has won some competitions. It is a very impressive documentary which should be remembered come end of the year award season. This is one not to be missed.