The numbers seem to be speaking louder than the puppets when it comes to ventriloquism popularity these days. With 13 seasons under its belt, has handed out the million dollar prize to three ventriloquists, Terry Fator (Season 2 in 2007), Paul Zerdin (Season 10 in 2015), and Darci Lynne Farmer (Season 12 in 2017). When it comes to winners, the ventriloquism performance category has been outnumbered only by singing. Six vocalists have snagged the top honor, although one could argue that that number should be eight given Fator and Farmer used their singing talent to help seal their ventriloquism wins.
But ventriloquism and puppet fever have gone beyond prime time television with the continued popularity and success of Hollywood’s current vent celebrities ("vent" is the term used in professional ventriloquism circles)Jeff Dunham and alums Fator and Farmer.
Fator and Dunham landed spots on Forbes list of The World's Highest-Paid Comedians Of 2018— Fator at #7 and Dunham at #9 with estimated earnings of $18 million and $16.5 million respectively, blowing away the uncool ventriloquist stigma that pops up every now and then in the industry.
All three performers are notorious for pulling in fans and selling tickets. Fator has had his own show at The Mirage, Las Vegas for 10 years, typically doing between 170 and 190 performances there per year and 30-40 on the road.
Farmer, who joined the club a bit later in the game, and as a middle schooler also juggled academic responsibilities, generated more than 100,000 in ticket sales on her 50-stop 2018 tour that grossed $5.2 million. And 2019 is moving towards bigger and better numbers, especially with a busy 2019 summer schedule (14-year-old Farmer's schedule is decreased during the school year), sell-out shows, and crowds that can range from 3,000 to 5,000 per show depending upon the venue. Pretty impressive for any ventriloquist, let alone an upcoming 9th-grader.
In 2017, during her run, but before her win, I asked Farmer, who loves performing, if it all seemed like a whirlwind. Her response? "It's kind of been like— mostly like a tornado like a really good one though."
That tornado has turned into the perfect storm for ventriloquism, with practicing ventriloquists noting spikes in business and teaching ventriloquists seeing surges in student interest. Broadcast media professional and ventriloquist Gary Owen has witnessed it. As Darci's ventriloquism coach, Owen has seen increases in student interest as the young star's popularity has continued to soar.
"Darci's appeal is a multitude of things— her innocence, her natural abilities and her charm. All of those things attract all ages…It's her talent and their amazement at what she can do," explains Owen, noting that Farmer received more social media views than any other contestant in the show's 12-year history. Farmer currently has 704 thousand Instagram followers and 92.4 thousand Twitter followers.
"She is certainly one of the most successful artists to ever be birthed out of ,” says Farmer's manager Judi Marmel, partner and co-founder of entertainment company Levity Live. Marmel believes that it is Farmer's comedy and cross-generational appeal that has made fans emotionally connect with the performer. "She came on the scene and people said,'That is something I can be joyful about and enjoy'…that's what's happened with her since the moment she came on the scene. People wanted to know her and were rooting for her.”
Are fans more apt to embrace a younger puppet professional? Perhaps, but full-time ventriloquist Lynn Trefzger is proof that you can maintain a fanbase and a career as you grow up.
Performing since the age of 10, the mother of five has been a highly sought after performer with a long résumé that includes comedy specials, comedy clubs, corporate gigs, theaters, and cruise ships. She has performed with Disney Cruise Line for 15 years.
"I have never had a real job other than babysitting and a paper route when I was younger. This is all I've done," laughs the alum. "It's basically a hobby that's gotten out of hand. My parents thought I'd grow out of it."
Farmer's love of performing has now essentially become a family business. Parents Clarke and Misty Farmer, always present as family members and business forces behind the scene, try to maintain balance for the teen in a complicated environment that can be difficult for even the savviest of adults.
"We work in tandem as a true partnership with complete equal amounts of responsibility and authority,” said Clarke about their parental business roles. Their strengths and preferences differ with Clarke gravitating toward the business side and Misty towards the musical and creative side of the operation. But both would agree that their primary goal in this venture is to insure the happiness and safety of their daughter and her three brothers.
In the short time they have been in the world of puppets, the Farmers have noticed trends.
"It's been almost two years since Darci won and we've seen children and adults saying they want to be a ventriloquist because of Darci," notes Misty.
Darci's merchandise includes little Petunia and Oscar puppets based upon her professional ones. Every show sells out of the puppets, typically stocked by the hundreds.
"I do see more children coming through and that's incredible…You'll see both because the adults love ventriloquism as much as the children love ventriloquism. And I think it's inspiring for kids to be able to see somebody like Darci and realize, 'Hey, I can do this and I can have success with it and I can have fun with it. And it really is something that will help me learn and grow as an individual.'”
While ventriloquism bashing is nothing new, Crowl notes that great ventriloquism can change all of that.
"I think that when the public sees a good ventriloquist, they see that puppet come to life….it's a whole different ball game because when you bring that puppet alive, people are so thrilled to suspend their belief and just start being absorbed by the illusion.”
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