My mom, the ventriloquist
by Lindsay Goffman
Growing up in Indiana, I never had any contact with ventriloquists. Not that there aren’t ventriloquists in Indiana, but I never met them. What can I say? I was sheltered.
I had my first encounter when I came home from winter break during my sophomore year of college. I dropped my bags at the door and my younger sister Risa said, ”Wait till you see what Mom has in her closet.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Just go in there,” Risa urged, “And you’ll see for yourself.”
I was expecting to find new dresses, a new organizing system or a new bedroom for Kiyoko, the toy poodle that she loved so much. But what I discovered were suitcases. Many of them. And inside were dummies. Or as I later learned the “vent” world calls them, puppets.
The first puppet I pulled out was Firedog, a Dalmatian who wore aviator sunglasses and a fireman’s uniform. The second was Shy Pig, a petite and soft pink porker with fine features. And finally I held up an old man with a squishy orange face and friendly eyes. My mom had named him Wheezer. In time, Wheezer would get a red-haired wig, saggy breasts and a t-shirt proclaiming “Sugar Momma.” He would also get a new identity: Flo, a Jewish woman in her forties from Boca Raton. But that’s another story for another time.
My mom, Marlene Cohen, is a second grade teacher. She told me she initially bought the puppets through a puppet maker named Steve Axtell in order to keep her students engaged. She discovered that puppets could say things to students, and later her family, that she would never feel comfortable saying.
You should know that my mom is a pretty shy lady. But when she took out her puppets, all bets were off. Most of her jokes were at the expense of her husband, my dad. She’d use them to talk to my dad’s extended family on awkward holidays. She even played a ventriloquist nun in a local play. I tried to respect my mom and not see this new hobby as weird. I was an adult, and I learned to accept the puppets as normal members of our family. In fact, I enjoyed bringing my boyfriends home to see what their reaction would be. It was kind of a litmus test.
The first time I brought my husband Mark home to meet my mom, the three of us sat on the porch, and conversation started awkwardly. Mark, who is accommodating and curious, said, “Marlene, I’d love to meet Firedog. Can you please bring him out?”
At first she refused, but we all know performers love to be coaxed out of their shell. So, out came Firedog and my mom assumed this scratchy and rough voice. And it was raunchy, too. Soon enough, Firedog was flirting with Mark and asking him about his sexual habits. I was shocked and a little bit mortified. But because the puppets were saying these things and not my mom, we had to laugh. And my mom certainly never would have talked like this without Firedog on her hand.
My mother’s performance made quite an impression on Mark. And there was an encore. At our wedding, she put a sparkly glove on her hand and used it to give our toast. It was a little weird, sure, but also charming. And it gave Mark and me the idea that maybe we should make a film about ventriloquists. We wanted to understand the world that changed my mom, and also to make a movie that we could all relate to . . . a movie about people with dreams of a career in entertainment, like the ones we had growing up.
In 2007, we followed my mom to the annual ventriloquist convention in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. After lots of searching, we settled on telling the story of five performers and their remarkable personal journeys. Like my mother, they found their own voices through puppets. One of them, after nearly 22 years of struggle, even wound up winning America’s Got Talent and signed one of the largest deals in Las Vegas history while we were tracking him.
The toughest part, however, came at the end of the process. We had too much amazing footage (300 hours in total!), so we were forced to cut my mother, and Firedog, Shy Pig and Flo, from our documentary. In our second visit to the convention, she had overcome her shyness and performed in front of 500 ventriloquists at open mic night. She brought the house down. I was so proud! But as incredible as this moment was, it didn’t work in our movie.
I had to call her with the bummer news: Marlene Cohen would not be in our movie Dumbstruck. It was a tough moment for me, and when she answered, I half expected her to talk in her Firedog voice. But she didn’t. This was all Marlene.
“I’m still so proud of you Lindsay,” she said. “But I better be on those DVD extras.”Tags: Annual Ventriloquist Convention, Documentary, Dumbstruck, Dummies, Film and TV business, Film and TV executive, Follow your dreams, Hollywood, Indiana, Lindsay Goffman, Marlene Cohen, Mom, Mother's Day, Puppets, Ventriloquist