By Ken Stone
Darci Lynne Farmer didn’t merely win a $1 million annuity and a Las Vegas show. When the 12-year-old Oklahoman won “America’s Got Talent,” she won the eternal gratitude of working ventriloquists.
They’re no dummies.
“Anytime a ventriloquist looks good, it helps the profession,” said Joe Gandelman of San Diego. “Given her age, it means many young people will want to learn, and the demand to see ventriloquists is likely to grow.”Said Brenda Stelzer of Naples, Florida: “I see Darci as a 21st century Shari Lewis. It’s awesome to imagine how many children will ask Santa for a puppet this year.”
They were two of the veteran “vents” who critiqued (and complimented) Darci days after after her smash debut on NBC’s “AGT” in May. On Wednesday, she became the third ventriloquist in 12 seasons to take the top prize — after Terry Fator in 2007 and Paul Zerdin in 2015.
Times of San Diego contacted the seven ventriloquism vets who took part in June’s virtual round-table discussion of Darci, and five responded.
Besides Gandelman, a former Union-Tribune journalist who has 27 years’ experience in the speaking-without-lips-moving biz, and Stelzer, a “vent” for two decades, the others are David Crone of Ohio, a one-time AOL executive who’s been on stage for 30 years; Chuck Field of Chicago and Scottsdale, Arizona, a comedy ventriloquist for a half-century; and Los Angeles-based Justin Milan, a professional vent for 23 years.
These interviews were conducted via email.
TIMESOFSANDIEGO.COM: What does Darci’s win mean to you and your profession?
CRONE: Darci’s performance on “AGT” is another shot in the arm to ventriloquism in general, and has already caused a huge surge in interest among kids. She has raised audience expectations as to what a ventriloquist act should look like. That is all good for the profession.
FIELD: Darci’s win is big for all in ventriloquism. I learned how to do this as Darci did at age 10. I am now 60. For the better part of 50 years, the most recognized stars in the art are the same ones that were famous when I was a kid, like Edgar Bergen and Paul Winchell.
Only in the last decade did names like Terry Fator and Jeff Dunham become known to the world. But the future of ventriloquism, children, now have an idol and a role model to follow. She has raised the bar and made this something other children would like to learn.
People have already been booked me for family shows that were captured by America’s Sweetheart and true professional. She has made ventriloquism something the whole family can relate to, not just an art the most people only see on cruise ships or in comedy clubs.
GANDELMAN: It’s extremely important. There has long been this myth that ventriloquism is a vanishing art. Tell that to the people who attend the Ventriloquist ConVENTion each year or those who hire “vents.”
Anytime anyone literally or figuratively makes ventriloquism “sing” in a high visibility platform, it bolsters the art — and increases interest in ventriloquism. I do expect a spike in calls. I do all kinds of shows (“big” and “small”) in many kinds of venues and have over the course of the few weeks heard people increasingly talk about Darci. Young, not so young and quite old.
Many comedians have long stereotyped “vents” as people who move their lips, don’t have timing, etc., are lame, etc. Or you’ve seen the creepy ventriloquists or creepy ventriloquists dummy movies and shows.
It’s easy to get a laugh in a comedy act or commercial to make ventriloquists or ventriloquist dummies (which we call “figures”) seem “camp” or old-fashioned. In reality, there are many fine ventriloquists on many different levels.
The fact she’s 12 also means it definitely buries (as Ron Lucas, Jeff Dunham, Terry Fator and others have helped bury) the idea that ventriloquism or ventriloquists are just so uncool and so, oh, early to mid-20th century.
MILAN: It strengthen’s the demand for our services. Very helpful! Meeting and event planners have more confidence that a ventriloquist is a viable option that will make their audience very happy.
STELZER: She has brought worldwide attention to the art of ventriloquism in a very positive way. I believe she is an inspiration to all. I see Darci as a 21st century Shari Lewis. It’s awesome to imagine how many children will ask Santa for a puppet this year.
Have you been following her progress on “AGT”? If so, has she gotten better or just showed new elements of existing talent?
CRONE: I followed her progress through the full season. She started amazingly strong with the performance that earned the golden buzzer. After each performance, you couldn’t help but think, “How is she going to top that?” And then she did at each step. Each new character brought another area of growth with fresh new elements in her skills.
FIELD: I followed her since her appearance on “Little Big Shots” and through AGT. She has had some great coaching from the best people in the art. My fear for her would have been, “What do I do next week?” Each week she topped the previous performance.
GANDELMAN: You could see that each time she showed a different facet of her talent and each time she surpassed what she did earlier. That’s actually what makes “America’s Got Talent” such a challenge for those on the program: You can’t just do what you did before but have to wow them, then double wow them, then triple wow them.
It’s the old adage: “Well, whattaya going to do for an encore?” The encore is the second performance. That’s not easy keeping the content, stage presence, music and timing all flowing at optimum rate under a very strict timetable.
I think she got better each time also. I suspect apart from very serious work in rehearsal, there was also some kind of adjustment with each appearance in terms of adjusting to the venue.
MILAN: I have been following it, and have been in close contact with her coach. She has definitely gotten better.
STELZER: Yes, indeed. I think she is “The Total Package,” supertalented, charismatic and beautiful. She has worked very hard with her coach, Gary Owen. She most definitely improves with each performance and astounds with new characters and songs on stage. I don’t think EVEN the sky’s the limit for Darci Lynne.
What are you hearing on your social media channels about Darci’s win?
CRONE: The response on my social media channels has been overwhelmingly positive. The inevitable cantankerous old naysayers were shut down quickly. What was really fun to see was how many of my friends who are not connected with the entertainment industry jump in to say how much they loved Darci. Many people said, “I never vote for these things, but I did for her!”
FIELD: Throughout the season, each victory generated lots of comments on my Facebook timeline where people would tag me as well. Everyone who commented was very excited for her win. People felt that a family member had won.
In a time where there is so much negative chatter about politics, the economy and health care, this was a great diversion for the American public. It was all positive and very exciting to witness this social media activity.
GANDELMAN: Darci’s win and what it reflects … is a huge topic of ventriloquist group Facebook pages. One of the most popular is World Vents/Ventriloquists. I have not kept exact count, but you could see a big spike in the new members joining the group as “AGT” progressed with Darci.
I think the real joyous explosion of joy and praise will unfold a lot more in coming days. Ventriloquists all over are ecstatic because she will inspire many more young people — and there are already some EXTREMELY talented young ventriloquists out there — to look into the art, want to see more ventriloquists or perhaps tinker with it as a hobby, part time or full-time. She is the youngest (ever) now superhigh-profile ventriloquist star.
MILAN: Nothing but positivity.
STELZER: Well, I belong to many ventriloquist groups. Everyone is jubilant that she has won and are sharing their photos taken with her at the convention.
What professional career advice would you give Darci? How can she best leverage her fame and fortune?
CRONE: My advice would be to seek the advice of someone who can give better advice than me. Definitely talk with Terry Fator. But also reach out to other people who started as child stars and who are now well-adjusted adults. Emma Watson comes to mind. Or Justin Timberlake. Find people you respect as a person who have gone through a similar rush-to-fame trajectory. First and foremost, know what YOU want for your career. Pursue that.
FIELD: I would advise Darci to stay grounded. Although I think this is the beginning of an amazing and very long ride for her, it’s a lot for a 12-year-old let alone any adult to handle. Don’t try to be something you’re not — a grown-up. Be yourself, but be careful. Good management is key.
GANDELMAN: Alas, I’ve never met or communicated with Darci and, again, alas, I’ve only been to three ventriloquist conventions in 27 years of doing ventriloquism around the country full-time.
If I gave her advice, it’d be this in a nutshell. You won “AGT” because people clearly saw your talent and realized you worked very hard to fully showcase it — and because you were (and from what I’m told by those who met you before you went on the show and after) extremely likable.No matter how old you are, as time goes on, make sure people still think of you as a doer and endearing. Do NOT let people change A) your style of performing that is you, B) your way of perceiving or treating others. You won’t have the problem that preteens and teens who became famous actors have had as they got older were cast away by the industry.
Your talent will only continue to blossom. And let it blossom through the filter of YOUR personality. Nothing’s wrong with taking instruction, advice or working on existing talent, but in the end you are now a brand and (like it or not!) a role model.
Keep making people smile at you personally as well as professionally. On the money, education d-o-e-s have intrinsic value (which I’m sure you know already). Make sure the money is invested wisely. You’ll get offers for TV and commercials and other platforms; never forget you are a brand, and your choices will determine the brand’s ongoing image.
MILAN: My first bit of advice: Bring us on tour with her. Just kidding. Although it would be fun.
STELZER: Although fame and fortune is definitely achievable for you, stay true to yourself. God has blessed you with great talent.
Anything else readers should know about Darci’s performances on “AGT” or your reaction to them?
CRONE: Darci is an especially talented singer, ventriloquist and entertainer. She got there with loads of help from other people and incredibly hard work on her part.
There are lots of other kids (and adults) out there developing talents of their own. Support them. Encourage them. Applaud their efforts through the rough, unpolished development stages so you can join in the celebration when it all comes together for the winning performance.FIELD: This is a dream come true for all of us who wanted to be a big star one day. She showed that if you dream big, get good coaching and advice, practice hard and have strong support from you parents, you can not only change your own destiny but also inspire the world.
GANDELMAN: Darci basically had a somewhat similar appeal to judges as Terry Fator — someone who was an excellent singer and also effectively used ventriloquism in her act.
I suspect many ventriloquists (of all ages) will now go running to find songs to do, but it won’t enhance an act unless the person can sing, put over a song without a perfect voice, or use it for comedy purposes.
But she showed she had that special blend. She did not just win because she didn’t move her lips. On the other hand, we have seen ventriloquists win “AGT” without music or come close to winning. By giving a chance to allow kids to shine with national exposure, “AGT” has not only expanded its demographic, but also is providing a wonderful service to young people and the arts.
Secondly, Darci represents the tip of the iceberg of a slew of HIGHLY TALENTED and CREATIVE young people in ventriloquism and other areas.
In the case of ventriloquism and “AGT,” these young people grew up with social media, YouTube, texting. Being in front of a camera comes easy to them. This is different from the Baby Boomers or Generation X’ers.
These young people have supportive parents. Left to their own devices, and allowed to creatively grow, they will redefine the arts. Just as Darci in a way redefined ventriloquism, other young people are going to be redefining it as well. They are out there and they’ll bring great joy to the world.
MILAN: I knew she was talented, but her duet (or quartet, if you count the puppets) with ventriloquist Terry Fator on the final night was absolutely mind-blowing.
STELZER: WE LOVE YOU, DARCI😘
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