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Lester photographed by Miguel Grinberg[
”Read my Lips” - Lester.

I go to the library quite often and next door to it there is a thrift shop where I sometimes go to browse children toys and specially black dolls which are quite hard to find. I’ve seen the most amazing stuff there in all conditions and at ridiculous prizes.
Sometime ago a doll caught my attention. It was a black doll, actually a black dummy like the ones used by ventriloquists.
I don’t know much about ventriloquism in America, and had no idea if there were ever any black dummies or African American performers. I must admit that I find dummies a bit creepy, however I couldn’t resist and bought the doll which according to the lady at the counter, had been sitting in the store for quite a long time.
After buying the dummy, I decided to do some research about African American ventriloquists and their dummies.
The name of my doll is Lester and is part of a series of  “Lesters” made in 1973. Somehow this poor guy ended up in the store; he was in good condition and VERY cheap.
Lester is the black dummy of black ventriloquist Willie Tyler. Tyler is one of the few African American ventriloquists in the US and as far as I know he is still working though he was more famous around the 70’s and 80’s.
Most of the black dummies out there are partners of white ventriloquists that “play” the character of an African American, as in the case of famous Terry Fator’s puppet Julius, or Jeff Dunham’s puppet Sweet Daddy Dee. Many of these performers walk the thin line between art and caricature.
But before Willy Tyler was even born there were other African American performers, truly pioneers in a road only travelled by white artists.
It is said that the really first black ventriloquist in America was Richard Potter, who was performing at the beginning of the 1800’s!

John W Cooper

Later, another black ventriloquist and his dummy, John W Cooper, became quite famous in a time when black performers were rare. He was also the teacher of many other ventriloquists like for example Shari Lewis. There is an episode of History Detectives that traces the history of this artist and reveals the facts about how a black man got an opportunity in the business at a pretty difficult time for African Americans.
Who knew that behind a doll found at a thrift shop I would discover such a history!
As a final historic note, even when the origins of ventriloquism are usually mentioned as have been in the ancient Greece with its oracles, long before that, ventriloquism was used in Africa along with masks, not as entertainment, but as part of religious rituals and divination.

Links:

Willie Tyler Website
John W Cooper
Richard Potter
Ventriloquists & Their Dummies: Lester and Willie Tyler
Vent Haven Museum
Vent Haven: Ventriloquist Museum – Fort Mitchell, Kentucky
Ventriloquist Dummy OPB History Detectives
John Cooper Barbershop Ventriloquist Routine
Mike and Woody reflect proud tradition

alicia
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