Missed it by that much – The Folklore Institute Ventriloquism Project

The archive of an unfunded project is a strange thing to behold. It recounts a set of best-laid plans that never quite came to fruition. Proposals and correspondence describe the viability of an enterprise, and organizers explain themselves with eloquently written prose and carefully curated documentation. In the present, we review these files knowing the inevitable outcome. Although many people worked hard trying to bring their idea to life, it did not succeed in the way it was envisioned.

A case in point here is the Ventriloquism Project, a proposed collaboration of the Indiana University Folklore Institute and Radio and Television Services. For much of 1988, a small but committed core of researchers sought funding for a documentary that would have explored the contemporary practice of ventriloquism in the United States.

In the end, the project was not of interest to the many sources who received an appeal for funding. The Folk Arts Media sector of the National Endowment for the Arts said no. The Walt Disney Company’s educational films division said no. Jim Henson said no through a personal assistant, who explained that ventriloquism is not the same thing as puppetry (or in this case, Muppetry), which forms the basis of “Jim’s interest and experience.”

Ventriloquism ad
A page in the 1984-85 catalog from One Way Street, a Colorado-based puppetry and ventriloquism resource center

Notwithstanding, those who supported the Ventriloquism Project—folklorists Gail Matthews, Inta Carpenter, and Sandra Dolby, as well as filmmakers John Bishop and John Winninger—produced a significant body of work in their attempts to acquire funding. University Archives and Records Management makes this material available now. The archive of the Ventriloquism Project comprises a rich review of ventriloquial art in the United States in the twentieth century. The files included here could serve as a springboard for anyone researching ventriloquism, whether for a documentary, journalistic article, or academic publication.

At issue in many of these papers is the nature of ventriloquism as a folk art. Researchers argued that its decline in popularity in the early twentieth century marked a transition from popular culture to folklore. Their interpretation of this process is nicely summarized in a proposal to the NEA. They write: “The lay person may think that ventriloquism died out with the arrival of television, when in fact, it merely faded from popular media visibility. Over the years, ventriloquists have constituted a small but solid and growing community of interest.”

The archive’s ephemera provide extensive evidence of this community as it existed in the late 1980s. Gathered materials include advertising literature from Vent Haven, a ventriloquism museum in Kentucky; and correspondence with One Way Street, a puppetry and ventriloquism resource center in Colorado. Additional pamphlets, letters, and business cards from a variety of sources suggest the breadth of the proposed project. Had it gone forward, film crews would have captured footage in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and elsewhere.

The documentary was not meant to be, however, and the Ventriloquism Project was shelved until further notice. That notice is now, as it were. The preparatory work that researchers did has been made public after a dark age of about 25 years. Interested parties are invited to view this archive, which, even though it was not funded, provides a valuable resource for aficionados of ventriloquism.

To view this material, and to access the finding aid that indexes it, visit http://libraries.iub.edu/archives, or call (812) 855-1127.

 

How to demystify Pentecostalism

It’s not that dropping to the floor in a spasm of joy upon receiving the Holy Spirit is wrong, exactly. It’s just that this doesn’t represent the entirety, or even the majority, of the Pentecostal faith. Such is the perspective of Joy Unspeakable, a documentary produced by the Indiana University Folklore Institute and Radio & Television Services in 1981. While the so-called holy rollers receive some attention in the film, the Pentecostal story is told mainly by members of the faith—many of whom wish to lift the perception of their religion as a collection of rural eccentrics. Describing the ecstatic state that some Pentecostals experience, one of the film’s subjects comments: “Some of them, maybe, did roll on the floor. And they called everybody, then, holy rollers. I didn’t like that.”

Through commentaries like this, Joy Unspeakable presents an insider’s portrait of a Pentecostal assembly in Bloomington, Indiana. The members of the church are collected, amiable people who seem to have little use for snakes and strychnine. Instead, they describe their religion as a series of daily joys experienced via shared worship in a tight-knit faith community. Women are a particular focus. The role of the female in church life is a major theme, and this is more often than not explained by female churchgoers themselves. The film is memorably bookended with commentary from an elderly woman who eloquently narrates her faith in an accent that captures the unique vocal cadence of southern Indiana.

joy_unspeakable
A still taken from Joy Unspeakable

University Archives and Records Management now makes available the administrative files for Joy Unspeakable. More than anything, these serve as something like DVD extras. Because the film is already available in full, for free, on the website Folkstreams, the papers of this collection are a chance to understand the filmmakers’ vision for the project. While it’s one thing to watch a movie, it’s another thing entirely to figure out how the producers want you to watch it.

The production techniques used for Joy Unspeakable are typical of ethnographic film, a genre in which the people onscreen determine the tone of the project as much as (or more than) the producers. Reading through the materials of this collection reveals that the filmmakers’ approach was rooted firmly in ethnographic soil. A remark in the project overview is illustrative: “The emphasis here is not on academics, but rather the community.” This bears out in the film, as voiceover is used only minimally, and members of the church take the lead on relating who they are and what it means to be part of their group.

After its release, the film became a touchstone for fostering public dialogue. Producers Elaine Lawless and Elizabeth “Betsy” Peterson arranged for local screenings before audiences of religious devotees and social service professionals. The latter group were invited to participate with the hope that an open discussion would allow them to better serve their Pentecostal clients. In a letter dated Sept. 18, 1980, Lawless and Peterson note that “our program has been designed with the aim of clarifying misconceptions and stereotypes about Pentecostals as well as providing a general overview of the religion.”

Both women were Folklore Institute graduate students when they completed Joy Unspeakable. In one way or another, their aims for the film—those of public outreach and community engagement—have carried forward into their careers. Lawless, an esteemed folklorist at the University of Missouri, recently completed an ethnographic film focusing on Pinhook, Missouri, where a federally-sanctioned flood displaced residents in 2011. Peterson, previously a consultant for folklife-related projects, is now the director of the American Folklife Center in Washington, D.C.

To access the archive of the Folklore Institute’s Joy Unspeakable project, visit the University Archives and Records Management website at http://libraries.iub.edu/archives, or call (812) 855-1127.