and Techniques 2007
Stevens' Music in Ventriloquism
DeMar's Manipulation & Other Bits of Wisdom
Moessinger aka Allo's Adding Variety to Your Act
Owen's Stage Craft for Ventriloquists
Axtell's Performing with Latex Puppets
Taylor's Canoodle Marketing
Al Stevens' Music in Ventriloquism
by Annie Roberts
"Music is an integral part
of most entertainment art forms, and ventriloquism is no exception"
(all quotes are taken from Al Stevens' copious notes that accompanied his
presentation and are available on his CD-Rom).
In HBO's 1978 Vent Event, all the performers used music or sang
except Edgar Bergen, but Bergen did make fun of the band leader so that
sort of counts. This article will cover the kinds of music a vent
might use, how to actually incorporate different music into the act, do's
and don'ts for novice singers, and how to use backing tracks which
is how most vents will work. Most are solo performers and very few
get to work with a sound man. That's a luxury. Finally, we will
touch on avoiding technical difficulties and copyright issues.
For a ventriloquist who is new to using music, let's
start with the easiest to add -- Entrance and Exit music.
This is what plays as you hit the stage running to start your show. When
you start talking, the music quietly fades away. There are three
great tunes to use in this situation: Fine and Dandy, This Could
Be the Start of Something Big, and There's No Business like Show
Business (Songs like these suitable for entrance music are on Al Stevens'
CD. Click here to find out
more). The music helps you make a
big entrance, and the audience can't hear anything but the music. Same
thing at the end; make a big exit with lots of music and as long as the
audience is applauding, the music should keep playing. You come back
out, take your bows, and when the applause begins to die, let the music
One place to get lots of great, usable music is from Axtell
Expressions' website. They sell royalty-free CD's called Make
It Magic. There are three volumes available with entrance
and exit music, plus anything you need for background music. All the
music in Tim Cowles
performance at the 2006 Vent Haven Convention came from Make
It Magic. You can also go online and find royalty-free
CD's at the following websites: Royalty Free
Cutz, Free Hand Music, Music
Bakery, CSS Music, The
Production Garden, and Unique
Segues, or as Gary Owen called them in his lecture
Bumpers, often are simply called transitions. This is music that is used to
introduce and exit during segments within the show. A typical set-up
might look like this:
- Show Entrance music
- introduce 1st puppet
- Entrance music 1st puppet
- Exit music 1st puppet
- Entrance music for 2nd puppet
- Show Exit music
This is a lot of music to organize, keep together and
get played in the right sequence. You don't want to say right
in the middle of your act, "George, not the right
music." You want it working well for you. Also,
whatever music you select to introduce your different puppets should match
the character of the puppet and set the tone for the dialogue that's
coming up. Mortimer Snerd had delightful music, but unfortunately
nobody ever heard it. As soon as the audience heard the first two
notes, they broke into wild laughter and applause because they immediately
knew that Mortimer was coming out. The music can become associated
with your own character, and if you own the music, your own
Tunes Related to the Character:
I Remember It Well”
Just a Girl Who Can’t Say ‘No’”
Can You Spare a Dime?”
Background music actually plays during the dialogue and
sets the scene, evokes a mood, and helps tell a story. It can
communicate sadness, suspense, action, etc. The music can start playing as
the dialogue beings and continue through the conversation or it can fade
out. It helps the audience prepare for what's coming up in your
Some vents who work with very young or older audiences
do singalongs in their acts where the crowd is singing right along with
them. If they're lucky enough to have a projection system or karaoke
machine, this really helps, instead of old-fashioned lyric sheets.
However, most ventriloquists usually do the singing all on their own,
either with the puppet or only having the puppet sing. This is
generally entertaining if the vent can sing, but not everybody
"What exactly is a 'good' voice? It depends on what
you are singing. Imagine Johnny Cash singing The Barber of Seville.
Not so good. But when he sang Folsom Prison, it was a different
matter. By the standards of formal music, Cash, Elvis, and all four
Beatles do not have good voices. Yet they all made fortunes by
singing. You might recall Jimmy Durante and Louis Armstrong, both of
whom had terrible singing voices by every measure known to singers,
critics, and vocal coaches alike. Even so, both men sung routinely
as part of their performances and made records that sold well. These
singers with not-so-good voices by formal standards succeeded because
their singing pleased their fans. "
There is a way to incorporate music in the act, even if
you sing badly. Let the puppet sing badly, but not for long.
It can be very funny, and the puppet can get away with it. Or the
vent can sing badly and the puppet can make fun of this. If
singing is not a strength, try to pick a tune that fits your voice, like
Durante or Armstrong.
Or you can be like Walter Brennan and just speak the lyrics with the music
in the background. Remember that
it makes the audience uncomfortable if the singing sounds wrong and is not
meant to be.
pitfall to avoid is the inability to sing in meter. Meter is how many
beats in a measure -- four beats, three beats, eight beats. Some
singers, especially with live accompaniment try to maintain the tempo, but
get behind in the beats. If the vent is accompanied by a piano
player, the pianist can compensate for the singer's inconsistency.
Piano players figured out quickly that making the singer sound better
makes the tip jar fuller. If you can't sing in meter and tend to be off in
the music, sing in rubatto. Rubatto is where the
accompaniment is just playing chords, there is no steady tempo, no stated
sense of time, and the singer can sing at his own pace. This works
Singing in the right key can be tricky for a woman
buying sheet music from a store. The key in which the tune is
published is called the original key. It is typically pitched for
the average male voice or trumpet. Ladies, if you can't reach the
notes, it's because the music was not written for your voice. You
need to find the right key for you. Determine your vocal range and
have an arranger or musician help determine which key applies to your
voice. Then as you get new music, you can automatically have
it transposed to the appropriate key or range for your voice.
Not all songs are right for a ventriloquist act.
Here are some ideas about what NOT to sing. Don't get maudlin; you don't
want to give the audience the blues. You can have a song that is
touching, but for the most part, the audience is there to laugh not
cry. Try to stick with the comedy routine that makes them
happy. The music should be an interlude to the ventriloquism.
They came to see a ventriloquist, not a vocal team.
Parodies are a wonderful form of music and way to make
the audience laugh. Take a tune that is familiar that the audience
will know and do it differently. They will recognize the tune, but
when you get to the part that is different, it makes them
Original tunes are tunes you write yourself or with the
help of a professional musician. They're not expensive when you consider
the mileage you can get out of it. It's yours; no one else can use
it, and you can use it as much as you like with no restrictions.
Call Al if you want an original tune. It might take awhile since he
will want to get to know the vent and the character which are important to
making the song successful and useful. Or you can have a pro write
it. You can find a professional musician in any town who could put
music down for you.
Some vents try to sing a cappella. This
term means in the style of the chapel. When choirs sang in the smaller
chapel, there was no pipe organ to accompany them. The term has come
to mean singing with no instruments or music. DON'T DO IT. You
will probably sing off key and hack the meter. Most singing sounds
better with musical accompaniment. Recorded accompaniment is how
most vents work.
There are several ways to get the recorded accompaniment
you want. One is through computer software with programs like Band in a
Box. This software costs about $100 and runs on a PC. Anyone
can get this program and build reasonable sounding accompaniment. It has
several hundreds of styles from which to choose, you can select tempo (speed), and
tell it to play. It also allows you to print out sheet
music. Some try Vocal Elimination or where "some
performers use center channel removal software to turn a professional vocal
recording into an accompaniment." In other words, it
takes "My Way" and eliminates Frank Sinatra's voice. There
are two reasons not to do this. One: it doesn't actually work with
many recordings. Two: quite often it's not legal. Just taking
Frank's voice out of the middle doesn't make it yours. Finally, you
can download MIDI tracks or karaoke tracks from the internet (see sites
listed below) and use those.
Now that you have backing tracks, you will need some
kind of playback device:
If you have your own playback equipment and you're going
into a venue with a house system, be prepared for anything. If it's
a cruise ship, take voltage adapters. If you know you're going to
get a professional system with a professional sound man, the plug in the
middle will work. But if you're working the Moose Lodge, they might have a
sound system and a person or they might not. Be sure you have enough
cable and all possible adapters at one end to be able to plug into your
system at the other. DON'T buy cables from consumer electronics
stores. They are made for
home use, to be plugged in once and left alone. Repeated plugging
and unplugging will wear them out fast, and you've wasted your money.
Go to a professional music supply place and get professional cables that
can withstand some wear and tear.
For more information on personal sound systems including
amplifiers, loudspeakers, microphones, playback systems, house systems,
setting up, and sound checks or if you are lucky enough to work with live
musicians and need to know more about structuring accompaniment charts,
lead sheets, rehearsing, train wrecks, etc, buy Al
Stevens' CD for excellent, detailed information. There is A LOT
of valuable, additional information not included in this
Finally, Copyright Issues and answering the question,
"What music can I legally use?" The public domain includes any
song written before 1923. You can do anything with this song; it's
for the public and can be performed anywhere. To find out more about
public domain, click here.
Who owns the copyright of a tune that is not in the public domain?
The guy who wrote the song, unless other arrangements had been made and
then the arranger owns the copyright. [On a side note, if you have a
dummy custom built, a song written, or a script written specifically for
you, execute a work-for-hire agreement so that all the work belongs to you
and not with the creator. "A work-for-hire agreement is a document
that you execute with an artist when you commission the artist to create a
work of art for which you and not the artist will hold the copyright.
You must execute this agreement before the artist starts work on the
Since the majority of music is NOT in the public domain,
performance licenses make it legal to perform tunes in public. The
ventriloquist is not responsible for securing the performance license; the
presenter or venue is. There are three "performance rights
societies" that issue these licenses -- ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC.
If you put on a musical presentation in a public venue whether you charge
admission or not, one or all three will hand the presenter a contract.
That is the person responsible for making sure the music is legal.
Bottom line...don't worry about it. Go sing "Hello, Dolly"
wherever you want.
Adding music to your act might seem tricky or daunting
if you are not a knowledgeable musician, but Al Stevens provides some easy
ways to learn a little bit and make your act more
information including 24 pages of detailed notes, a select list of music
tracks, three software programs, a Power Point presentation, plus the
video of his 2007 Vent Haven lecture, buy Al
Stevens' DVD/CD Rom
combo. It will be money well-spent for any vent who uses music in
his act. It's available at Lee
Cornell's Ventriloquism 101.
Manipulation & Other Bits of Wisdom
Bill DeMar has always been known for his amazing
manipulation of puppets. Over the years, he has coached people,
written articles, and now even compiled a book with the help of Tom
Ladshaw. This past July at the 2007 Vent Haven ConVENTion, Bill gave a
workshop sharing some of his techniques for bringing figures to life and
also, other do's and don'ts that 'manipulate' the audience into having a
Bill opened his workshop by saying, "I'll tell you
everything I know. It will take about a minute, then you can spend
the rest of the time talking amongst yourselves."
Everyone laughed, of course, because the packed room knew that the hour
would go fast and be full of good information. Figure manipulation
is about taking a puppet and ALWAYS making it seem alive. A lot
more goes into that than just how you move the head stick or your hand.
This is a large part of it, but it also includes the timing of the mouth
opening and closing, the personality that you create, the voice that you
give the figure, and the dialogue you use to communicate with the
Puppet: Well, hello there, Jerry.
This exchange is common and what's unfortunately all too
common is the vent's mouth moves the same for both parts; the puppet's
voice is the same as the vent's; and the puppet stares blankly. There is
no difference in voice, no difference in originality, no life, no
movement, no thought involved...nothing. First start
with synchronizing the mouth with the syllables. The puppet mouth
shouldn't open the same amount for every syllable because that's not how
our mouths open. The synchronization needs to vary in speed and
opening to match the dialogue you are saying.
There are several types of ventriloquists. One is the
type that has perfect lip control, perfect face control, manipulation,
etc. He/she is technically perfect, but not always entertaining.
Another type is the vent with no technical control, but very
entertaining. This person has good material, is funny, but the
audience will say, "His lips moved." You can't just be
technical or just be funny. They can't be separate; they go
together. If your act is not together, then work to put them
together. However, don't try to work on all elements at once. Work
on the techniques one at a time.
First just do lip control. Forget the figure.
Focus on good lip technique. Get in front of a mirror and do
exercises. Practice daily. Then move on to facial
expressions. A vent can't just do a deadpan for the whole act,
although sometimes that is funny. Figure out the facial expressions
that go with the material. Focusing on your own facial expressions
may help you discover some expressions for your puppet. When
lip control and facial expressions become second nature, move on to
manipulation. Concentrate on your figure's "lip control"
or synchronization and his facial expressions, then begin to put all the
parts together. You can't do it all at once, so break it down into
stages and take time to perfect each element.
Here is another problem, especially for new vents.
They come to the convention, run to the Dealers' Rooms, and grab the first
thing they see. They ask, "How much is that?" When
the answer is $3000, they move on and end up buying a figure for $250, but
they might as well have flushed that $250 down the toilet because the
figure doesn't fit. It ends up on eBay the following week.
They got it, but they can't use it. Vents need to determine the
character before looking for a puppet. Have in mind what you want
the personality to be and then find a puppet that matches. If you can't
find a puppet that matches, look for a figure maker who can craft that
character for you. There are great figure makers out there. It can make bringing a character to life difficult if you
don't know the personality.
Once you have developed a personality that fits the
puppet you have, you need to be sure that your on-stage persona is
different than the character's. You can't be the same as your
puppet. It's repetitious; it's redundant; it's just not
entertaining. The figure needs to be opposite from the vent, the
voice opposite, personality opposite, presentation opposite, even dress
opposite. The more difference you can get between yourself and the
character, the more effective the illusion you will have. It's the
whole thing you're going for because it is nothing more than an
illusion. Create as much difference between vent and puppet as
Some vents don't have a stage personality. If you
did an in-depth interview with vents, you'd find many of them to be
shy. That's why they turned to vent because the focus is on the
puppet, and the vent feels mildly invisible. And it's true that the
puppet is the star, but vents have to have some kind of stage
personality. Often it will develop as the performer gets more used to
being on stage. Think about how you "manipulate" yourself
on stage, how you are acting and reacting.
Let's talk again about a vent's facial
expressions. Your face can't look the same throughout the act.
That is not natural. While the puppet is speaking, your face must be
reacting to the material. This is one of the hardest aspects of vent
and one that very few vents do well. Watch two people having a
conversation. The person listening doesn't stand there with a fixed
smile on his face. Don't lock in the constant smile. Also
don't pull in the
lower lip, trying to keep the upper lip still. Try the natural
mouth; that is a slight separation between lips to let the air get
out. The face is relaxed. This expression will better enable one to change the
face according to the subject matter.
Many vents could be stand-up comedians, but very few
stand-ups could be ventriloquists. Vents have A LOT more to do than a
stand-up. So far, we've talked about lip control, facial
expressions, the puppet's mouth synchronization, creating two distinct and
opposite stage personalities, and we haven't even hit on material
yet. Many vents have an idea where the act starts but don't have a
clue how it will end. This is the wrong approach. If you do not have
an ending, you cannot start. When constructing the act, the end
should be the thing you worry about most. What is going to be the
kicker? What's the blow-off? How can I end big? Try to figure out
what will be the best bit and then go back to the beginning and aim for
that finish. When you get a lively beginning and a big finish, then
determine what filler to put in the middle. Try to keep the pace from
dragging or being redundant. The filler section is the place to work
on material. If you have a joke that's not cutting it, try to work
with it; change the wording, the tone, timing, expression, etc. Try to get
it to fit better. A friend once said to try the joke 21 times, and
if after changing and trying that many times, it still doesn't work, then
throw it out.
Many vents resort to repetition in the act.
Vent: How are you doing, Charlie?
Vent: How are you doing?
Charlie: Okay. How are you?
Vent: Glad to be here.
Vent: Glad to be here.
Saying the line once should be enough if the vent uses
good pronunciation. Say it correctly the first time, with enough
force, with enough diction, enough clarity that there is no question what
was said. The dummy is not deaf and should not pretend to be.
This does not add to the illusion of life.
The illusion of life really means never having a dead
figure. The figure must always look alive. There should be a
criminal penalty for people who dangle the figure by the head stick.
Never let the audience see the figure sitting somewhere lifeless,
displayed dead, and don't drag the figure out by the neck pole. Many
people use bird puppets, but unless that bird is flapping its wings, it
shouldn't be hanging in midair. Make a provision and use a stand to
support the bird so there is a reason it's sitting there.
Figure movement should be constant, never still.
It doesn't have to be a lot of movement. In fact, the slight turn of the
head might be enough, but it will still make the puppet seem alive.
You don't have to have a lot of mechanics either like wig raising, tongue sticking
out, flapping ears, eyebrows, etc. Just moving the head a little
will give it life. Make those movements smooth, fluid, not
If you have a figure that has moving eyes, blinker, or
winkers, this will provide more range of expression but it's important to
figure out when to move, how and why. Don't just press the controls
at random or you'll be like a Vent Haven tour guide demonstrating a
McElroy figure (except for Tom Ladshaw who does an exceptional
demonstration.) Practice emotions like anger, surprise, sadness,
frustration, or joy. Watch how your face creates those emotions in
the mirror and then try to get your puppet to emulate them. For
anger, move the eyelids to half-mast; for surprise, pop the mouth open
wide. Attaching the head to the seat of the body with an elastic
band and an eye hook will keep the head from popping up too high as you
practice these expressions.
Another factor that can make the dialogue on stage seem
unrealistic is having the figure seated at the wrong height, usually too
low. The puppet's eyes should be at nose level. The figure will have
to tilt back a bit to look at you, but you're not looking down at the
figure, just over to the side. The figure should never be taller.
Finally, the three biggest assets a human can have are:
self-discipline, self-control, and self-confidence. Have the
self-discipline to make yourself learn what you need to learn and all the
relating factors. You need self-control, too, and have the
self-confidence to deliver it and to project your material, your
act. Don't be a technically perfect vent or just a funny one. Be
both and this will separate you as one of the better performers in this
To purchase a
professionally recorded DVD of Bill DeMar's workshop including great
demonstrations of a figure's different emotions, visit Lee
Cornell's Ventriloquism101. Also available is a DVD of Bill
DeMar's Saturday Night Show performance including the signature
"Tape Over the Mouth" bit which
A special thanks to Lee
Cornell for sending me a copy of both DVD's and several pictures to
use to write this article!
(Back to Top)
Al Moessinger a.k.a.
Variety to Your Act
Do you ever feel that
your standard dialogue between character and vent is falling a little
flat? You want to get the audience involved but you don't want to be
another vent who uses an audience member as a puppet? You want a
little pizzazz, but don't have any ideas how do that? Al Moessinger
knows some great ways to add variety to your act to spice up what you do
and build that audience participation in a fun, different way.
First, a comment about audio systems and
your act. This was a BIG topic at the 2007 ConVENTion and almost
every lecturer touched on it in some way, really encouraging people to get
good sound systems. If you can't be heard, you've lost half the
hands-free microphone system is key; a headset like the Countryman
E6i Directional Earset is a great
piece of equipment. That let's you be mobile on stage and not
limited to what you want to add to your act. The audience will pay
attention to you if they can hear you. You can move around the stage
but they stay focused on you because of your voice. Be sure you put
enthusiasm into your voice. Liz Von Seggen's Fun
with Character Voices DVD is great and Gary Owen
is very knowledgeable and approachable. You can always talk to him
at the Convention about voice techniques.
Okay, there are lots of different ways to
open your show besides opening with a joke. Not everybody is Jeff
Dunham who can do an hour and half of killer stand-up material. Jeff
is highly talented, but he didn't just jump on stage and start doing
one-man sold out shows. He's had to work very hard to develop his
craft. Some vents might say that he has a gift and use that as an excuse for why
their shows are not succeeding. Jeff does have a gift for great comedy and
funny characters, but everyone has gifts. You need to find your
gift; they can come from lots of different places. When you figure
it out, really work to develop that gift into an amazing talent that works
for your act and makes it your own. The purpose is to be
entertaining and there are lots of ways to achieve that.
One technique that Al likes to use is
opening with clapping. Using his Roland
SP 404 to quickly and easily add music, Al starts pulling a
streamer out of his mouth to the beat of the music, all the while the
audience is clapping. The music is lively classical music like Flight
of the Bumblebee, and Al is dancing
around. It gets the audience energized and ready for fun. At the end of the bit, Al is sure to do a
safety reminder that boys and girls shouldn't stuff anything into their
mouths that's not food. It was magic in his mouth, and they can go
to the library to learn more about magic. You can also open the show
with another bit of magic, pulling a volunteer from the audience and
asking them to tear up a piece of paper and stuff the bits into your
hand. Then you pull out a paper hat for the boy or girl to wear on
When doing an educational show, Al
follows the show to a T and only ad libs a little because the educational
show has been carefully crafted and things tie together in the end.
If it's a family audience with both kids and adults, it's important to mix
it up and make sure that elements of the act appeal to both. Also, watch your
audience and read their reactions; be prepared to jump to something else
if a bit doesn't seem to be working. Having some extra tricks in
your arsenal is important.
Al pulls out his duck Webster who has
brought an invention, a hypnotize wheel... or something to make him gain or
lose weight in thirty seconds. The audience stares at the wheel
while it turns for 30 seconds. Then the wheel is taken away and
Webster either looks bigger or smaller. Using a prop mixes
up the standard vent act and gives it a little more interest.
Webster: Knock knock
Al: Who there?
Al: Dishes who?
Webster: Dishes a nice group.
Another way to open the show or warm-up
the audience for an educational show is to use the color/rainbow ropes, an
easy to find magic trick. This is a very versatile, portable trick
you can always carry in your pocket. Dialogue to match can be adapted in a
variety of ways. In this case, the three ropes are
red, white and blue. You tie them together and then ask a student in the
audience to test out if they are tied together by pulling the rope
tight. While the student is holding on, you can pull on the rope a
bit and drag the kid across the floor a little which gets a laugh.
Then always thank the boy or girl for following directions, tying some
manner cues into the show. Once the three parts of rope -- red, white, and blue --
are tied together, the dialogue goes something like this:
"The red rope is for believing in
yourself. If you don't believe in yourself, you won't go
anywhere. You need to believe in yourself. We'll be talking about
that in the show today. The white rope is choosing good character.
This is very important and we're going to talk about that today too.
The blue rope is choosing good friends. The people you hang around
with make all the difference."
"We've put all these things together
-- believing in yourself, choosing good character, and choosing good
friends -- so what good are these lessons? No good unless you use
your brain. Pretend your hand is your brain (at this point wrap the
rope around the hand). Anything can happen so you need to pay
attention and have a bit of knowledge. Everyone pull a handful out
of your pocket. (Students should put their hands into their pockets and
pretend to pull out a fist.) Raise your hand in the air and on the
count of three shout, 'Be the best you can be!' and throw it up
One, two, three...BE THE BEST YOU CAN BE!
"Choosing friends or choosing good
character is not an individual lesson. They all go together to make you
the bet you can be." At this point the rope is unwrapped from
the hand and is all one rope. Ooohh, aaaahhh. You've just
introduced three character components that will be talked about later on
in the show. This trick can adapted for different
stories but it packs flat and is easy to do.
technique especially if you perform for children is to take a familiar
song and make it visual. For example, the song Bingo can be
done using a clothesline (insert history lesson since most kids have
probably never seen a clothesline, ha ha) and big, laminated letters on
one side and clapping hands on the other. The roped stretched across
the stage makes the stage look full. The vent can be mobile and
active. As you lead the song, point to the letters. When it's
time, flip them to the clapping hands and lead them in the clapping.
With the music pre-programmed on the Roland SP 404, it's very easy.
Game shows and reality shows are very
popular right now. Develop a 'game show' for your act. Say,
"Now we're going to play 'Whose Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" As
you pull volunteers from the audience, introduce the ladies first and point
out that it's good manners to let the ladies go first. One idea is
to do a dance contest. A good song choice for this is The
Twist. A hula hoop contest is another idea that provides
opportunities for fun and laughs. Get good hula hoops, not the cheap
plastic ones and be sure to have some large and small. Whenever you
bring people up from the audience, everyone gets to be a winner.
Don't actually pick a single winner. At the end of the Hula Hoop
Contest, announce you are going to pick the Hula Hoop Champion. When
the person comes up on stage, whisper in his ear (be sure you turn off your mic
so as not to give it away to the audience) to
just hold his hands up and dance around, that you'll take care of the
hoop. You move the hoop behind the person while they are dancing and
being silly. The audience can see the vent holding the hula hoop,
but it is still funny.
Kids and adults as you can tell by the
picture below really like the Air Guitar Championship. Select three
or four volunteers from the audience and use a short music clip. Johnny B. Goode
is a nice choice because it doesn't offend anyone and most
people recognize it. Ask the contestants how long they've been
playing and what kind of guitar they will be using. It's easy to use
the puppet with this bit.
Taking a game and adding a lesson is a
great for educational shows. The Smoke Detector Game is great for
fire safety. You take five smoke detectors and attach them to a
board with a hinge and number them. One detector needs a new battery so the game is
to push the test button to figure out which one it is. The dialogue
goes something like this:
"Your smoke detector is only good if
the battery is good. We're going to test these detectors today to find out
which one needs a new battery. Our firemen friends say you should
test the battery every month. You should change the battery when you
change your clocks in the spring and fall, and when you come back from
vacation. When the battery is low the smoke detector will beep, but
if you've been on vacation you might not have heard the
beeping." Then you bring volunteers up to press the
buttons and test them out. It's easy and people enjoy
Adding variety to your act means getting
creative and breaking out of the simple puppet/vent dialogue
routine. It makes it easy to use music in the act without simply
singing a song. It also allows for a wide-range of audience participation that's
different from turning someone into a dummy. These ideas are fun and
simple for the audience to do and make everyone who gets up feel like a
winner. Find that pizzazz by creatively adding variety to
To find out more about Al Moessinger,
visit him at his website www.alloshow.com.
(Back to Top)
Stage Craft for Ventriloquists
by Annie Roberts
be an entertaining ventriloquist, it's important that you have good
material, good puppets, be dressed nicely, etc., but if the show is not
staged well -- if it's poorly lit, has a bad backdrop, you can't be heard
-- then the audience is missing out on a good show. Despite what you
might think, you are NOT the star of the show; the puppets are the stars.
They are the comedians and what the audience came to see. The comedy
comes from the characters. So to give the audience a good show
focused on the puppets, you've got to make sure the staging elements are
in place. There are many ways to enhance the
production value of the show -- lots of different things in different
places of the performance to make your show seem more professional, more
polished and make those puppets really shine as the stars of the show.
Good staging involves good sound equipment, music, tables/stands,
lighting, and choreography. The staging of your show is a long term
investment, but the expenses will definitely pay off. It's about the
whole picture which when done right, the audience will notice a great
show. When done wrong, comments like, "The puppet
was cute but I couldn't hear him" or "I couldn't see him too
well" surface afterwards.
topic is sound systems. If they can't hear you, your show is
lost. You need a good sound system of your own that you understand
how to use. Never rely on the host to provide what you need. You
might find yourself in a situation where the technology is limited, where
you're being asked to use a handheld mic or a lapel mic and the sound is
above the audience in speakers at the ceiling. This is NOT
ideal. Get your own sound system. It's your show so make
sure your show is going to work. Look for a system that is fairly
portable with not too much set-up that also doesn't take up much room in
the car. You want something that is light weight that folds up into
a box or case. A good, punchy system will cost around $400-$500 and
can be found in most music stores or guitar centers. Some vents use a small guitar amp for schools or
libraries, and this is okay, but it doesn't put out the punch you need to
do vent. Vocal projection is definitely a weakness for vents; that
means not projecting your voice so that it can really be heard by all, so you
need a sound system that will push you because if the audience can't hear
you, you've just lost half your material. Get a sound system that
makes you sound better. Gary Owen recommends the
An important component of the sound system is the microphone.
Everyone has their own tastes about mics, but here are some thoughts to
influence what looks good and sounds good. All microphones have
their own values, benefits, and drawbacks. Don't settle for a $99
wireless mic. You get what you pay for and at that price you will
get one that does not carry your voice or has other things like CB
radios on the frequency making your voice cut in and out. Do you
really want your act to sound like a bad cell phone
connection? You've saved money on the mic but you've left your
audience frustrated. Plan to spend anywhere from $300-$700 for a
decent microphone, depending on the frequencies and punchiness.
Before you buy anything, get educated. If you see one you think
you like, learn about it and get it demonstrated for you. Never buy
online without an in-person demonstration. Also, learn about the technical
support and repair options. Find out how and where to get support
and repair because it's almost inevitable that at some point you will need
it. Hopefully not ten minutes before a show either!
let's talk about wireless headsets. The basic standard headset with
the headband and mic ala Brittney Spears is good for demos at home shows,
but doesn't provide much clarity. Gary Owen's wireless mic of choice
is the Countryman E6i
Directional Earset. It's subtle, powerful, and
good for vents. You're looking at investing from $499-$699 for this
kind of wireless mic, but it's worth it. Be sure you
get a directional mic, NOT an omni. Don't get an omni because
it picks up sound in a circular pattern and you will get feedback.
Omnis are designed for musicians and concerts. A directional mic
picks up only what is going into the mic. Wireless provides the vent
with freedom of head motion and keeps the hands free to be involved in the
act. Some vents like the mic stand because they can hide their bad
lip control behind the mic. A hands free set up will force you get better,
not only by providing good sound, but improved lip control.
You've invested in a good sound system so the audience can hear you;
now let's figure out how they can see you with effective lighting.
Never take the facility's word about lighting. Banquet organizers
will often say there is great lighting and you get there and find out
it's dark or the light is not aimed at the stage. Again, if they
can't see the character, the other half of your show is lost. Don't
buy intelligent lights that DJ's use. These have colors and you
don't need that. Gary Owen recommends a Par 48, Par 56, or Par
64 light package.
The lights come on a tree stand and do take some time to set up.
Some people go to Home Depot and buy a shop light and put it on a
stand. You'll certainly have light, but how effective will it
be? Does it make you look like you're being pulled over
for a traffic violation? You can spend from $399-$1500 on lights, and
it does take some set up time. To check out lighting go to Musician's
Friend and shop some of their packages. If you can't afford a lighting
system, tell the client that they will lose value on the show if the
audience can't see it. Ask the buyer to rent lights for you or at
least a spot light. The client pays for it but he will feel like the
will get a better show because of it.
To the suitcase! A classic component of the ventriloquist act and
used in jokes in just about every vent act. Each vent has his/her own style of cases and stands, but you might
streamline your show and make it more professional looking by choosing
just the right kind. A case that can also be used as your stand will
save you trouble of having to use both. Gary Owen uses a custom case
built by Six Flags but it was taken off the magic table design. His
case is 15 lbs. empty and 50 lbs. fully-loaded which is the limit for
airline travel. The bottom has wheels, of course, for easy rolling. The
case itself is like a clam-shell and the top opens to double the height and
become the stand for the figure. The inside of the case is
compartmentalized with slots for figures and props. Cover the front
of the open case with a canvas which can be fairly inexpensively changed
as needed for different shows, and your beat-up travel trunk becomes a
professional looking prop and stand, custom- sized to fit the height of your
figure. When the show is finished, everything goes back in its
place, the clam shell is closed, and you're ready to roll it to car or
plane. It's helps tremendously when your case can be both functional
and durable, as well as useful on stage.
To find out more about cases, visit these resources:
vents close their act with a song. In fact, it's become very standard and
some might say overused, but there are other ways to incorporate music
into your act to enhance the professionalism of the show. This means
using music for introductions, bumpers, and background. If you're
still using a cassette tape, you need to get out of the dinosaur age and
into the digital age. Some places have CD's players or ways to hook
your I-Pod in, but you can't always rely on that. There is a
music sampler device called the Roland
SP 404 which runs for about $399 which will allow you to add
unlimited music to your act. The buttons are big which is great as you get older according
to Al Moessinger. You can take it anywhere you want to go and often
it can hook into the house PA system. The Roland SP has eight banks
with 12 tracks in each bank. All the information is stored on an
external memory flash card (never remove the flash card while the unit is
on or all information will be lost). Always turn off the unit before
taking out the memory card. To
purchase a Roland SP 404, click here. You can make
the Roland SP 404 wireless by adding the SHURE
PG14 Wireless Guitar System.
The transmitter plugs into the earphone jack of the SP 404 and the
receiver gives you the option of using a balanced or unbalanced line going
into your PA. This unit runs about $199.
The Roland SP 404 allows you to prerecord your introductions
with snappy background music. It allows you to use music for all
segues or bumpers like getting the figure in and out of case, exit music, music for
when you bring volunteers up on stage. It makes your show have no
dead time. The more you use music, the more polished your show
looks. If you have someone working tech backstage, be sure to
include specific instructions on cues and tracks. If it's all
written out, it's very easy for someone to follow. Also, be sure the
music you are using is licensed production music. You can go online
and find production music at sites like Royalty Free
Cutz, Free Hand Music, Music
Bakery, CSS Music, The
Production Garden, and Unique
Expressions also carries royalty
free production music disks. Royalty
free music CD’s run anywhere from $70 –$150 each and have a variety of
themes per disc. Most companies allow you to audition the music on line
before you buy. Many allow you to order and download directly from the
websites. Using music for more
than just the closing song adds production value and helps your show be
more successful. Even if you can just add music getting on and off
stage, it adds energy to the performance and gets the audience excited for
let's look at choreography. No, we're not talking about adding
dancing to the show. This is about format, entrances and exits, and
line-up. First impressions are important. Think about how the
audience first sees your puppet. Does he come out of the case or do you
walk out on stage carrying him? Either way, be sure to keep the
figure facing the audience. Never turn your back or the puppet's
back to the audience. If you're coming out from behind a curtain,
put the figure out first toward the audience so they don't see the hole in
the figure's back. Remember to manipulate and make the puppet alive
all the way to the stand when the routine starts. Make sure your
stand is pre-set so that once you get there, you're not taking time to
adjust. If everything is ready to go, you will come across as much more
This brings us to format. Have a written format for your show so
you know what you're doing at all times. Write it down. If you
have someone running sound for you, that person will need it.
Get to your performance site a minimum of one hour before show time.
If you rush to get set up, then you're fried by the time you walk out on
stage. Your breathless appearance will make you seem tired before the show
has even started. An hour should
give you time to get your sound system set up, to hook into the house
system if possible, to go over sound cues with a tech person, to get your
stand set to the right height, to make sure the lights are focused on the
stage, and finally to actually do a sound check long before any of the
audience members arrive. If there is an event going on just prior to your
show, you may have to come get set up several hours before and then come
back a little before show time. During your sound check, start with the
volume low and gradually increase. Again if everything is ready to
go, you will come across as much more professional.
Once you get to the stage, you need to be confident, and you will, if
everything is ready to go and tested. If you look good and sound
good, you will perform good. All these staging elements that
the audience takes for granted will help them have a great time at your
(Back to Top)
Axtell's Performing with Latex Puppets
by Annie Roberts
Typically when a
person thinks of a ventriloquist figure, the picture that comes to mind is
either a wooden dummy like Charlie McCarthy or a soft muppety figure like
Kermit the Frog. Latex figures don't readily spring to mind, but
they are quickly becoming some of the most popular type of figure in the
ventriloquist community. Where do many go to find these new kinds of
characters? Axtell Expressions, of course. Axtell
Expressions was founded by Steve Axtell and is located in scenic Ventura,
CA. They make latex puppets and magic products for entertainers
all over the world. Steve says, "We live an amazing life being
able to do this stuff...in fact it almost seems that it is our
For example, did
you notice like Stevo Schuling of Germany did that if you rearrange the
letters in Axtell you get latex? "Okay, there's one extra L in
Axtell," says Steve, "but they added that when our ancestors
came over from England." Coincidence? Also, the puppet
company is located in Ventura, CA, or did you read it VENTura, CA?
Axtell Expressions was meant to be.
This company not
only sells latex figures which will be the focus of this article; they
also sell over 100 products from magic and props to CDs and books.
Have you heard of the Pizza to Go or the SFX Board? Have you seen
someone use the Bird Arm Illusion or the Magic Drawing Board? Axtell
Expressions has lots to offer, but what has made them unique are their
have 70 different puppet characters ranging
from wild jungle animals like an Elephant and Lion to crazy creatures like
The Wildthing and Man Eating Plant, and people puppets like their famous
Old Storyteller. There are thousands in use right now, most
notably Jay Johnson recently on Broadway in his one-man show The Two
and Only and Kevin Johnson seen last summer on America's Got Talent
and this winter on Late Night with David Letterman. They've
been sold in 60 different countries and as a result, many people wonder
how they make their puppets and how this whole thing got started.
father was a minister so Steve got to see puppets used in church. A friend
gave him a flyer from Maher Studios; on one side were pictures of dummies
made by Craig Lovik and on the other side puppets. Steve also saw
Sesame Street and inspired by the works of Jim Henson tried to copy his
style. "My mother mailed a photo to Jim Henson and
he wrote back introducing me to the Puppeteers of America and encouraging
me to in essence quit copying him and start my own unique style...which I
immediately began to do from that point on..." While at DisneyWorld,
Steve stopped into a magic shop and saw latex Halloween-type masks. It was
a Eureka moment! He began making his own puppets and experimenting
with latex. "I sold my first puppet to a professional vent when
I was 15 years old. It was a bright orange fur fox puppet. I would
love to see if someone out there still has it! I went
on to create more characters in my one man show, which included some of my
first latex puppets (woman and bird) and my Bird Arm Illusion concept
which I added in the seventies.
married Suzi and in 1980 and moved to a very small town in central
California. We had hopes of starting a puppet business. One sunday while
trying to find a church, we opened the phone book and put our finger on
one. We ended up driving to a small church in Atascadero (which translated
means "mud hole") that was meeting in a pre-school. After the
service a man and his wife just happend to invite us to come to their
house for lunch.....it turned out to be Craig Lovik, who's puppet work had
inspired me for 20 years! Craig was the creator of many of the Maher
Vent figures and latex puppets. I still have that original Maher 'Furry
Friends and Pals' flyer in my collection! Prophetically the friend who
gave me a copy 20 years earlier had written on it, 'Steve you should go
into business doing this.'" Coincidence or destiny?
That's how Axtell Expressions got
started. Now we'll look at the process of how these figures get
made. Some people think that because Axtell has so many products,
it's a mass production company or that the puppets are easy to make, like
conveyor belt style. This couldn't be farther from the truth.
The first step in the process is design. Steve keeps ideas for new
characters in notebooks and has over 500 ideas and drawings written down (and
over 200 actual inventions). Then the ideas are given time to incubate because deferring
action leads to better products.
Once an idea has developed, it's
on to the sculpture phase. Typically three to five days are spent
working on the sculptures of the new character. It's a magical process
bringing characters to life, but practical considerations are needed as
well like appropriate mouth movement; will the hand fit; does the eye
angle toward the audience. Once the sculpture is created, different
plasters and stones are used to create molds, either one-piece molds or
multiple parts. The
clay is removed and the mold creates a negative cavity to be filled with
When the mold is ready, then
casting takes place. Latex is poured into the cavity. Ammonia
is released from the
latex during this stage so a special room is needed for ventilation. The
latex thickens the longer it dwells. When the latex castings are
pulled from the mold, they must be prepped. Bumps and imperfections
are removed. The surface is washed to get rid of plaster residue, and it's
prepared for painting. Special formula paints are airbrushed or
All this work is done primarily
just on the head. Now the body work begins. Two to three
people are involved in creating the body patterns which take a couple days
to complete. Revisions are made and then the process of fitting the
head to the body starts, looking at neck rotation and the puppeteer's arm
It's into the homestretch now as
contractors team up to sew the bodies and put on feathers, eyes,
etc. Each figure is finished by getting vacuumed, the assembly
double checked, and protectants are put on over the paint and latex
surfaces. Then Voila! And Axtell Expressions puppet has been
completed and uniquely made.
Like anything else, there are
advantages and disadvantages to using a latex puppet. The
disadvantages are that no puppet will last forever. Some have longer
shelf lives than others but foam rots, fabric tears, wood splits, and
latex melts. The inside of the latex head may feel slippery,
especially when the hand sweats. Steve
recommends using Axtell's "Headliner" which is a foam insert for
Some puppets are lined inside to
prevent this. The process of making a latex puppet is tedious and may
delay delivery, but quality puppets of any nature take time to complete.
The advantages to an Axtell
Expressions latex puppet are first it has a professional sculptured look.
The faces are very expressive and look alive. The
latex surface looks and feels like real skin. They're easy to handle
and light-weight, ranging in ounces to the heaviest 7 lbs for the full-size
ostrich. They are low cost for the value, and they look great when
hard figure providing nice variety to a group. Lastly, they are
exceptional characters because Axtell places special emphasis on "character."
Finally, here are some tips on
how to care for latex puppets. Not all latex formulas are the
same. Steve took 27 years to develop Axtell's secret formula. They
don't add fillers like the
latex you get at the
hobby stores and the mask industry where the latex
breaks down in about a year and do add special chemicals to add
strength. If you properly care for your puppet, it should last a
long time. Use protectant on latex; Armorall is still the best and
should be applied every three months. Do NOT use WD40; the petroleum
base attacks the latex. Store an Axtell puppet in a poly bag to keep
the dust off. Keep out of the sun and don't cram your puppet in with
your shoes and clothes when traveling.
Axtell not only has over 70 puppets in their catalog line, but also
produces custom one-of-a-kind puppets for entertainers. For example
they made the Madagascar puppets for the Dreamworks movie premieres and
are currently making several custom puppets including a very large secret
puppet for Japan's top star ventriloquist Ikkokudo.
Axtell Expressions can definitely
provide something different and novel for many audiences -- not a classic
dummy and not a muppet. Steve really did follow Jim Henson's advice
and developed his own style, creating unforgettable characters. Is
all this a coincidence? No way. Fulfilling his destiny...you
1. Steve Axtell
2. Scenic Ventura, CA or is it
3. Jay Johnson on Broadway in
The Two and Only.
4. Kevin Johnson on America's
5. Youthful Steve Axtell and
his Sesame Street inspired puppets.
6. Craig Lovik
7. Jose Cruz painting a
8. Carmen Martin attaching the
body to the Axtell Storyteller.
9. Steve and his puppet
(Back to Top)
by Annie Roberts
Steve Taylor's Canoodle Marketing is a guide to working
smarter, not harder. You are working as a vent booking shows, but
you want to book more and by booking more shows, make more
money. But to paraphrase Albert Einstein, if you keep doing
what you're doing, you'll keep getting what you get. Change how
you market your act through canoodling. Uh? What does canoodle mean? It means to win over or
convince by cajoling or flattering. In other words, romancing your
way to friends and fortune.
When you book a show, you're selling a promise, a
promise that you'll do a show. The client is paying for nothing, just the
promise of a show. You have to think about this promise not as a
product but as a luxury. Luxuries are sold differently than
products. They are sold by telling you the emotional benefits.
A $5 cup of coffee at Starbucks is a luxury; a diamond ring is a
luxury. When you go in to buy a diamond ring, the sales person
doesn't tell you the practical value of a diamond; she tells you how
beautiful it is and how it will make the special someone in your life feel
wonderful and loved. The focus is on the emotional benefits. Think of your show in
this way, telling about how much fun the audience will have and how good
they will feel at the end.
Now your show is a luxury and doesn't everyone like
those? Of course they do, otherwise there wouldn't be a Starbucks every
other block. How do you measure the quality of a luxury? It's
the amount of money it costs. Remember that $5 cup of coffee that
people line up for every morning? If your show is a luxury, you need
to double your price. This might cause you to lose some business at
first, but you don't want to work for anyone who price shops. Plus, if you do
one show at double the fee, that's the same as two shows but you've
expended less time. Now you're working smarter, not harder. The top
five reasons people buy luxuries are: 1. Confidence 2.
Quality 3. Service 4. Selection
5. Price. Raising your price is appropriate because it's
not the first thing the buyer is looking for.
When a person calls to book a show, the natural inclination for the
vent is to talk, often listing features of the performance. This is
a problem. Don't talk. Ask questions about the situation and
listen to the answers. Where is it? How many people will be
attending? What do they expect to happen after the show? What feedback do
they want after the show. For example, a birthday mom calls for a
show in her home instead of having a party at Chuck E. Cheese.
Why? Find out. Most likely she's trying to keep up with the Joneses. Her child saw a vent down the street and loved it. Or
she feels guilty for working. There could be lots of reasons. Now your show can fill this emotional
need. Sell her on what her son's reaction will be after show, how he will
be the most popular kid on the block because the kids are going have to
misconception to getting more shows is to do
mass mailings. No. Marketing programs say send tons of flyers, and
for every 1,000 flyers, you should get 15 shows. That's a 1.5% return on
your mailing. Instead laser focus down. Fine tune the audience and
send out repeat mailings to that audience, a couple times a year instead
of just once a year.
When you advertise about yourself, often the focus is on
your biggest achievements, like TV performances or huge banquets.
The inclination is to put the most impressive stuff first. Also,
self-advertising tends to list your features and how you are different
from others. This can be like going out on a date with someone who
only talks about themselves. It can be huge turn-off. Remember
the client wants good service and really wants to know what's in it for
them. You won't book a show based on the big things, more likely
you'll book a show on the little things, the service-oriented techniques
that make the client really feel like she's getting a luxury.
Some little things that can make a big difference are,
first, answer your phone in friendly voice. If you have children, do
not let your children answer the phone. It is a business, with a
personal touch. Tell the client you guarantee 100% satisfaction and
then be prepared to fulfill that promise. Finally follow the 2-2-2
principle. Answer the phone in two rings, and do not use call
waiting because the client should feel like the most important
customer. Think about how frustrating it is when a saleslady answers
the phone as you pay. This is NOT service. Return phone calls
within two hours. If you act professionally, they will assume you
are a professional. Finally, always send a handwritten thank you note
within two days, including the guarantee whether they book the show or
not. If the client chooses not to book the show, get the address
anyway and send a note saying you hope they find the perfect performer for
their event. This helps the person feel good about the
experience, and they will be more likely to book you in the future or to
recommend you down the road.
The #1 fear of a mom booking a show is that the vent won't show up for
the party. You must give this confidence that you are going to
fulfill your promise. You can do this with testimonials. Ask
people for whom you've done shows to accept phone calls and to give a
recommendation because the best advertising is a good show.
Don't overwhelm these client volunteers with calls, however. Only
send the people who are willing to give testimonials three calls in six
months. After six months, send the person a gift card, like to
Applebees or Target, and a thank you for doing this service for
The minute someone books a show send a postcard that
says something like, "Friends are just family we choose
ourselves." In other words, you are saying 'I'm happy you booked
me' in an emotive way. This handwritten note shows you care
personally and provides the kind of service a client wants. When you
make it personal, you get more business. During the initial phone
conversation, that's a great time to find out something personal about
People often think of advertising as some kind of
debate, like trying to win an argument. It's not. It's a
seduction. When a guy asks a girl to marry him, he's not going to
argue with her. Advertising should be personal and a lot more
gentle. There are many different ways to romance but the focus is
not on you; it's on the one being romanced. This is where the
personal touch throughout the process will win the client over. When
you send that thank you note after the show, don't put a business card in
there or a P.S. at the end, suddenly this nice note becomes an
advertisement and all the personal touch is gone. When all things
are equal...or unequal, people hire someone they like, and they're going
to like the performer who gives them confidence. Life is more like
high school than we care to admit sometimes.
Think about some of the best advertising. It sells
to the emotions. For example, when you see the Disney logo or
Hallmark, what feeling to do you get? Warm and fuzzy?
Probably. Do these commercials give one feature of their
product? Does Disney list how many rides or shows their parks
have? No. They show a grandfather and a child walking down Main
Street Disney World with the family. You want that experience so you
book your next vacation to Orlando. The opposite effect can also be
true. People react with anger and raised blood pressure at the sight
of the Enron logo. When clients think of you, is the reaction
positive or negative? Are they remembering a performer who was a
prima donna or someone who was unorganized and unreliable? Hopefully when
former clients think of you, they think of children laughing and having a
great time. These should be the pictures that you include in
advertising. They sell better than you because the person booking
the show can picture their own audience.
As you advertise on your website, the text should focus
on the emotional side of your show, using words like imagine and remember.
For example, "Imagine the avalanche of appreciation you'll feel when
your child jumps into your arms, gives you a big hug, and says, 'You're
the best! I love you!'" Figure out why a parent, principal, or
librarian is booking you and create emotive statements that answer that
question. A librarian wants to get kids into the library so they'll
check out books and sign up for summer reading. For library shows,
the text should read, "Remember how much fun you had learning when
you were a little kid? The sense of wonder? The delight of
discovery? Allow me to help your kids recapture the wonder and excitement
Finally booking shows is not about a one-night
stand. No romance there. It's a life-long commitment.
You spend lots of time and money to book one show. It's five times
easier to book a client again and five times less expensive. So, the
best way you can spend your marketing money is to cultivate long term
relationships with past customers. Don't expect one booking from each
client who books you, work on getting repeat bookings (usually 10 to 20
over that person's lifetime) and then you'll be spending a lot less time
and money trying to get business. Once a miner hits a vein of gold, he
doesn't scrape some off and leave forever. No, he keeps digging! So, keep
in contact with past clients and get them to buy again and again. That's
truly working smarter, not harder.
This is a broad overview of what Steve Taylor
taught about Canoodle Marketing at Vent Haven in 2006. For his complete 6
hour course in Canoodle Marketing, please visit www.CanoodleProducts.com
for more information!
(Back to Top)
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Haven ConVENTion, Inc.
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