Ventriloquist Wilma Swartz doesn’t want anyone to refer to her characters as the “D” word.
“Vent pals” would be a more appropriate term since the “Dummies” books own the copyrights to the word, she said.
“It doesn’t make any sense if you ask me because we’ve been using the ‘D’ word longer than those books have even been around,” Swartz said.
Swartz, 61, of Glendale has more than 30 “vent pals,” from a 5-foot fire breathing dragon named “Clawis Leachman” to little girl “Florence Arizona.” And she’s often seen with her pal “Fred,” who she takes on hospital visits as “Dr. Mel Practice.”
“I never thought ventriloquism would have been this big in my life,” she said. “But I’m glad and loving every last bit of it.”
Swartz keeps her vent pals stored away in suitcases inside a closet until it’s time for performances.
The 6-foot-5-inch tall Philadelphia native became interested in ventriloquism at age 5 after watching “The Paul Winchell Show,” a classic 1950s TV program, where Winchell performed with a character named Jerry Mahoney.
Swartz, a member of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Sun City, was inspired to buy puppets at a nearby toy store and taught herself ventriloquism.
“For some reason, I thought it was awesome bringing inanimate objects alive, even though I haven’t done that at funerals yet,” Swartz said with a laugh. “I remember when it used to be cheap to buy puppets, but now they’re quite the investments.”
She performed in elementary school talent shows with her puppets, but it wasn’t until high school that she discovered the “magic.”
Swartz was bullied in high school until her “enemies” found out she did ventriloquism.
“The bullies loved what I did and became assistants in my shows, even protected me from other bullies at school,” she said.
Swartz said ventriloquism may have saved her life when she worked in law enforcement. One time, a burglar held a gun to her face, and Swartz did some voices which caused the burglar to turn around, thinking someone might be behind him.
“When he did that, I was able to disarm and arrest him,” she said. She continued to hone her craft over the years.
In 1993, Swartz decided to be a professional ventriloquist, and because of it, she had the opportunity to meet many of her idols in the business, including Winchell.
Swartz often talked on the phone with Winchell, who was also the voice of Winnie the Pooh’s Tigger and The Smurfs’ Gargamel.
“He became a mentor and friend to me, and I never thought that would happen,” Swartz said. “I felt special and really felt that every dream of mine was coming true.”
In addition, Swartz also met comedian and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, who helped grant a wish for her mother before she died.
Swartz’ mother wanted to talk with Dunham before she passed away. So a mutual friend of Dunham and Swartz arranged the phone call.
“It made her so happy that she was able to talk with him,” she said.
Swartz is featured in the documentary “Dumbstruck,” which follows the life of five ventriloquists, including Terry Fator who won Season 2 of “America’s Got Talent” and is now a Las Vegas headliner.
In the film, Swartz was followed around by cameras as she performed at senior homes. She also takes her favorite puppet shopping for clothes at Walmart in the movie.
She is facing eviction from her home but with the help of her “vent” family, the outcome is quite different from what she thought. The entertainer has received a great deal of attention from “Dumbstruck,” which also includes a puppetmaker creating a new vent pal for Swartz, the dragon, “Clawis Leachman.”
She also will be in another upcoming documentary about a ventriloquist on BBC America.
And Swartz even has a number of fans such as a Walmart security guard who she considers “my groupie.”
“I love being a ventriloquist and making people smile because that’s what it is all about,” she said.