Moving Spirits

Vaudeville ventriloquist Harry Lester made his reputation with feats of vocal dexterity — he would walk among the audience while his dummy whistled a tune, or place telephone calls to heaven and hell, altering his voice to simulate a remote character on the line. Most famously he could drink water and smoke while his dummies talked.

In 1925, during a performance at the Balaban and Katz Theatre in Chicago, Lester’s drinking feat was unexpectedly modified when straight whisky replaced the usual coloured water in his decanter. The orchestra had switched drinks as a joke, trying to catch him off guard. When Lester innocently drank the liquid, not a muscle moved in his face, but the figure exploded into a storm of coughing. This piece of showmanship was so much appreciated by the orchestra that they rose from their seats and applauded; the audience, sensing something unusual, joined in.

(From Valentine Vox, I Can See Your Lips Moving, 1981.)