- Associated Press - Saturday, April 26, 2014

WESTMINSTER, Md. (AP) - Ventriloquism isn’t generally considered to be a 21st-century art form, but Westminster resident Tom Crowl is attempting to change that perception with a ventriloquism course created for the Internet era.

Crowl, along with ventriloquists Mark Wade and Ken Groves, has taken the reins of Maher Ventriloquist Studios, originally established in 1934. The studio originated as a correspondence course, with students receiving 30 educational pamphlets and submitting a video of their performance after their study was complete. Crowl said the course, aside from some minor stylistic changes, had remained largely the same since it was revamped in the ‘70s. Now, the trio have created an interactive course that includes Skype sessions between students and tutors as well as downloadable video lessons.

Crowl first came to ventriloquism in 2006, after working for years as a magician. Crowl said he is lucky to have gotten into the art form almost immediately before Jeff Dunham became an international success and raised the profile of ventriloquism. Crowl said another ventriloquist who has helped popularize the art form is Terry Fator, who won “America’s Got Talent” with a ventriloquist act in 2007.

“I had done a family show with my wife and son, and my wife decided she wanted to pursue her own career,” Crowl said. “So, I was left doing basically a kids’ show. I had always liked ventriloquism, so I began to study to set off on my own.”

Crowl primarily works corporate banquets and events throughout the country for most of the year. In the summer, he branches out to fairs, libraries and street festivals.

When Maher Studios executive director Clinton Detweiler passed away suddenly in 2013, Crowl said the Detweiler family decided to pass the organization on to Wade, children’s entertainer and executive director of the Vent Haven ventriloquist convention.

Wade said he recruited friends and fellow ventriloquists Groves and Crowl to help him re-imagine Maher Studios for a more computer-literate generation of ventriloquists.

Tom’s a great professional ventriloquist, and he’s also a great friend,” Wade said. “He’s very computer savvy, and we couldn’t have done this without him.”

Crowl had experience with his own digital ventriloquism course, Learn Ventriloquism, which consists of 36 time-released video lessons covering topics from breathing control to character development that he launched in 2011. Crowl said he developed the course after attending a seminar on creating online informational products.

“After my shows, a lot of people would ask me if I taught ventriloquism, and my schedule was always such that I could never devote the time,” Crowl said. “I thought this was a great way to do this, because I can do virtual lessons with them without having to sit down individually.”

Crowl said word spread about his online ventriloquism course, with prominent ventriloquists and puppet makers recommending his lessons to new students. It was the success of Learn Ventriloquism that put him on Wade’s radar, Crowl said.

Teaming up with Wade and Groves, Crowl helped develop the new Maher Interactive Ventriloquism Course, which went live April 21. The course consists of nine video lessons, broken down into three segments. After each package of three video lessons, the student has the opportunity to have a Skype session with one of the three instructors. During the Skype session, they perform what they’ve learned and receive one-on-one critiques from the instructors.

“You can’t beat sitting down with a working vent and studying the techniques and having them say, ‘No, you’re doing this wrong,’” Crowl said.

In addition to the interactive course, the group has created digital versions of the original 30-lesson pamphlets for students to download to their computer or e-reader. Crowl said the three ventriloquists pooled their knowledge of the art to develop new methods for sound reproduction.

“We took everything we knew, and we tried to figure out new ways of doing things. You can’t say the letters ‘B,’ ‘M,’ ‘P’ or ‘F’ without using your lips, and ventriloquists have always been taught to substitute another letter, like saying ‘D’ instead of ‘B,’” Crowl said. “In this course, we teach sound modification. You can actually say the letters, it’s just a matter of the proper teaching.”

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