On the morning of March 21, Mayor John Tecklenburg, along with the Charleston Guild of Puppeteers, will finally acknowledge the role that puppetry has played in the city’s history. Beginning with an official proclamation at City Hall, the day will include performances at the Dart Library at 1067 King St. and a set of evening shows at the Read Brothers building at 593 King St. As a part of World Puppetry Day, Charleston residents are asked to celebrate the intricate art of puppetry with the hopes of elevating the craft within the local arts community.
It wasn’t too long ago that crowds packed Hibernian Hall to marvel at the likes of Wyman the Wizard and DeCastro. A March 1870 edition of the Charleston Daily News
wrote of the wonderful and bizarre entertainments offered by Wyman, including “hanky-panky tricks, ambidextrous feats, acoustic subtleties, polyphonism, life-moving and speaking automata,” as well as “ventriloquial eccentricities.”
Sadly, modern-day sensibilities would likely misinterpret the true meaning of “hanky-panky tricks” were they to be listed on a playbill. Casting off the present pall of cynicism and perversion that all too often obstructs our view of 200-year-old traveling puppeteers, it’s clear that Wyman was doing it all for the kids.
“If this popular wizard and ventriloquist should fail to make his yearly visit here, we do not know what the children would do,” wrote the Daily News
. “They would have very little to wonder about or talk about.”
Yes, like a discarded marionette, the children of Charleston would have otherwise sat by limp and speechless had Wyman and his brethren not arrived in town to lift their spirits.
A sporting fellow of infinite jest, tales of Wyman’s antics spread across South Carolina. In 1842, newspapers ran the story of the Wizard’s interaction with a Baltimore jockey set on making a deal. As Wyman rode past a horse market, the jockey approached, hoping to sell off an unwanted equine. Wyman inquired of the horse’s age, to which the jockey answered, “Seven last spring.” Using his gift of second speech in a most jocular fashion, Wyman cast his voice straight from the horse’s mouth: “Oh, what a lie. I’m 13, and you know it as well as I do.”
The perplexed jockey responded by striking the horse on the neck. Wyman drolly replied in the voice of the horse once again, telling the jockey, “If you do that again ... I’ll throw you off and kick out your brains.”
Not recognizing the value of a talking horse, the jockey dismounted and fled. So there you go. Whether it is bringing joy to children or threatening the lives of all those he encountered, Wyman stands as a remarkable example of the golden age of ventriloquism. And now, in Charleston, we can relive the wit and whimsy of those days once again.
As Charleston’s official Day of Puppetry nears, it’s time to take a look back at what the ventriloquial arts have meant to the city over the years.