Standing in front of his first-grade classroom, then-6-year-old Ian Varella attempted to make his peers laugh without moving his lips.
“I came out there, had a little puppet I made out of a sock, scared out of my mind,” Varella said. “That was it. That was one of my first shows.”
Since then, the now-55-year-old Varella has delivered many more performances as a full-time ventriloquist based in San Marcos, Texas, telling jokes through dummies for a living.
Varella cites a ventriloquism performance at his elementary school in Dayton, Ohio, as his first inspiration to become a ventriloquist, but he also credits his mother for allowing him to pursue his childhood dream. His mother, Jane, was a professional drummer. Ian Varella often attended nightclubs as a kid to see his mother perform and had his eyes set on the entertainment world from an early age.
“I think there are a lot of entertainers who could have been famous whose parents were like, ‘No, you’re not going to do that because you’re going to go to law school, you’re going to go to medical school,’ ” Varella said. “I never really had that problem because my mom followed her dreams.”
Moving up from the classroom and library gigs of his childhood, Varella now performs vocal illusions with his dummies at corporate parties, festivals and theme parks across the United States. Now that he has the art of ventriloquism down, Varella focuses on developing his comedic material, often including audience members in his jokes.
Though Varella could do 45-minutes of stand up comedy without his dummies, “Redneck Rabbit,” “Gramps” and “Alfred,” Vallera prefers the less-competitive ventriloquism market.
“There’s so many good [comedians] — there’s hundreds of them just in Texas,” Varella said. “The competition is so fierce.”
Varella noted that there are far fewer full-time ventriloquists in Texas.
Ventriloquism performances allow him to, once in a while, experience the glamorous lifestyle of free limousine rides, hotel stays and VIP service, he said.
“I perform as often as I can with show business,” Varella said. “I think success comes in spurts. You just want to economize and try to save your money and hope for the best.”
Even with the attention and benefits show business garners, performances require lots of onstage and offstage coordination, including dealing with agents, flying with his dummies to events and perfecting stage lighting, he said.
“[My kids] never wanted to be in show business,” Varella said. “And I think part of the reason was they saw all the headaches, all the stuff that happened behind the scenes.”
But for Varella, the experience of performing makes his show-business struggles worthwhile enough to continue ventriloquism for the rest of his life.
“I love performing and having the audience just in the palm of my hand,” Varella said. “I think the best compliment you could ever give to a comedian is, ‘I laughed so hard, I couldn’t breathe. I had to go to the bathroom, but I didn’t want to miss anything.’ ”