The Magic of Puppets

A Series of Articles by Steve Axtell

Part 1: The Magic of Puppets

Creating the illusion of life. Wow what magic! Adding a puppet or two, to your already great magic show could really add some spice! It’s amazing how much variety it adds. A short comedy routine with a puppet provides quite a break in the stream of magic – enhancing the show’s effectiveness. Need an entertaining assistant to help with a trick? Use a puppet! Need to add some color and character? Use a puppet! You can learn ventriloquism or you could just do pantomime getting killer laughs either way. Because you are an entertainer wanting to increase your impact you might want to consider adding the Magic of Puppets.

Ive made it my career combining magic with puppets.Some of you may know me as the inventor of the Magic Drawing Board which is now a popular magic illusion on which you make a drawing of a cartoon face with a dry erase marker and it comes to life. Its an exciting example of combining magic with a type of puppet. I have also invented a device known as the Bird Arm Illusion which makes a bird puppet look alive sitting on your outstretched arm. My company Axtell Expressions also combine puppets with special effects like smoke breathing dragons, and water squirting elephants, or our Cry Baby with instantly changing faces.but enough about my work. Over the years, I have grown to meet some amazing entertainers and Ive collected a few of them from the ventriloquist world.

In this series I’ll show you some real world examples of entertainers that combine puppets and magic. Meet Dan “The Magic Man” Cogliano:

I started as a magician and added ventriloquism to my act. After purchasing “Vern”, my next decision was to determine which hand to use for the puppet. This needs to be determined before purchasing a puppet that is hand specific ( for rod arm installation or the bird arm illusion, for example). The problem is although the dominant hand is preferred for manipulating a puppet, it is also the preferred hand for doing magical slights (palming, for example). So, when using magic with a puppet, one has to determine the jobs for each hand. I decided to have my dominant hand (my right hand) do the magic and my left hand work the puppet. I feel I can do stronger magic when using my right hand and I have grown quite accustom to using my left hand for manipulating “Vern”. I have talked to another magician who prefers using his dominant hand for the puppet, so it really is up to the individual to determine what is best for him/her.

I have found my “Vern” puppet to be much better at helping with magic than a standard ventriloquist figure. Did you know that you need more than one hand to use a one hand change bag? Who will put the silks in the bag and take them out? Why your puppet will, of course! It makes much more sense having a bird or other animal puppet use their mouth to help with silks than a human puppet or ventriloquist figure, since humans usually don’t use their mouths as hands (at least the people I know). You can also use the puppet to take silks out of the change bag while you are not looking for some comedy. I use my “Vern” puppet to help display a 36″ picture silk, which normally requires two hands to display.

A couple of magic tricks I have used with my bird puppet are: one handed rope knot (chapter 1 in “Abbott’s Encyclopedia of Rop Tricks for Magicians”), one hand change bag and the switch can (look under change bags at for an example). I am starting to work on a routine with a chop cup which will be more challenging but it is definitely possible to do with a puppet.

More information on Axtell Vern the Bird can be seen here.

Next we will explore more ways you can combine puppets with magic!

Part 2: Combining Puppets with Magic

by Steve Axtell & Tom Ladshaw

You probably are aware of the standard Magic Drawing Board which many consider a classic of magic now. You draw a cartoon face on a drawing board and it comes to life and talks then you erase it off the board while it’s talking! A new development is the introduction of radio control technology to it, so you don’t have to touch the board while it is talking yet just like a puppet you control it’s mouth and eye movement in real time as you see fit. More information about the Remote Control Magic Drawing Board here.

Here are some more wonderful ideas for combining magic with puppets. These are from the fertile mind of Tom Ladshaw Vent / magician and Lecturer, and were originally published in his book, “The Magical Ventriloquist”. The word VENT referred to below means “ventriloquist”.



The Effect: Puppet instructs vent to remove a small flower from inside his jacket. Vent or magician pulls the “flower” out…but it is only a stem…the flower bud has fallen off somewhere. The puppet says it’ll have to be restored by magic. Puppet says the magic word and…presto! The bud magically reappears on the stem.

The Secret: A simple item available at your magic supplier. It’s called the “Blooming Bud” or “Appearing Bud.” It’s a small “stem” that is actually a narrow tube covered in green feather material that looks like a plant.

There is a small stud on one side of this tube that controls the bud. When the stud is slid upward, the bud emerges from inside the tube and “appears.”

SPECIAL NOTES – This little trick is a fun item that may be used as a warm-up for the show, as well. Consult some of David Ginn’s material for ideas on comedy warm-ups and uses for this wonderfully-versatile item specifically.


The Effect: A plastic tumbler is seen sitting next to a bottle (soda, beer, etc..) The bottle is picked up and the liquid is poured into the tumbler.

As the liquid is pouring, the glass suddenly begins to levitate off the table and float in mid-air! The tumbler eventually floats back down to the table at which point the vent or magician puts the bottle down to pick up the tumbler and drink the contents.

The Secret: As the title might suggest, this trick uses a specially-prepared tumbler. There is a short, clear plastic rod attached to the inside base of the tumbler. There is also a length of monofilament (clear fishing line) secured to the end of the rod and extending approximately six- to eight inches outside of the tumbler. The “free” end of the monofilament terminates in a loop that is slightly larger than the lip of the bottle you’ll be using.

The liquid in the bottle should be dark so that it may be easily seen.

Begin with the tumbler mouth down over the bottle. The loop should already be attached to the lip of the bottle. Pick up the tumbler and place it mouth-up on the table. Pick up the bottle – taking care to not move it further than the length of monofilament – then begin pouring. Pour slowly and steadily. The thin stream of liquid should just cover the monofilament.

When you have the thin stream of liquid pouring steadily, lift the bottle upwards. This will cause the tumbler to “hang” from the bottle by the monofilament. When the tumbler is nearing as full as you need it to be, allow it to “float” back down to the tabletop.

With the tension removed from the monofilament, the loop may be disengaged from the lip of the bottle and the bottle removed from the table. Then the tumbler may be picked up and used to do the drinking bit, etc.

SPECIAL NOTES – This is a commercially-available item at magic shops but may be easily constructed at home. Try it using different types of tumblers…I’ve used a martini glass in the past. Also – instead of a bottle, a soda can may be used. Simply loop the monofilament over the pull-tab and proceed as in the original presentation.


The Effect: A small single flower on a stem is shown. The puppet tells the vent or magician it’s a special present for his girlfriend. When the puppet leans over to smell it (or when he “breathes” on it,) the flower “droops” over to a ninety degree angle! It may then “stand up” again as needed.

The Secret: A specially-made faux flower with stem. The flower is controlled by a finger-ring at the very bottom of the stem. When the ring is pulled, the flower “droops.” When the ring is released, spring tension draws the flower back upward.

SPECIAL NOTES – This is no great mystery, but it’s a cute gag that may be used in a variety of ways. The puppet can breathe on it, he can tell you to sniff it, etc. Any of those actions can apparently cause the flower to “die.”

This wonderful little utility prop is available from most magic suppliers.


The Effect: A small pan is shown empty. Several “ingredients” are tossed into it followed by a lit match. With a whoosh, flames leap out of the pan. To extinguish it, the cover is placed over the pan momentarily. When the cover is removed, the charred contents have transformed into candies, a small cake or even a live dove!

The Secret: Well…it’s a gimmicked pan! A shallow pan that nests just inside the pan proper is concealed inside the cover. When flames leap out of the pan, the cover is placed on it, automatically releasing the inner pan. That extinguishes the flames and reveals another “interior” of the pan…loaded with whatever you can fit into it.

SPECIAL NOTES – This is an ideal “closer” effect for your act….the puppet can name all sorts of silly “ingredients” that you patiently place into the pan. Finally you place the cover on and lift it back off, revealing the “load.” This load can be candies for the birthday children, etc. Virtually anything that will fit into the “load pan” may be used…it’s a wonderfully versatile prop!

(AxNote Our Bubba the Bullfrog can be made to appear in a larger Duck Pan. You can then transform a balloon tadpole into a full grown bullfrog!)


The Effect: Several silk hankies are placed into a clear tube. An opaque cylinder is placed down over the clear tube. When the cylinder is lifted, it is seen that the hankies have vanished and in their place is a live dove, several large oranges or a huge load of candy!

The Secret: Works essentially like the Dove Pan. There is another secret clear tube hidden inside the opaque outer cylinder. When the cylinder is placed over the clear tube then removed, the “load” tube stays in place inside the outer clear tube. The silk hankies are compressed down into the base of the outer clear tube and thus “vanish.”

SPECIAL NOTES – Like the Dove Pan, this is a very versatile item. Virtually anything that can fit into the inner load tube may be produced.

Use it to change the puppet’s red tie into a green one, etc. Or make several small bits of cloth, etc. transform into a hand puppet that can hold a conversation with you and your puppet.


The Effect: A small aluminum “vase” is shown and water is poured from it.

The vase is completely emptied into a bucket. After sitting for several moments, the vase is upturned over the bucket again and the same amount of water that “emptied” from it before gushes forth. This is repeated many times and with each repetition it gets more absurd and gets more laughs.

The Secret: A water-tight chamber built into the wall of the vase holds the additional water.

SPECIAL NOTES – This is a wonderful running gag (pardon the pun.) After each short “bit” in your act, you can nonchalantly pick up the vase and empty it. The less said, the more incongruous…and the more laughs!

A very funny bit – for the right audience only – involves having the puppet sit on the large model of this special vase… and it need to be “emptied” every so often… Use this idea with care!

Another funny bit is to have an audience member hold the vase over his head in between each “empty”… Ask him if he feels it getting heavier, etc.


The Effect: The vent or magician reaches into the air and “plucks” a coin from it. He does this repeatedly, eventually producing a number of coins.

The Secret: The are numerous methods to bring about this effect. There are sleight of hand methods, small hand-held gimmicks, special pails that deliver the coins into your hand, etc.

SPECIAL NOTES – The best way to decide which version of this classic of magic is right for you is to take a trip to your favorite magic supplier (or talk to one you trust.) Compare what’s available with your skills and get the optimum version.

Check out a combination of the coin catcher gimmick and a pail that’s gimmicked to make it sound as if a coin is dropped into it when it really isn’t.

This is a wonderful routine that is fertile with much humor. Spend some time with it and you’ll have your own signature routine.


The Effect: A small, opaque bottle is displayed. The vent or magician claims that a tiny Genie lives inside the bottle. He even speaks to the Genie and the audience plainly hears the tiny voice reply. A length of rope is then dropped into the bottle for the Genie to hold. The Genie says he has the rope, then the vent or magician lets go of the bottle. Amazingly, the bottle stays suspended on the rope! The rope is now removed from the bottle which is subsequently shown empty (and may even be passed for examination.)

The Secret: An opaque bottle with a tapered neck and a small ball made of rubber or cork that is hidden inside the bottle. When the rope is placed into the bottle and the bottle slightly inverted, the ball rolls down and “locks” the rope into position against the neck of the bottle. The rope will stay in this position until the rope is pushed slightly, thereby releasing the ball. The rope may now be removed and under misdirection of handing the rope out for examination, the bottle is inverted and the ball allowed to secretly roll out where it is “palmed” in the hand. The bottle may now be examined, as well.

SPECIAL NOTES – So many vents have used this bit over the years that it probably needs no explanation. This is a wonderful “opener” for a vent act or a great bit to use when you need some extra time. This bottle (also known as a “Genie Vase” or a “Prayer Vase” is not gimmicked, nor is the rope, so it’s easily made. The shape is important (the ball must roll up against the rope and secure it properly) so be sure to take a good look at the illustration. Some bud vases (available at most arts and crafts stores) are ideal for this effect.

A great presentational idea is along the same lines as the previous trick, “Moe’s Ring Escape.” Call the small genie “Moe” and you can use the same tagline at the end of the routine when you show that the bottle is actually empty.


I hope you enjoyed this month’s article written by Tom Ladshaw.

Next we’ll explore some Magical puppets & props!

Part 3: Innovations in Magical Puppets

by Steve Axtell

Our company Axtell Expressions has become known for innovations in magical puppets. Over the years we have developed some really cool stuff. Recently I have had the honor of being included in the book The Magic Of Thinking Creatively

A Professional Magician’s Path In The Pursuit Of Creativity by Barry Mitchell, and have been put on the cover of Ventriloquism Made Easy by Paul Stadleman and Bruce Fife. Weve been creating magical puppets for over 20 years now! If you are not familiar with Axtell products let me introduce you to some of them.

During your show you pick up a framed board and a marker. You draw a cartoon face on the board of someone in your audience, or a popular character. Then while you are talking about the drawing, it starts looking around. Your audiences sees it and starts laughing (actually kids will start screaming and pointing). Then you notice it and it starts talking to you! The controls in the back of the board allow you to actually control the eyes and mouth movements. Heres a look at the back of the board

You can draw ANY face on the board and bring it to life. We have quite a few drawing examples in the instructions and on the web

I invented the Magic Drawing Board in 1980 while preparing for a show. I wanted to combine my cartooning ability with magic and a puppet. I kept brainstorming on it and came up with this great idea while sitting in my car on a lunch break under a willow tree. It was one of those great EUREKA moments in my life.

For those magicians who do not have the time to learn ventriloquism, we have produced a few routines for the Board. These routines are interactive! You secretly turn on the CD in your player (or sound man does) and the music starts. There are blank spots for you to speak and the character voice of the board starts talking with you. You can read all the routines at you like the concept but not our specific routine you can still create your own pre-recorded dialog using our soundtracks and music (without the voice) which is provided on the AxTrax CDS.

This AxTrax concept goes far beyone the Magic Drawing Board! We have a number of CDs for various puppets and you can choose from a variety of routines and character voices. Listen to them all at


There have been a few attempts to copy our Magic Drawing Board over the years and its been an interesting road watching them come and go, but were still here selling and improving what is becoming a classic of magic. Several of the improvements and changes we are introducing are..

Imagine drawing a cartoon with the board and setting it on an easel and walking away. Then it comes to life in the same way as the standard board totally under your control yet you are not touching it! You hold only the marker and the eraser. We have been in development on this for 5 years! The first board was purchased by David Allen who immediately won the UK Children’s Entertainer of the Year award at Blackpool Magic Convention! 

Imagine putting on a couple of bird gloves in front of your audience and bending down behind your magic stand and bringing up a BIRD PUPPET sitting on your arm. Your hand is outstretched and the bird is sitting near your elbow! It can hold your magic wand, do one handed magic tricks with you, lay eggs, dialog with you for a quick routine or more. The illusion is so strong that people try to figure it out. Many will come up to you after a show and say you were probably using high tech electronics to make the bird move! Really its so simple and amazing youll have to take a look There is a link on the page that will show you how it all works.

We also have AxTrax CD routines for the Bird puppet for those of you that are not a ventriloquist.


A few year ago we developed an animatronic Bird Arm and when you flip the switch on, the fingers in the glove move! Its very subtle and natural and random. Just enough to throw them another curve!


Many of our puppets have magical features or special effects built into them.

Our Slippy the Seal puppet can balance a ball on its nose!

Our Dusty Dragon Puppet blows smoke!

Peanuts the Elephant Puppet squirts water at your audience! 

The Cry Baby has two faces and is cute until you flip it around and it screams bloody murder.

Bubba the Bullfrog can grow from a balloon tadpole into a full grown frog! It is transformed using a Duckpan. The routine is really cute and easy to do. 

These are a few of our innovations that will help you discover the Magic of Puppets!

If you are interested in finding a perfect puppet for your act or learning more about the art of ventriloquism please come to our web site and start with our FREE Vent lessons
God Bless.
Next we’ll explore Ventriloquism!

Part 4: Basics of Ventriloquism

by Steve Axtell

Do you want to learn to throw you voice? Think you can’t?? Think you need a special gift? Forked tongue? Relax! You already possess the most challenging part….professionalism on stage! The rest is just technical and not too hard if you have a strong desire to learn and willingness to practice.


Limit your actual voice practice to short 5 minute sessions so you do not strain your throat.

The EASY Sounds
These sounds you can already do without much lip or Jaw movement.

A ( ant – alien) C (cat – cedar) D (dog-dirty) E (easy – Eddie) G (go – goose) H (hat – hang) (Indiana – idol) J (joke – jelly) K (Kate – Karate) L (like – Elsie) N (not – Nixon) O (orange – hoot) Q (queen – quiet) R (rain – ark) S (stay – ask) (teach – tot) (under – unicorn) X/Z – (x-ray -zoo) 

The CHALLENGING Sounds (Labials)

Before we begin, let’s look at your tongue and 2 of it’s positions…

Learn Ventriloquism Axtell
Top Touch normal position is where your tongue goes to make the normal sound of “D”. Do NOTuse this position when substituting the D sound for the B sound as in “DOY” for “BOY”. Do NOT use this position for substituting the N sound for an M like “Nonny” for “Mommy”. No matter how many times you try it will always sound like D N and T”.  Instead use the position below:
Front Press / Pull Off substitution position is the proper position for substituting sounds listed below.

Note:  Your tongue is substituting for one lip…and that the back of your upper teeth are like the other lip so the pressures used by the tongue is just a light touch. (Similar to your lips touching to say “Boy”)

Position 1Learn Ventriloquism Front Press
Position 2 
(pull off quickly when you substitute)Learn Ventriloquism - Pull Off

Animation of the Front Touch
Learn Ventriloquism

Practice these sounds….

B (boy – bye – banana) Use the FRONT PRESS against upper front teeth loosely – pull back quickly as you say “d” but think “b” – get on to the vowel fast. Do not pronounce it as a “d”, or ……..your teeth will fall out!

Listen to the difference…
Click to Hear the following sentences on your computer’s sound board.
 (If you do not have a plug-in for your browser that will let you hear wav files on line, download the file to your computer’s hard drive. You can then play the file on your Windows or Mac Operating system’s audio player program to hear it.

Example Phrase – “The Boy Likes Bananas”
(Click the following and wait to hear them!)

“Don’t say “The doy likes dananas”(160k)

…instead use the Front Press it will sound like this, “the boy likes bananas”(220k)

You see the Front Press is simulating the lips touching together. When you normally say BOY the air blows your lips apart….a “plosive” sound. So to continue the simulation your front press touch is the start of the B…but the pull off and OYE…is the polsive sound.


(Mary – made – him) FRONT PRESS and Substitute the modified “N” sound. (Mad = Nad)

P (Peter – apple – top) FRONT PRESS and substitute the modified “T” sound. (Paste = Taste)

F sound (Frank – friend – Ralph) Hiss through your teeth like “th” in “thanks” (Friend = thriend)

V (Very – every) Substitute “Th” sound as in “there” (Valentine = Thalentine)

(Away – with – water ) Sub “oo” sound as in “hoot”. (Water = Ooater) 

Practice lip control in all positions!

React to your audience and your puppet! Be skilled to speak in all 3 positions so you create true reactionary expressions to what is going on in the routine. Just like in real life. To find out what your reactions might be, have someone else read the puppets part so you can just do your own lines and react. Observe your reactions and write them down. Put those expressions into your role as ventriloquist and you will really raise your technical level.

Magic Of Puppets 1
Relaxed position

Magic Of Puppets 2
Smile Position 
(careful not to over use this!)

Magic Of Puppets 3
Open Position
. (Especially good in profile as you look at your puppet in shock. From the front tongue movement can be seen on some sounds.) 

Next article, we’ll learn about throwing your voice ­ technically called “The Distant Voice”

Part 5: Ventriloquism: The Secret of Throwing your Voice

by Steve Axtell

We covered the basics of ventriloquism in the last article. If you need a copy of that please email me. This week we discuss one of the secrets of vent throwing your voice to make is sound like its coming from somewhere else.

The secret is in the way you place your tongue and elbows. While speaking in the vent voice place your elbows tightly against your rib cage. Now using your tongue position, if you hold it to your left cheek it will make your voice sound like its coming from the far away to your left. Put it toward your right cheek and the sound comes from the far from the right. The amount of distance away is created by how hard you pull your elbows in toward your rib cage. Okay try it.

If you are having trouble with it dont kill me but I was kidding. You see you have just discovered the real secret. People already believe its something like this some kind of weird magic trick, or split tongue, or device. The real secret is what you already know illusion.

If you are positioned in front of your audience and your puppet is to your left side and you perform dialog your own voice will appear to come from you, and the puppets voice will appear to come from the puppet. To do this right several things must be in order:

1. Proper mouth technique with the still lip (see last article)

2. Puppet mouth movement and good manipulation must occur

3. Directing your attention naturally to the puppet when it speaks

4. Giving it a life of its own (looking around at individuals, double takes etc)


Once you have mastered the techniques above you can add the distant voice. Youve probably seen a vent put his dummy away in his case and it still talks to him from a distance, or over the telephone, or from off stage. These voices are all modifications of the distant voice.

To make your voice sound far away 3 things are employed.

1. Lowered actual volume (the farther away the quieter)

2. Illusion of a yelling or raised voice (people raise the pitch of their voice when they are far away from who they are speaking to)

3. Misdirection of the listeners attention (usually on stage the vent would look at the source of the distant voice to add the illusion of the sound coming from the location).

To lower the actual volume of your voice and create the illusion of a yelling voice were going to practice a phrase hey let me outta here!. Try saying it right now in your normal voice. Now pretend you are locked inside your house and yelling this to attract the attention of a neighbor. Listen to the difference. Of course its quite a bit louder when you yell also the pitch is higher to be heard better from far away. Also when you have to yell you have to tighten your diaphragm muscle to push much more air thru your vocal cord. Now all thats missing is to do all of this AND make it sound FAR AWAY.

The following exercises will strain your voice and should not be practiced for longer than 1 min. Drink some coffee or tea or warm water before doing this:

Pretend that you are picking up something heavy and tighten your diaphragm and say the phrase hey, let me out of here. Also notice that you are pinching the voice at the back of the throat hardly letting the sound out. Try it again and rather than pushing too much air out control it more. Dont do this for more than a minute.

If this is mastered, and added to the still lip and misdirection you will be able to do some very cool effects with it. You could put your puppet away and have him still talking with you. Have a telephone conversation with someone over the phone on stage the calls to interrupt your magic act. Have a running gag with an unknown stage hand that keeps laughing out loud at jokes youve told but he just now gets, etc.

If you are getting excited about using puppets in your magic act check out our incredible magical puppets at