The biggest ventriloquists, of course, are those who come from the United States, Australia or New Zealand. The most successful ventriloquists usually have roots in wealthy families or a rich background – although, some say, there is also such thing as being rich enough to become a good ventriloquist; it helps that they do good work and get lots of attention. Others work in low-paid jobs but still manage to make an average income.
But the most successful ventriloquists are not necessarily those who live in the United States. The first recorded surviving ventriloquist to perform at the Royal Albert Hall in London was Peter Grieve.
Grieve was born in Birmingham in 1858 – and he was quite wealthy. One of his sisters, Mary Anne, a talented sculptor, made her living from making decorative paintings of saints. During the First World War – a time Grieve’s family were well off – Peter Grieve was appointed clerk of the Admiralty and later, in the 1930s, a member of the board of the Treasury. His financial acumen enabled him to develop a flair for self-promotion; in 1924 he signed for the American branch of the National Theatre, whose opening in 1925 was preceded by a speech by the actor Jack Kirby, at which Kirby also played Grieve. After the War, Grieve joined the theatre company of the Royal Albert Hall, whose director and company head was Sir John Hawkins.
Hawkins was a very well-to-do man with an extensive knowledge of art and decorating, and he commissioned Grieve to create a Christmas pageant at the hall, in which three figures from the play, a young woman dressed as St Bernard, a peasant girl dressed as a nun and a young couple dressed as Saint Joseph made up a variety of reindeer, gazelles, rabbits and lizards. A number of these figures, Grieve said on his deathbed, had been based on him: he had sculpted his own nose with the help of a mender. As is the case in all Grieve’s work, these three figures are dressed, with a little help, in a costume reminiscent of his own, but which has no resemblance to the figure in costume to which Grieve had given himself the title of “Peter Grieve”.
That costume became the basis for the costume Grieve used on the performance in the Royal Albert Hall. Grieve created his puppet on a paper board
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