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Altamont Fair Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 13, 2009

Sylvia brings her magic trunk to Altamont and lets her puppets do the talking

By Anne Hayden

ALTAMONT — Ventriloquism dates back to the sixth century B.C., and Fred Russell, considered the king of modern ventriloquism, performed his first show with a dummy at the London Palace Theater in 1896. Some say, though, that it’s becoming a lost art.

This year at the Altamont Fair, Sylvia Markson (Markson is a stage name) proves that the art of ventriloquism is alive and kicking. She performs at the fair — which she calls “nice and homey” — three times a day, prompting laughs from the audience with her array of whimsical puppets, each with its own unique personality.

Smolder, a cross between a dragon and a dinosaur, sings a rap song and shows the audience that he can blow “smoke boogers” when Sylvia squeezes him tightly. Chito the opossum lives in a garbage can and, according to Sylvia, smells terrible, but does uncanny impressions.

Sylvia pulls a man and a woman up on stage, and dresses them as babies, having them open their mouths as she squeezes their shoulders, and speaks for them. The giant babies, although somewhat disturbing in appearance, inspire hysterics as they burp, fart, and sing a whiny song.

Sylvia, born and raised in Los Angeles, has been interested in ventriloquism since she was a kid. She thought it was just a hobby, and never dreamed it would turn into something more.

Years later, she and her husband, Chris, who now live in Ballston Spa, travel the country performing ventriloquist shows — on cruise ships, at resorts, in schools, and, of course, at fairs.

Sylvia’s earliest performances were at talent shows in elementary school — she got her first puppet when she was 5, and won a talent show in the fifth grade. Sesame Street, Sheri Lewis, and Paul Winchell were her inspirations.

 She kept her hobby up through high school, receiving her first professional “vent puppet” — a more politically correct term than dummy — at age 17, teaching herself the art through a home course, although she says learning is still a work in progress.

After spending time in “corporate America,” she decided to stay at home to raise her two children, Eric and Evan. She wanted some “mall money,” and put together a show she thought kids would enjoy.

“It snowballed from there,” Sylvia said, as she has now been touring for over 15 years. Her husband is heavily involved with the show, in management, production, and as a comic master of ceremonies. The couple’s sons often travel with them, helping with set-up and maintenance. Their three dogs sometimes come along for the ride, too.

Traveling with her husband has been the impetus behind many of Sylvia’s creative ideas.

“We just get really excited, and bounce ideas off of each other, and say, ‘Hey wouldn’t it be funny if…’” said Sylvia, explaining that she and Chris have a great time working together.

Although Sylvia has traveled and performed in interesting and exotic places, all of which she says have been great fun, her favorite venues are schools.

“The most rewarding shows are the school shows. Some kids don’t get the chance to go to the theater, or the fair,” she said.

Sylvia especially likes going to the schools because she is a strong believer in the importance of reading; she is the author of a children’s series chronicling the life of a budding ventriloquist.

 Sylvia hopes to continue on until she physically can’t keep up with the travel. Making people laugh is “the best job in the world,” she said.

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