- Written by Todd Moning
If you're a baby boomer who grew up watching Edgar Bergen's Charlie McCarthy and other ventriloquist acts on TV…
... If you attended a performance of Willie & Company at an FMCA convention and wondered how Peggy Miller gives her characters voices, mannerisms and personalities…
... If you're just curious about the art of ventriloquism...
… Then you might want to visit the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Ky.
Other private collections of ventriloquism items exist, but Vent Haven is the world's only ventriloquism museum, said museum curator Lisa Sweasy. "It's the quaintest thing you can imagine. I've never had anyone come here who was not a totally changed person when they left."
Maintaining its charm
The museum began as the small, private collection of Northern Kentucky businessman W.S. Berger, who died in 1972 at age 94.
Berger was not a ventriloquist. He developed a lifelong interest in ventriloquism after attending a show in the early 1900s. By the 1930s many retiring ventriloquists were donating their figures to Berger's memorabilia collection.
To accommodate his growing compilation, Berger had three structures built in his backyard, each about the size of a one-car garage. Today these buildings constitute the Vent Haven Museum, which opened June 30, 1973.
Vent Haven is open daily from May through September, by appointment only. Admission is $5 per person. The facility is not handicapped accessible and has no public restrooms, water fountains or exit signs.
"It would be great to have a state-of-the-art facility, but we're cautious because we don’t' want the museum to lose its charm," Sweasy said. "There is just not anything else like it around."
Looking at you
No, there aren't many places that have 675 dolls, some more than 185 years old. And these figures aren't isolated in a darkened old trunk. Some are in display cases, but most are out in the open on small chairs that resemble a schoolroom's.
"You can't come here and say, 'I've seen something like this somewhere else,'" Sweasy said.
Visitors can view shelves of wigs, wooden parts and eyeballs that stare back at them. Inside the dolls, it's interesting to see the mechanisms that make eyes move and create facial expressions. It's not hard to imagine the whole figures onstage, mouthing jokes and making people laugh.
Plenty of dolls
After taking a tour, visitors likely will remember a doll named Jacko the Monkey. Brothers George and Glenn McElroy of Harrison, Ohio, created Jacko in the 1930s. "From 1931 and 1941, they made the best dummies," Sweasy said. "People still look at the McElroy figures as the most complex and beautifully made. Their figures could do things that other figures couldn't."
Vent Haven has 10 McElroy figures, including Jacko. Most of them are handmade and each has its own story.
The museum's dolls range in size from 4 inches tall to those that are 5-1/2 feet and can walk. The average size is 3 to 4 feet, Sweasy said.
Two British papier-mâché doll heads date to the 1800s. "I think they've lasted so long because they were never painted. They were made to be performance pieces, not works of art like we treat them now."
Which figure is Sweasy's favorite? "Each one of them, if you look at it long enough, you'd say, 'That's the best one.' I guess anytime something is handmade, you can really see the art in it," she said.
She noted that most of the figures are male because ventriloquists have a harder time sustaining a higher-pitched voice for female figures.
In addition to the dolls, Vent Haven has novelty items such as talking canes, a talking painting and a grandfather clock that turns into a doll.
The museum displays about 10,000 photographs from the 1930s and '40s — considered the heyday of ventriloquism. Photos reflect ventriloquists' connections with entertainers such as W.C. Fields and Lucille Ball. "They weren't ventriloquists but they were in movies with ventriloquists," Sweasy said. "Everyone recognizes something here."
A "rogues" gallery presents more than 1,000 autographed pictures of ventriloquists from around the world.
The Vent Haven library contains one of the largest collections of printed material devoted to ventriloquism. Items include sheet music, scripts, pamphlets, vintage playbills, and books in eight languages.
"Mr. Berger also collected a lot of magic memorabilia, Sweasy said, "so we have a lot of books on magic."
The great ones
One of the museum buildings is devoted to the icons of ventriloquism, such as Edgar Bergen, father of actress Candace. Bergen brought to life Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.
Other famous dolls at the museum include Farfel the Dog, spokesman for Nestle's from 1955 to 1965, and Danny O'Day, both voiced by Jimmy Nelson.
To learn more about ventriloquists, Sweasy recommends the book Dummy Days: America's Favorite Ventriloquists from Radio and Early TV by Kelly Asbury. It profiles the lives and careers of five renowned 20th-centry ventriloquists: Bergen, Nelson, Senor Wences, Paul Winchell and Shari Lewis, creator of the sock puppet Lamb Chop.
"Only a few ventriloquists get national coverage, whereas it used to be the norm. Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan had them on a lot," Sweasy said.
At Vent Haven, the influential masters of lip control, humor, dialog and doll manipulation are still "on a lot."
Vent Haven has hosted the International Ventriloquist ConVENTion annually since 1975. The event's lectures, workshops and panel discussions are designed to improve the art of ventriloquism. Comedy writing, the business of ventriloquism, and creating character voices are a few of the topics covered.
Anyone interested in ventriloquism can register for the convention, Sweasy said. Download the registration form at www.venthaven.com.
"With shows, open mikes and about 50 dealers selling dummies, there is a nice variety of things to do. It's much more like a family reunion than it is a convention. Many people have been coming for decades."
Attendance at the conventions averages about 400.
Individuals who plan to visit Vent Haven Museum should make an appointment at least two days in advance. Groups should call at least one week in advance.
Vent Haven is located in a residential area, at 33 W. Maple St. in Fort Mitchell. Free parking for several motorhomes is available in the driveway.
Allow for about an hour to an hour-and-a-half for your visit. "Usually, visitors opt for a guided tours because most people don't know a whole lot about the history of ventriloquism," Sweasy said.
More information: www.venthaven.com