By Gary Brock
They sit silent, more that 870 of the ventriloquist dummies in the three buildings that make up the Vent Haven Museum.
And silent they will remain.
That is because out of respect for the ventriloquists who owned these hundreds of examples of the art and rich heritage of ventriloquism, the cardinal rule of the museum is that the dummies will never again be given voice. That is just one of many fascinating facts people learn when visiting this one-of-a-kind museum.
Located in Fort Mitchell, Ky., just off I-75 as travelers cross the Ohio River from Cincinnati, the Vent Haven Museum is one of the nation’s more unusual museums.
Open May 1 to Sept. 30 by appointment, the museum offers visitors the chance to see donated dummies dating back to the Civil War, along with thousands of photos of ventriloquists and their acts. Curator Lisa Sweasy says the “Vent” in Vent Haven is short for ventriloquist.
It opened in June 1973, the only museum in the world dedicated to the art of ventriloquism.
It was founded by Cincinnati native William S. Berger, who died about a year before the museum opened. His collection of ventriloquist dummies began when he purchased his first figure in 1910.
At first, he kept the figures in his house, but as his fascination with ventriloquism grew, the collection grew rapidly. In 1947, he renovated his garage to house the dummies and, in 1962, he built a second building.
“We have about 870 dummies,” Sweasy said. “When Mr. Berger died, there were about 500 in the collection. We used to get about five to 10 donated a year since then but, during the last couple of years, there have been considerably more than that.”
There are three buildings at Vent Haven housing collections of dummies.
“When Mr. Berger was alive, he wanted everyone to feel comfortable here, and everyone to be represented here. So the dummies are a broad mix made by professionals and amateurs,” Sweasy said.
In the first building is a striking sight — a wall stacked end to end, four high with more than 100 dummies. “The Bleachers” as it is called, is designed to showcase the variety of dummies from all eras. It includes the oldest at the museum, a Civil War-era doll that was changed to be a ventriloquist dummy.
In the second building, the W.S. Berger Memorial Building, there are tributes to the famous ventriloquists who have become legends in the entertainment industry. These included Edgar Bergan with dummy Charlie McCarthy, who were on the radio from 1937 to 1956.
Bergan, who died in 1978, attended the dedication ceremony for the building in 1973.
“He performed on a flatbed truck with Mortimer Snerd at the dedication, and did the ribbon-cutting with fellow ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson.” Sweasy said.
There are also tributes in the building to Paul Winchell, who brought ventriloquism to television in the 1950s and Nelson, a major supporter of the museum who had his own kids program in the 1960s. It was Nelson’s ventriloquist dog, Farfal, and dummy, Danny O’Day, who did the well-known Nestle chocolate commercials.
“(Nelson) still comes to every convention. He is the most beloved and the patriarch for ventriloquists,” Sweasy said.
There are also sections devoted to current ventriloquists. Jeff Dunham has a large display.
“Vent Haven means a lot to Jeff. He comes here every single year. He has come here every year since he was 15 years old,” Sweasy said.
“He’s probably the hardest-working person I have ever known. He’s extremely supportive of the museum. One of the nicest people I have ever known,” she said.
There is also a display featuring Terry Fator, who won “America’s Got Talent” in 2007. The puppet/dummy used on the show for the song “At Last” is displayed.
Ventriloquists hold a convention in Cincinnati the third week of July each year.The annual convention was first established to help with the museum as an independent entity, but making a sizable donation to the museum each year.
The museum attracts more than a thousand visitors each season. She said during the convention week, there are at least 500 to 600 visitors to the museum with around a dozen countries represented. Most of the convention-goers are ventriloquists.
And what do these visiting ventriloquists always seem to want to do? The one thing they are not allowed to do — handle the dummies.
Vent Haven does not restore the dummies they receive.
“Every once in a while we might do some work, but they are not performance pieces any longer. We treat them as museum pieces,” she said. “The fact that they come in dinged up and with some wear, that is good. That is part of their story. They pretty much stay the way they came in. That is Mr. Berger’s promise.”
Sweasy, a former teacher, has been with Vent Haven since 2000 and is its only employee. During a tour of the buildings, Sweasy demonstrated the inner workings of one dummy named Cecil Wifflenose, showing how it operates. But that is all she is allowed to do.
When asked if she is a ventriloquist herself, she said no.
“The curator is not allowed to be a ventriloquist,” she said.
“(Berger) promised everyone that when the museum got the dummies that they would remain silent, as a sign of respect. These were all the props of people… they already have a character, a personality and a voice. So if the curator were a ventriloquist then that might not be preserved,” she said.
“Once they are donated, they are never given voice again. I do mechanical demonstrations of some of them to show people how they work, but none of them are ‘performed’ with,” she said.
All of the dummies have a placard on their chests, giving their names, when they were made, who made them and who their ventriloquist was. Sweasy knows every one. For some, there is little information, “but some have incredibly rich histories,” she said.
She said the donated dummies “just keep coming. They come in from all over the world. Sometimes people bring them to the convention and donate them there. Sometimes they are mailed to us,” she said.
People also call her to ask her if the museum is interested in having their dummy. It is usually the child or grandchild of the ventriloquist, and they have had the dummy for a number of years.
“Perhaps they don’t want to care for it anymore or they want to share the story of the relative because they know it will be at Vent Haven permanently,” she said. “Nothing here is ever sold, or traded, or used. A lot of people find comfort in that, knowing that their relative’s performance dummy is preserved.”
Sweasy believes the draw of the museum is that it is unique.
“People are looking for off-the-beaten-track sort of attractions. I think people are fascinated by ventriloquism, no matter what their frame of reference is, there is something about it that is appealing. For some, it is a trip down memory lane, for others, it is this odd little art form where they wonder why people do this and how they do it. … It all depends on the person,” she said.