Kentucky's Vent Haven Museum holds the wonders of ventriloquism

ctruman@herald-leader.comJuly 7, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    Vent Haven Museum

    Where: 33 W. Maple Ave., Fort Mitchell

    Open: May through September, by appointment only

    Call: (859) 341-0461

    Online: Venthavenmuseum.com

    "ConVENTion" international ventriloquists' convention: July 17-20, Cincinnati Airport Marriott Hotel. Details at Venthaven.com.

FORT MITCHELL — If you're a Kentuckian, you might not have heard of Vent Haven Museum.

But if you're a ventriloquist, it's the cultural center of your world.

In 1973, Edgar Bergen, the breakout ventriloquist who was paired with Charlie McCarthy, performed on a truck bed out front when the museum opened. The world's ventriloquists send pictures of themselves with their figures — call them "dummies," if you must, but most of the figures are much more complicated than that. One of them, a nearly full-size busty blonde figure called Christine, also appears on the verge of a wardrobe malfunction.

If it's ventriloquism-related, you'll find it at Vent Haven — outwardly, a sedate collection of buildings, tastefully signed, landscaped with hostas and impatiens.

The museum, just off the Interstate 75 Fort Mitchell exit in Northern Kentucky, houses figures collected by William Shakespeare Berger. Berger, who was president of Cambridge Tile Co. in Cincinnati, began collecting ventriloquial figures after purchasing his first on a trip to New York.

Eventually, Berger's collection numbered 500 dummies and puppets. Today, the museum houses 800. A corner devoted to Berger's favorites includes his first purchase, Tommy Baloney, and Skinny Hamilton, Champagne Charlie, Jocko the Monkey and the Hamlet skull, which Berger used in presentations at Beechwood High School.

Berger's wife, son and grandson all died before Berger, who died at 94 in 1972. He created a trust to support the museum after his death — with one stipulation: the curator not be a ventriloquist.

The current curator, Jennifer Dawson, a former teacher, lives on the property with her husband and three children. Although tours are by appointment only, about 1,500 people a year come through, she said.

Wednesday, she gave a tour to Rebecca Craner of Fort Mitchell and her daughters, Emma Rose, 10, and Greta Craner, 4.

Open the door to the first building, and you see a world of faces: Little Santa Claus, Dottie Dewe, Darrel's Other Brother (the alter ego of ventriloquist Darrel Husa, not the character on the old Newhart TV series), Maude (which looks like the late Beatrice Arthur, who played the character on TV), Jimmy Carter (teeth that need their own zip code) and Ronald Reagan.

Memorabilia abounds from those who were not best known for their ventriloquial skills:

■ A picture of Johnny Carson shows him with his two sons and a dummy that he told the boys was their brother.

■ A figure called Herkimer Hicks was used by the late actor Ted Knight, who became well-known as the clueless newsman on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

■ Woody DeForest, a figure used by Don Messick, has a stuffed Scooby-Doo by its side. Messick's ventriloquism career gave way to voice acting for characters including Scooby.

■ Ventriloquist Paul Winchell, whose partner figure was Jerry Mahoney, was the first inventor to patent an artificial heart.

The museum also houses a "stunt double" of the ventriloquial dog Farfel, who pitched Nestlé's Quik drink powder.

Ventriloquists began to gain acclaim during the 19th century but were praised more for convincing audiences that their partners were real people than for comedy.

During that time, the more realistic the dummy's face, the better. One of the heads in the museum, complete with glass eyes, looks as if it could suddenly come to life. On the same shelf is a head made with human teeth.

Also on display are more somber reminders of the history of ventriloquism. One figure was fashioned by a German prisoner while being held in a Russian camp during World War II. It was made of wood scraps, and the prisoner used it to entertain camp workers in the hope of getting more food.

Jules Vernon, a blind ventriloquist, manipulated seven figures at once while onstage. He was led on and offstage by means of a thread placed by his wife before a performance.

Some of the figures have a "slot mouth" that looks like a nutcracker, which is considered less sophisticated than the "living mouth" look, which gives figures the ability to curl their lips. More sophisticated figures have interior mechanisms like a typewriter. Much admired are those that could spit and smoke — some could even have the smoke re-directed so it came out of the figure's ears.

Jeff Dunham, the most popular ventriloquist now at work, is also represented. An entire corner of the museum is dedicated to his work, including his characters — the manic Peanut, cranky Walter and Achmed the Dead Terrorist.

Finally, there is the modern ventriloquist's figure.

How modern?

Dolly, made in 2009 by a New York craftsman, has a detail that helps her shine more than the average rouge-cheeked figure.

Dolly has tooth bling — crystal add-ons that ensure a sparkling performance.


If you go

Vent Haven Museum

Where: 33 W. Maple Ave., Fort Mitchell

Open: May through September, by appointment only

Call: (859) 341-0461

Online: Venthavenmuseum.com

"ConVENTion" international ventriloquists' convention: July 17-20, Cincinnati Airport Marriott Hotel. Details at Venthaven.com.

Cheryl Truman: (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service