Vent Haven: Ventriloquist Museum
Fort Mitchell, Kentucky
For many years we've wanted to visit Vent Haven, but we've been afraid.
We'd heard that it was in an old theater, where visitors stood on stage and looked out at rows of seats filled with nothing but hundreds of staring dummies -- and then maybe the tour guide would cut the lights.
We'd also picked up the belief, somewhere, that this museum was nearly inaccessible. We thought that visitors had to book six months in advance before they could get in, only to be scared witless by all those staring dummies.
Happily, none of this turns out to have been true. There is no scary theater. It's easy to get a tour as long as you call in advance. And if you don't mind walking through rooms filled with hundreds of silently grinning dummies, there's nothing scary here. Nothing at all....
Vent Haven ("vent" is lingo for "ventriloquist") is housed in a private home and several small outbuildings on a pleasant, tree-shaded dead-end street in a sparkle-clean southern suburb of Cincinnati. Lisa Sweasy, the curator, is an energetic encyclopedia of ventriloquism facts and history, and she understands that one of her jobs is to be candid about dummy-phobia and to put visitors' fears to rest. Her eyes flash, however, when she describes people who freak out in front of the dummies and insist, "They're staring at me!"
"Why would someone like that come here?" she asks. "Ninety percent of ventriloquism is uplifting and funny and cute. Clowns are scarier." True, and Freddy Kruger is scarier than Jason, but is that really a meaningful comparison?
We walk through room after room filled with silent dummies lining the walls, sitting in little chairs. Sometimes there are just rows of dummy heads perched on shelves. Sometimes the dummies ascend in tiers several deep, up to the ceiling, grinning from the shadows.
Some wear top hats, soldier's caps, graduation cap and gown. We spot famous people, politicians, a Jimmy Carter next to a Ronald Reagan.
The "boy" dummies outnumber the "girls" -- skewed by this historically male-dominated profession. Several are racial stereotypes -- Lisa says that black dummies drew attention away from bad ventriloquists -- and some have exaggerated Adam's Apples.
Nearly all have the harsh make-up, eyes-a-poppin', and mechanical jaws that make them so, well, scary.
Lisa explains that a dummy's exaggerated features were needed so that its facial expressions could be seen by people sitting in the back row of a theater. This means that dummies, frankly, weren't designed for medium and close camera shots on television, and most are downright creepy on the big screen.
Lisa is angry at Hollywood films that exploit this. By her standards Magic with Anthony Hopkins was a bad movie, while Dummy with Adrian Brody is a good movie. And the Chuckie films, Lisa believes, have poisoned the minds of a whole generation of potential ventriloquism fans. The frustration in her voice is evident when she says, "He's not even a dummy! He's a doll!"
There are so many dummies at Vent Haven -- 800 and increasing -- that it's difficult to know where to look. Here's Cecil Wigglenose. There's Tommy Timber. Over there is a dummy that looks like a robot. Tommy Baloney was the first of hundreds of dummies collected by William Shakespeare Berger, who outlived every other member of his family and then bequeathed his collection (and his house) to create this museum. A grinning red monkey dummy, Lisa tells us, would fetch $30,000 on E-bay -- the most valuable one in the collection.
"Where's the Hitler dummy?" we ask, half-jokingly. Lisa answers seriously that it's in storage and is never put on display.
Hundreds of publicity photos of vents and their dummies also line the walls. A lot of familiar faces are here -- Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney, Waylon Flowers and Madam -- but our favorite is the obscure "Nick Pawlow and Slappy the Zombie," whose routine consisted of various parts of Slappy falling off. That funny and cute thing again.
Lisa is forever saying, "I can tell how old you are," based on a person's knowledge of dummies. We remember, for example, Farfel the Nestle dog and Senor Wences and Victor from the Ed Sullivan show. "Yep, in your forties," she declares, with depressing accuracy. She tells us that Senor Wences got his idea for his dummy head-inside-a-box act when the suitcase containing Victor's body was lost on a train, and Senor Wences had to do a show with just Victor's head. (Vents always traveled with their dummy's head -- by far the most important part -- in a box, while the body was sent to the baggage compartment in a suitcase.)
Lisa tells us that the bond between a vent and his dummy is so strong that living vents never donate their dummies to Vent Haven, and the children of dead vents don't part with the dummies either. Grandchildren, however, aren't so attached.
"It takes two generations for a dummy to be donated," is Lisa's rule of thumb. Tops on her current wish list is Sherrie Lewis's "Lambchop," although Lisa concedes that Lambchop is a puppet, not a dummy.
We enter the last building on the tour and behold an entire "classroom" of dummies assembled in school chairs. One spot is left vacant toward the back for visitors who want a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity.
Lisa notes, with pride, that the art of the professional ventriloquist (most of whom carved their own heads) was so good that it's difficult to tell the human from the dummies in these photos. Does this mean that dummies aren't as scary -- at a distance -- as we believe? Or is it that people are much, much scarier?
"This is the best thing you'll see all day!" Lisa declares as we depart. She is right again.