Weekend Wanderlust: The odd allure of Vent Haven awaits
Born in 1878 as the son of a German Shakespearean actor, W.S. Berger grew up around live theater. Though much of his life was spent as a Cincinnati businessman for the Cambridge Tile Company, Berger was always attracted to the stage, and especially to ventriloquism.
Berger was only ever an amateur ventriloquist (and apparently not a very good one), but he enjoyed it so much that he began collecting dummies in earnest in 1910 with the acquisition of his first piece, Tommy Baloney. As the president of the International Brotherhood of Ventriloquists from the 1940s until 1960, he championed the art form, even publishing a monthly newsletter. By proxy, his Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, home became the center of the ventriloquism universe.
Vent Haven, dedicated in 1973, now boasts a collection of over 900 dummies in the three tiny buildings Berger built to house them, and it attracts hundreds of global “vent” enthusiasts to its annual conVENTion.
This curious museum has always been on my wish list of oddball destinations to visit, but getting to Vent Haven has always been a challenge. For one, Vent Haven is not readily open to the public. Visiting requires a phone call and the promise of a private tour of the facilities at a time convenient to them. It also requires a trip across the mighty Ohio River and into Kentucky. Then, after making the proper arrangements, your temperature will be taken upon arrival and you’ll be required to wear a mask.
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All the extra precautions and an additional 45 minutes stuck on the I-75 bridge were worth it, though, as there’s nothing quite like Vent Haven anywhere in the world. While the claustrophobic confines of the museum, with dummies piled floor to ceiling, may be nightmare fuel for many, the history of the art form is as fascinating as it is varied.
“This is the only place that preserves the history of ventriloquism,” said Lisa Sweasy, Vent Haven’s current director and curator. “A lot of the dummies have been hidden away in their trunks in attics. So in that respect no one is going to see or hear about those stories until a child or a grandchild donates those pieces. We are the first place they call.”
Ventriloquism as a form of entertainment didn’t truly begin until around 1850. Before that, ventriloquism was linked to the rise of spiritualism, with dummies used as deceitful parlor tricks to conjure the dead during seances and funerals. The museum includes several Civil War-era dummies that started showing up in traveling vaudeville shows, and eventually the ventriloquist was just as essential in a variety show as the musicians, the magicians, the comedians and the burlesque.
The art form reached its peak during the advent of television, with ventriloquism’s most famous act,Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. The duo, along with another dummy, Mortimer Snerd (the prototype for Disney’s Goofy), were a sensation, starring in their own movies, licensing myriad products and becoming a regular guest on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
The museum moves through this timeline, including exhibits dedicated to Shari Lewis and Lambchop (most people’s introduction to ventriloquism) and Willie Tyler and Lester, then a notable decline in the ‘80s, when ventriloquism all but vanished from popular culture.
Sweasy, an expert on ventriloquism, asked whom I thought of when I thought about famous ventriloquists. The only performer who came to mind was Jeff Dunham, who is celebrated with seemingly his own wing at Vent Haven, but whose act has always struck me as problematic, if not racist. This brought about a long conversation about the anachronistic nature of ventriloquism performance — among the stacks of dummies were some in blackface, some with accentuated features and some that played to stereotypes.
“Stereotyping in ventriloquism is pretty common. It was an establishing characteristic, because the entire point of ventriloquism is to create a new identity in contrast to the ventriloquist,” Sweasy said. “Of course there are instances of sexism and racism in ventriloquism’s history, but for the most part, the voices, accents and characteristics that a ventriloquist attaches to a dummy [are] more about the stagecraft — not insensitive, and definitely not cruel. If you sound just like your dummy, no one’s going watch.”
With that argument in mind, the museum tends to be more willing to confront past controversies and progressions rather than sweep it under the rug. The last part of the tour showed, in fact, that ventriloquism is evolving out of the past. The popularity of "America’s Got Talent" has sparked a new love for ventriloquism, with two winners,Terry Fator and 15-year-old Darci Lynne Farmer, selling out Vegas residencies and increasing interest in the history that Vent Haven offers.
While I can’t say I was inspired to take up ventriloquism after my visit, I did acquire a newfound interest in those who choose to pursue the art form. And as long as Vent Haven remains in Fort Mitchell, the history of ventriloquism — warts and all — will have an odd and intriguing place to call home.
33 W. Maple Ave.
Fort Mitchell, Kentucky
Visitthe website for instructions on how to book your own private tour.