William Shakespeare Berger, that’s who! The Vent Haven Museum, located in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, just 5 miles south of Cincinnati, is home to over 700 figures, photographs, playbills, and books, some of which date back to the 1700s. It is the only museum in the world dedicated to the art of ventriloquism and puppetry.
Berger, who started out as a mailroom employee for the Cambridge Tile Company in Cincinnati at the age of 16 in 1894, worked his way up to become President of the company. In New York for a business trip, “W.S.”, as he was commonly called, purchased his first ventriloquist figure, a dummy by the name of Tommy Baloney. This single purchase begat the collection and museum beloved and known to members of the “vent” community today.
The Vent Haven Museum is comprised of three buildings. The first building, The W.S. Berger Memorial Building, features a mix of amateur and professional dummies and puppets. It is here that you’ll meet Tommy Baloney.
The second building is organized chronologically to highlight the famous ventriloquists of the last 120 years. Every famous ventriloquist over the last century is represented at Vent Haven, from Edgar Bergen, the late actor and radio performer and father of actress Candice Bergen, to Shari Lewis, to Jeff Dunham. Dunham’s “Walter”, used in a Hertz Rental commercial, is on display in the museum. The museum’s collection also includes the figures that washed up on the shore when ventriloquist Will Wood died in a shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico, among other pieces of ventriloquist history.
Vent Haven’s third building focuses on figure making, a tribute to those who make dummies. The museum features a carved head that was used by a prisoner at a Russian POW camp in World War II. This prisoner, who managed to have a jackknife, performed with this figure in order to earn food for himself and his fellow inmates.
Beyond this unique collection, the museum enables audiences to form connections with dummies and the art of ventriloquism. Director Lisa Sweasy’s favorite puppet is Frank Marshall’s Stoney Broke because of his open and sweet expression (not to mention his snazzy purple jacket), and visitors are able to “meet” and engage with a large variety of puppets at the museum.
Although the museum initially began with Berger’s collection, it still receives about 8-10 dummies per year through donations. Its special exhibits building, which is usually related to a person in the vent community, is not generally shown to tourists, but is available upon request. This building is open during the annual convention for ventriloquists, of which the museum has hosted; it is the largest ventriloquist gathering in the world. Using the museum as its environment, the convention unites ventriloquists of all levels to further their artistry by interacting with seasoned professionals. The Vent Haven ConVENTion, held every July, features an Open Mic night, in addition to one-on-one sessions with vent professionals.
Vent Haven has piqued the interest of all types of visitors, regardless of an existing connection to puppetry or ventriloquism; tours are often comprised of people looking for a more animated museum experience. Although the museum is open by appointment only from May to September, its unique collections and the opportunities it presents for personal interaction with this collection highlight the enormous diversity of America’s museums.
Keah Fryar is the Plinth contributor for the Southern Region and a Freelance Exhibit Designer. Her website can be viewed here: https://sites.google.com/site/keahfryar/.