I didn't plan it that way but Tuesday's outing to Vent Haven Museum was almost like an extension of Friday's Dixie Highway drive. I'd thought of breakfast at the Anchor Grill, which is right on the Dixie Highway, before I realized that the day's destination was itself barely a hundred yards off of the Dixie. But I immediately and completely accepted the Dixie Highway connection and drove over the Roebling Bridge for a goetta and cheese omelet at the Anchor then on down the Dixie to my date at the museum. The museum is open by appointment only but they're easy to get; Just call. When I did, I found I was able to join an already scheduled tour. There were a total of six of us when Curator Jennifer Dawson unlocked the door of the building just to the right of center in the last photo of the first row. Tours start at W.S. Berger's former garage which is where Berger first relocated his collection when his wife informed him that it had outgrown the house. That was in 1947, the same year Berger retired. He sold his car, embraced public transportation, and filled the space with dummies, photos, and other ventriloquial memorabilia.
Stepping into the room, I briefly felt as if I was late to a meeting where a crowd had already gathered. But that sensation quickly passed as I became engrossed in studying the rows of carved and molded faces. The first picture of the second row hints at the scene on entry. The next is of the similarly occupied room to the left. Two of the oldest items at Vent Haven are on the shelf at the far end of that second room. Berger recorded that the paper mache heads were made around 1820 but the consensus is that, while quite old, 1820 is probably a bit early. While his body patiently awaits, Jennifer uses Herkimer Hicks' head to demonstrate some of the controls. The head is, of course, the most important part of a ventriloquial figure and, while a body might travel as baggage, the head was rarely out of the ventriloquist's reach. Sometimes it is all that survives.
The third row contains some well known dummies displayed in a second building. Figures in the first picture are some that museum founder W.S. Berger personally used. Tommy Baloney, in the lower left corner, is the first he ever purchased -- in 1910 -- and the seed from which the collection grew. Berger had Jacko, complete with hurdy gurdy, made by the McElroy brothers (more on them in a bit) around 1940. Jacko is the official mascot of the annual ConVENTion hosted by the museum. Then there is Edgar Bergen's Charlie McCarthy & Mortimer Snerd and Paul Winchell's Jerry Mahoney & Knucklehead Smiff. Not shown are figures used by currently active ventriloquists Jay Johnson and Jeff Dunham. In connection with this year's ConVENTion, a former storage building on the property was converted to exhibit space and dedicated to ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson. The special Nelson display assembled for the ConVENTion is still in place and we were able to view but not photograph it.
The last building comes in second to the old garage for number of figures housed. The two recently arrived dummies in the second picture are on loan from 2007 America's Got Talent winner Terry Fator. In the third picture, Jennifer shows us a leather faced figure whose mouth operates without the visible lines of "nutcracker" style dummies. When I mentioned the McElroy brothers earlier I promised I would return to them. The brothers, George and Glenn, were Cincinnatians who produced some wonderful ventriloquial figures in the 1930s & '40s. They were stopped by the outbreak of World War II and never resumed. No one knows how many "McElroys" were produced with estimates running from a couple dozen to around one hundred. Vent Haven has nine: The previously mentioned Jacko, Cecil Wigglenose (a many functioned figure used in demonstrations), and the entire second row in the last picture. Of course, they're not the only out of work dummies in that picture.
All Vent Haven photos are used here with the much appreciated permission of the museum. Vent Haven has a very liberal policy regarding taking photos but a fairly tight one regarding any form of publication including personal blogs and websites. A big reason for that is simply to head off claims that the museum is a scary place. Yes, there are people who find ventriloquist dummies frightening and, to them, a room full could be quite unsettling. Those people should simply stay away. For others, Vent Haven is a wonderful place to see several hundred examples of art and craft work including many which were once someone's "companions" and/or livelihood.
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