Ventriloquist Dummies Find Final resting Places at Vent Haven
By Jackie Sheckler Finch
Hundreds of eyes stare at me. Unblinking lifeless eyes. A bit unsettling. But, of course, what gave life to these unmoving creatures were the talented ventriloquists behind them.
“This is the only ventriloquism museum in the world,” says Lisa Sweasy, curator of Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. “Our founder, W.S. Berger, spent more than 40 years amassing a personal collection of everything related to ventriloquism.”
Many of the ventriloquists whose dummies and puppets are among the almost 1,000 on display are no longer around. But the pint-sized partners still sit, as though waiting for someone to make them move and talk again.
“We do call them dummies,” Lisa says with a smile, quickly adding, “You can call them whatever you want. It is hard to offend something made of wood.”
But each of these wooden characters seems to have a personality of his or her own. “They are all unique,” Lisa says, pointing out the different faces, hairstyles, ages, sexes and clothing.
The man who started the collection is a fascinating story himself. William Shakespeare Berger, known as W.S., was just 17 when he began working in the mail room of Cincinnati’s Cambridge Tile Company in 1895. In 1947, W.S. retired as company president.
Although he wasn’t a ventriloquist, W.S. loved the entertainment form and bought his first figure, Tommy Baloney, in 1910. At first, he kept his growing collection of figures in his Fort Mitchell home.
“After he had collected about 100 dummies and filling three of the four bedrooms with them, his wife had had enough and asked W.S. to move the collection outside to the garage,” Lisa says.
Creating homes for ‘dummies’
W.S. did just that. He renovated his garage to display his dummies, puppets, and memorabilia. Today, that massive collection is spread across four buildings and is hoping to move into an even larger facility.
Along the way, W.S. became president of the International Brotherhood of Ventriloquists.
Then there’s the huge International Ventriloquist ConVENTion held every July (except in 2020 because of COVID-19) at Vent Haven. The event regularly has about 600 ventriloquists from around the world.
W.S. was 94 when he died in 1972. “He had outlived his sons and grandson and had no other heirs so he set up a charitable foundation in 1963 to be sure his collection was kept together,” Lisa says.
“In 1973, the building in his name was publicly dedicated and the museum was officially opened to the public.”
In the museum, the Wayland Flowers puppet Madame strikes a distinctive stance and looks poised to give a mouthy monologue. A tall buxom blonde seems ready to have a wardrobe malfunction.
Other treasures are a Lamb Chop sock puppet made famous by Shari Lewis and a replica of Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy sporting a tux, top hat, and monocle.
One of the oldest Vent Haven dummies was made by tinsmith Henry Hunter who created the doll to entertain his buddies while serving in the Civil War. Then there’s an unusual circa 1900s figure that converts from a full-sized nurse to a grandfather clock.
Fascinating ventriloquist stories
Among the fascinating stories is one about ventriloquist Jules Vernon, whose set of dummies now resides at Vent Haven. A famous vaudeville performer (1867-1937), Jules used seven characters who would converse with each other and with Jules who easily switched from one dummy voice to another. Jules went blind suddenly in 1918, said to be a complication of the flu.
However, Jules continued to travel and perform while never revealing to his audience that he was blind.
To do this, Jules’ wife would place his puppets together on a bench on stage and whisper to him from the wings of the stage to allow him to walk unassisted to the dummies. Jules died at age 70 when he was hit by a speeding taxi in San Francisco on May 17, 1937.
For a bit of history, the word “vent” is short for ventriloquists. A ventriloquist uses misdirection to create the impression that a voice is coming from someone or somewhere else. The words come from the Latin words “venter” meaning “belly” and “loqui” meaning “to speak.” Basically, people believed that early ventriloquists had demons in their stomachs who belched words.
The history of ventriloquism goes back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. In fact, it is thought that the Oracle of Delphi in Greek history was actually a ventriloquist. By the 18th century, ventriloquism had become entertainment and some performers began to use dolls in their acts for fun banter.
Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney
Then along came Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney, Jimmy Nelson with his shaggy dog Farfel and Señor Wences with Johnny and Pedro.
The Spanish Señor would draw a childlike face on his hand and place it atop a headless doll. Adding a wig above his hand, Señor would have Johnny open and close his mouth and talk.
The story goes that Señor developed his skills as a youngster when he would imitate classmates and answer “present” when they were absent as teacher took the morning roll call.
Another of Señor’s characters was a gruff-voiced head in a box named Pedro who would growl “It’s all right.”
Pedro was said to have been created when Señor’s regular, full-size dummy was destroyed during a 1936 train accident on the way to Chicago. To end his routine, Señor would juggle and spin plates while Johnny and Pedro heckled him.
Ventriloquism still popular today
Ventriloquist Terry Fator won the second season of America’s Got Talent television show and now performs in Las Vegas and around the country.
Terry uses many characters in his performance, including dummy impersonators of Elvis, Elton John, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin.
While there are several dummies that visitors can pick up and operate at Vent Haven, the rest of the dummies are not to be touched.
“The museum founder didn’t want a ventriloquist to work in the museum,” Lisa says. “He promised donors that when their dummies came here, they could be taken care of but no one would try to make them speak.”
That would be a major no-no, Lisa explains. “You never handle someone else’s dummy and you definitely don’t animate it. Only those ventriloquists who have developed these characters can give them a voice.”
For more information: Contact Vent Haven Museum at (859) 341-0461, It’s located in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. website.