DEBBIE ELLIOTT, Host:
This week hundreds of ventriloquists from all over the world will descend on Fort Mitchell, Kentucky for the 30th Anniversary International Ventriloquists Convention. Why Fort Mitchell, Kentucky? Because that's the home of Vent Haven, a museum devoted to the great figures of ventriloquism, both human and wooden. Naomi Lewin of Cincinnati Public Radio went to Vent Haven and sent this report.
NAOMI LEWIN: Every since the death of vaudeville and its television equivalent, The Ed Sullivan Show, ventriloquism almost seems to have gone mute. But for most of the 20th century, ventriloquism was a huge part of popular culture. And strangest of all for such a visual art form, ventriloquism's biggest stars were an enormous hit on the radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)
C: And back again with us in Hollywood, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
EDGAR BERGEN: I am told that I tell a story very well.
CHARLIE MCCARTHY: Well, there again you've got to stop talking to yourself, that's all.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MCCARTHY: I like those little digs you know. I love them.
BERGEN: All right.
LEWIN: Edgar Bergen was the world's most famous vent, as ventriloquists refer to themselves. Vent Haven is the legacy of William S. - for Shakespeare - Berger, a Cincinnati native who rose through the ranks to become president of a local tile company. On a business trip to New York, Berger, who was also an amateur ventriloquist bought the first of many dummies, or figures, as Vent Haven curator Lisa Sweasy calls them.
LISA SWEASY: Originally he kept the figures in his home, in the dining room and in one of the upstairs bedrooms. And when it outgrew those two rooms and he tried to take over another room, his wife kicked him and his collection out.
LEWIN: Actually, she just kicked them out to the garage. That's now one of four low buildings that house the museum on a quiet residential street not far from the interstate. Before he died in 1972 Berger set up a trust to maintain his collection. At that point there were 500 figures, now there are over 700. The surge in population comes from donations, vents and their heirs all wanting to part of this unique repository of ventriloqual(ph) lore. On her guided tour, Sweasy is quick to name well-known performers who started out as ventriloquists.
SWEASY: Do you remember Ted Knight from the Mary Tyler Moore show? It was Ted Baxter of the Mary Tyler Show. He was a ventriloquist as a young man, as were a lot of other people. Don Knotts was a ventriloquist, Johnny Carson was a ventriloquist as a young man, so was Steve Allen and Rudy Vallee.
LEWIN: Pulling on a pair of cotton curator's gloves, Sweasy picks up a goofy looking guy with a prominent Adams apple.
SWEASY: This is Herkimer Hicks. He belonged to Ted Knight. This is a traditional figure. It's got a neck pole here with a ring in the back and his mechanism here for his eyes to move back and forth. It goes like this. Sometimes there's a lever on the back of the neck pole and then there's a string that goes up into the neck and there's a spring at the base of the jaw, so that when I pull the ring or the lever it will pull the string, which compacts the spring, and that opens and closes the mouth.
LEWIN: Most figures also have highly exaggerated facial features.
SWEASY: An oversized eye is very common because primarily these figures were used on stage and that was one way of keeping the audience believing that the figure was alive and not a doll. Mouths are often very red in order to draw the audience members' eyes to the mouth of the figure and away from the mouth of the ventriloquist.
JIMMIE NELSON: There's no such thing as throwing your voice. You control the voice, but you don't throw it.
LEWIN: Jimmie Nelson is the last remaining great from the heyday of ventriloquism. One of his figures has a place of pride at Vent Haven: Farfel, the floppy-eared hound who starred with dummy Danny O'Day and Nelson, in TV commercials for Nestle's Quick.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV COMMERCIAL)
DANNY O: (Singing) N - E - S - T - L - E - S... Nestle's makes the very best - chocolate.
NELSON: Ventriloquism is misdirection, just like a magician. You know, you make - he makes you look at the right hand, but it's the left hand that's really doing it. The ventriloquist moves the mouth of the ventriloquist figure and talks without moving his lips, if the illusion is there.
LEWIN: In 1964 Jimmie Nelson put out a record called Instant Ventriloquism. That's how many of today's ventriloquists learned their craft, including Jeff Dunham. Two of his alter egos are at Vent Haven, Peanut and Walter.
(SOUNDBITE OF VENTRILOQUIST PERFORMANCE)
JEFF DUNHAM: Walter, tell me how your kids are doing.
WALTER: Oh, all right. I'm proud of my daughter but my son's an idiot.
DUNHAM: What do you mean?
WALTER: A good day for him is when he buttons his shirt and it comes out even. I tell you that boy - the wheel is turning but the hamster is dead.
LEWIN: With shows like Sherri Lewis and Ed Sullivan gone from the airwaves, kids don't get much exposure to ventriloquism. So Vent Haven doesn't attract a lot of school groups. Lisa Sweasy says the visitors who enjoy the museum most and really make her day are senior citizens. For them Vent Haven is like a fountain of youth.
SWEASY: They get off the bus or the van and they're 80. They walk slowly and they - they're just their age. And somehow coming through the museum it reminds them so much of what entertained them as young adults that when they leave, they're lighter.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)
BERGEN: Now shall I read you past first?
MCCARTHY: Do you think you can?
BERGEN: I don't think, I know.
MCCARTHY: I don't think you know either.
LEWIN: And Charlie McCarthy knows those are the kinds of jokes his fellow dummies will be tossing around at the ventriloquist's convention. The convention is closed to the public but the Vent Haven Museum of Ventriloquism is open May through September by appointment. For NPR News, I'm Naomi Lewin in Cincinnati.
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