The names Tommy Baloney, Knucklehead Smiff, Farfel the Dog and Lamb Chop may not ring a bell for many people, but for ventriloquists they read like a who’s-who list of some of the craft’s most notable characters. And there’s only one place to see them all together in one spot: the Vent Haven Museum.
Since its founding in the early 1970s, the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, located just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, has been the only museum in the world dedicated entirely to ventriloquism, a stagecraft that involves a person “throwing” his or her voice to make it appear as if a doll or dummy is the one speaking. Today the museum serves as the final resting place for nearly 1,000 dummies, with some dating as far back as the Civil War.
Ventriloquism has a long and storied history, with some of the first references to the craft found in Egyptian and Hebrew archaeology. Over time ventriloquism was practiced worldwide by a number of cultures, but it wasn't referred to as such until the 16th century when Louis Brabant, valet to King Francis I, began performing for the French king and his court. Not only was ventriloquism seen as a form of entertainment, but at one time it was also considered a religious practice that some believed was a way for God to speak through a human. (Conversely, some people, such as Joseph Glanvill, author of the 16th century book Saducismus Triumphus: Or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions, claimed that ventriloquism was a form of demon possession and was an example of the devil using a human as a "mouthpiece.")
Some of the most notable pieces in the collection are the dummies that once belonged to well-known ventriloquists like Jeff Dunham, Shari Lewis and Terry Fator. Vent Haven is also home to a replica of Charlie McCarthy, who once belonged to ventriloquist and actor Edgar Bergen. (The original is now part of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History collection and made its debut in 1936 on Rudy Valée’s radio show.)
“What is amazing about the museum is that about 95 percent of what is here is one of a kind,” she says. “Ventriloquists would use a dummy for their whole career [and then donate it to us]. If you were to pick any dummy at random, it’s unique, which I think is pretty amazing about this collection.”
During a visit to the museum, Sweasy takes visitors on a guided hour-long tour of its massive collection, which is spread across four buildings. (In recent years, the museum has again outgrown its home, and it's currently doing a capital funds campaign to move into a larger facility.) No two tours are the same, and Sweasy prides herself on tailoring each to visitors who come from as far away as Japan, South Africa, Germany and Argentina to see the collection. It's also a popular stop during the annual Vent Haven International Ventriloquist Convention each July, a four-day event with lectures and performances held in nearby Erlanger, Kentucky. And while there are several dummies that were donated with the sole purpose to give visitors the chance to tinker with and see how they operate, the rest of the dummies are completely off limits—even to Sweasy.
“The way the founder wrote the charter is that he did not want a ventriloquist to work here," she says. "He would promise donors that once their dummies got here they would be taken care of and kept clean and in good condition, but he didn’t want anyone to animate them out of respect, because the owner [who was its voice] is no longer here."
If you think of it in terms of musical instruments, it makes a lot of sense. It could be considered pretty offensive if someone picked up Chuck Berry's guitar Lucille and played it. Vent Haven subscribes to a similar philosophy. "You never handle someone else’s dummy, in particular you don’t animate it," says Sweasy, "because the ventriloquists have spent a lot of time developing those characters and giving them a voice.”
The Vent Haven Museum is open for tours by appointment ($10 donations are encouraged) from May through September.