Vent Haven Museum showcases the art of ventriloquism

Greater Cincinnati is full of intriguing cultural institutions and attractions across the spectrum. One that claims to be unique in all the world caught our attention. Movers & Makers posed a series of questions to Executive Director Lisa Sweasy about Fort Mitchell’s Vent Haven Museum, its collection and the art of ventriloquism.

Executive Director Lisa Sweasy with Lamb Chop
Executive Director Lisa Sweasy with Lamb Chop

What attracted you to this unique institution? And had you visited before applying/working here? 

I learned about Vent Haven in the fall of 1999 and was immediately captivated by the uniqueness of the collection. I didn’t know much at all about ventriloquism. … It was the singular focus and offbeat topic that drew me in. Like most of my visitors, my jaw dropped when I first saw the dummies and puppets. … The sheer number of them was stunning.
I began working here in 2000.

What’s the proper terminology for these ventriloquist figures? Dolls? Something else?

While there’s no official lexicon, typically the traditional wooden and papier-mâché pieces are called dummies and have a headstick for controlling the mouth. Some ventriloquists, like Jeff Dunham with his character Peanut, use soft puppets where the ventriloquist’s hand is directly opening and closing the mouth. Mass-produced toys typically have a string that comes out of the back of the neck that is pulled to open and close the mouth. I use all three terms here: dummies, puppets and toys.

Who enjoys their visits more: kids or adults? And why?

 Visitors here are from all age groups and backgrounds and respond to the collection differently. Vent Haven isn’t a “hands-on” museum, so it’s not really recommended for small children. Some people visit because of the novelty of the subject, some because of nostalgia. Photographers and other artists see the collection as folk art. I love seeing the museum through the eyes of others and I personalize the tour for each type of guest.

How would you describe how people react to being in a room with these human-like figures?

Typically, people have seen photos online of the museum, so the reaction isn’t as dramatic as it was prior to the internet. Still, it’s a lot of faces at once. Most people remark that it’s much more than they expected and are in awe of the collection.

How do you respond to people who may find them creepy?

I frequently talk about the “uncanny valley” (a term for the negative reaction some people have to robots, puppets and the like) and dissect the response with people. Most people are fascinated by their own reactions and want to learn more about them. For people whose only connection to ventriloquism is a scary movie or book, they aren’t typically creeped out after taking a tour and becoming more educated about why the response exists.

Which is your favorite among the collection and why?

I don’t really have a favorite. Each dummy has its own history and story. Learning those histories makes each piece special to me.

What is your favorite acquisition story?

Our founder, W.S. Berger, wanted to buy a dummy from a retired ventriloquist in 1954. The ventriloquist declined to sell it and said that his son wanted to keep it for sentimental reasons. Mr. Berger replied that if the son ever wanted to sell it, to let him know. End of story – for 60 years. In November of 2014, I got an email from a nursing home on the West Coast. The son had kept the dummy with him and when he passed, the staff looked through his belongings. There was a note in the back of the dummy that said, “Send me to Vent Haven.” I was so excited to receive this piece, knowing that our founder had desired it all those years ago.

Who should visit Vent Haven and why? What should they know before visiting?

Vent Haven is a must-see attraction for everyone, in my opinion. Whether a person is interested in ventriloquism, puppetry, history, art or just looking for something different to do, Vent Haven is the right place for them. ν

The museum is open May through September, by appointment only. 859-341-0461, curator@venthaven.org or www.venthaven.org


Captions below supplied by Lisa Sweasy of Vent Haven Museum.

  • Rosita was made and used by Bill Hume. Hume entertained troops during WWII.
  • Lillie was made in the early twentieth century in Chicago. She was used by a vaudeville ventriloquist named Valentine Vox.
  • The nurse sits on a box base and converts to a grandfather clock.
  • Jacko the Monkey sits atop a Russian barrel organ. Jacko is a favorite among visitors and ventriloquists.
  • These two heads from England are papier mache and have glass eyes. Tourists are often struck by their realism.
  • These five dummies were part of the set used by vaudevillian ventriloquist L.L. Brooks. At that time, dummies of various races and nationalities were used to showcase the ventriloquist’s vocal range.
  • The bleacher room features 125 dummies of the nearly 1200 in the Vent Haven collection. This cross-section represents dummies from around the world.
  • Each year around two dozen puppets and dummies are donated to Vent Haven. These are part of the class of 2024.
  • One of the new exhibits at Vent Haven focuses on the history of Punch and Judy.
  • These life-sized dummies were made and used by duo Garray & Tomio.
  • Ventriloquist Jim Teter used these presidential dummies to do political humor from the 1970’s through the early 2000’s.
  • Cecil Wigglenose, Vent Haven curator Lisa Sweasy, and Ditty Talk Hawkins. Both dummies were made in the 1930’s by George and Glenn McElroy of Harrison, Ohio.



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