FORT MITCHELL, Ky. — The world's only ventriloquism museum recently opened the doors to its new and improved building in northern Kentucky.
It’s now a lot more suitable for the nearly 1,200 dummies who call it home, and guests who travel from all over to see them.
Some people couldn’t be paid to spend more than a few minutes alone in a room with some of the more lifelike dummies on display at the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell. Museum curator Lisa Sweasy said she gets it, but tries to help anyone hesitant to visit the museum understand why that fear exists.
“The uncanny valley is this feeling that there is life in an inanimate object, which is the point of ventriloquism and puppetry, right? None of these are alive, but because they have human faces, your brain wants them to be. And for some people, that is very off-putting,” Sweasy said. “That’s what the ventriloquist is for, is to break the uncanny valley and make you believe that it is, in fact, a living person, or animal, or object.”
A former high school math teacher from Massachusetts with no background in ventriloquism becoming the curator for the world’s one and only ventriloquism museum in northern Kentucky of all places might seem unlikely to some people.
But it makes perfect sense to Sweasy.
“I came to see the collection in 1999, just to check it out. And as soon as I saw them, and kind of embraced the uniqueness and oddity, and the color and the number, the size of this collection, I was instantly interested,” she said. “I just fell in love with this place.”
A year later, in 2000, she became curator. She’s also on the board of directors for the museum. Sweasy guides tours, taking guests through the history of ventriloquism.
“It’s a pretty neat little timeline to show how the art form began, and then kind of became super common, and ubiquitous. Then to the ebbs and tides of it, back to where we are now, which is it being back in the public consciousness because of Jeff Dunham, and people like Darci Lynne Farmer,” she said.
Farmer was a winner on America’s Got Talent. Dunham, likely the most well-known modern ventriloquist, is a major contributor to the museum. The 60-seat Jeff Dunham Theater, a new addition at the museum, is named after the ventriloquist famous for bringing the likes of Achmed, Jose Jalapeno, Walter and Peanut to life.
What they and all the greats featured at the museum, like Jay Johnson, Jimmy Nelson and Terry Fator, have in common, Sweasy said, is a mastery over their dummy, their lips and their voices. They also, crucially, have to be funny.
“There are very many technical ventriloquists. They’re great at the skill, but then they don’t have good writers, or they’re not able to write themselves, and the material isn’t funny. So there’s a lot going on to be a successful ventriloquist,” she said. “The ultimate goal, of course, is creating this illusion that you’re in a comedy team. That it’s a duo, and not just this monologue.”
Sweasy can tell visitors all about the 1,141 dummies, puppets and marionettes on display at the museum. And she won’t skip the ones depicting harmful stereotypes that were common in their era. She will instead take the opportunity to educate about the context in which they were used.
“All kinds of people are misrepresented and hurtfully represented. Because the ventriloquist was either callous, and didn’t care or know, or they are so focused on differentiating that character from themselves, that they don’t care,” she said.
Sweasy is, after all, a teacher at heart, and not a ventriloquist. Guests will assuredly not catch her sticking her hand in any of the dummies to try out a bit. She can, however, give a lesson on one-sound substitution.
“You just would not animate someone else’s dummy. They already have a character and a voice, and the operator’s not here. So I just take care of everything and tell the stories,” Sweasy said.
She also won’t say which one is her favorite.
“It’s like having kids, right? You don’t want to specify that you’ve got a favorite. But there certainly are tourist favorites, and that’s almost always demographic based,” she said.
Older people, for example, might want to see Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Others might prefer Shari Lewis’ Lambchop, Willie Tyler’s Lester, or any of Jimmy Nelson’s famous pieces.
Museum founder W.S. Berger started his dummy collection with just a handful of dummies. That grew to 500 when he died in 1972, and featured some of the most famous pieces from the biggest names in ventriloquism, like Edgar Bergen. For decades, the museum consisted of four small buildings.
“And as this collection grew, it was just packed wall-to-wall with dummies and photographs. So we needed space, probably 30 years ago. But we didn’t have the funding, and we didn’t have the zoning,” Sweasy said.
After finally clearing those hurdles, thanks to $1.2 million in fundraising, the museum closed for construction in 2021, and just recently opened back up to the public in a new building on the same property. Double its previous size, it’s now handicap accessible, has a proper HVAC system and proper lighting. And maybe best of all, Sweasy said, a bathroom.
It’s something you visitors won’t find anywhere else, which Sweasy views as a great draw for a region she has grown to love.
“We’re a little museum, but we’re doing our part to contribute to the cultural vibe around the area,” she said.
Tours cost $15 and are by appointment only. There are no drop in hours.
People can schedule a visit on the Vent Haven Museum website.
The museum is also home to the Vent Haven Ventriloquist Convention, which takes place this year from July 12 to July 15. It features 400 to 500 ventriloquists, who come from a dozen countries.