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In Northern Kentucky, you will find the world’s only museum dedicated to ventriloquy. The Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell has recently moved into a new home and provides a unique experience to learn more about this art form.
Just a ten-minute drive south of Cincinnati, Ohio, or a twenty-minute drive from the Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, this museum was founded fifty years ago and has been enjoyed by locals, conventioneers (the Museum hosts and annual convention), and visitors alike.
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The greater Cincinnati area is rich with Museums and a stop here is truly a unique experience.
Annually, the Vent Haven International Ventriloquist Convention attracts hundreds of registered guests for a weekend of workshops and events. They share that even if you are new to the art, this convention, run by professionals, is welcoming and the place to learn and have fun with the art of ventriloquism. The next convention is in July 2024.
Their new digs (opened in May 2023) allow the collection to shine, and dummies are thoughtfully laid out in chronological order with room for special exhibitions. Your tour begins with an informative short film about the founder (William Shakespeare Berger) and highlights several famous ventriloquists, all of whom are represented in the Museum’s collection.
The Museum shares, “Vent Haven Museum was founded by Cincinnati native William Shakespeare Berger, known to his friends as W.S. He was not a professional ventriloquist. In 1895, when he was just 17, W.S. began working in the mail room of the Cambridge Tile Company in Cincinnati, and in 1947, he retired as president of the company.”
“The collection began when W.S. purchased his first figure, Tommy Baloney, in 1910. At first, he kept the figures in his home in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, but the collection grew rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1947, he renovated his garage to house the dummies, and in 1962 he built a second building.”
Berger died in 1972 and by that time he’d arranged for his collection to be shared as a museum and that continues today as this beloved non-profit celebrates its new home. Within the Museum, there is a tribute to Berger. And the name “Vent Haven”? Well, Berger intended it to be a haven for ventriloquism dummies, a retirement home, if you will.
While some people might find these dummies creepy, each has its own story, and many are fascinating. Case in point, the dummies who survived a shipwreck that killed their owner and his child, only to be washed ashore in their trunk many days later. They are here, silently waiting to be reunited. Well, hopefully not, but don’t hang around this corner too long unless you want to find out.
Early models are intriguing: carved from wood or made from papier-mâché and are simple by modern standards, simple, but effective. These were staples of the Vaudeville era and continue to entertain thanks to contemporaries.
With some 1,200 examples in the collection, there is something that will resonate with you, from Jeff Dunham’s creations, Shari Lewis’ Lamb Chop, Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy, and Willie Tyler’s Lester. Darci Lynne, of “America’s Got Talent” fame also has costumes and dummies on display.
You’ll also enjoy learning about the very talented ventriloquist dummy makers who bring these creations to life, including the McElroy brothers from nearby Harrison, Ohio.
Through several galleries, you’ll be led through this collection and learn about the skills used to both create and perform. Videos and ephemera support the stories, and your guide will share many stories along the way. Tours generally last 60-90 minutes.
Ventriloquist, stand-up comedian and actor, Jeff Dunham, has been a long-time supporter of the Museum. He serves on their Board of Advisors and donated the funds to create their theater. A display devoted to him includes his iconic characters including Walter and Peanut.
Even if you are not a fan, as the only museum dedicated to ventriloquism in the world, it’s well worth a visit. Of particular interest is the section known as the Bleacher Room, where can view an entire wall of seated dummies. At the end of the tour, you even get to try your hand at manipulating a dummy yourself.
The Museum does not accept walk-ins and limits the tours to ten people, but it is easy to obtain a timed ticket on their website. Check in advance for seasonal hours.
More Fun Museums Nearby
If unique museums are on your travel go-to list, be sure to also visit the American Sign Museum and the Lucky Cat Museum while in the region.
Cincinnati’s American Sign Museum is a gem of a collection of lovingly curated (and often restored) signs from all walks of life. Many locals will recognize signs from area businesses that have closed, and everyone will recognize larger names, such as Mcdonald’s.
As businesses end or signs are replaced for more modern ones, the Sign Museum steps in and saves them from the landfill. The result is a very engaging museum with multiple galleries dedicated to all manner of signage. Their Main Street area is a popular spot for photographers and a brightly lit walk down memory lane.
Founder Tod Swormstedt led the charge decades ago to save and preserve signs and the collection represents over 100 years of signage and is the biggest collection in the United States.
Within the Museum you will also find Neonworks of Cincinnati, the only local operating full-time neon sign shop, a library (by appointment), and a gift shop.
Cincinnati’s Lucky Cat Museum brings smiles to many feline enthusiasts at the Essex Studios in the Walnut Hills neighborhood. Their whimsical collection is bringing smiles to non-feline enthusiasts as well. Who could resist hundreds of brightly colored kitties raising a paw in your honor? Beckoning you. Welcoming you. “Join us and be lucky”, they seem to be saying.
Collector, curator and cat-lady extraordinaire, Micha Robertson, is the brains behind the Lucky Cat Museum founded in 2012 and growing ever since. To date, there are over 2,000 examples in her collection. The Museum also features a small gift shop. Open by appointment and during the Essex Studios’ Art Walks.
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Author Bio: Mary Casey-Sturk is an Editor and Writer for Living Magazines (Kentucky) as well as a contributor to Smoky Mountain Living Magazine (North Carolina). Mary is also a content developer, freelance travel, food, wine and features writer and the author of “Eating Cheese Curds With Strangers”.