FORT MITCHELL — Your first reaction is speechlessness.
Your second will probably be a wave of nostalgia, an appreciation for a faded art form — or perhaps a deep, unsettling fear.
Because when you step into Vent Haven — the only museum in the world dedicated to ventriloquism — there are 835 dummies staring back at you. That’s 1,670 eyeballs of various shapes and sizes.
Some of these creations can spit. Others can roll their eyes, wiggle their ears, flip their hair, stick out their tongues, or move their noses. One can smoke.
There’s a woman who is about to pop out of her dress, another whose breasts are made to move as she walks, and a third who has actual human teeth in her mouth.
There are men in top hats, others missing most of their teeth. One is made to look like Ronald Reagan (rosy cheeks, a large mane of thick black hair), another like Jimmy Carter (teeth that look like super-sized Chiclets).
“Welcome!” museum curator Lisa Sweasy says cheerfully, adding later, “We never know who’s going to be drawn to us.”
‘We are alike more than we’re different. The same things are funny, the same things are off-putting. People come here expecting it to be dark or creepy. But in the end they feel different.’
For some reason, they drew me.
I admit I came of age when irony, not slapstick, was the comedy du jour. My humor is guided more by the wryness of Seinfeld than the theatrics of vaudeville. I remember watching Johnny Carson but growing up with David Letterman.
This place, tucked off the Interstate in a suburb of Cincinnati is no doubt unique.
It all started with a businessman, William Shakespeare Berger (his real name), who in 1910 bought his first dummy, named Tommy Baloney, on a trip to New York. He brought Tommy out and got the occasional laugh at parties, but didn’t start collecting until the 1930s. Eventually, his collection grew to 100. After filling the dining room and a bedroom, his wife forced him, and his dummies, to the garage.
He later built a second building, and now there’s a third.
Berger became president of the International Brotherhood of Ventriloquists, and he published a monthly magazine that covered the ventriloquist community.
He wrote letters to ventriloquists around the world, encouraging them to donate their dummies to him when their careers were over. And he named his place Vent Haven because ventriloquists call themselves “vents” — although the museum has gotten confused queries from people looking for a museum on HVAC systems.
Berger outlived his entire family, leaving him no heirs. Worried that his collection would disperse upon his death, he set up a charitable foundation with several stipulations.
One of them was that the curator must not be a professional ventriloquist (he worried that professionals would be reluctant to donate their dummies if they thought the curator would use them on tour). Another is that the curator has to live in his home.
Now this place has become mecca to ventriloquists (they have a convention every year — it’s called their ConVENTion — but it’s too big to be held here, so it’s at a Marriott a few miles away). And the industry feels like a bit of a resurgence.
Come here, and they’ll remind you that Terry Fator in 2007 won “America’s Got Talent” with his ventriloquist act. And ventriloquist Jay Johnson won a Tony Award in 2007 for his Broadway show “The Two and Only.”
Matthew Rolston — a photographer and filmmaker whose subjects have included Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Beyoncé — became intrigued. He spent several days at Vent Haven taking portraits of them, compiling them in a 2013 book titled “Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits.”
The museum is not one you stumble across; you have to seek it out. There are no signs on the Interstate 71/75, and you have to schedule an appointment. And when you arrive, you find a mixture of retirement home (these dummies are not meant to perform again) and hall of fame, for both the ventriloquists and their dummies.
There’s Señor Wences, the Spanish ventriloquist who was on the Ed Sullivan Show 48 times. There’s Paul Winchell, a ventriloquist who did voices for Tigger in Disney “Winnie the Pooh” films, Gargamel on “The Smurfs,” and the Owl from old Tootsie Roll commercials. (He also patented an artificial heart, a disposable razor, and battery heated gloves; “When I learned about Paul Winchell,” Sweasy says, “I thought I was being punked”).
There are figures like Skinny Hamilton, who was Berger’s favorite and is the only one mentioned in his will. Berger said that if everything else has to be sold in his estate, Skinny should be preserved and donated to an orphans home in Louisville. “Do not dispose of this figure as Skinny is part of me,” Berger wrote.
The museum, which is open from May to September and requires appointments, attracts up to 1,500 tourists a year. The day I visited, there were tours and people from Australia, Chicago, and Tullahoma, Tenn. There is merchandise for sale, including T-shirts, mugs, hats, postcards for $1, and a Little Jeff Dummy for $125.
But at some point, it may strike you that you’re in a room full of hundreds of creations that are meant to be hilarious — but there’s no one to operate them. So they sit silent. And stare at you. With unblinking eyes.
It’s a feeling that is both disconcerting and intriguing at the same time.
“In our society it is so inappropriate to stare at someone,” Sweasy said. “You’re either going to hit them or kiss them — it’s a very intimate thing to do. So these things with eyes staring at you — it is intimidating.”
The more normal looking the face, she says, the more bothered people are by it.
If anything, these creatures reminded me of the first horror film I remember seeing, “Child’s Play,” where a possessed doll named Chucky goes on a killing spree.
Sweasy reminds me that these are ventriloquist dummies, not dolls. But no matter. One of them, to me, looks just like Chucky.
She blanched when I mentioned that living with them must be like having a house next to a graveyard. Quite the opposite, she says. She views them as individuals.
In the last building of the tour, there is a “classroom” of dummies. Dozens of them sit in school chairs, lined up according to their makers. There’s a spot left vacant in the back, for guests to sit in and take a photo of themselves among the figures.
“We are alike more than we’re different. The same things are funny, the same things are off- putting,” Sweasy says. “People come here expecting it to be dark or creepy. But in the end they feel different.
“It is,” she says, “the neatest place on earth.”