As soon as I saw a museum of dummies listed on Roadside America, my heart sang, “This is the place for us, Erin Rachelle Kelly!” I was ready to get lost in the bowels of a ventriloquist’s wet dream.
[Insert joke about why Henry would want to pay to see dummies when he’s with two of them for free every day.]
After killing an hour in Fort Mitchell, we rolled up to Vent Haven about ten minutes early. The curator was outside and waved to us, so we got out of the car, and tentatively approached the property.
“Are you the one who just called today?” the curator asked, after introducing herself as Lisa. I said yes, that was me, and she told me that she almost never has an opening the day-of. “So this is almost like winning the lottery!” she laughed, and I could tell Henry was vehemently disagreeing to himself.
Right when I was panicking about having The Small Talk, another group arrived. This alleviated some of the pressure from us (because Henry damn well wasn’t going to be talking — he was still annoyed that this was pushing back our arrival home!).
We all stood around outside in the yard while Lisa gave us a brief rundown of the history of the museum, which was started out of the home of W.S. Berger when he started collecting dummies in the 50s and eventually his collection grew so large that he ran out of room in his house and had to build auxiliary shed-like buildings in his backyard. Thus, Vent Haven was born, the only museum in the world dedicated to the art of ventriloquism!
“When people see that it’s by appointment only, they think this is some pretentious museum, but I’m the ONLY EMPLOYEE!” she stressed. “I can’t give a tour if I’m at Kroger’s! I need to know when people are coming to my house,” she laughed. Because, you know, she actually lives there too. And it’s funny that she mentioned that because Henry totally groaned when I mentioned that I had to call ahead because I’m sure he had visions of a stuffy exhibit full of stern-looking elderly people popping Werther’s Originals while an unamused curator monotoned facts around accusatory stares.
(Honestly, I always feel like they think I’m up to something!)
The more Lisa talked, the more I loved her. She was the antithesis of what you’d expect from a roadside tour guide: she was hilarious without being cheesy, informative without being boring, and her genuine enthusiasm for ventriloquism was contagious. Within minutes, Henry was smiling and laughing. The exact opposite of when we went on the Williamsburg ghost tour!
While waiting for the last group to arrive, she talked a bit about the psychological reasons why a lot of people are scared of dummies, or dolls of any sort.
“But really, even if they were all going to spring to life and come after you, why would you be afraid of something so small? They’re like the size of toddlers, just kick ’em, you know?” and then to Chooch she hurriedly explained, “I mean, I wouldn’t really kick a toddler…well, you know what I mean.”
I looked at Henry and mouthed, “I.LOVE.HER.”
At exactly 1:00, she interrupted herself and said, “Well, it’s 1. I’m not waiting for them. Let’s go inside and get started.”
ANOTHER REASON TO LOVE HER.
I can’t post the majority of the pictures I took, because of copyright reasons, but there were some photo ops that Lisa gave us permission to share on social media, so that’s what you’ll see here. So just imagine walking into a small building and being met with hundreds of dead, ogling eyes.
IT WAS EXHILARATING.
I’m not scared of this stuff at all. I mean, I collect clowns and have a mannequin that I use as a Christmas tree—I think I’m relatively immune. But it was admittedly slightly overwhelming at first—the collection is just crazy! Vent Haven is up to 900 now, but not all of them are displayed. Lisa actually had just received a literal carful of presidential dummies (from JFK to Dubya) earlier that week but hadn’t yet built a display for them.
That’s the other thing about Lisa: not only does she know her shit (one of the people in our group pointed to a random dummy and Lisa dove right in, regaling us with its colorful history), she is the sole creator of the displays and exhibits. “I just really love my job,” she said several times during the tour. It really showed.
And when I pointed out that one of the dolls reminded me of Lady Elaine from Mr. Rogers, Lisa looked at me strangely and said, “You’re not old enough to know Mr. Rogers! I grew up with Mr. Rogers!”
Kentucky, I love you. You make me feel young!
(And standing next to Henry helps, too.)
The last couple finally did arrive and as Lisa watched them get out of the car, she promised she wouldn’t shame them. “I’m an Army brat, can you tell? My dad made sure we were always on time.”
“My dad always made me late to everything when I was a kid, so now I make sure I’m always on time!” I blurted out, wanting nothing more than for Lisa to like me. Henry just rolled his eyes. He hates it when Suck Up Erin makes an appearance.
A little bit later, Henry got to steal my thunder when Lisa asked, “Does anyone recognize these famous ventriloquists?” She pointed to three separate b&w photos on the wall. All men in old b&w photos look the same to me so I gave up after 1.6 seconds.
“Hmmmm….Johnny Carson,” Henry said, pointing to the young guy in the middle.
“Yep!” Lisa said happily. “A lot of people didn’t know he was a ventriloquist.” She told us that puppets and dummies were recurring characters on The Tonight Show during his tenure, but when Leno took over, they ever appeared again because he hated ventriloquism.
As if I needed another reason to hate Leno.
Henry studied the pictures a little harder and, with a hint from Lisa, he was able to also guess Ted Knight. No one got the third one — DON KNOTTS. Too bad, so sad, Henry. You’re not that great.
(Honestly, though you should have seen how happy he was to know things.)
Then we got to go outside and play around with three demo dummies that Lisa keeps on hand. We were allowed to take pictures of them, and Lisa even took a picture of Chooch to put on Vent Haven’s Facebook page.
(He acted like a little teenaged shit about it, but that kid was secretly enthralled by this place. I know this because he was enrapt every time I looked at him and he never once asked to use my phone.)
The wife-portion of the couple who arrived late told Lisa that she had a dummy when she was a kid, but she’s not sure what her parents ended up doing with it.
“I haven’t seen it in years,” she said. “I have no idea where it went.”
“Maybe it’s here!” I said, clearly as a joke, but she very curtly said, “It’s not. I looked.”
OH OK. This is why I don’t talk to people!
After playing around with the dummies, Lisa took us into another building, where we learned about Harry Lester; the most successful vaudevillian of all time (not just in ventriloquy!) who was basically penniless when he died; and Paul Winchell, who was also the voice of Gargamel on The Smurfs and as soon as Lisa said that, I could picture his name in the opening credits! We talked about Edgar Bergan of course (he was really the only famous ventriloquist I had heard of going into this) and Shari Lewis, and then Henry got to go to the head of the class again when he knew that Wayland Flowers and Madame replaced Paul Lynde as the center square on Hollywood Squares.
Something he can control!
You guys, Vent Haven brought out a side of Henry that I never knew existed.
There was a section on Jeff Dunham here too. Apparently, he is very generous with the museum and donates a lot of his old props, etc. This is where Chooch’s interest was really piqued. Lisa played a clip of one of Jeff’s Ahmed routines and Chooch, being right on that apathetic cusp of teenagedom, acted like he wasn’t impressed, but I could see his mind reeling.
There was one last building to visit, with even more dummies. It doubled as the gift shop and Henry’s good mood started to shift when he heard me tell Lisa that I wanted a magnet and her book and sure Chooch, you can get that Jeff Dunham hand-puppet set. Henry hates souvenirs.
Lisa was so flattered that I wanted to buy her book. But she was so entertaining and knowledgeable! There were numerous dummies throughout Vent Haven that had signs which said “I’m in the book!” so of course, I had to buy it. I had to stop myself from gushing my way to a restraining order, but I just really wanted Lisa to know that I was obsessed with her in all of the good ways.
“You’re seriously the best tour guide we ever had,” I said all breathily as she wrote up an invoice for the admission fees and our souvenirs. I could sense Henry’s cringe all the way on the opposite side of the room. But Lisa took it well!
Chooch wants everyone to know that the 90 minutes we spent there got him into Jeff Dunham (he watched YouTube videos of his performances on Henry’s phone almost the whole car ride back to Pittsburgh) and he is trying to learn how to throw his voice now. I can’t tell you how many times this past week we’ve talked about the things we learned on that small, unassuming residential lane in Fort Mitchell, KY.
Oh, and he also wants everyone to know that Henry had a crush on ANGELICA, the main person from the second group who joined us, and that he kept looking at her ass.
If you ever find yourself in the Louisville/Cincinnati area, I highly encourage you to call up Vent Haven and take a tour. Go not just for the dummies, but for Lisa’s biting humor and delightful stories. She’ll make a dummy-lover out of you!
“That was fucking awesome, admit it, Henry,” I squealed as we drove away.
With just a hint of a smile, he quietly said, “Yeah. It was pretty awesome.” Ladies and gentlemen, I think Henry had a little bit of fun amongst dummies.
I mean, 90 minutes where all three of us were equally entertained and enjoying ourselves? Lisa was right: it really was like winning the lottery!