Vent Haven Ventriloquism Museum

Monroe, Charlie McCarthy, Jeff Dunham’s Walter Are All-Star Dummies

The real Marilyn Monroe may have left us decades ago, but the papier-mache version of the star is still sexy, wiggling her breasts at the Vent Haven ventriloquism museum.

In the 1950s, a comedian commissioned the standing figure for his act, having “Marilyn Monroe” crafted from the star’s photos.

A few years later, the comic sold the 5’4” figure to W.S. Berger, founder of the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Ky., across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.

Marilyn is now called Cleo, for reasons lost to time, and occasionally a guide will move her breasts up and down with a slide mechanism in the dummy’s back.

Marilyn Monroe Figure is in the World’s Only Ventriloquism Museum

Marilyn/Cleo pals around with nearly 750 friends at the museum, the only one in the world dedicated to ventriloquism.

William Shakespeare Berger was a Cincinnati tile salesman when he bought his first dummy, Tommy Baloney, in New York in 1910. By 1925, he was collecting in earnest and performing as an amateur.

“He never took a dime for any performance,” said Vent Haven curator Jennifer Dawson.

Tommy Baloney still greets visitors today at Vent Haven, alongside Berger’s Skinny Hamilton and Jacko, the museum’s monkey mascot. He was built, using real rabbit fur, by legendary figure makers George and Glenn McElroy of Cincinnati.

“The McElroys made the Cadillacs of dummies,” Dawson said. “They made about 24; we have nine in the museum today.”

Visitors of a certain age will recognize replicas of Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, made from Edgar Bergen’s original molds. The trio was on radio, improbably, for 19 years before moving to TV and movies.

Paul Winchell, Shari Lewis and Jeff Dunham Star at Vent Haven

Other famous ventriloquists and their figures:

  • Paul Winchell, with sidekicks Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff. Winchell is less well known as the inventor of the first artificial heart. He held 30 patents, including those for such current everyday staples as the retractable ballpoint pen and disposable razor.
  • Shari Lewis and her sock puppet Lambchop, who were inducted into the Vent Haven Museum Hall of Fame in 1991. Shari’s daughter Mallory continues the act.
  • Ted Knight, who created the role of Ted Baxter on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” was a ventriloquist with his dummy, Herkimer Hicks.
  • Modern ventriloquist megastar Jeff Dunham sells out arenas with Peanut and grouchy Walter. Dunham made this version of Walter in three days, for a Hertz commercial, and used it for seven years before donating it to Vent Haven in 2003.
  • Vent Haven’s oldest figures are Goldston Heads of papier mache, from the 1820s. They have real glass eyes.
  • For serious students, Vent Haven has books back to the 1700s; the library has 1,000 books, with 100 on display.

The collection also includes 5,000 photos, capturing Johnny Carson and Don Knotts with their dummies. Senor Wences and Johnny have their own display: he was on “The Ed Sullivan Show” 48 times.

“He lived down the street from Ed Sullivan,” Dawson said, “so when a guest cancelled, he would sub.”

The Multi-Talented Vent Haven Dummies Do It All

Some dummies spit, others blow bubbles with small balloons. Some, like rakish Sailor Boy, dare to smoke.

One character, Cecil Wiggle Nose, is a real show-off. Crafted by George and Glenn McElroy, Cecil can wiggle his nose and ears, wink, roll and cross his eyes, make his hair stand on end, and, rudely, stick out his tongue.

How to See Nearly 750 Ventriloquist Dummies–and Marilyn Monroe–at Vent Haven

Vent Haven Museum (Tel 859-341-0461) leads guided tours May-September.

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