Dunham’s dummies join museum exhibit

If you go

Who: Jeff Dunham

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Covelli Centre, 229 E. Front St., Youngstown

Tickets: $48.50 at the box office

By John Kiesewetter

Cincinnati Enquirer


Even comedian Jeff Dunham admits the Vent Haven Museum collection of 700 ventriloquist dummies is kind of spooky.

But the Comedy Central star — who brings grumpy Walter, little Peanut and Achmed– the Dead Terrorist to life — loves the little Fort Mitchell, Ky., museum so much he visits nearly every year.

“I love going there, but it is a little creepy. You see hundreds of eyes looking at you,” Dunham, who will perform at the Covelli Centre in downtown Youngstown on Wednesday, said of the suburban Cincinnati attraction.

Since 1975, at age 13, the Dallas native has attended all but one of the annual Vent (short for ventriloquist) Haven ConVENTions,– which draw about 450 amateur and professional ventriloquists to the Drawbridge Inn. The four-day meet, open to the public, starts Wednesday.

“My parents decided to make it our summer vacation,” said Dunham, 49, by phone from Los Angeles.

Dunham won best junior performer in 1975 and 1976. His 1978 junior-division routine at age 16 was declared best adult performance.

“They told me I couldn’t enter any more, and put me on the [advisory] board,” he said. By 1983, at 21, he was opening for Milton Berle at Miami University’s parents’ weekend.

But he still comes back every year to speak at the conVENTion, said Jennifer Dawson, Vent Haven curator.

“I want to be part of it. I get to see a lot of old friends,” said Dunham, who just completed his fourth Comedy Central special, which premieres Sept. 25.

Dunham sees several old friends when he visits Vent Haven, the world’s largest ventriloquism collection started by the late William Shakespeare Berger. Berger died in 1972, a year before famous TV and radio stars Edgar Bergen and Jimmy Nelson attended the museum opening.

Inside four small buildings on West Maple Street, a block from Interstate 75, are Dunham’s Walter, Peanut and Jos Jalepeno, — and hundreds of figures.

Or dummies.

“Some say ‘figures,’ but it’s OK to call them dummies,” Dawson said.

Some are very famous: Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd; Nelson’s Danny O’Day and Farfel – the dog; Senor Wences’–Pedro head (in a box); Willie Tyler’s Lester; and two 1820 papier m ¢ch ÔøΩheads from England.

Dunham’s favorites are the marvelous mechanical heads built in the 1930s by Harrison natives George and Glenn McElroy. They wiggle noses and ears, cross eyes, stick out their tongues and spit.

Dawson, 33, a former school teacher, has mastered manipulating the McElroy heads in three years as the resident curator. She gives tours by appointment May through September.

Museum tours are part of the conVENTion agenda Saturday, before Dunham’s 4 p.m. presentation. Friday’s highlight is a 7:30 p.m. salute to Nelson, 82, best known for Nestle’s Quik commercials with Farfel: “N-e-s-t-l-e-s, Nestle’s makes the very best! Chaww-klit!”

Dunham’s close relationship with the museum paid a huge dividend returning to Miami University as George Burns’ opening act in 1986. The airline lost his luggage — with all his characters — so Dunham borrowed some figures from Vent Haven.

The audience didn’t mind. Miami invited him to open the next year for Bob Hope.

He’s back at Miami’s Millett Hall on Sept. 23, one of his last times doing routines to be seen on Comedy Central two days later.

“Now I have to start working hard on an all-new show,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve only got three months.”

Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Ky., is the world’s largest collection of ventriloquism dummies. It’s located at 33 West Maple Ave., a block from I-75’sDixie Highway exit, at the former home of William Shakespeare Berger. Berger, who died in1972, was president of the International Brotherhood of Ventriloquists in the 1950s.

Displays include items from Edgar Bergen, Jeff Dunham, Willie Tyler, Jimmy Nelson, Senor Wences,–Shari Lewis, Berger and a 1901 Punch & Judy set.

Tours are available by appointment only May-September for a $5 donation. Call 859-341-0461 or visit www.venthavenmuseum.com.

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