The Long and Winding Road
Thanks for clicking on the link to read more about our progress! This isn't going to be your average blog post. This is an epic tale of struggle, setbacks, growth, and ultimate victory! Okay, okay, I'm exaggerating a bit...but just a little bit. This post isn't an update or a report of a single event. This post is a complete picture, the whole arc of the story of this amazing gem, Vent Haven Museum. Who we were, who we are, and where we're going...
Vent Haven was originally one man's private collection. W.S. Berger was a businessman with a hobby: collecting everything having to do with ventriloquism. His lifetime was 1878-1972; essentially Vaudeville through the Ed Sullivan era. Ventriloquism was ubiquitous then and Mr. Berger was determined and focused. In 40 years, he amassed what is still an unmatched collection of about 500 dummies and puppets, a massive library, hundreds of playbills and scripts, correspondence files and other ventriloquania. His sole passion, commitment, and diligence led to the incorporation of Vent Haven Museum, Inc. in 1963.
When he passed away in 1972, Mr. Berger left his estate and the fledgling museum in the capable hands of his attorney, John R.S. Brooking, and a small board of directors.
A board of advisors, composed primarily of professional ventriloquists, was also formed to help generate ideas and to promote the museum. So now there were about two dozen people tasked with transitioning this unique and wonderful labor of love into a 'real' museum. These first advocates faced the reality of the finite dollars in Mr. Berger's estate. Without an income stream, the museum would likely close in just a few years. Jimmy Nelson is the ventriloquist of record in the board meeting notes who suggested having an annual convention as a means to generate funds for the support of Vent Haven Museum. The first convention was held in 1975 and it continues to generate much of the operating budget funds today.
At first, the success of the convention was the focus of the museum. The curator would work hand in hand with a chairman from the advisory board to create the schedule and get all the details covered for the convention. Tourism was happening, but without a budget for advertisement, the museum relied on press accounts and word of mouth to bring tourists in.
One person emerged from the many different chairmen. Mark Wade chaired the convention several times and then agreed in 2000 to become the executive director on an ongoing basis. Mark is still in that role today and we are all very grateful for his dedicated service to the ventriloquism community and to Vent Haven Museum. His handling of the convention freed up the curator to focus on building tourism, developing outreach, and managing the collection.
With the advent of the internet, tourism began to increase as people were able to search online for unique attractions like Vent Haven. Tourists made financial donations to the museum and created a second small revenue stream. The growth of tourism and of awareness of Vent Haven as the only museum dedicated to preserving the history of ventriloquism also resulted in the growth of the collection. What started as a trickle of five or so new dummies being added to the collection each year became an annual steady stream of about a dozen. The growth was wonderful and display space quickly became very tight.
Keep in mind that ventriloquism had a tough go of it after The Ed Sullivan Show went off the air in 1971. This once common entertainment form found itself without a regular national audience once sitcoms began to rule the airwaves. For TV viewers of that generation, the only vents they might remember are Shari Lewis, Willie Tyler, and Jay Johnson.
And then it was 2006, one of the most important years in our history. Three major entertainment events resulted in exponential growth at Vent Haven.
First was Jeff Dunham's meteoric rise in popularity with his 2006 Comedy Central special, Arguing with Myself, which had a gigantic ripple effect on attendance at both the Vent Haven convention and at the museum. This first domino to fall was huge and Jeff's continued and growing popularity is still a primary reason for tourists to seek us out.
2006 was also a watershed year for ventriloquism due to Jay Johnson's Broadway show, The Two and Only. Jay won the 2007 Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event for the show. He is the only ventriloquist to ever be nominated and win an American Theatre Wing Tony Award or an Ovation Award.
Finally, 2006 was the first year for NBC's America's Got Talent. National and international audiences were again being entertained by variety acts of all types and the popularity of the show has continued to grow. Three times in 14 seasons (that's 21% of the time!) a ventriloquist has won the show: Terry Fator in 2007, Paul Zerdin in 2015, and 12 year old Darci Lynne in 2017. Darci's success is of particular note in that more and more children have attended the convention and toured the museum as a result of her incredible talent.
What were the effects of these events at Vent Haven? In a nutshell, we've grown. Not in small little increments, though. We've grown in giant leaps! The collection now grows by 20 to 25 dummies and/or puppets each year and tourism has tripled, from two or three tours a week to seven to ten per week. We now have more than 980 dummies and puppets. We barely had space when it was Mr. Berger's 500! Talk about needing elbow room!
It's not just display space, though. Vent Haven is on its original site and consists of four small buildings. It's not completely handicapped accessible and there are no public restrooms. We're only open seasonally due to environmental conditions. There is literally no space for onsite indoor programming.