No blog on Ventriloquism can be complete without W.S. Berger and the Vent Haven.
Berger began his famous Flashes in The Oracle and Grapevine News. (The precursors to the Vent-O-Gram.) Flashes first appeared in Vent-O-Gram Volume 2, Number 4, 1964. Berger, as the former president of the IBV, had already been tirelessly promoting the art since 1910. So, his input into the Vent-O-Gram magazine was certainly welcomed, I'm sure.
In August 1965, Walt and Greg Berlin, editors of the Vent-O-Gram, visited W.S and his wife Muzz at the Vent Haven. This resulted in a rather extensive article in Vent-O-Gram Volume 3 Number 6 in 1966. The article is a curious read. It is at this moment, kind of a time capsule as to how Vent Haven was almost 60 years ago. A lot if not most of the Vent Haven collection was still housed in the Berger’s home.
The follow article gives you a bird’s eye view of how W.S. kept the collection in 1965. The outer buildings did exist but as indicated most of the collection was still in the house. According to ventriloquist Mark Hellerstein, who visited Berger in 1968, the collection had moved by that time to the outer buildings.
As a salute to Vent Haven, W. S. Berger, and Muzz, the article by the Berlin Brothers follows. Please note: there are a couple of politically incorrect references in the article. However for the sake of historicity, I have transcribed as originally written. So, don't get your underwear in a bunch when you come across them!
Flashes: Vent Haven 1965
By Walt and Greg Berlin
A dream came true when your editors had the privilege of visiting Mr. and Mrs. W.S. Berger and the Vent Haven Museum during August of 1965.
We arrived at the Holiday Inn, which is directly behind the Vent Haven Museum in Ft. Mitchell, Covington, Kentucky, late at night. Because it was past midnight, we decided to wait until a more reasonable hour before calling the Berger’s. We were pleasantly surprised at 7:00 AM when we were greeted by Mr. Berger in our room. It was a real thrill to meet the Dean of ventriloquists in person. He was out taking his morning walk and so dropped in to welcome us to Kentucky. Thus began the display of genial hospitality that the Berger’s enveloped us with throughout our stay at Vent Haven.
Soon we were over at the Berger residence where we were again greeted by Mr. Berger and where we met his wife, “Muzz,” who seemed just as thrilled to meet us as we were to meet her! Despite the fact that she was not in the best of health at the time, she did everything possible to make our stay a happy one. Her cooking was out of this world!
Both W.S. and Muzz have a terrific sense of humor and were always kidding each other and us. We soon felt we were old friends.
The tour of Vent Haven started with the dining room. The room’s walls are covered with beautiful oil paintings of the Great Lester and other vents. The dining room table is Mr. Berger’s office. His papers and correspondence are stacked on the table. Needless to say, dining is restricted to the kitchen. In the dining room, besides the paintings, there are file cabinets filled with important correspondence and memorabilia of ventriloquism. Also, the extensive collection of ventriloquial playbills is housed in this room.
After looking at some of the interesting paintings and photographs we were taken to the attic by Mr. Berger. Here we saw a small old tenement house built on a wood frame, covered with canvas painted to resemble bricks. The house, created by Mr. Berger, is equipped with two windows through which two vent figures may be operated.
Next we were taken to the Stage Room on the second floor of the Berger residence. Here many unusual figures are seated on chairs placed on a stage, and the walls are covered with autographed photos of many outstanding vents of past and present.
The first thing to catch our eyes was a life size ventriloquist figure of Senor Wences. It is necessary to see this figure in person to appreciate the artistry of this creation. The figure was created by the South American ventriloquist Leonardo, who is also a talented sculptor and figure maker. The figure is a spitting image of Senor Wences in his youth. It has a replica of “Johnny” the hand puppet in one hand and a telephone in the other. There are Photo Credit: Matthew Rolston
even controls on his arm so that “Johnny” may be made to move his “mouth.” The head is equipped with a cradle movement. Truly, this is one of the most remarkable figures in the collection.
Another exhibit is the Jules Vernon collection used all over the world by the late vaudeville vent, who performed while totally blind. The audience was none the wiser. There are six figures in all: an old maid, operated pneumatically; George, the stuttering boy; Nattie, a harelip; Happy, a Negro bell-hop operated by a foot pedal; Sam the sailor; and a fresh kid.
Another figure, very dear to Mr. Berger, is “Skinny,” the figure that he used for many of his ventriloquist presentations. Skinny is a Frank Marshall creation.
Champagne Charlie is another most unusual figure made by Marshall and remodeled by the McElroy Brothers. It can walk, smoke, carry a cane, shift his eyes right and left, and yes, even do the splits!
Another collector’s item is Cecil Wigglenose, a figure used by Valentine Vox. It has a nose that wiggles, a fright Wig and eyebrows that move automatically.
Considered by many to be the greatest ventriloquial figure ever made is “Jacko,” the chattering monkey. It is uncannily realistic. He was made especially for Mr. Berger by the McElroy Brothers. This masterpiece is 42” tall, and Is equipped with eyes that move automatically as the head is moved, wiggling ears, a tongue that may be stuck out, upper and lower lip movement, a nose that twitches, an excellent cradle movement, eyes that can cross, smoking attachment and a winking eye. The body is covered with fur. This figure is one of Muzz’s favorites and she calls the figure “my monkey.”
Before we left the stage room we saw another unique figure, that of a baby. Its name is “Baby Snookie” and is fully operated by foot pedals. It is able to put a foot in its mouth, shake one foot, drink a bottle of milk, and can also leave behind a trail of water, and has a tank built in for this purpose. “Snookie” was carved by the late Theodore Mack & Son.
Also, on the second floor is the most complete ventriloquial library in the world. In the library are hundreds of volumes on ventriloquism, each carefully indexed. Different editions of the same work are often included too. All of the vent courses ever published may be found in this extraordinary library. It would take many days just to examine the books carefully. Also in the library are drinking glasses used by some of the past masters, sheet music used by many ventriloquists, an English paper mache Toby jug, and other interesting vent items. There are filing cabinets containing well over 300 vent scripts, and we spent several hours just browsing through some of them. Among others, we found scripts that were used by Valentine Vox, Paul Winchell, The Great Lester and many others. Also, there are patent papers, scrap books on individual vents and other data pertaining the art.
In the basement level of the Berger residence we were shown more filing cabinets of correspondence with vents throughout the world, a room for storing vent material not yet sorted, and the Great Lester Room, its door still draped in black to mourn his death. In this room is found the Great Lester’s wall mirror, the actual telephone that Lester used in his act, and several copies of this phone. It is interesting to note that the mouthpiece of the phone is covered with a circular mirror, so that Lester could check his lip movement while performing his telephone stunt. There are shelves of folders containing Lester’s correspondence, programs, sheet music, dialogs and the manuscripts of Lester’s great vent course which were never completed and never published.
We spent many pleasant hours photographing, taking notes, examining the figures, and looking trough the library. Unfortunately, before we knew it, our three days had passed by. The displays are intriguing and leave one with renewed vigor and interest in our wonderful art, but even more inspiring than the exhibits are the two parents of the world’s largest family. Mr. Berger for the past 45 years and more has worked to augment and improve the Vent Haven and to help vents everywhere. He still answers a voluminous amount of correspondence every week to help ventriloquism and vents the world ‘round. “Muzz” for years has cared for the figures and their clothes (which is no small task when there are well over 400 figures) and has welcomed vents at almost any hour, day or night, as the gracious hostess of the Vent Haven. She has been an inspiration to her famous husband. It was a real pleasure, a moving and delightful experience, to meet two wonderful people with so much dedication and unending love for ventriloquism and ventriloquists.
It is heartening to know that this museum will live on perpetually for ventriloquists to enjoy for generations to come. A highlight of our visit to the Vent Haven was our delightful conversations spiced by the irrepressible humor of Mr. and Mrs. Berger. We left the Vent Haven with much regret at having to say goodbye to our wonderful hosts and this remarkable collection, but with a sense of fulfillment in having finally seen the majestic palace of ventriloquiana and in having been befriended by the King and Queen of ventriloquism.
©2018 Swampsong, LLC