By Pat Crowley
Special for NKyTribune
Even a supermodel knows that the Vent Haven Museum – the only museum in the world dedicated to ventriloquism – has been a constant and unique tourist attraction in Northern Kentucky for decades.
In an effort to help Vent Haven weather the COVID pandemic and the impact the virus has had on tourism, the meetNKY/Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau Board of Directors has approved the transfer of ownership of a collection rare ventriloquists at the museum, forgiving the final $10,000 of a lease signed in 1979.
“Vent Haven continues to be one of the hidden gems of northern Kentucky and the region,” said Julie Kirkpatrick, interim president and CEO of meetNKY. “With tour groups’ renewed interest in the market due to the opening of the Ark Encounter, more and more people are falling in love with this slice of Americana history every year. Travel writers love to write about this piece of history found only in Northern Kentucky.
“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the tourism industry and our organization. Our Board of Directors is committed to providing assistance and relief to our partners within our means,” said Kirkpatrick. “As the visitors stay healthy at home as the pandemic continues, we knew it was the right time to forgive this loan in an effort to ensure Vent Haven gets through this crisis.”
The museum has more than 900 ventriloquist dummies, including the rare 61-piece Edgar Bergen Collection, which features Charlie McCarthy memorabilia and dummies. Bergen, who died in 1978, was a popular vaudeville, radio and film personality who used Charlie McCarthy and other ventriloquist models – including Mortimer Snerd and Effie Klinker – in his act.
In 1979, the Northern Kentucky Convention Bureau purchased the Bergen Collection for $50,000 and then leased it to Vent Haven for 50 years. Since 1980, the museum has paid the Bureau $1,000 each September to pay off the debt, which this year was $10,000.
Vent Haven Museum Board Chairman John S. “Brook” Brooking said the museum “gratefully acknowledges” the cancellation of the loan for the Bergen collection.
“By eliminating one of our annual expenses, meetNKY supported the financial security and future of the Vent Haven Museum,” said Brooking. “With our 2020 revenues greatly reduced by the impact of the pandemic on tourism, this gift means even more to us.”
Vent Haven’s roots date back to 1910, when Cincinnati native William Shakespeare “WS” Berger bought his first model, Tommy Baloney. Berger, who retired as president of the Cambridge Tile Company in Cincinnati in 1947, began collecting mannequins over the years, storing them in his Fort Mitchell home.
According to the official Vent Haven history, Berger outlived his heirs and feared his collection would be sold and dispersed. So his friend and lawyer John R.S. Brooking – the father of current Vent Haven board chairman Brook Brooking – set up a charitable foundation for Berger’s collection and property and Vent Haven was born.
In 1979, when the museum was just beginning to become financially stable, the Bergen collection became available. The Bureau, led at the time by Chairman Tom Kelly and Vice Chairman Frank Sommerkamp, who currently sits on Crestview Hills City Council, approved the purchase. Members of the Bureau’s board of directors — known at the time as the convention authority — included the founder of Corporex Cos. Bill Butler, state legislators William Donnermeyer of Bellevue and Bill McBee of Burlington.
“Without their generosity, the Bergen collection, which is a central part of the museum today, would not have been acquired,” said Brook Brooking. “The Northern Kentucky Convention Authority has enabled Vent Haven to more fully share the incredible history of Bergen and McCarthy with generations of visitors.”