FORT MITCHELL, Ky. — What makes something strange? And why does strangeness draw us in and grip us so?
That is a mystery.
Something made my wife, a few months ago, standing 300 miles northwest in the gift shop at the Art Institute of Chicago, pick up Matthew Rolston’s “Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits,” a foot-square coffee-table book containing close-up portraits of some of the 800 ventriloquist dummies at this museum.
The intimate, unsettling photo on the cover grabbed her, enough that she lugged the 5-pound book over to me. I flipped through it and agreed when she later suggested we detour on our road trip through the South to this small town, spend the night, then tour the private museum.
Credit Lisa Sweasy, the curator of the Vent Haven Museum. I don’t believe a person walking through the cluttered rooms alone, trying to meet the unblinking gaze of those hundreds of dummies and disembodied heads, glancing at the photos and the brief white placards, would derive a fraction of what she gives visitors for their $10. Which is good, because you can’t see it without her: admission is by appointment only.
“Welcome to Vent Haven, thanks for coming,” she said to my family and four other guests, part of the thousand or so visitors who tour each summer. “This is the world’s only museum dedicated to ventriloquism.”
Sweasy did not start out as a ventriloquism expert. She was a junior high school math teacher and one of her students was the daughter of the lawyer for the man behind the museum, William Shakespeare Berger, a Cincinnati businessman who, on his first trip to New York in 1910, bought a dummy as a souvenir, Tommy Baloney.
Tommy’s on display, among the legions of now-silent totems from a little-honored art form, one whose popularity waxes and wanes — mostly wanes in recent decades — a less-considered subset of puppetry, which is really saying something.
Sweasy gave us the history of the place, one man’s hobby that became an obsession, standing outside three small cottages, explaining, “once we go in there, you’ll stop listening.”
She got that right. It is breathtaking, almost shocking, to walk in. The cognitive system that humans use to process social cues jumps: they’re not alive, of course, they’re dolls, puppets, dummies, whatever, though some seem startlingly close to life.