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Vent Haven Convention 2007:

Ventriloquism Through the Holidays

by Annie Roberts

What a great year for ventriloquism!  Between two weeks of ventriloquists on David Letterman, Jay Johnson's Broadway show The Two and Only, plus his Tony Award, a feature article in Life Magazine, Kevin Johnson and Terry Fator on America's Got Talent, and Jeff Dunham's DVD Arguing with Myself going quintuple platinum, ventriloquists are reaching a national spotlight once again.  That was sure obvious at the 2007 Vent Haven ConVENTion with over 430 attendees from around the world, 75 of whom were new to the conVENTion.  All this attention brought the camera crews out to see what's going on in the world of belly-talking with two independent feature length film documentary groups, a national TV show from England, and NBC's Weekend TODAY Show.  What the media discovered was a warm, friendly atmosphere filled with fun, entertaining folks.  It was a great year to be at Vent Haven.

Executive Director Mark Wade knew it was going to be a big convention because the Drawbridge reported the highest number of rooms reserved for the convention ever!  By 3:00pm in London Hall Lobby on Wednesday, the place was already filling up with vents eager to get started.  Registration opened and people were getting their name tags on, greeting old friends, meeting new ones.  Hospitality Committee members Marty Hamill, Al Moessinger, and Chris Donahoe were having a great time meeting all the first timers, christening them with their red dots, changing them into red dotters.  Stevo Schuling, NOT a first time attendee by any means, tried very hard to get a red dot as well, hoping to get some extra special attention that comes with that distinction.  Camera crews were also dueling it out to get their projects off and running by filming the crowd.  It was festive, crazy, and fun.

The Red Dotters met for a brief Meet and Greet in Canterbury Hall before the Official Opening so they could get filled in on important information, learn what to expect, and meet the people who could answer questions and give guidance if they needed it.  Plus they got their picture taken.  It was a chance for them to catch their breaths before they were off to the race of the conVENTion.


The Official Opening kicked off with new Vent Haven Museum President John S. "Brook" Brooking welcoming everyone and encouraging them to visit the newly renovated Vent Haven Museum (for pictures of that project click here).   He took a moment to remember with a round of applause the past president and his father, John R.S. Brooking who served for 34 years overseeing the museum and who passed away last Christmas.  John R.S. Brooking carried on the legacy started by Vent Haven Museum founder, W.S. Berger.   Brook  Brooking then introduced our fearless leader and Executive Director, the man who puts it all together, Mark Wade.  Mark opened the convention with enthusiasm and got it all off on the right foot, making important announcements and introducing the behind-the-scenes people.


In keeping with the Ventriloquism Through the Holidays theme, the Big Wednesday Holiday Show started right away. Emcee Bob Rumba got into the spirit starting off with some Christmas present juggling and a reindeer friend.  The first act was Dale Brown who opened with Bertha the Bag Lady and then moved on to usual sidekick and business partner, Chip Martin.   Ian Varella continued the fun dressed in patriotic colors by building a puppet with a sock and then pulling out his fluffy haired friend .  Despite partially losing his voice, Tim Cowles entertained with a little magic, vent, and puppetry. Emcee Bob Rumba kept surprising by returning with a new outfit between each act and a new holiday; from Easter to St. Patrick's Day to a Halloween mummy; it was exciting to see what he would come out as next.   Mark James closed the show with a little Madame Edna Mardi Gras, a little Halloween, and alotta Carol Greene Elvis.   What a full show!  Next on the schedule was a Vent Roundtable "What About Holiday Shows?" moderated by Mark Wade, with Tom Ladshaw, Bob Rumba, Dale Brown, Ken Groves, and Ian Varella.  




The evening closed with the first look at the packed Dealers' Rooms.  This year's crowd was out to buy.  Mary Ann Taylor reported her table sold out Wednesday night.  Many dealers said this year was an all-time high in sales for them.  Again, an exciting time to be a vent or a figure maker!


Thursday morning started bright and early with Mark Wade presenting the Distinguished Service Awards to Lisa Sweasy, Bryan Sweasy, and Annie Roberts.   Lisa and I were very honored to receive this recognition, and all we could say was thank you.  Gary Owen then took over with his lecture "Stage Craft for Ventriloquists," a lecture jam-packed with information on enhancing staging elements like sound and lighting to make your show a success.  (To read an article based on Gary Owen's lecture, click here.)  Vent Haven Museum curator Lisa Sweasy stepped on stage for her presentation "Vent Haven Museum - The Past Thirty Years."  It was an amazingly informative and entertaining look at what has happened at our little museum since its founder W.S. Berger died in 1972.  The museum has grown, changed, and expanded with the help of many people whom Lisa highlighted by using humorous pictures from the past.  In addition, Vent Haven started sponsoring conventions which have been an important component in its growth.  (Click here to see early Convention pictures.)  It was an outstanding lecture and received a well-deserved standing ovation.  If you missed it, you really missed out.    

The Dealers' Rooms opened again during the lunch break.  The sandwich line in the hallway outside Canterbury Hall made it easy for both dealers and conventioneers to grab a quick bite before the afternoon's entertainments started.  




Thursday afternoon the Juniors got a chance to demonstrate their developing abilities in the Junior Open Mic.  For the first time in many years, the Junior Open Mic filled up before the convention started and several youngsters were on the waiting list to perform.  This was very encouraging that more young people are taking an interest in vent.  Emcee Bob Isaacson introduced many returning Junior veterans like Hannah L., Bryan G., Aileen C., Peter M., Meghan C., Dylan B., and Audrey F.; plus a couple of rookies with Jacob S., Nick W., and Jamie G.  First time or not, they all did a fabulous job, many well on  their way to being outstanding vents.  The Senior Open Mic had a tough act to follow with those Juniors, but the  Seniors led by emcee Pete Michaels got on stage and did their stuff.  Mike Griswold even had the extra challenge of performing during a lightning strike that zapped one of the speakers and caused the audience to jump.  He maintained his poise and kept right on going.   All received an evaluation by three pros and a DVD of their performance.   The afternoon finished with the lecture "Balloon Puppets" with Bob Rumba and Rick Mohr.  






The day was so filled with good stuff already it was hard to imagine it getting any better, but better it did.  After overcoming some technical glitches, Jeff Dunham was on hand for his lecture "Experimenting with New Material."  He gave the audience a sneak peek at his new DVD Spark of Insanity coming out September 18th.  (To pre-order Spark of Insanity on, click here.)  Jeff talked about the current state of comedy and gave tips for working new material into your act.  Then he pulled out Achmed the Dead Terrorist and Walter to close out his session with lots of laughs.  Next up was a Vent Roundtable "Venues for Ventriloquists" with moderator Pete Michaels and panelists Mark Wade, Tom Ladshaw, Dale Brown, Jeff Dunham, and Ken Groves.  Thursday night wrapped up with the General Open Mic emceed by Tom Ladshaw giving 15 attendees another opportunity to perform.  Included in the line-up was 'close, personal friend' to Tom Ladshaw, Justin Lee Collins, the featured performer of the British TV show filming at the convention.  Justin had only been practicing vent for about three weeks prior to the convention, so needless to say, he was nervous about his first performance.  


Convention Friday really is information overload day.  With two workshops in the morning and two in the afternoon, by the time Vent Videos starts around 4:15, it's nice to just let your brain be entertained.  Vents got to choose from "How to MC" by Steve Kissell, "Music with Ventriloquism" by Al Stevens, or "Add Variety to Your Act" with Al Moessinger.  All three sessions were lively and entertaining.  As you were laughing to MC bits that Steve Kissell was sharing, you could hear Al Stevens' music coming from the middle room.  Or while sitting in on Al Stevens' Power Point presentation, you could hear raucous laughter and rhythmic clapping coming from Al Moessinger's session.  The workshop you were in was great and the noises from the other rooms made you look forward to the next session.  

New to the conVENTion this year was the Junior Vent University.  This special workshop was just for vents age 16 and under and was held in a special room off on its own.  For an hour and a half in the morning and afternoon, the Juniors spent one on one time with professional vents.  The morning session professors were Mark Wade, Gary Owen, Bob Isaacson, and Tim Cowles. They covered stage poise, lip control, voices, some novelty sound effects with the baby cry as one of those, and figure manipulation.  They were treated with a visit from Jimmy and Betty Nelson, who gave each of the juniors a CD of his famous Instant Ventriloquism recordings.  In the hallways after the morning session dismissed, the Juniors were excitedly talking about how cool it was getting to meet Jimmy Nelson.  I was glad the specialness of the event wasn't lost on them.   

The afternoon of the Junior Vent University started off a bit crazy as all the media wanted to film this unique experience.  That was a lot of cameras in close quarters, but according to Liz Von Seggen, one of the professors, the adults were more rattled by the cameras than the kids. Eventually at a break, the media was asked to leave, so pros and the kids could get down to business.   Liz also reported, "Pete Michaels and Ken Groves added their talents to the session. They spent more time on character voices, breathing to support the projection of sound and control, plus figure manipulation.  Pete demonstrated with his 'Papa' figure and Liz demonstrated voice with a little duck.  The group divided into three groups with each of the pro's watching and critiquing the kids one by one, working with them to improve their skills, whatever each one needed."  Nineteen juniors attended and everyone thought it was a success.   

While the Juniors were surrounded by cameras, the adults were choosing between "Manipulation for Dummies" with Bill DeMar, "Accessorizing Your Act" by Steve Taylor, and "Sound Advice for Vents" by Joe Lefler.  Steve Taylor started promptly because he had lots of material to cover talking about the appearance of your act and how to improve it with different stands, drapes for cases, costumes for figures, backdrops, plus some staging elements like sound, audience warm-ups, and entrances.  Every time Steve said, "And that's Hollywood,"  the audience would cheer and applaud loudly, I'm sure making people in the room next door wonder what was going on.  Joe Lefler in the big room focused on sound equipment and got in-depth with what works best.  Finally, Bill DeMar's session was so full, you could hardly get in the door.  Lots of interest in improving manipulation and learning from a master.   

Jimmy Nelson was back this year for Vent Videos, and he showed a real highlight of the year in the world of ventriloquism -- the two Ventriloquist Weeks on Late Night with David Letterman.  Even though I had seen each of the acts when it aired on national TV, I enjoyed watching them all again because I could relax and not be nervous for the performers hoping they'd do well with this great opportunity.  All the performers really were top-notch.  Friday night is the International Show and emcee Stevo Schuling put together a great line-up with Allan Blumenstyk from Israel, Manami Iimuro from Japan, and Mary & Peter Kingsley from Canada.  In keeping with the holidays theme, Stevo even donned a Santa hat. 



















Friday night ended with the huge excitement of the Vent Haven Raffle with all proceeds going to Vent Haven Museum.  Mary Ann Taylor graciously donates a figure each year, plus dealers will donate items as well.  Lots of people walk away with prizes from the raffle and a good time for all. This year the frenzy was as crazy as ever and ALL the tickets were sold.  Outstanding!  But the real excitement was yet to come.  As a special event to raise money for a new computer, scanner, and copier for Vent Haven Museum, Jeff Dunham and Lisa Sweasy auctioned off a midnight tour of the newly renovated museum.  Jeff told people to get together and pool their money because the winner and five friends would be given a special tour by Jeff  and Lisa, and a private hour to talk vent with the comedy master, himself.  A young auctioneer from Tennessee named Kyle Scribner stepped out of the audience to help and before you knew it the bidding which had started at $100 had jumped to $1000.  Lisa was jumping up and down on stage overwhelmed by excitement, and the bidding continued to climb higher.  It was thrilling! Finally it came down to two people bidding against each other, when Jeff stepped in, declared both bidders winners and all ten would go on the midnight tour.   Very exhilarating! 

Saturday morning started off bright and early with the International Panel; the performers from Friday night's show answered questions from the audience.  Then Dan Horn took the stage for his lecture on 'Creativity.'  He warmed the audience up with Gladys and her cruise ship exploits, and Dan brought out Miles again.  It's amazing what you can do with a child's backpack, talk about creative!  Dan did some lecturing on how to think outside the norm, but the unusual part of the session was he brought people up on stage to play various improvisational games.  Each game was designed to get the brain going and get people to look at things in new ways.  It was challenging and really proved that vents who are creative work hard at it.   After the improv mayhem, it was time for the Group Photo back once again by the outdoor pool.   Thankfully there was a nice breeze.  It's fun to see everyone with their puppets.  People get pictures with friends, with people they've met during the convention, with pros, or with people who have puppets by the same maker.  After the big photo, small clusters of people form and you have to watch out that you're not walking into someone else's picture.  

A tradition for 31 years, Saturday afternoon is the Bus Tour to Vent Haven Museum. This year was especially exciting since the W.S. Berger Building (the one with Charlie McCarthy and Jacko, also called Building #1) had been completely renovated over the winter.  Everything was completely moved around and lots of never before displayed pictures adorned the walls.  The building was now arranged chronologically starting with pre-Vaudeville and continuing to present day vents like Mark Wade's Grits, Willie Tyler's early Lester, and Jeff Dunham's Peanut, Walter, and Jose.  

All the museum's Edgar Bergen memorabilia is now displayed together in what is affectionately know as The Bergen Alcove.  The Building #1 renovation forced some changes in Building #3, the school room, as well.   A new color photo wall across the back catches your eye when you first walk in, and a new Frank Marshall display on the right wall better highlights his tools and people who used his figures, and there are many.  The weather in Ft. Mitchell on this day was just gorgeous and of course, Lisa and Bryan Sweasy had the grounds looking immaculate, as well as the buildings being spotless, spiffed, and fresh.  It was delightful to walk through and see the changes and then sit in the yard and enjoy being at the Mecca of Ventriloquism.

Before this convention story ends, it's important to recognize several people who work hard behind the scenes, often unbeknownst to the attendees helping to make the event run smoothly.  Executive Director Mark Wade has put together a great team.  Working tirelessly backstage and always with a smile are Dan and Mary Fry, the Sound & Lighting Coordinators, assisted by Ken Groves.  Dave Carruth is always on hand back-stage stage managing.  Jody Wade, the Registration Coordinator, was the friendly face greeting the Walk-in Registrants. All the outstanding pictures accompanying this article were taken by the Official Photographers Phillip Jones and David Crone.   Finally, Bob and Marty Hamill heading up the Hospitality Committee including the awesome Hospitality Suite did a fantastic job this year.  The hard work of all these people is much appreciated.      


The Conventioneers returned from Vent Haven Museum to the Drawbridge to the final roundtable of the convention "Ask the Pros" with Ken Groves moderating, plus Dan Horn, Jimmy Nelson, Jeff Dunham, and Pete Michaels.    What an unparalleled opportunity to ask the top pros in the field questions about anything ventriloquial.  The Dealers' Rooms opened during dinner but this time, many tables had sold out.  By 7:30pm, everyone was ready for the All Star New Year's Eve Show.  Steve Kissell emceed in a bright yellow sport coat and entertained with tips to improve travel; these were not your usual suggestions unless you normally don googly eyes or fake teeth.  Bill DeMar opened the show with Feldon the Unspeakable Frog , aVerna Finly puppet, then switched to a recently repaired Chuck Norwood.  Bill did his classic tape on the mouth bit and amazed the audience with his crystal clear pronunciations.  The audience was on their feet giving a standing ovation at the end of his act.  Nancy Roth came on next and opened with a little mind-reading with the audience.  She then pulled out a little girl character and closed with her hillbilly character and a drinking bit.  The final act of the night was Keith Hadrill.  He started off with a humorous magic bit where he made four flies disappear into various orifices of his head.  It seemed Keith had intended to end his show with his old man character, but the audience chanted "Roadkill! Roadkill!" So Keith obliged, pulled out Roadkill and did a few minutes to the audiences' delight.  Since this was a faux New Year's Eve show, everyone in the audience got party hats, at 'midnight' rocket balloons were launched, and everyone celebrated the end of the Ventriloquism Through the Holidays ConVENTion.  What a great conVENTion!





We hope to see EVERYONE back in Ft. Mitchell next July 2008!!


ConVENTion 2007 Group Photo

To download a copy of the 2007 Group Photo or the photo of 2007 First Timers, right click on the photo and choose "Save as" or "Save Target As." NewcomersYou can then download a copy of the photo that you can keep...forever!



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