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Vent Haven ConVENTion 2009: 
"The Year of Creativity"

By Annie Roberts
Photos by Phillip Jones and David Crone



The theme of the convention this year was The Year of Creativity, but really 2009 was really the year to shine.  If you were not there, you missed perhaps the best convention ever.  Many veteran attendees who have been to ten or more conventions said that without a doubt this year was THE best.  Not only was the convention informative and a great learning experience, the performance talent displayed on stage by Jay Johnson and Sammy King was phenomenal. 

Amazingly, given the current state of the economy, the pre-Registration numbers were up and again there was a large number of First Time Attendees.  The Big Wednesday Night Show emceed by Pete Michaels opened with the convention’s stage manager Dave Carr performing for the first time. Barbara Jean took the stage next with her fabulous smile and amazing technique.  Nick Pawlow closed the show (and killed) with his effeminate Sasquatch, the headless dummy, and Happy the zombie.  Nick’s characters are so unique that he was the perfect way to start off a convention about being creative. 

Following the show was the Round Table Discussion: “Discovering Your Creativity” with Mark Wade, Jay Johnson (who had literally walked into the convention and up on stage), Lynn Trefzger-Joy, and Dan Horn with moderator Ken Groves.  These top pros tried to put their fingers on the elusive concept of creativity and pinpoint where great ideas come from.  It was a challenging discussion.  Wednesday night closed with attendees getting their first look at the Dealers’ Rooms which were packed with great puppets and supplies.

Thursday morning got down to business with Tom Ladshaw’s funny and informative lecture “Punch – Six Sure Fire Techniques to Add Punch to Your Comedy.”  His power point made learning easy and who knew Tom had so many different facial expressions?  Next was Mike Bishop with his lecture “Marketing for Dummies…and Their Owners” which he marketed by hanging reminder posters in the hallway outside Canterbury Hall.

The afternoon was filled with the Junior and Senior Open Mics, emceed by Bob Isaacson and Pete Michaels, respectively.  There were a few new faces and some familiar repeat performers as well.  Overall there was definite improvement in both groups compared to previous years.  Ventriloquism’s heightened visibility has encouraged everyone to ramp their game up a notch. 

Bob Isaacson closed the afternoon with his “Celebration of 60 Years of Performing.”  Once a pro, always a pro, Bob impressed the audience with his vent skills.   Since many had only seen him as an emcee, it was wonderful to get to see him do his schtick.

In the evening lecture “The Art of Splitting: Doing Two or More Characters Simultaneously,” Sammy King regaled the audience with stories of his career and all the glamorous locations it took him.  He talked about the most difficult element of ventriloquism which is playing two parts on stage at the same time; this is also known as splitting. The evening closed with two General Open Mic sessions giving attendees more chances to perform in front of their peers. 

Friday is normally workshop day but this year was something different. The morning had the usual three sessions that repeated: Dan Horn’s “How to Use Puns Effectively,” Nancy Roth’s “Booking and Working Fairs,” and Ian Varella’s “Details, Details: Taking Care of Show Details.”  Moving about in the hallway, you could hear comments like, “Be sure you get to see Nancy Roth. Her workshop is great.”  Or “Have you seen Dan Horn? He is such an amazing teacher.” 

While the adults were buzzing down in Canterbury Hall, the juniors were off at their own Junior Vent University getting valuable instruction and one-on-one time with Ken Groves, Gary Owen, and Liz VonSeggen. Mark Wade and Jimmy Nelson stopped in to speak to the juniors briefly as well. It was exciting to see the JVU room packed with kids and their puppets. 

Friday afternoon held something different and special.  Executive Director Mark Wade taught a Kidshow Clinic.  In order to effectively demonstrate how to handle a kid audience, a local daycare facility brought a group of children in for the first part of the clinic, Mark’s show.  The crowd control techniques for kids are very different, and it was fun to see them in action. Plus, one kid volunteer refused to participate once on stage, and the conventioneers got to see Mark smoothly handle that situation.  When the children had left, it made the information so accessible having seen it at work.


Jimmy Nelson’s Vent Videos are always a treat.  This year I’m No Dummy director Bryan Simon put together for Jimmy “I’m No Dummy, Too,” outtakes and interviews from conventioneers that didn’t make the final cut of the original documentary.  The footage was wonderful, and it was easy to see how challenging it would be to edit hundreds of hours down to 90 minutes.  This bonus footage was a real treat, including a vintage clip of Jimmy and Betty Nelson performing together with Danny O’Day and Humphrey Higsby. They were just as charming then as they are today.   

Friday night was a real highlight of the convention, “An Evening with Jay Johnson.”  Master ventriloquist Jay performed excerpts from his Tony Award winning Broadway show The Two and Only.  The performance was amazing, absolutely amazing, unlike anything seen before.  Jay’s biographical show included many different characters, vent history, his personal history, laughter, drama, distant voice…and this was only from excerpts!  An Evening with Jay Johnson was the apex, the quintessential of ventriloquial creativity.   

A convention tradition, the Vent Haven Raffle helps raise money to support Vent Haven Museum.  This year was exceptional.  More tickets were sold than ever before, so many so that they wouldn’t fit in the fish bowl and a box was pulled out to contain the tickets.  Mary Ann and Melissa Taylor generously donated the ultimate raffle figure, an old man puppet, and coordinated with other dealers to offer lots of great prizes as well.  Vent Haven Museum could not function without this wonderful support. 

After the raffle, Mark Wade awarded three Lifetime Achievement Awards to Bob Isaacson, Jimmy Nelson, and Sammy King, three vent greats who have contributed so much to the art.    

The International Show started Saturday morning off and I’m sure the conventioneers were glad by this point to just sit back and be entertained.  Neale Bacon from Canada opened the show followed by Nina Conti from the United Kingdom, Alex Reeve from France, and Takeshi Ikeda from Japan.  Stevo Schuling smoothly emceed once again.  Immediately following the show, all the performers sat down for an International Panel Discussion.

Vent Haven Museum started the touring season in May with new curator Jen Dawson.  This was her first convention, but you would have thought she had been doing the job for years. The grounds and the collection looked fabulous, and she seemed completely comfortable meeting 400 ventriloquists for the first time.  Jen and former curator Lisa Sweasy, who has been extremely helpful during the transition, put together a special display on Jay Johnson.  Jay writes in his blog about the display, “This year I donated some of my memorabilia to Vent Haven including a couple of my early partners, posters, pictures and the actual Spaulding I used on Broadway. I attended the induction of my display into the museum, which took place convention week, and performed for the attendees as well.

Lisa Sweasy and Jen Dawson, the curators of the museum, did an incredible job of sorting, coordinating, documenting and displaying the "stuff".  The most heart grabbing piece of the collection is a letter Lisa found in Squeaky's case. It is from my Mom to me talking about the adventure we had creating Squeaky. She placed it there when she sent me the puppet decades ago.

It speaks to all parents who have a "creative" child and the special skills required to keep them motivated, encouraged and out of trouble. If my Mom had not been so incredibly imaginative, creative and artistic; my life would be very different now. If performing was not there to occupy my dyslexic brain it would have surely lead me to a less than satisfactory life. That letter from my Mom touched and encouraged every parent who attended the convention with their child.

Lisa said that maybe the letter was too personal and I would want to take it back. It is personal but what it says is universal. It belongs with that character for all time. Lisa assured me that Mom's letter will be permanently linked to my exhibit. That is a perfect tribute to the real artist in my family. To read more of Jay Johnson’s blog, click here.

Unlike some years past, conventioneers didn’t linger at the museum but hurried back for the next event…Jeff Dunham’s “The Art of Creativity.” Jeff spent the first half giving valuable do’s and don’ts that he’s learned over the course of his amazing career, but Jeff had a surprise for the audience during the second half.  He revealed for the first time on stage the life-size McElroy figure known at the Umpire.  The Umpire was a kind of animatronic figure and one of the last made by George and Glenn McElroy.  It didn’t work well and for years was in pieces. Jeff painstakingly refurbished the figure and got the animatronics working again. It was a thrilling moment especially for the die-hard McElroy fans in the audience.  To read more about George and Glenn McElroy visit the Vent Haven Museum photo gallery.     

At the end of Jeff’s lecture, Mark Wade presented Distinguished Service Awards to Jeff Dunham and Jay Johnson, both of whom have done more to increase ventriloquism’s popularity in the last two years than anything done in the last twenty. 


Saturday night’s “All Star Show” brought a great convention to a magnificent close.  Ian Varella opened the show, and Tom Ladshaw was a great emcee. He had short, funny bits in between acts but kept the show moving smoothly.  New face to the convention but seen across America on America’s Got Talent was Kevin Johnson


Conventioneers got to meet Kevin’s new old man character on which he had just started working. Of course, later he brought out favorites Clyde and Matilda, “splitting” into three characters and making it look easy.


Beautiful and enormously talented Lynn Trefzger-Joy followed with three year old Chloe who loves gum.  Plus Lynn brought up volunteer audience members who talked about their favorite colors. The audience was falling out of their chairs laughing. 



Finally, the closing act everyone had been waiting for…Sammy King.  The audience gave a standing ovation the minute he walked out on stage.  Sammy, looking quite dashing in his fabulous tux, did his famous 12 minute act for the last time.  It killed.  After his second standing ovation, Sammy presented his parrot Francisco to Jen Dawson to permanently reside in Vent Haven Museum. It was a wonderful, touching moment, and the perfect way to end a most outstanding convention. 

Mark and his staff  have really got their work cut out for them to try to top this convention, but if you know Mark Wade, you know he will wow us again next year.  See you in Ft. Mitchell in July 2010!!


2009 ConVENTion Photo Available

July 28, 2009

To download the photo, right click one of the links below and choose "Save Target as" or "Save Picture" to save the photo to your computer. The Vent Haven Convention website provides you with three options below. Download one or all three.




Purpose Resolution (in megapixels) Resolution (in pixels) Size To download
Smaller File for viewing on your computer monitor 0.5 798x568 557 KB Right Click to download or left click to view
Large File for Printing 1.5 1474x1039 1,429 KB Right Click to download
Larger Files for Printing (may take a long time to download) 10.0 3872x2592 5,719 KB Right Click to download


2009 ConVENTion 1st Timers Photo Available

July 28, 2009

To download the photo, right click one of the links below and choose "Save Target as" or "Save Picture" to save the photo to your computer. The Vent Haven Convention website provides you with three options below. Download one or all three.




Purpose Resolution (in megapixels) Resolution (in pixels) Size To download
Smaller File for viewing on your computer monitor 0.5 798x568 463 KB Right Click to download or left click to view
Large File for Printing 1.5 1474x1039 1,120 KB Right Click to download
Larger Files for Printing (may take a long time to download) 10.0 3872x2592 4,605 KB Right Click to download


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