Adventures of a Semi-Wild Animal Tamer

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Vent Haven Review - Day One (Wednesday)

Sun, Aug 4th, 2019 at 08:15 PM

This is the first of four posts about my trip to the Vent Haven ConVENTion in Erlanger, Kentucky (that's /ER-lan-ger/ with a hard 'g' I learned). The convention is open to anyone who wants to pay to attend, but seems to be geared towards up-and-coming and professional ventriloquists who want to improve their knowledge and/or start or expand their performance businesses.

My first day of Vent Haven started with a trip to the namesake museum that started it all. I won't try to recount the history of the museum here - you can learn all about it on the museum's website. I'll just give a quick overview of what you will find, at least for another couple of years give-or-take. After that, the collection will hopefully be moving to a brand new building much more suitable for it.

The museum is a collection of small buildings on the the former residential property of the museum's founder, W.S. Berger, situated along a nice upper middle class street surprisingly close to the main I-71/I-75 corridor. Usually the introduction of an interstate would destroy an area so close to it, but somehow this street continues to thrive with nice, large and well kept homes along it.

Three buildings hold the main collection. The first and original building has dummies and memorabilia grouped by performing artist, including a large section dedicated to one of the best known classic ventriloquists, Edgar Bergen. The second building just has a large collection of dummies lined up all along the walls, one room having four rows of dummies almost like a choir. The third building has arrangements similar to the first, but is specifically organized by builder rather than performer, and is ordered mostly from oldest to newest. Among the newest additions are copies of two of Darci Lynn Farmer's characters (the mouse and the rabbit), and a replica of Maude (from the TV show of the same name) donated by our own local Atlanta ventriloquist, Virgina Petersen.

Earlier this year, I had been going through some old video tapes and found a segment on the Vent Haven museum featured on 60 Minutes that I recorded back in 2004, the year I got into puppetry. The segment was hosted by Candice Bergen, who visited the museum and was given the grand tour. As I rewatched the segment to get a preview of what I'd be seeing in person, I have to admit it seemed a little creepy looking at all of those figures lined up side-by-side. And yet, in person, it didn't seem quite as creepy as I'd thought it would be. It might be because I'm a puppet builder, so I'm used to spending an inordinate amount of time staring at characters as I'm trying to get them looking and working right. Plus, in person I think it's easier to see that they're made of artificial materials. Of course, having seventy five characters of my own might have something to do with it too. (And, no, in case you're wondering, I don't have mine lined up in rows side-by-side, though I do have a small number of them artfully arranged on my sofa to help liven up the place.)

After returning to the convention hotel, it was time to get registered and attend the session for first timers. While waiting for all of that to start, I hung out in the large main atrium with my right-hand gal, Savannah the Southern Bell Vixen. I didn't walk around with her, but just found a good seat and pulled her up out of her bag to see who all would come to me. I had a lot of interested folks, and for me, this proved a great ice breaker, as I never came across a single person I already knew, though one couple said they remembered me from the Puppet Gumbo festival in Savannah, Georgia in 2008. As the day went by, I came to learn that I have a relatively unique talent among ventriloquists in the way that I can work my character's arms with both rods. A lot of the performers don't use rods at all. Most of those that do use just one, and of the few that use two rods, not many have learned the cross-rod technique that I've learned (a technique most commonly used by Muppet performers.)

Wednesday evening brought the first main stage shows, which were offered every night, each with a different set of three performers going on back-to-back. This night offered a rather varied mix of Joe Gandleman, September Cardiff, and Ken Groves. Gandleman is a very experienced performer who is not much taller than me (somewhere in the low five-foot range), and worked that into his first routine, having his human character insult his height periodically while trying to get out of doing an act, done in a classic style with a traditional dummy. He then did short bits with a latex face bulldog, a plush shark, and a zombie. The first routine went over really well, and the dog and shark also did well (Gandleman did a voice-inside-the-shark-belly bit that came across nicely, then had the shark convince him to reach down it's throat and remove the offending meat that was upsetting it. Gandleman hesitantly reached in and pulled out a curly red wig, and the shark says, "I thought that tasted funny!"). The zombie, for some reason, didn't go over quite as well, even though the jokes were just as good in my opinion. I tried to deduce what wasn't working for the audience, and the best I could figure is that maybe the zombie puppet was a little too strange, especially when it's right arm falls off when Gandleman goes to point out that it's just bones from the wrist down. He has a few good jokes centered around the now separate arm, but they just didn't get the laughs his other character got.

Cardiff only used two characters: an ultra sweet little cow with a great childish voice, and then a snowwoman in a large Igloo cooler (complete with the expectable joke about the snowwoman having her own portable Igloo!) I could see the routines being great for an audience of children, but they felt a little slow for an audience of mostly adults. I also kept getting distracted by Cardiff's head movements when her characters were speaking – it felt like she was getting a little too into the actions and emotions of her characters and forgetting the importance of keeping yourself relatively still during those times. I say "relatively" because, as the Vent 101 instructor mentioned later that evening, you don't want to be dead still up there either. It's okay to look around the room to engage the audience, and to react to what your character is doing. The key is separation between yourself and the character so that they feel like two unique individuals.

Last up was the amazing Ken Groves. Amazing is all I can say for someone who can get a wonderful fifteen minute act out of a tennis ball that he's named Wilson. I won't reveal the whole routine, but in short Wilson explains his sad life story going from being played with by pros to getting lost and being used in half-a-dozen different other ways in which tennis balls get used (e.g. put on a trailer hitch), ending with the most disgraceful relegation to being put on the bottom of grandma's walker! At the Vent 101 session, Groves mentioned that the second character he used the previous night, an old man named Howard, cost about $7500, and he has another that was over $10,000, yet Wilson only cost $1.50 and got far more laughs than Howard. Wilson's appeal was that his sad face and voice got great sympathy from the audience, yet Groves knew how to pull laughs out of that through Wilson's fourth wall breaking comments to him about how the audience was loving his story. Howard's humor, on the other hand, revolved around old-age jokes (Howard was an old man character) and Howard's use of an oxygen mask and bottle that may have had something a little stronger than just oxygen in it!

I also have to give mention to the show's MC, Dan Christopher. I loved his bit about people performing in on the Erlanger stage twice in their careers: once on the way up, and once on the way down. With perfect timing, he then bowed his head as he added, "It's great to be back here again ..."!

The last event on Wednesday was Ventriloquism 101 with Tom Crowl. Being a large group lecture, this was nowhere near as in-depth as the two night class I took with Randal McGee at the Center for Puppetry arts in April, but it's always nice to get alternate insights into a performing arts subject. Afterward, I checked out the dealer's rooms (two of them this year for the first time) and found lots of puppets/dummies for sale (high-end characters and general retail puppets) along with props, books, videos, etc. The merchandise revealed the not uncommon crossover between ventriloquism and magic tricks, which I noticed came up in a few of the evening acts throughout the convention.

Mood: cheerful