By Bob Hamill
For 39 years they have made a pilgrimage to Ft. Mitchell, KY. For the most part, they look like normal people taking a traditional vacation. What’s not normal is what they keep as carry-on luggage: bodies.
Imagine the look of the X-ray tech as he pushes the advance button and sees eyes looking back at him. It’s not an undertaker convention, but over 500 ventriloquist dummies from 12 countries swarming to the Vent Haven Ventriloquist convention.
There are endless stories of ventriloquists throwing voices to the amusement of people within earshot of the illusion. Remember the ad in the back of comic books? It was a man carrying a trunk and a voice that read, “Let me out.” Ventriloquists make you think there are sounds and voices that are coming from somewhere they are not.
A great example of this is Nacho Estrada from Texas. For the first couple of years, Nacho would mimic the sound of feedback. It drove audio techs crazy. People who specialize in distant or special sounds, like Phillip Jones, would mimic military operations in exquisite detail, everything from a flare to marching troops. Most ventriloquists stick to one or two “figures” to entertain an audience.
There are two ventriloquists that stand like colossi within the community. The first is Jimmy Nelson. Many will remember him from the Texaco Hour with Milton Berle or the most famous commercial of all: N-e-s-t-l-e-s. Nestles makes the very best CHOCOLATE. I attended the first convention and Jimmy was kind enough to give me time for an interview. I have never see anyone so gracious to everyone. And one can tell it’s genuine. Jimmy is getting up in the years but still tries to get to every conVENTion. He always has by his side his wonderful wife Betty who is a marvelous match with Jimmy.
There is no doubt the most popular ventriloquist at this time is Jeff Dunham. Jeff was at that very first convention at the Drawbridge Hotel, Ft. Mitchell. He won the Jr. Contest and continued to win contests throughout the years. He won so many he was barred from competing. That didn’t stop him, as he still continued to do shows and workshops. Next year is going to be the best compilation of ventriloquists anywhere.
Jeff has sold out more stadiums and DVDs than almost any other comedian. He can’t go anywhere without getting swamped by people wherever he goes. I could do three columns on him alone.
There two things I’d like to say about Jeff: 1) he is the same person I met 39 years ago and, 2) what makes him happiest is his wife Audrey and the expectation of twin boys.