Friday, July 18, 2003

400 ventriloquists give lip service to quips

By Stephenie Steitzer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

FORT MITCHELL - Ryan Bombgardner and his friend Jeffrey have been business partners for three years.

But at this weekend's Vent Haven ventriloquist convention, Bombgardner, 19, of Ephrata, Pa., is letting Jeffrey do all the talking.

"He makes the money, I make the jokes," said Jeffrey, a 40-inch-tall dummy dressed in a Starter jump suit and Adidas sneakers.

Bombgardner and about 400 other ventriloquists, including some from Asia and Europe, gather at the Drawbridge Villager Premier every year - a tradition started 27 years ago.

Professional and amateur ventriloquists, ranging from 12 years old to 90, will spend the weekend perfecting their acts in workshops taught by some of the best in the business.

The convention is not open to the public.

"It seems like a geeky, weird thing to do, but you have fun," convention associate director Jeff Dunham said.

The draw to Northern Kentucky is the Vent Haven Museum at 33 W. Maple St. - the world's only ventriloquism museum. Curator Lisa Sweasy said the museum has more than 600 dummies, some more than 180 years old.

Sweasy, who has been museum curator for three years, said working with ventriloquists is a unique experience.

"They are, for the most part, funny, witty and quick," she said.

Or, at least that's the goal.

"They're either unbelievably good or unbelievably bad," she said.

Bombgardner, who has been practicing since he was 12, said he has taken lessons, listened to tapes and read books to perfect his skills.

Now, he does more than 40 paid shows a year at birthday parties, banquets and church functions.

Bombgardner said he retired his older dummies three years ago because they were too small.

That's when he bought Jeffrey - although Jeffrey disagrees.

"I picked him off the street," the doll said.

The 27th annual Vent Haven ventriloquist convention is not open to the public, but the Vent Haven Museum, 33 W. Maple St., Fort Mitchell, is open by appointment. Contact curator Lisa Sweasy at (859) 341-0461 for more information.


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