By Annie Roberts

The Vent Haven Convention was back this year! While some people weren’t quite sure what to expect, it provided a sense of normalcy and community that had been sorely lacking in the previous year during the pandemic. There were 425 attendees and about 70 first-time attendees; it was a good mix and didn’t feel too crowded for people who still had concerns about larger gatherings. It was more intimate, and after Covid, it was nice to interact with people face to face. Some people wore masks, others did not, and that was all well and good. There was definitely a sense of “I’m just so glad to be here.” Jenna Caraway from Delaware says, “I always look forward to it. It’s a treasure.”

You never know what you’re going to see at the convention, and in addition to what the schedule says on paper, there are always surprises. One highlight for conventioneers was the Thursday night “Jimmy Nelson – The Legacy of Laughter Continues.” Jimmy’s lovely wife Betty, son Lee Jay, daughter Elizabeth, daughter Marianne, and son-in-law Glenn were honored guests. Tom Ladshaw, assisted by Lisa Sweasy and Annie Roberts, paid tribute to Jimmy by sharing some tidbits that were unknown to Jimmy’s family, including a beer commercial from early in his career and a prototype Farfel that even Jimmy Nelson had never seen. Jeff Dunham surprised the audience in a very emotional viewing of his clip from the 2011 Jimmy Nelson Convention, where in the clip Jeff is with Danny O’Day on his arena stage singing the Nestlé jingle. To close this time of remembering, each family member came on stage to formally donate all of Jimmy’s figures — Danny O’Day, Farfel, Humphrey Higsby, and Ftatateeta — to Vent Haven Museum. Those figures were on Special Exhibit in the Jimmy Nelson Building on the Saturday tours of Vent Haven Museum where attendees could see them up close. It was a wonderful, bittersweet evening.

Jimmy Nelson Legacy Lisa Sweasy, Danny ODay, Betty Nelson

Vent Haven Museum Annie Roberts, Betty Nelson, and Lisa Sweasy with the Jimmy Nelson Special Exhibit

Even though the convention felt more personal this year, it still had star power. The Saturday Night Show included the phenomenal line-up of Tony Award winner Jay Johnson as emcee, Taylor Mason, Liz VonSeggen, and Willie Tyler. Jay did a distant voice bit with a hotel key card that was timely and hilarious for everyone who had been dealing with the ‘three-swipes is a charm’ key card issue at the hotel. Taylor Mason was high energy and incorporated live music with his keyboard which makes him unique. Tansy Pocernich Davis says, “I like how Taylor points out the puppets aren’t real throughout the act, breaking that suspension of disbelief for comedic effect.” Liz VonSeggen brought something different to the stage by acting three different characters to define what a ventriloquist is. Willie Tyler and Lester closed the show. Earlier that day, conventioneers were treated to watching a rough cut of Willie’s documentary Hello, Dummy, which featured clips from his days with Motown and throughout his 50 year career. That deepened everyone’s appreciation for Willie Tyler and Lester’s performance on stage, having gotten a glimpse through the documentary into the depth and breadth of his career. Dan Sachoff said, “Willie is still killing it! His performance was really special. He felt the love from everyone who appreciates what he does.”

All Star Show Willie Tyler and Lester closing a great performance

Hello Dummy Q&A with Keith Valcourt, Willie Tyler and Lester

All Star Show MC Jay Johnson

Star power also included a lecture by Jeff Dunham entitled “A Day on Tour” where Jeff showed attendees a behind the scenes video of doing arena shows. He also brought out a new character URL (pronounced “earl”) that he built during the pandemic. Jeff went through some of his material with URL and talked about character development. Always good about giving conventioneers the inside scoop, Jeff also shared the prototype for a toy Peanut figure that is a hard-figure. “Jeff is so faithful to come every year. I’m so appreciative. He always finds new things to share with us,” says Dan Sachoff. Jeff has attended every convention except for one when his mom made him go to Europe with his church choir. Darci Lynne arrived Saturday afternoon and had a lovely conversation interview with Executive Director Mark Wade. Petunia, of course, made a guest appearance. She took questions from the audience as well. The Junior Open Mic included seven girls this year, many of whom credit being inspired by Darci Lynne. Again, you never know what you’ll see, Darci Lynne and her parents surprised Gary Owen, her coach, with a plaque and a scholarship in Gary’s name for a young vent to attend Vent Haven each year.

Jeff Dunham and A Day on Tour

Darci Lynne, Clark, Misty Farmer with Gary Owen

Vent Haven Convention is a great place to learn no matter where you are on the vent learning spectrum. “Every year you learn something different,” says Justin Hlifka from New Jersey who attended his fourth convention this year. From Tom Crowl, he learned that the puppet is not the enemy. When writing material, make sure it sounds natural and comes out of the personality of the character. Jenna Caraway loved all of the P’s in Jay Johnson’s lecture – Prepare, Practice, Polish. Her big take-away was Jay’s advice to fall in love with rehearsal. Practice makes polish; polish makes money. Ken Groves gave a great tip on how to rehearse with his look around the room suggestion. The vent and the puppet simply talk about what they see in the room; they practice making conversation with each other. It is more natural than memorizing a script and is good practice for when the vent talks with an audience member during a show. Ken also talked about making sure the character is distinct from the vent and as realistic as possible. In Dan Sachoff’s workshop, “Acting for Vents,” he said vents need to give themselves permission to play. Sometimes performers are too critical of themselves, and they need to leave room for the unexpected. The ventriloquist is a character in the act too, a heightened version of themselves perhaps, but the vent is playing a part also. In Taylor Mason’s workshop, he said to start each day with a smile and get moving. When you get moving, that leads to action. You need to find funny in things that are there every day. “Taylor Mason is always inspiring because he’s upbeat,” says Jenna Caraway.
Ken Groves Creating Your Best Character
Taylor Mason Creating Funny Routines and Material
Dan Sachoff and Acting for Vents
The days are filled with learning, but the evenings are for relaxing and enjoying the shows. “Mike looks like he’s having fun, so you have fun,” says Jenna Caraway. Justin Hlifka says, “Tom Crowl made me laugh the hardest!” Dan Sachoff commented about Hannah Leskosky’s performance, “She’s so original and completely commits to it. It’s not about having the fanciest puppet. It’s about good material and finding your voice. Often people who do standup want to crush boundaries and be edgy and relevant. You can be edgy and relevant without being blue and not lose a whole bunch of your audience.” Mike Hemmelgarn also says, “Hannah Leskosky was such a unique, brilliant performance.” One definite highlight for Justin Hlifka was seeing his picture on the wall at Vent Haven Museum. He says, “It makes me feel like I’m a part of vent history.” Conventioneers got to visit the museum in its present configuration on this final visit. Demolition and construction of the new building will begin in September. “It was special to see for the last time,” says Dan Sachoff. In addition to Jimmy Nelson’s figures on display in the Jimmy Nelson Building, the museum featured a Special Exhibit for Advisor Alan Semok who passed away in October 2019 with two figures from the museum’s collection — Walter Ego and Woodrow from the film Dummy — and four other figures on loan — Semok’s own Eugene shipped especially for the exhibit by his widow Mary McGinley; Jeff Dunham’s Archie, which Jeff won at a convention for Most Deserving Young Vent; Dale Brown’s Chip Martin, and Al Getler’s Floyd. A tribute film to Semok was playing on the touchscreen in the W.S. Berger Building. Conventioneers were also able to visit their Adopted Dummies and get a picture together.

Hospitality Suite with White Castles

Vent Haven Museum Advisor Dale Brown with the Alan Semok Special Exhibit

If we learned anything this past year, it’s that virtual interactions are no comparison to in person. We are built for community. The convention is so much more than the lectures and the shows. It’s the friendships — new and old. Dan Sachoff shared that he connected with Taylor Mason and the two talked about work Taylor had done with the Farm Bureau. Dan learned a ton just from that conversation. Tansy Pocernich Davis, who performed on the Senior Open Mic this year, said she talked to Liz VonSeggen afterwards and how valuable that conversation was. Tansy’s advice for people who are new is…talk to people and don’t be nervous or shy. For her first couple of years, she was uncomfortable to strike up these conversations and that was the wrong attitude. Those were missed opportunities. It’s these conversations that make the Vent Haven ConVENTion special. When asked why it is important to attend the Vent Haven Convention, Mike Hemmelgarn says, “It’s hard to attend and not be inspired. The convention pushes you to know what you want to aspire to.” A big thank you to Jenna Caraway, Tansy Pocernich Davis, Dan Sachoff, Mike Hemmelgarn, and Justin Hlifka for agreeing to be interviewed and sharing their experiences of the convention this year!! It was much appreciated!