When I was 11 years old I heard about the Ventriloquist (“Vent Haven”) Museum near Cincinnati, OH. I had been doing ventriloquism since I was six years old so I had been at it for a whopping five years! My mother took me to the museum and we went on a private tour. Vent Haven is sort of the retirement home for dummies; and on display were more than 500 old ventriloquist dummies along with all sorts of “vent” memorabilia.
At that time, I did not own a professional vent dummy (actually they are called “figures”). One of the things I was hoping to find out at the museum was how to actually get one. Almost immediately upon entering the museum I was drawn toward certain figures that captivated me. “Tell me about this one,” I asked the curator of the museum.
“Oh his name is Cecil Wigglenose. He was once owned by a ventriloquist named Valentine Vox and was made by two brothers right here in Cincinnati back in the 1930s. Their names are George and Glenn McElroy. Would you like to see how he works?”
Would I?! She let me operate the figure. You could make just about everything on his face move. The eyes rolled and went crossed, the ears wiggled, the nose wiggled, the upper lip moved up revealing a row of front teeth, the tongue stuck out, his eyebrows moved, he winked, and his hair even popped up as if he were frightened! I had never seen anything like it in my life. As an eleven year old I was awestruck!
“How could I get a figure like that one?” I asked, wondering if George and Glenn were still making them.
“The McElroys haven’t made any figures for years. They are still alive, but they are both retired. Their figures have now become rare collectors’ items and the Vent Haven museum has the largest collection of them in the world—six of them,” the curator boasted. “And no one that I know of makes figures like they did.”
I’ve been told that the McElroys only made about 40 or 50 dummies, which makes them an incredibly rare find. The Vent Haven Museum now has nine figures made by the brothers. Apart from those nine, I’m only personally aware of about maybe 20 others. From that day on, I dreamed of owning a McElroy figure.
In 1995 I met someone at the Ventriloquist Convention that had a McElroy figure that he was selling. I asked him how much he wanted and he said “thirteen.” I thought to myself, “Thirteen hundred dollars? Where’s my check book?” Then of course he clarified, “That’s thirteen THOUSAND dollars.”
“Oh... never mind.” I actually considered mortgaging the house, but my wife Lynda brought me back to reality. Instead, I bought a limited edition signed poster of “Johnny Smiles,” another McElroy creation on display at the museum. I had that poster matted and framed where it hangs above my desk at home. Frequently I would look at that poster and say to myself, “Well, maybe some day...”
On January 4, 2002 I did a program for the Singles Ministry of a church. After the program a woman came up to me and told me that her grandfather had been a ventriloquist and that she had inherited his dummy.
I began to ask her about the history of the inherited dummy. She said that she wasn’t sure, but that she thought that it was made by a couple of guys in Ohio. Needless-to-say, my heart skipped a few beats, but I was still skeptical. I asked her if it had a lot of interesting movements on it. She said, “Oh yes, it has wiggling ears, hair that pops up, a nose that wiggles.”
“So how old is this dummy?” I asked her.
“Oh, my grandfather, Wayne Fernelius, performed with "Jerry McSafety" for probably 60 years. He was a vent during WWII,” she said.
Trying to contain my excitement while not allowing my hopes to get too high I asked if she was interested in selling the figure.
“Yes,” she said, “That’s why I came up to talk to you. I enjoyed your show and was so touched by your message that I thought it would be neat to see my grandfather’s dummy back in the hands of a ventriloquist that could carry on his legacy.”
I then explained to her the history of George and Glenn McElroy, the figures they created that fit her description, as well as the rarity and value of these dummies. I expressed to her that it had been a life-long dream to own a McElroy but I also warned her that if her figure was indeed a McElroy, I might just pee my pants!
She laughed and we scheduled a meeting at her home for the following day. I don’t think I need to tell you that I didn’t sleep much that night. When I got to her house at the appointed time, she invited me in. She had the figure sitting on the sofa. I walked over, looked at it and knew it was a McElroy and I began to get choked up. I just couldn’t believe it! She was touched as well and looking at me she said, “I think God has been saving him for you.” I will never forget that statement. We both got choked up. To bring some levity to the moment, she asked, “You’re not going to pee your pants now are you?”
After I pulled myself together, I told her that I would love to buy the figure, and we negotiated a price that we could both be happy with. My figure has the exact same face as “Johnny Smiles,” the very same face as the poster that has hung over my desk these past several years! I’ve redressed him in a tuxedo now, and I’ve decided to name him “Mack Elroy” in honor of his makers. I’ve been using him in my act since mid-February 2002.
In April of 2002, my wife Lynda and I attended a ventriloquist convention in Las Vegas. There was a guy there in the Vent Convention Dealers Room (Tom Ladshaw) that had a table where he was selling Ventriloquism memorabilia. I told Tom that I had a “McElroy” figure and asked him if he had anything at his table that had anything to do with the McElroys. He told me that he had some old photos of some ventriloquists who used McElroy figures. He then pulled out the photo (shown above) that was taken probably in the late 40’s of the figure that I now own along with the ventriloquist who used him. I about fell over. I told Tom that was the figure that I now owned. He told me that he had been searching for that figure for years!
Indeed it has been fun for me to incorporate Mack Elroy into my act. Frankly, he is a challenge to operate, but I have enjoyed the challenge. If you would like to see Mack Elroy in action, along with my other characters, give me a call to book a performance and check out my DVD of the show.