Ugo Rondinone transforms the Contemporary Arts Center with his strange clowns and rainbow colors

The artist’s ‘let’s start this day again’ features 45 vibrant life-size clown sculptures that each represent a different action like breathing, crying and sleeping.

PHOTOS BY HAILEY BOLLINGER
 MAY 17, 2017 

PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGERIn a world that seems increasingly divided between scary clowns and jovial ones, the artist Ugo Rondinone provides a third choice: introspective, meditative, puzzlingly perplexing clowns. You can see 45 of them at the Contemporary Arts Center now through Aug. 20 in an installation titled “vocabulary of solitude” that takes up much of an entire floor. There, the clowns are lost in a surrounding world of color so intensely alive it should make them want to jump and dance — even if they are life-like, life-size sculptures rather than actual humans. They should at least look happy.

This is the key portion of a larger exhibition, a selective retrospective of the Swiss-born, New York-based Contemporary artist Rondinone, titled let’s start this day again. He first created “vocabulary of solitude” in 2014. This show containing it has already been to museums in Rotterdam and Rome, and after Cincinnati, it moves on to Berkeley, Calif. and the Bass Museum of Art in Miami. At each venue, the exhibit name is different to reflect slight changes in the works displayed.

Since this exhibit first was announced a year ago, clowns have gotten their share of bad press, what with all those “scary clown” sightings a few months back. At one time, that negative publicity prompted Raphaela Platow, the CAC’s director, to tell CityBeat that, “We do hope, even if the scary clown images and stories prevail, that we can introduce a different perspective — a much more positive and thoughtful one — into the discourse.”

And now that let’s start this day again — and “vocabulary of solitude” in particular — is finally here, it reaffirms what she hoped the show would reveal. Platow had also said at the time, “The artist is interested in the tension between the inward poses of the sculptures and their outward appearance of comical entertainers. I would claim that we all experience that dichotomy of inward and outward in our lives.”

Rondinone’s clowns are closer to Rodin’s “The Thinker” than to either Bozo or the Insane Clown Posse. But with Rondinone, it’s as if “The Thinker” has wandered somewhere over the rainbow. The CAC’s walls, floors and ceilings have been painted the most intense colors this side of a mountain range of boulder-sized gumballs. It makes for a weird contrast, and as you wander through “vocabulary of solitude” looking at all 45 kneeling, seated, reclining clowns, you’ll wonder what they could be thinking. They’re so passive that they offer no indications.

During a tour of the exhibit just ahead of its recent opening, Rondinone gave an explanation of sorts. “The 45 clowns represent one single person, middle-aged, and they represent the 45 actions that someone does by himself — from dream to sleep to wake to sit to walk to pee. Each is named after an action,” he said. 

And indeed, the exhibit’s wall text helpfully provides each clown’s name: Be. Breathe. Sleep. Dream. Wake. Rise. Sit. Hear. Look. Think. Stand. Walk. Pee. Shower. Dress. Drink. Fart. Shit. Read. Laugh. Cook. Smell. Taste. Eat. Clean. Write. Daydream. Remember. Cry. Nap. Touch. Feel. Moan. Enjoy. Float. Love. Hope. Wish. Sing. Dance. Fall. Curse. Yawn. Undress. Lie.

PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

But while they are named after those actions, they aren’t all actually posed as if doing them — fortunately, in some cases. That’s the kind of contradiction Rondinone savors.

To him, the clowns are engaged in “self-inspection.” Perhaps they are awaiting enlightenment; perhaps they know they are waiting in vain — he cites the writer Samuel Beckett, author of the classic absurdist play Waiting for Godot, as a key influence. “The clowns symbolize entertainment, but in this case they don’t do anything,” he says. In short, they’re holding back, which makes us all the more curious about them.

And also curious about the man who created them. Rondinone, who is in his early 50s, thinks maybe visual artists need some kind of protection when they make their intensely personal work public — the way that the clown-like jesters of yore assumed their exaggerated, costumed roles to be able to speak truth to power. He knows he personally needs distance after an early attempt at performance art left him unsatisfied. 

PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER“It was difficult in the beginning to realize that, as an artist, you have to defend your private freedom once you’re out in public,” he says. “The public has no boundaries, so you have to set some.” Thus, his reluctant clowns can be seen as a passive-aggressive statement about his own inner thoughts about being an artist. “Even if my work tells you a lot about myself, it gives you a distance to myself,” Rondinone says.

The clowns are made with epoxy-covered polystyrene foam and they wear white masks without pronounced eye openings. To create them, Rondinone used 23 women and 22 men as models. The final sculptural objects are made from 3-D casts; the masks, made from casts of the models’ faces, have eyelashes, red noses and intentional smudge marks denoting life’s bumpy roads. It’s a hard life, being a clown.

Their costumes, while not elaborate in terms of material or accouterments — Rondinone likens them to jumpsuits — still have a riot of polka dots, thick stripes, bold checks and neck ruffles, which have the fluffy otherworldly hues of cotton candy. All wear gloves and socks. The artist worked with a designer on them.

The clowns’ environment of florescent-like colors looks much different than the way Zaha Hadid’s much-heralded museum usually appears. The CAC had to get special paint from Switzerland for the walls and apply layers of vinyl flooring; the CAC’s skylight has been covered with colored film, distorting the “reality” of the museum’s interior even further and making for an interesting, trippy experience when clouds move across the sky on a bright day.

Rondinone sees this presentation as a response to the CAC’s architecture — the neutral colors, hard angles, mysterious corridors, dramatic overlooks and steep, exposed stairways of Hadid’s design which, taken as a whole, can challenge any artwork on display for the viewer’s attention. He found the building an imposing presence, so he decided to make the interior a giant canvas, in a sense. 

“It limits us a lot, the architecture. It guides you,” he says. “I made a positive situation out of it.”

To Platow, what Rondinone has done with the building is extraordinary. “It’s amazing how the architecture has changed through this,” she says. “He’s changed the entire environment.” Speaking on opening night, she referred to let’s start this day again as an “amazing color explosion on our concrete walls.”

PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

Since moving to the United States in 1998, Rondinone has become known for, on one hand, working with intense colors — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet — and, on the other, exploring more naturalistic tones. His art often has a poetic dimension — specific and concise imagery with strong metaphoric implications.

Among the other pieces in let’s start this day again is 2003’s “lines out to silence,” containing 30 separate haiku-like poems written in pencil on paper. Another, 2006’s “the 8th hour of the poem,” is a large realistically rendered light bulb cast from wax and suspended in a gallery occupied at what Rondinone considers “belly-button level.” He made 24 of these, each named after a different hour of the day.

let’s start this day again also contains a floor display of his series of cast bronze and lead candles, each painted a different color and referred to by their color, as in “still.life. (neon yellow candle),” “still.life. (warm yellow candle),” “still.life. (straw yellow candle),” “still.life. (carrot orange candle),” etc. They are so life-like, you might want to light them.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” Rondinone says, with a laugh. “Perhaps behind my back.”

Another work, from 1998, is one of the many circular sun paintings he has done since 1992 — this one is acrylic on canvas, and the lines between the colors grow imprecise as the viewer stares at the emanating radiance. That is intentional.

“You cannot visualize the sun — it blurs,” Rondinone says. “This is really something out of focus that lulls you. It’s connected to the clowns. This is a device to put you in a mental state of inspection.”

PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

Rondinone, ever looking for bold contrasts in his art (and in our lives), has paired “vocabulary of solitude” with a work called “your age and my age and the age of the rainbow.” It is nothing less than a long wall containing many of the 5,000 drawings of rainbows made by Cincinnati schoolchildren from 8 months old to age 12 at the CAC’s and the artist’s request. (He’s doing this in each of the five cities on this show’s tour and will display all the drawn rainbows in Miami.) To him, this serves as a polar opposite to his clowns and is another example of how his work reflects dichotomies.

“These represent the other end of the spectrum — done by children in their innocence, where here (the clowns), we have a state of soberness,” he says.

There’s as much to think about in let’s start this day again as there is to see. The exhibit is entertaining, but it isn’t meant to be merely a “fun” show with easy-on-the-eyes gimmicky imagery. It’s really a plea for all of us to make more of what little time we have on Earth.

“In my mind, the entire show is a meditation on the passing of the hours of the day,” Platow says. “It’s an opportunity for thinking of time as something other than duration, to just dwell on beautiful moments.”


Ugo Rondinone’s LET’S START THIS DAY AGAIN is on display at the Contemporary Arts Center through Aug. 20. More info: contemporaryartscenter.org

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Percussion Group Cincinnati’s Long Relationship with John Cage

 

Like arts institutions all over the world, University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music is celebrating this year’s John Cage Centennial. A concert featuring work of the visionary 20th century American composer occurs at 8 p.m. Thursday, with the CCM Philharmonia joining Percussion Group Cincinnati for American Voices XV – Celebrating John Cage at 100.

CCM’s concert is special for Cage enthusiasts. Percussion Group Cincinnati — a CCM ensemble-in-residence for 30-plus years — not only knew Cage (who died in 1992 at age 79), but he wrote the piece they will perform Thursday, “Music for Three,” just for them back in 1984. The piece is written for three percussionists and 150 (!) instruments of their choice.

The trio — faculty members Allen Otte, James Culley and Russell Burge — will play the piece simultaneously with the Philharmonia’s interpretation of an orchestral piece, “Renga,” that Cage wrote for the U.S. Bicentennial. “Renga” is highly unusual; its score is a series of drawings by Henry David Thoreau, which orchestra members are free to interpret as the conductor monitors time. CCM faculty members will join students for its performance.

Cage fearlessly explored how any sound could make for beautiful “music.” This included silence — Cage’s most famous composition, “4.33,” connotes the duration of minutes and seconds during which an orchestra or musician makes no sounds.

With its 150 percussion instruments, “Music for Three” would seem a kind of anti-“4.33.” Yet it is not chaotic.

“In his crazy-sense-of-humor Zen way, each of us has 50 instruments and some get played heavily, but a couple don’t get played at all,” Otte says. “So do we really need to bring them out? I think the answer is ‘Yes.’

“The music itself is as soft as possible, as loud as possible, as fast, slow, virtuosic and simple as possible — all that happens unpredictably in this half hour (of music),” Otte continues.

“So I thought we should have the most beautiful expensive Japanese gong, the most common orchestral snare drum and we should have pieces of junk. I’ve had a bicycle wheel and a paint can sitting right next to the gong, or something the workmen left laying in my yard the last time they were out there.”

 

Cincinnati has long been a hotbed of support for Cage’s progressive artistic ideas. He served as an artist-in-residence at CCM in 1968 and at that time met the gallerist Carl Solway, who encouraged him to make visual art. A CCM faculty member, Jeanne Kirstein, became known as one of the nation’s top performers of Cage’s prepared-piano and piano compositions. And a UC philosophy professor, Van Meter Ames, had extensive correspondence with Cage on Zen.

Percussion Group Cincinnati’s members came to CCM in 1979 through contacts with the LaSalle (String) Quartet, an ensemble-in-residence whose wide repertoire included an early recording of Cage’s 1950 “String Quartet in Four Parts.” Through LaSalle’s connections, Percussion Group Cincinnati began playing overseas festivals. In the early 1980s, they played one in Cologne where Cage was the guest composer. So they prepared some Cage compositions and got to know him.

“One year later, he had another similar week in Italy and called up and said, ‘That was fun, let’s do this again,’ ” Otte says. That is where “Music for Three” came about.

“It was in his little hotel room, where he invited me for dinner and lunch,” Otte recalls. “He would travel with a wicker picnic basket full of his own organic peanut butter and bread he made himself. It was heavy and wet as a meatloaf. He was talking with such enthusiasm about this new idea. He had just made a new piece with a computer and there was one percussion part and it was going to be for 50 different instruments. Every percussion player could choose his own.”

Back in Cincinnati, another composer backed out of writing a concerto for PGC for an upcoming festival. So Otte called Cage and asked if he could alter his idea and come up with three percussion parts for 150 instruments. Cage agreed. “Music for Three” was born and Cage also agreed an orchestra could play “Renga” at the same time.

“We played it in Ann Arbor and he came out for the premiere,” Otte says. “It’s a half hour of music, it’s hard, it’s unusual. We’ve played the percussion parts separately by ourselves a number of times, but this is only the second time we’ve ever actually done it with an orchestra.”

(photo shows John Cage with Percussion Group Cincinnati in 1984)

Why Are The Monkees in a Psychedelic Art Show?

JUL 12, 2017 11 AM
Distant Horizons: Pioneers of Psychedelic Art, the exhibit currently at the Carl Solway Gallery, is a show devoted to 1960s art at its most radically transformative. The four principal artists — Isaac Abrams, Ira Cohen, Tony Martin and the artist collective USCO (especially its member Gerd Stern) — were, in many cases, so turned on by LSD that they sought to create work that, like the drug, could see through all of life’s pretensions and artifices to arrive at the pure white light/white heat of revelatory truth.

So what are two copies of a poster for Head, a 1968 movie starring The Monkees — so often derided as the ultimate in fake, commercial boy bands — doing in this show? 

It’s a beautiful screen-printed poster — an image of a serious-looking, bespectacled young man’s head on reflective Mylar, with colors swirling around. It’s so memorable it’s in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Still… The Monkees?

he explanation relates to USCO’s Stern, who at age 88 has a fascinating history as a poet, visual artist, Beatnik and hippie. There’s a 329-page interview with him, conducted by the University of California’s Regional Oral History Office, available online to prove how unusual his life has been.

He, as part of USCO, was involved in a groundbreaking Long Island disco, called The World, that used new media projections so groundbreaking it received widespread press coverage. The Solway exhibition has a copy of a 1966 Life magazine featuring the place. At the time, Stern was represented by a young John Brockman — now a top literary agent — in his commercial ventures.

“One day, we got something from Hollywood saying they had seen our publicity and would like to meet with us,” Stern says. “And later, in front of (Brockman’s) Central Park building, a huge limousine stopped and they asked us to come down.”

In the limo were two men, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who had created The Monkees, a television sensation from 1966-68 in which four actors were hired to portray a zany, tight-knit Beatlesque band. By 1968, Rock music had moved on and they were seen as too synthetic and adolescent. Still, Rafelson and Schneider had parlayed their success into a six-picture production deal with Columbia Pictures. For the first film, they wanted to make the band newly appreciated for the turned-on generation.

Stern says he partook of marijuana in the limo, but Brockman didn’t touch the stuff. “They said they hadn’t thought of a name for the picture yet and I thought of (one). I said, ‘Let’s call it Head. It’s a great name for a movie.’ ‘Heads’ are people who smoke dope. And Rafelson is the movie’s director, so he’s the head. We’ll do a psychedelic poster of his head.”

According to Stern, the two producers sent him and Brockman to Hollywood to plan for the movie’s promotional campaign. 

“We went to a photographer’s studio and I said to Rafelson, ‘Sit down in the chair and we’re going to take your picture for the poster.’ He said, ‘It ain’t gonna be me. It’s going to be John.’ I said he’s not a head — he doesn’t smoke and he’s not the director. And he said, ‘Who’s paying who?’ So it ended up being John.”

Rafelson, in a 2002 interview for Mojo, had a somewhat different story: “The ad was originally supposed to have a picture of me on it, but John Brockman was a Marshall McLuhan scholar and said, ‘It doesn’t matter whose picture is on it. We’re not going to say it’s The Monkees. We’re just going to say, ‘What’s Head? And whose head? and basically enquire people into the theater.’ He was afraid this picture was too radical for The Monkees’ audience, so let’s allow people to discover it as an individual movie. That was the philosophy.”

Stern says USCO’s Judi Stern and Barbara Durkee printed 100 copies of the Mylar posters. There were also paper ones. Stern kept four of the Mylar ones.

Head flopped when released but has since become a cult favorite. But Rafelson’s and Schneider’s next production, the Dennis Hopper-directed Easy Rider, changed Hollywood and made actor Jack Nicholson a star.


DISTANT HORIZONS: PIONEERS OF PSYCHEDELIC ART is on view through Sept. 16 at Carl Solway Gallery, 424 Findlay St., West End. More info: solwaygallery.com.

Vent Haven Is More than a “Museum for Dummies”

Vent Haven: Ventriloquism Museum

BY STEVEN ROSEN

CINCINNATI CITYBEAT

 JUL 15, 2009 2 PM

 

For a world-class museum, Greater Cincinnati’s Vent Haven Museum attracts precious few visitors — about 900 to 1,200 a year. How to increase attendance is problematic since it raises the issue of what kind of place Vent Haven is meant to be.

It’s the only major public museum devoted to ventriloquism (the art of throwing voices) and has more than 750 historic and/or unusual ventriloquial figures — colloquially and sometimes controversially known as “dummies.”

While it risks cliché to say this, the museum can legitimately be tagged a unique experience because of that. It regularly gets international attention. The New York Times last month did a major feature praising it (as well as another hard-to-see Greater Cincinnati museum, the American Sign Museum). National Public Radio has also featured it, and a Web site called Internationaltraveler.com listed it as one of the world’s 10 weirdest museums.

But is that all Vent Haven is? Among those who know of it, many just consider it a resource for the offbeat or “weird” topic of ventriloquial history — “weird” because of the way contemporary entertainment sometimes has imagined the ventriloquists as troubled persons and the figures as having minds (and lives) of their own. There is a famous 1962 Twilight Zone episode, “The Dummy,” that helped create this impression.

Yet Vent Haven could hold potential interest as an art museum, a pop-culture/entertainment-history museum or an institution that uses its narrow subject as a way to tell the story of American social and political history. But Vent Haven’s site and crowd-capacity limitations hold down local visibility, outreach and attendance to the nonprofit museum, which occupies several secondary buildings at the Fort Mitchell, Ky., residence of the late ventriloquism enthusiast and businessman William Shakespeare Berger. It is on a residential street. (Berger’s actual house is not open to the public.)

Vent Haven Audio Slideshow 

“There’s no question if this was in an area with a lot of foot traffic and in a tourist-oriented place, I think you’d easily have 300 people a day through the museum,” says Tom Ladshaw, a professional ventriloquist/magician who serves on Vent Haven’s board of advisors. “But this was W.S.’s house, and this was essentially the way he set it up.” Jennifer Dawson, in her first year as Vent Haven’s curator, acknowledges some ventriloquists have said they’d love to have the collection in their hometowns.

“We know we would not be allowed to add another building to the property — there would not be room, anyway,” Dawson says. “Since it is a residential street, there are a lot of restrictions. Mr. Berger created this whole unique museum and had it started here. At this point we have enough space to continue housing the donations we receive.”

Starting Wednesday and lasting through Saturday, Vent Haven is having its “high season.” That is when the 31st annual ConVEN- Tion of nearly 400 ventriloquists comes to Fort Mitchell. Titled “The Year of Creativity,” featuring a lecture by ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, it mostly occurs at a nearby hotel. According to a note by the convention’s Executive Director Mark Wade posted on the Vent Haven Web site (www.venthaven.com), attendance will be greater than last year, despite the economy.

“We don’t choose to participate in the Recession, thank you,” he writes. That makes sense, since ventriloquism in general is on an upswing. Recently, ventriloquist Terry Fator won the “America’s Got Talent” reality-show contest, taking home $1 million for his effort. Almost 14 million people watched the season finale. That’s a return to the golden-era old days of the TV variety (and children’s) shows, when Edgar Bergen, Senior Wences, Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson and Shari Lewis were popular ventriloquists.

Bergen in his heyday was as big a name in entertainment as Gene Autry or Walt Disney. Remarkably, in the 1930s, Bergen was hugely popular in radio with his Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd figures.

This year’s Vent Haven conventioneers will see a new gift: Jay Johnson, who played ventriloquist Chuck Campbell on Soap and went on to win a 2007 Tony Award for his Broadway show, The Two and Only, has donated a collection. It will be on display for the first time for the convention and will mark a modest but permanent expansion of Vent Haven’s display space.

“That will be a new addition and we’re going to use our fourth building to display that material,” Dawson says. “And Jay Johnson is going to be at the convention.”

(Vent Haven will be closed to the public through July 22.) Once conventioneers are gone, Vent Haven returns to its quiet, appointment-only existence, although it has been working to improve its Web site with stories behind “featured figures.” Those lucky enough to get in for the remainder of this year will have the opportunity to be awestruck by Vent Haven’s piece de resistance: a building known as “the schoolroom,” where rows and rows of figures sit in metal chairs, organized according to their makers, with each exuding its own personality because of size, facial expressions, clothing or name. It’s as if each one’s past, and the fascinating story that goes with it, has been forever preserved in the present. The effect is overwhelming.

At Vent Haven, all the figures have fascinating back stories to tell — Jacko, the monkey with the moving eyes; Joe Flip, who quipped in a Brooklyn accent while his vent Dick Bruno spoke with a sophisticated French accent; and the lightweight Jane Jones, who was used by a rare female ventriloquist who herself weighed but 85 pounds. Vent Haven also treats the figure makers as artists in their own right and has done much work to give, say, George and Glenn McElroy of Harrison, Ohio, their due for creating figures capable of complex and imaginative facial movements.

The museum additionally has memorabilia, photographs, artifacts and an extensive collection of research books, such as a rare single-volume copy of the first book written about ventriloquism, from 1772. Another book, A Dummy Goes to Africa, is a memoir by a missionary/ventriloquist.

Some might say Vent Haven’s collection is hardly an artistic attraction in the way Monet and Rembrandt paintings are. But this subject matter might be the very reason Vent Haven could have far more impact on the city’s — and nation’s — museum world if it could accommodate more visitors, for ventriloquial figures occupy a place of strong ongoing fascination within the art world.

The artist/photographer/filmmaker Laurie Simmons, whose 40-minute movie The Music of Regret features the figures and Meryl Streep, worked with the Vent Haven collection on her still photographs and films beginning in 1987. Some of the results have been collected in the book Walking Talking Lying: Laurie Simmons, in which author Kate Linker quotes Simmons as saying, “So many kinds of male relationships come up between vent and dummy: paternal, buddy love, best-friend love, brotherly love, homosexual love.” The author also sees the potential for a veritable existential conflict in Simmons’ choice of subject matter — “the difference between its illusional humanity and its status as an object.”

Dennis Kiel, a former photography curator at Cincinnati Art Museum and now chief curator for Charlotte’s Light Factory Museum of Photography and Film, tried to pitch a Vent Haven show for CAM several years ago. The idea came after he saw the catalogue for a Simmons retrospective at Baltimore Art Museum. He said he received support from the museum’s costume curator.

“Initially, the idea was to show Laurie Simmons’ photos along with a selection of the actual dummies, etc., from Vent Haven,” Kiel writes in an e-mail message. “There are a few other photographers who have been allowed in there since … and I was thinking of including some of those images as well. But I liked the idea of focusing just on Laurie’s work and Vent Haven, especially since she had a dummy made of herself because of the experience. However, it never went any further. The idea was vetoed by two directors.”

Actually, a Cincinnati art museum did feature Vent Haven’s figures previously, but it was a long time ago: From Dec. 9, 1976, to Jan. 26, 1977, the Contemporary Arts Center offered Selections From the Permanent Collection of the Vent Haven Museum. It displayed 54 figures in a show credited by the then-director to assistant curator Karen S. Chambers and preparatory Frank Farmer.

And the art world’s interest continues. David Goldblatt’s 2005 book, Art and Ventriloquism, is but one example: “Like ventriloqual (an alternative spelling) dummies, artworks take on personalities, characters of their own, often saying what the artist herself would or could not say in voices distinct from her (our) daily modes of expression,” a published overview of the book explains. “Goldblatt uses ventriloquism as an apt metaphor to help understand a variety of art world phenomena — how the vocal vacillation between ventriloquist and dummy works is mimicked in the relationship of artist, artwork and audience, including the ways in which artworks are interpreted.”

Also, the stories of ventriloquists and their figures offer compelling glimpses into American social history — especially race relations. For instance, the PBS series History Detectives visited Vent Haven for a segment on John W. Cooper, a vaudeville-era (and later) African-American ventriloquist whose work defied all-too-common racial stereotyping in entertainment.

Evidence of such stereotyping, as well as the evolution of its end, can be found at Vent Haven. While the museum doesn’t have Cooper’s original figures, it owns photographs, a script, correspondence and a rare sound recording of his act. It also has the in-manyways-remarkable group of connected figures belonging to the early-20th-century blind ventriloquist Jules Vernon, who could operate them all at once. One is Happy, a smiling black man dressed in a red-and-gray uniform.

“Happy was a standard type, a character usually known as ‘the laughing Negro’ — it was actually listed in catalogues,” Ladshaw says. Moving to more contemporary times, the museum also has the original Lester, used by African-American ventriloquist Willie Tyler.

Should Vent Haven try to expand or move to a better location and try for growth? That depends on what its principals believe it should be. Berger set up Vent Haven as a charitable foundation to preserve and display his collection after his death in 1972. It opened in 1973. He is as much a reason for its existence as his collection. Besides being a successful businessman — president of Cincinnati’s Cambridge Tile Company — he was a “ventriloquarian,” actively collecting everything he could about the subject and buying whatever he could find on the market.

He was also an amateur ventriloquist who bought his first figure — Tommy Baloney, which is at Vent Haven — in 1910 and maintained correspondence and relationships with most of the nation’s key ventriloquists.

Because Berger lived there, the site has a folkloric aspect that Vent Haven wants to preserve. Berger was well known to the Hollywood entertainers who played Northern Kentucky’s supper clubs and gambling houses in their heyday.

“Edgar Bergen once came at 3 in the morning,” explains Vent Haven’s previous curator, Lisa Sweasy. “W.S. left word, ‘I don’t care what time it is, come to the house after the show.’ ” (Bergen was playing at the Lookout House.) So Berger-reverent is Vent Haven that visitors are asked to sign in because that’s a tradition Berger started in the 1930s.

“What is so great about this place is it would be unsurprising to me if he walked out that back door,” Sweasy says. “It is the same location and similar to how it looked in his lifetime. Things are pretty much as he left them. What we don’t want to do is erase him.” And in a way, the environment he created might be Vent Haven’s greatest claim to being an art museum.

“It was his own personal universe and the Vent Haven Museum exists as a monument to his own involvement as a folk artist in much the same way that Simon Rodia’s ‘Watts Towers’ testifies to his,” CAC’s Chambers wrote in the catalogue for her art show about this collection.


Vent Haven Museum is open for guided tours by appointment only from May through September. Call 859-341-0461 or e-mail venthaven@insightbb.com. Admission fee is a $5 donation.

Steve Cropper on The “5” Royales

Breaking Ground for Groundbreakers

Legendary guitarist Steve Cropper honors influence of King Records’ 5 Royales

AUG 17, 2011 2 PM
CINCINNATI CITYBEAT

The list of Cincinnati’s King Records acts whose influence on future musicians — often some of the greats of Rock & Roll — has proved greater than their own enduring fame is still growing longer.

The latest addition is Lowman “Pete” Pauling and The “5” Royales.

The Rhythm & Blues vocal group recorded for King from 1954-1959 and was unusual in that Pauling, besides singing bass, played a stinging, bluesy lead electric guitar. He also wrote many of their songs.

The group’s legacy is getting a big boost thanks to the new album Dedicated: A Salute To The 5 Royales by Steve Cropper. Cropper’s guitar work — tight, funky, bluesy but sparklingly danceable and never showboat-y — was a key, defining ingredient of the famous Stax/Volt Memphis Soul sound of the 1960s.

“The purpose of this record is to bring back history and show where a lot of good-feel music and music to dance to comes from,” Cropper says via phone. “It’s a group that basically nobody has heard of. They never really got their chance.”

The “5” Royales came from North Carolina and had roots in Gospel. While they were attuned to Doo-Wop, the members were not teenagers (Pauling was born in 1926 and died of a seizure in 1973) and had an older, more mature lyrical sensibility. The “5” in the group’s name traditionally had quotation marks because they sometimes had six members. (Cropper’s album title drops that punctuation idiosyncrasy.)

The “5” Royales (pronounced “Roy-Als”) had their share of R&B hits, including several on New York’s Apollo Records, before signing with King. Brian Powers, Cincinnati-based King historian and archivist, sees the group as crucial to the label, a key link between its early Jump Blues releases and the later, harder soul of James Brown. But their key contribution, until now, is that while on King they recorded original versions of songs that became classics for others — “Think” (James Brown), “Tell the Truth” (Ray Charles) and “Dedicated to the One I Love” (Shirelles, Mamas and the Papas).

Those songs were written by Pauling, the latter with King producer/A&R executive Ralph Bass. The group’s primary lead was tenor singer was Johnny Tanner, although sometimes his brother Eugene assumed the role.

Cropper was a key member of Memphis’ integrated Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band Booker T. and the MG’s (“Green Onions,” “Hang ‘Em High”). The guitarist, who is white, also played with Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Johnnie Taylor, Carla Thomas and more Soul giants of the 1960s. In the 1970s, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd tapped him (and bass-playing MG’s partner Donald “Duck” Dunn) as bandleaders for their Blues Brothers act.

On Dedicated, produced by Jon Tiven, Cropper records new, updated versions of “5” Royales songs with such guest vocalists as Lucinda Williams, Sharon King, B.B. King, Buddy Miller, Bettye LaVette and Delbert McClinton, and leaves two songs, including “Think,” for himself to solo. At 70, Cropper feels it’s important to tell his own and younger generations how influential and important a guitarist Pauling was. And, also, how key the “5” Royales recordings for King were in influencing his shaping of Memphis soul.

“You have to incorporate the licks you play within the melody of the song,” Cropper explains. “You have to save room. That’s what I got out of it when I heard (Pauling’s) music, and then when I got to see him play live, he wasn’t all over the place stepping on everything, which would require whoever is doing sound to turn him down and back him away from the singers. Good guitar players who are session guitar players find the holes to play in, and they extend the melody or complement it or play something that leads into the next part of the song.”

The “5” Royales’ live act was considered wildly exciting in their heyday and made them a popular, reliable draw at black clubs, according to Ed Ward in liner notes for 1994’s Monkey Hips and Rice: The “5” Royales Anthology. Cropper can vouch for the impact that the “5” Royales and Pauling made live. As teenagers in the 1950s, he and Dunn went to a crowded club to see the group. Dunn’s brother Bob was the King Records’ representative in Memphis, an important job for the label because the city, home of Sun Records and Elvis, had many radio and jukebox outlets for Roots music. In the ’50s, he kept his brother and Cropper informed of new releases by the Royales and other King acts.

The group played before about 200 people at the show Cropper attended. Pauling was the leader, anchoring the sound and directing the combo that supported the vocalists. But he didn’t try to compete with the singers when he played guitar. He used his talent to complement them. Still, he was a striking visual presence, wearing a long strap to look like a guitar-slinger.

“I went home, somewhere between 12 and 1 in the morning, and I guess I woke my mom up,” Cropper recalls. “I said, ‘Mom, I need some belts.’ I knew what I was going to do; I was going to make my guitar strap longer. I couldn’t wait to do it; I would have done it that night if she’d let me. Lowman seemed to have this thing just standing there. He’d wiggle and play this great show, and I said, ‘Man that is for me. That is really cool.’ ”


Steve Cropper’s DEDICATED: A SALUTE TO THE 5 ROYALES on 429 Records is in stores now.