Lizzie has been tucked in a wooden trunk bearing her name and stowed inside Linda Mae Glader’s closet for more than 40 years.
But the dummy — a handcrafted ventriloquist doll with striking blue eyes, eyebrows like wiggling caterpillars and animate limbs — is soon breaking free.
Perched on Glader’s lap in OshKosh B’gosh overalls, a heart-speckled turtleneck and sneakers, Lizzie told Glader — whose lips remained still — that she was upset about being cooped up for so long.
“I feel bad that she’s been in storage all these years, but it’s so hard to imagine giving her away,” said Glader, a 52-year-old Grand Junction woman and the only person to ever put words in Lizzie’s mouth. “How do I sell something that’s priceless?”
Lizzie isn’t being sold, but she is crossing state lines to be lionized in dummy history.
Glader, forlorn over the thought of her precious puppet gathering dust, resolved it was time to give Lizzie a second chance. First, she tried selling the dummy on Facebook but was overwhelmed by blowback from commenters speculating on what kinds of demons inhabited the doll’s body.
“I’m getting a lot of hate comments from people that think she’s creepy or haunted,” Glader said. “They’re asking, ‘Is she going to kill me?’ I’m like, ‘Well, it depends on whose hand is inside her.’”
A ventriloquist museum stepped into the picture, promising Lizzie a life of eternal veneration in a Kentucky sanctuary with about 1,000 of her fellow puppet retirees and a curator who vows to care for them into their twilight years.
After more than 40 years, Lizzie’s got a new lease on life, and she can tell you all about it.
Origin of a dummy
Lizzie was crafted by pioneering ventriloquist supplier and instructor Clinton Detweiler and given to Glader in the 1970s. Detweiler, who died in 2013, was heralded for his Littleton workshop where he crafted dummies and educational materials teaching kids and adults the whimsical art form.
Trying to coax shyness out of his young daughter, Glader’s father presented her with puppets and taught her to project a loud, rambunctious personality into the dolls.
“We get attached to the dolls big time,” Glader said. “They’re alter-egos, so it’s like they’re us. It’s our personality coming through the doll — the bratty part.”
Glader turned out to have a knack for throwing her voice. With her dad as her manager, 9-year-old Glader and Lizzie took their act around Denver entertaining school children, nursing home residents, church-goers and beyond.
Glader was reserved and quiet, but Lizzie was a loudmouth full of jokes and put-downs at her owner’s expense.
“It was so cool doing shows,” Glader said. “Especially for little children because they thought Lizzie was real, and they’d really listen. My dad wrote all my skits. I memorized them. I have tons of awards, certificates, photographs — a complete history of Lizzie. Every time I look through them, I cry.”
Glader’s parents divorced when she was 13, and her touring ventriloquist act came to an end. Lizzie wound up packed in a personalized trunk and carted around Colorado, never to be used again but too precious to surrender.
“The sentimentality people have around their dummies and the characters they develop is very, very real,” said Lisa Sweasy, curator for the Vent Haven Museum, billed as the world’s only museum dedicated to ventriloquism. “The closest thing would be a person who plays a musical instrument for a long time and becomes attached. It’s an irreplaceable thing. It is this idea of creating a comedy team where you have to come up with an extension of your personality and a lot of creativity goes into creating these characters.”
Glader didn’t want to part with Lizzie, but the Grand Junction woman who now suffers from chronic health problems said she wasn’t giving her dummy the life it deserved.
“I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be living… and I didn’t want her to just end up as something nobody knew what to do with,” Glader said. “It kills my heart that she’s just sitting in a box.”
Glader had hopes of bequeathing her doll to a young Coloradan interested in the trade — free ventriloquist lessons included. Lizzie’s ice blue eyes caught the attention of Facebook users in the group Mile High Sell, Buy Trade, where Glader advertised the dummy for $1,000.
Instead of a buyer, Glader found a full-time job moderating the post’s comments, including replies like, “Do the demons that inhabit her body come free or are they extra???” and, “Will I need to sign in blood?”
“There’s going to be those people that think it’s dark, but it’s not,” Glader said. “Just watching all the comments come in, there were so many negative. Like, ‘Is she going to kill me? Is she Chucky’s sister?’”
A museum for dummies
Glader worried a buyer might want Lizzie for ill-intentioned purposes when all she wanted was her beloved puppet to bring joy. The ventriloquist remembered the Vent Haven Museum providing a home to dummies in need.
In a virtual tour of the museum available online, scores of dummies are stacked in stadium seats and sat in chairs propped around the space replete with ventriloquist memorabilia.
“We don’t just have the dummy,” Sweasy said. “We have the scripts, costumes, photographs, recordings and all that tells the stories of the dummy.”
When Glader gave Sweasy a call, she knew she had found a safe place for Lizzie to leave her legacy.
When the dolls arrive, Sweasy has them appraised for the owner’s tax purposes, cleans them up, files and archives their associated paperwork and displays newcomers in a special case. Sweasy, who has been museum curator for almost 16 years, said they receive about 20 to 25 new dummies a year.
“They get their day in the sun,” Sweasy said. “Lizzie will always be here. If someone came along 50 years from now and said they’d like to learn about Linda Glader’s dummy, we can tell that. It’s almost like a little piece of immortality from the ventriloquist that this extension — this character you developed — will still be here.”
While Sweasy tends to the dolls’ upkeep, there’s a golden rule that nobody ever operates the dummies except their original owners, who may come to visit.
“You just don’t do that,” Sweasy said about tinkering with another’s doll. “It’s blasphemy. It’s rude.”
With Glader and Lizzie’s days together numbered, the 52-year-old held her dummy in her lap and reminisced, swiveling Lizzie’s head to and fro as she shared memories of better days spent putting words in her little friend’s mouth.
“I’ll be bawling my eyes out when I ship her out,” Glader said. “But I know she’ll be in a safe place and loved.”
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