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Jay Johnson: The Two and Only

By Beth Herstein


Jay Johnson and Darwin
The man on the other end of the phone is charming and mild mannered, the trace of a Texas twang so muted as to sound Midwestern. Yet his voice is capable of rapid and startling transformation. He is a monkey, riffing like a jazz musician; he is a smart ass, ready with an insult; he is the unseen monster in the basement. He is a talking tennis ball. He is the voice of sweetness itself. He is Jay Johnson, one of the world's foremost ventriloquists, and he is currently performing in a one-man show —albeit with all the characters described above, and a few more —called The Two and Only, which recently began an open-ended run at the Helen Hayes Theater. The show is new to Broadway, but it is not new. It was workshopped in Los Angeles at The White Fire Theater, further developed at a street fair, and then performed in New York - first at a showcase, and then at Atlantic Theater - in 2004. Since then, the show toured the country, mostly to rave reviews, before returning to New York.

Beth Herstein:  Congratulations on the show. I know it's been a long time in the making. How did the idea come about to combine memoir and the history of ventriloquism and performances of your work?

Jay Johnson:  It was an organic collaboration between myself and my two directors, Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel. I've always wanted to do ventriloquism on a stage, in a theater. In a situation where it's not a nightclub with people actually buying drinks, or a restaurant. But, I could never find the right way to approach it, the right path. Then Murphy and Paul came to me after a benefit show that I'd done for them and [proposed that we put together a one-man show].

And so, we just started talking about ventriloquism. We talked about my experiences and how I felt about ventriloquism. We went into a rehearsal hall and I would bring in a character a day. I'd bring in Darwin [Johnson's "jazz monkey"] one day, Bob [immortalized as Johnson's sidekick in the television show Soap] one day, the next day it would be Squeaky [the first puppet specially designed for Johnson, when he was 17]. They met even more characters than are in the show.

After maybe a year [of this], ... we'd had a lot of fun but were no closer to a show than we ever had been. Finally, I turned to them and said, "I really don't know what the show is." And, Paul Kreppel said, "This is the show. We just have to figure out a way to put it on its feet." From that moment on, we tried to figure out, "Do these characters relate to that piece of information?" And, suddenly [it started to come] together.

I would love to take credit for having done all this. I would love to say, "Wow. I knew exactly how this would be." But, I didn't —and I still don't. There's a point in my show where I say that ventriloquism has always picked its artists. I do believe that I was picked, and I do believe that it's expressing through me. I get to be the observer and the observed.

BH:  To what extent are the stories you tell in the show literally true?

JJ:   People ask all the time if things really happen the way I portray them. Nothing in the show is going to impugn anyone else. Nothing is libelous toward anyone. We're doing a comedy. We try to make the facts build in a dramatic way. But, the answer is that the truth is the truth. I couldn't make up the things I talk about.

BH:  In the show, you state that you've loved ventriloquism since, as a child, you watched your mother on the telephone.

JJ:  My grandmother would talk on the phone very loudly, and when my mother was talking to her on the phone she would hold the phone away from her ear, and you could hear the conversation between the two of them. I think that in my mind when I was a child, I assumed that was how you played phone. You created that voice. So I tried to create that sound that I heard.

BH:  You didn't come from a show business background, but your parents always encouraged you in the performing arts and also kept you grounded.

JJ:  My parents are very supportive, and also are very creative. My mom is an extremely imaginative person. I think she doesn't even realize how extremely talented and imaginative she is.

Early on, it was determined that my schoolwork was not really reflective of what I could do. In high school I was identified as probably dyslexic. Before that there really wasn't a word for that type of problem. Early on, my parents decided not to put me into a special class. My father said, "He has to learn how to cope and deal in the real world and learn how to deal with that. And, you don't get that if you're in a special program." So, they were very smart about that. They tried to help me and encourage me, but not encourage me in anything other than the reality of what I was dealing with. It would be great to have a special ride all the way through your life, but nobody gets that. You have to find your own vehicle.

BH:  When did you decide that ventriloquism was your vehicle and that you wanted to make it your career?

JJ:  Probably when I was about 11, when I did my first show with the puppet that I had borrowed from my cousin [an event Johnson dramatizes in his show]. Ventriloquism doesn't involve anything that I wouldn't be capable of doing, having [dyslexia]. I immediately got strokes for it, I got complimented for it, and I got encouraged to do it. That's probably why I chose that, other than a career in writing or something like that. I'm not as good at the nuts and bolts of writing. Vocally I can create the characters, when it comes to spelling and math and all those decoding problems, that's where I don't excel.

BH:  The neurologist and author Oliver Sachs refers to his patients as "differently abled" rather than "disabled," partly because of their tendencies to find those areas in which they can excel.

JJ:  I like that term. If we were suddenly on a deserted island and we didn't have to communicate with words and numbers and other things that I have difficulty with, I would excel. Where I am very strong is my imagination, my ability to take things that don't exist and create something out of them. As a survival technique, that might be stronger than the guy who can compose a tune.

BH:  At the same time, you're trying to transform the perception of ventriloquism in the popular culture the same way composers like Beethoven once did with composing, when they declared themselves artists.


Jay and Bob
JJ:  I really do think that art becomes art when someone chooses to approach it as an art, rather than a craft or a skill. I identify very strongly with musicians, particularly jazz musicians, with what I do. There's a structure, but also a freedom within the structure to ad-lib and free form. I think of Bob and my other characters like violinists would think of their violins. I take care of them, I put them away. They're not sitting around when they're not working.

BH:  You also cover their eyes when you put them away. This harkens back to the belief that the ventriloquist had to keep the spirits of the puppets from escaping.

JJ:  It's ritual but also practicality. It protects their face, it does protect that part of them that is most visible. It protects them from exposure to moisture and anything that might affect it. But for me, the symbolic physical part is in a sense symbolic of what it means, that you are protecting the life of the character that you've created.

BH:  In the show, you relate the story of your relationship with Art Sieving, who designed Squeaky, the first puppet you ever had made to order. It's a wonderfully moving story, and it's also fascinating to hear about the process of creating the puppet. It sounds like all your puppets are individually created. That kind of handcrafting is rare in our age of mass production.

JJ:  It's a problem [that goes along with the] success we've had as a society. You want to have a lot of things for a lot of people, and you want to mass produce them so that people can have the same things. That's really good for the economy, but it's not really good for the artist. The artist deals with one item at a time, and makes it the best that he can. In history, those single craftsmen who've made those special works have become much more famous than the guys who created the mass produced products. Stradivarius violins will still be the state of the art violins.

Today, there are only three or four people in the United States who do what Mr. Sieving did, and that's create a puppet from beginning to end on his own. Usually it's a collaboration between three different people: a sculptor, a painter and a mechanic.

BH:  How does your conception of your puppets, and their personalities, evolve?

JJ:  Edgar Bergen once said to me that it's a mistake to find a puppet and create a character around it. You really have to have the character and know what it's going to look like, and create it from the inside out. That's generally what I've tried to figure out: Who is it that is talking to me, what would they be, and what's the character? Then I find the face that goes with it. Sometimes you find somebody has already created that, and you find it at workshops. Other times you have to sketch it out, and go back and forth with that person to get what you want. Sometimes you have to go to a few different people, one to paint it, one to sculpt it, one to do the rest of it. So, it's a different path every time.

You can't find a lot of their quirks until they're actually moving themselves. But you have to have a pretty strong idea of their inner workings before you get onstage. Darwin is probably the freest puppet I've got. He's still evolving, if you'll excuse the pun. I'm always watching him find new movements, and I'm always watching Bob find new looks onstage. So, I guess the process continues on and on.


Jay and Squeaky
BH:  One scene in the show that is especially poignant is when you have to "fire" Squeaky, the doll Art Sieving created for you, and replace him with Bob for the television show Soap.

JJ:  It really was a big disappointment. I had never expected being hired without Squeaky. It was unheard of. They would never hire Edgar Bergen without Charlie McCarthy.

BH:  How do you feel about having been a part of Soap, and about being associated with it even today?

JJ:  I'm proud to have been a part of that show. The fact is, there are a lot of shows that have come and gone, even good ones. But, Soap was not just well written but dealt with personal relationships in a way that is still contemporary today. The stories and the heart of the show will always be relevant.

BH:  Virtually all of your interviewers reference movies like Dead of Night and Magic, which feature insane ventriloquists with evil puppets who function as their alter egos. The reality, of course, is quite different. To what do you attribute the mythology of the crazed ventriloquist?

JJ:  The myth of Frankenstein is also the myth of Pinocchio. At one point Pinocchio is a cute, wonderful character with whom we can identify in a wonderful way. Frankenstein is a horrible monster who turns on his creator and destroys him. So, your inner personality is all the way you deal with it.

I think there are probably just as many crazy accountants as there are crazy ventriloquists. Somebody told me that on a television show about child stars, one of the child stars said he had gone through rehab for a drug problem. When he got there, he found more dentists and doctors there than child actors. But, of course, child actors get immediately pigeonholed. "If you're going to be a child actor, you're going to be a misfit and a drug addict." But, no one says that about dentists.

With ventriloquists, I think that because of the visibility of the psyche of the ventriloquist, it's easy to say, "That's why they jumped off the deep end." But, it's not threatening to me. The little voice I hear inside, it's a happy voice. It's not the Son of Sam.

BH:  And in fact the characters you create onstage have a gentleness and warmth to their spirits.

JJ:  I've always thought of it as —I guess I take that imaginary playmate that we all have inside us, and I visualize that. What I want to show people is that everybody's imaginary playmate is something really wonderful. The imagination is a wonderful place to be. This is how my imagination manifests itself —you've got imagination, maybe manifest it a different way. But the idea is to find that place where you can be comfortable with your imagination. Everybody needs to do that.

BH:  In The Two and Only, you function as a storyteller, an actor and a comic as well as a ventriloquist. However, you have said that your paramount goal is to entertain through your ventriloquism.

JJ:  Ventriloquism is my art form. That's what I do. And, it's been maligned for so many years, and has such a history of being secretive. [In the 1700s, ventriloquism was associated with witchcraft and with necromancy, or with conjuring the dead; and its practice was often punishable by death.] No one could know that you created this spirit voice, to say so might have been heresy. To now be in an age where I can be open with it, go out onstage and say, "Here's my trick, here's my art. Here's how the magic trick is done. Now, enjoy the trick." You don't have to figure it out, you don't have to try to do anything, just enjoy the experience of the trick. That's really my goal for that. That's what art is. Imagination expressed. The creative side that becomes tangible for a moment or two.

BH:  You show the tricks, but your work still seems magical. My eyes still traveled to where the voice was projected. That is one thing that comes across much more strongly onstage. On television, and in movies, the vocal displacement is not as dramatic.

JJ:  David Copperfield is much stronger in a live venue than on any of his specials. I still appreciate his specials, but if you really want to be entertained and transported, you go and see it live. That's what live theater is, and that's what ventriloquism is. So, to combine live theater with live ventriloquism —some people might say it's a weird match, but it's actually a perfect match. Because that's exactly what their goal is, to take you on this trick that you can't get in an electronic medium ...

My sons are now in their twenties, and they've grown up with cell phones and fax machines, the computer and the Internet. Their method of communication is so much different from mine when I was a kid, and theirs is going to be so much different from their kids. But I still think that live experience, the experience of going to see theater live, which has been around for thousands of years, always will be popular. That energy is just immediate. Computers will never be able to do jazz music. You can program them, but it won't be the same. You can't take the emotion of the moment and make it. And, that's what an artist can do.

BH:  I was excited to see your show, especially once I started reading more about it. Yet, in the abstract, it is a tougher sell than a more conventional Broadway play or musical. And its thumbnail description doesn't convey the full scope of The Two and Only. What do you want to get across to people, to convince them to see your show?

JJ:  People are surprised by the emotional punch of the show. People come to me afterward, often close to tears, and tell me how moved they were. Come and make your own judgment. It's a word of mouth show. This is not something that anyone can tell or easily describe. It is a theatrical experience. And, more than anything else, the ride is what is important. Ventriloquism is a metaphor for finding the life you were meant to lead, and doing the best you can with it.


Photos: Carol Rosegg


Jay Johnson: The Two and Only at the Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue). Running time: 90 minutes. Tickets: Telecharge.


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