A Conversation With Jay Johnson, Pt I
Updated: Aug 24, 2021
Jay Johnson. A name synonymous with the art of ventriloquism. His accomplishments in the entertainment business are legendary. Radio, TV, Theater… he has conquered essentially every media with his talent, his wit, his intelligence and his imagination. I could easily list the nuts and bolts of all of that but it is already said best at monkeyjoke.com, Jay’s website. I would highly recommend a visit.
Jay and I are the same age. When I was young, living in Minnesota I was well aware of Paul Winchell, Shari Lewis, Jimmy Nelson and the other vents of that era. Curiously, I would also hear about Jay Johnson in Texas. I knew a classmate of his that was a transplant from Richardson, Tx where Jay went to high school. The original Vent-o-gram magazine would also talk about his exploits as a vent. So, I was always anxious to meet him. And when I did, he did not disappoint. But it wasn’t his ‘star’ quality that impressed me. No, it was his accessibility as a human being. His undying support of the vent community and the fact that he is so loved by his peers.
When it comes to success in this business, I don’t think I have encountered anyone who has his priorities so rightfully placed. The talent, genius and technique is certainly there, but it is secondary to his desire to communicate with an audience. Even in a one on one meet, he is always open to share with you the wisdom he has gained in this business, no matter your walk of life. Wisdom that can only be acquired through thousands and thousands of shows and time ‘on the boards,' as Paul Winchell used to say.
The interview is in two parts. We cover a lot of territory. Stay with us on this one. You’ll be glad you did.
And now, a conversation with Tony Award winner, Jay Johnson.
Are you still famous in Richardson Texas (Jay’s home town)
Yes, although my folks are gone and my sister and brother live on the outskirts of Dallas now. Yeah, I assume someone still knows me there.
When was the last time you were there?
In Richardson proper…oh maybe 20 or 30 years ago. I went back to the old homestead.
Growing up, how much time did you spend in Richardson?
I was born in Abernathy and we moved to Richardson when I was in 9th grade. So, through high school.
When you began achieving notoriety in show business the people in Richardson were aware? You know, like hometown boy makes good?
Well, at one point in high school I was doing some television commercials with Squeaky, and so, people knew me from the car commercials. Yeah, I had a nice little following. I remember going back to the ABC affiliate WFAA in Dallas promoting Soap.
Well, I knew the interviewer and he asked me something about my age and like every actor I dodged the question. Well, then the phones lit up from people who knew me from my younger days basically blowing my age coverup. (laughs)
You’re an actor. I can tell by your attention to diction.
Well, thanks. I always thought of acting and ventriloquism as two different things. Eventually, Soap let me do both at the same time. Which was heaven for me.
Did you have a theater background before you became involved with Soap?
Well, I was president of the theater club in Richardson at Richardson High School. I performed at all their shows and in some specialty or variety shows. I would always do it.
A lot of people don’t realize this, but prior to or concurrent with Soap you did a lot of television.
Yes. I was really fortunate. I moved from Dallas and signed with a manager named Richard Linke. He had managed Andy Griffith and Jim Nabors and Frankie Avalon. So, with me, he immediately put the process to work so I was doing the Merv Griffin’s and other network shows.
Have you ever had any desire to just act?
Yeah, and I’ve gotten that chance a couple of times. It was always puppet related. I did do a couple of pilots that had nothing to do with ventriloquism and they just didn’t sell. As a matter of fact, I did a pilot called Sutter’s Bay the year the pilot for Night Court happened with my friend Harry Anderson. (1952-2018)
Harry was at the offices of NBC when they got a call that said Night Court had been picked up along with Sutter’s Bay. So Harry called me and said, “We both got picked up, I can’t believe it.’
I never heard from them! I don’t know what that call was about, I don’t know if they were just thinking about Sutter’s Bay, but the pilot never happened for me.
Is that kind of thing common in the business?
Yeah, yeah. And then once Soap happened if there was a dramatic part for a ventriloquist I was first call. It is really hard not to be pigeon-holed if for instance you’re a dramatic actor and you want to do comedy.
As I’ve observed your career over the years you continue to associate with a lot of folks in Hollywood.
I’m blessed by having friends…
Are you viewed as an actor, ventriloquist or both?
That’s a good question. I really don’t know how I’m viewed. And I don’t know how to view them. They are good friends, they are actors, they are comedians, they are magicians, but really, we are friends. I love their company. They could be accountants and I would still love them. Not that I’m putting accountants down! (laughter)
When did you meet Bryan Simon? (Director of vent documentary I’m No Dummy)
After I did my Broadway show….
You put the idea of the Two and Only together before you did the film right?
Definitely yes. In fact, I really thought there wouldn’t be a film about it because filming a live show….well, what I wanted to do was a live theatrical show with all the bells and whistles there. At the time, I didn’t think the film would translate because it is so hard to keep the same rhythm. Bryan was wonderful, he said, “I think we can do this.” He was the one who directed the film.
How large of a camera shoot was that?
I want to say eight cameras?
Everyone was on an isolated roll. He studied every angle and every possible shot. He had diagramed the whole show so everyone knew what was coming, what was about to happen and how they were going to cover it. So, it was a masterful piece of work.
Regarding the broadway play, were you involved in every step of the production? The whole concept was your idea wasn’t it?
Yes and yes. For years and years I wanted to do a theater show about Ventriloquism or something. Had I the notion to do something else, I would have written that, but I wrote to what I knew. Paul (Kreppel) and Murphy (Cross) (Two and Only Directors) came up to me after a benefit I had done and said, “You should do a one man show.” I said, “People have been telling me that for a long, long time.” And they said, “Well, you should.” To which I replied, “Yes, I’d love to.” Then they said, “Well, maybe we can help you.” And I said, “Well, a lot of people have said that too.”
So, we met and talked for maybe six to eight months. I just told stories and they took notes on three by five cards. And, finally, after we had exhausted a lot of material they said, “What is it going to take to actually do this? They were asking me because, really, I was the one who was going to have to put this script together. I literally said, ‘I’m a deadline guy. Someone is going to have to say to me “you have a theater in six weeks and you better be ready.”
Now get this, in about an hour Murphy calls back and says, “We have a theater in five weeks and you better be ready.” (laughter)
So, you are the author of the Two and Only
You didn’t struggle with the issue that you had with Soap where they handed you a script and you thought, how can I possibly say this stuff without moving my lips?
No, no. I actually talk about that in the show. No, I knew exactly what I could and couldn’t do. By the way, it was a great little theater, the White Fire in Sherman Oaks, Ca. It was like 99 seats.
Like an English theater.
Yeah, yeah. I once owned a house near that theater so I knew it well
What was the writing process like?
Well, I was on a cruise, Navigator of the Seas. Sometimes doing cruises can be isolating and lonely because you’re stuck in your cabin and what have you. I literally was having those nightmares of every actor where you wake up and say, “Oh my God, I don’t know my part! I don’t know what I’m doing!” (laughs) And it was all about the Two and Only.
What did you do?
Well, slowly, I started laying out on the Champagne bar on the ship the three by five cards that Murphy had made up. Then, suddenly, there was a sign of structure in those cards. They were no longer isolated things. There was in my mind a structure of a beginning, middle and end. Almost two maybe three acts. By putting these three by five cards in sequence, the show started to manufacture itself.
Did you get a chance to workshop it?
We did workshop it at the White Fire. It changed a lot, but not so much as I thought it might. It pretty much held up. One of the wonderful things that emerged in the show was this: I was telling the story that Bob really wasn’t my character, but that Squeaky was my character…All my life. Then I got Soap and it was another character, another puppet. I jokingly said, I got the job, Squeaky didn’t get the job. And, I had to tell him that. Well, that was a laugh line, you know, telling my puppet he didn’t get the job. The director of Soap, Jay Sandrich saw a run through and said, “I love that line, but, you have to show it. You have to tell Squeaky on stage that he doesn’t get the part.”
This was a peak moment in the show
Yes, and I said to Jay, (Sandrich) I don’t think it will work. First of all, Bob and Squeaky are very similar characters. He said, “No they’re not.” And then I said, I just don’t know, I mean how can I get laughs….
But here is the thing, here is the great moment of that scene. The way in which you put a period on it, when you told Squeaky, actually Squeaky told you, that it is all you anyway. You nailed it. How long did it take you to come up with that response.
You know, here is the magic of theater. Whenever anyone made a suggestion, if it had any merit at all, we would try one time. If it worked, or kind of worked, we would leave it in. So when Jay (Sandrich) said we have to tell Squeaky, I said,
ok, we’ve got to do that, I have to bring Squeaky out, we have to have a moment right there when I tell Squeaky. That scene, the way we did it that first night, was how it went in my mind. I had to tell Squeaky, and Squeaky had to tell me and based upon the Squeaky character that I had worked with all my life, that is what came out.
You mean when Squeaky said, “It doesn’t matter which puppet they get, it is always you and me out there. Jay, we’re the Two and Only.”
Yes, that gave us the title of the show, The Two and Only.
Absolutely a brilliant piece of theater. The humor, the pathos, the manipulation of Squeaky, your acting… everything. Brilliant. Are you still doing the show today?
Yes, but it is harder now because my stage manager knew all the lighting and sound cues. It’s hard to get him on the road these days. But, I do ‘black box’ versions of it here and there.
When you get called to do a show is it generally the Two and Only or other type of gigs?
Before the pandemic yes, but mainly, I’ve done my club show. It has some of the elements of the Two and Only but is certainly not as long or involved nor as emotional. But, if I had my druthers I would still be at the Helen Hayes doing that show. It was my favorite thing to do. I loved telling that story every night. I loved having an audience come and share with me and I loved sharing that with an audience. Each night, I couldn’t wait to tell that story. And even to this day, I would tell that story before doing anything else.
Were you surprised when it won the Tony?
Did you think you would even have a chance?
No, because we didn’t fit any category. We weren’t a musical, we weren’t a play, there certainly wasn’t anything in the offing like best actor, there just wasn’t room. I had never heard of a category called, ‘Best special theatrical events.’ It’s not given every year because there are not enough shows to qualify. The definition was a show that was unique in its casting or a show that was unique enough that it couldn’t be done by a second cast.
A lot of folks don’t realize that there were other awards the production garnered.
We won the Ovation in LA which is their version of the Tony. And we won the New England Critics award.
Not to take away anything from the Two and Only, but Mark Twain used to say that the first review was the most important. The rest will fall in line like bunch of dominoes. Is that true? (laughter)
Pretty much. Pretty much. Doesn’t mean you’re immune, there is always going to be somebody. (laughter) We actually received wonderful, wonderful reviews off-broadway. But the deal was, we wanted to get to New York so we could have a New York credit in order to tour it. We weren’t looking to be a New York show, we weren’t looking to be a Tony contender. We wanted the New York credit.
Obviously you made it to New York.
Yes, we landed at the Atlantic Theater down in Chelsea, (Manhattan) which was perfect for us. But, the reviews were so good for the show, they said we should move it uptown. That process took maybe a year and a half but then it finally happened.
Were you aware of the Tony potentiality?
The Tony….I had no idea. I had no idea there was even an award for this type of show.
Peak moment in your career?
Yes, (reflective) yes…definitely.
Next week on vent-o-gram. Jay talks about performing, passion, writers, you're funny bone, goals, Soap and the state of the art of ventriloquism. Good stuff. Don't miss it.
Jay's Website: monkeyjoke.com
The brilliant filmed version, directed by Bryan Simon, of ’Jay Johnson the Two and Only’ is available at amazon.com
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