Jay Johnson and his 'wooden Americans' bring new vigor to a nostalgic art form

Posted on November 28th, 2007

11/28/2007 8:12am CST
The Dallas Morning News
Jay Johnson and his ‘wooden Americans’ bring new vigor to a nostalgic art form
by Michael Granberry

As a shy, dyslexic kid growing up in Abernathy, Texas, Jay Johnson had trouble fitting in. He didn’t like sports and was hardly the most outgoing kid in the vast, lonely expanse of West Texas.

So at age 6, when he found a broken Jerry Mahoney doll in his cousin’s closet and proved he could make it talk, it didn’t take long to figure out he had also found a career.

Now 57, Mr. Johnson is the star of The Two and Only!, his Broadway tour de force that earlier this year won a Tony Award. It opened Tuesday night at the Majestic Theatre.

It’s tempting to say it’s a one-person show, but that feels so wrong and so utterly unfair to the puppets that steal more than their share of moments during a 95-minute adventure. Who knew that even a disembodied wooden head (Long John La Feat) could draw belly laughs from humans?

What Mr. Johnson takes you on is nothing less than a spiritual journey. Surrounded by trunks and boxes, out of which appear his alter egos, he also indulges you in a Discovery Channel-like odyssey about the bizarre history of ventriloquism itself.

It’s an art form that means everything to this man, who moved to the Dallas area when he was 16 and who graduated from Richardson High School.

Ventriloquism even got him into trouble during his college years at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas). There, he was confronted by representatives of the Campus Crusade for Christ, who told him to stop doing ventriloquism – or he would go to hell.

Thank goodness Mr. Johnson didn’t listen. Ventriloquism carried him to a regular role on the sitcom Soap during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s wild, years later, to watch him dazzle a crowd with the back-and-forth pingpong match between ventriloquist and “dummy” – a term he abhors, by the way. He prefers the politically correct “wooden Americans.”

Like fellow ventriloquist Terry Fator, Mr. Johnson can sing without moving his lips.

But more than anything, he’s a gifted storyteller capable of carrying a Broadway show alone (sorry, puppets). The most moving part of the evening is a story that unfolds like a singer’s heartbreak ballad. It’s about meeting Arthur Sieving, a ventriloquist 60 years his senior who became his mentor and friend. Mr. Sieving was a master carver of puppets and agreed to carve one more after his retirement – Squeaky, who became the centerpiece of Mr. Johnson’s act.

It would be heresy in a review to say what happened to Mr. Sieving and the role he played in Mr. Johnson’s life, even after their last meeting. That alone is reason enough to see The Two and Only!

Jay Johnson: The Two and Only! runs through Sunday at the Majestic Theatre, 1925 Elm St. Performances at 8 tonight, Thursday and Friday, and at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $17 to $65. 214-631-2787, Ticketmaster.com.

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