Hello, Dolly

Special Features   Hello, Dolly
 
Ventriloquist Jay Johnson has been talking to dummies for years. The Two and Only is his tribute to a lifelong obsession.
Jay Johnson in The Two and Only
Jay Johnson in The Two and Only Photo by Carol Rosegg

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Jay Johnson at the Atlantic Theater shares the stage in The Two and Only with a talking snake, a talking vulture, a talking nutcracker, a talking tennis ball and, most especially, a talking doll named Squeaky — more properly, Squeaky II — the one carved for him by Arthur Sieving of Springfield, Illinois.

The first Squeaky was the name that Jay, a little kid in Abernathy, Texas, pop. 2,000 then and now (“When somebody’s born they have to shoot somebody so they don’t have to spend the money to change the sign”), gave to the Jerry Mahoney doll he found on the top shelf of his cousin Judy’s toy closet. Judy said, “It’s broken. It’s supposed to talk but it doesn’t.” Six-year old Jay reached around in back to where the controls were that opened the mouth, and got the doll to say hello. Judy laughed. “How did you do that?” she asked. Grandma laughed. Uncle laughed. “I knew at that moment I had found my drug of choice,” says Jay Johnson. “A childhood passion worked out to be a career."

Some ten years later, as a Dallas high-schooler working ten shows a day seven days a week at Six Flags Over Georgia, Jay knew Squeaky had had it; he was spending more time fixing his worn-out companion than talking with it. In a ventriloquy magazine Jay came across the name of Arthur Sieving.

“I called him on the phone. We talked for an hour. I was 17, he was 71. He told me he was retired, didn’t know how I got his telephone number, but said he’d send me pictures of his work as a sculptor of ventriloquists’ dolls. I got the pictures, and it was indeed what I was waiting for. When I called back, he told me he had already started. Art Sieving. Just a sweet, sweet guy. He’s gone now. He used to say his act was very de-sieving.” Johnson has performed at industrial shows and the like in New York City, but this is his first appearance in a New York theatre. Many in the audience will remember him from his four years on “Soap” — “the only time in a TV series they used a real ventriloquist to play a ventriloquist.”

Valentine Vox, the author of "I Can See Your Lips Moving," once told Johnson about a trip Vox made to Japan, where he’d heard a ventriloquy master tell his students that ventriloquism was invented by Edgar Bergen. As it happens, Jay Johnson knew and has worked with Edgar Bergen. “He said something to me that I’ll never forget: ‘I’m certainly glad there will be somebody to run with the football when the pass is thrown.’”

Johnson and Squeaky catch that pass at the Atlantic Theater.

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