Anybody who ever saw the great old British movie "Dead of Night" will never forget Michael Redgrave's terrifying performance as Maxwell Frere, a ventriloquist who loses control of the dummy that starts talking back to him - and cuttingly talks, and talks, and talks poor Frere (who tries to strangle the wooden thing) straight into the nuthouse.
That film was made in 1945. Jay Johnson was born four years later in Lubbock, TX, grew up in nearby Abernathy - "population 2,300 to this day" - decided at age six to become a ventriloquist, plunged into a career as such as an 11-year-old kid in junior high, but never got to see "Dead of Night" until he was a hard-working pro in his twenties.
"It's the best of all portrayals of that sort of schizophrenia, but it doesn't relate to me," says the boyish 57-year-old whose The Two and Only! - Jay and a talking vulture, a talking snake, a talking chimpanzee, a talking nutcracker, a talking tennis ball, a talking Squeaky doll - has trampolined from a hit run at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2004 to engagements in L.A. and Boston to Broadway, opening on Sept. 28 at the Helen Hayes Theatre.
In short, Johnson doesn't buy the "Dead of Night" proposition that "as a ventriloquist, you have to be crazy." Oh sure, he has "a bootleg copy of it somewhere around the house" that he watches now and again. "I look at it occasionally if I want to get scared." With a laugh: "Better yet, to scare the people I'm with." Jay Johnson: The Two and Only! shouldn't scare anybody but will surely amaze almost everybody; in particular anyone who was enthralled (or still is, via reruns) by Johnson's Chuck/Bob dual personality on TV's "Soap" sitcom.
Do all of his alter egos like one another? "Ehhh, I can't say that they do. That's why I don't let them get in a room together, particularly not Bob, from 'Soap,' and Squeaky" - the inner man who's been with Jay the longest.
The woman who's been with him the longest - the one and only - is Sandra Asbury Johnson, wife of 34 years, mother of sons Brandon and Taylor. "On our first date I was driving along and made the sound of a siren. She thought we were being pulled over."
Some of the show is autobiography, as told by the nutcracker and others. "I've postulated - it's really just a theory - that the Nutcracker legend is based on the way some ventriloquist threw his voice into a nutcracker back in the 1760's or 70's. A friend asked me how did the nutcracker work its way into Russian ballet. We googled it and found the nutcracker/ventriloquism connection goes back to the Dark Ages. No, my nutcracker doesn't have a name. He's just a nutcracker."
Jay Johnson's father was superintendent of schools in Abernathy. "When you're in a small town with a small school, you don't want to be the son of the superintendent." Jay's own dark ages came early, with the diagnosis that he was dyslexic. "My father, realizing I had to stretch and learn, bought me a book about somebody who fascinated me: Harry Houdini." It was just about then that six-year-old Jay, fishing around on the top shelf of his cousin Judy's toy closet, found a broken Jerry Mahoney doll, took it down, fixed the controls and got it to say "Hello." Everybody laughed. "I knew at that moment I had found my drug of choice."
When Jay was 12, his father took him to a trade show in Lubbock, where there was a ventriloquist on the bill. His name was Ted Knight. Yes, the very same Ted Knight who would one day tickle the funny bones of millions of people as blowhard Ted Baxter, anchorman of WJM-TV on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
"We got talking, then we wrote back and forth, and he sent me a copy of The Oracle, a ventriloquism magazine. Years later, when I was performing at a club called The Horn in Santa Monica, I saw Ted Knight and went up to him and said, 'Do you remember the little 12-year-old kid who got talking with you in Lubbock, Texas?' He took out a note card he'd planned to use, tore it up and said, 'I came here to steal from a ventriloquist. I won't need this any more.'"
It was a tiny notice in an issue of The Oracle when Jay was 17 years old that would change - more exactly, reinforce - his whole life's course. The item gave the name of a man up in Illinois, Arthur Sieving, who carved ventriloquists' puppets. "I called him up. There was a 60-year difference in our ages. He said, 'Come and see me.'" By the time Jay made it to Illinois, Art Sieving - Jay's mentor-to-be - had already sent him the doll that's still today the prototype of the Squeaky who can't stop talking at the Helen Hayes on Broadway. But have no fear. Even in the dead of night, Jay Johnson isn't afraid of him.