AS Billy Crystal packs them in at the Wilshire Theatre for his Tony Award-winning one-man show, “700 Sundays,” one of his cast mates from the 1970s TV comedy “Soap” is watching with interest. Ventriloquist Jay Johnson is onstage just a few miles away, performing his own one-person show.
Johnson, who played the schizophrenic Chuck and Bob -- the latter being Chuck’s caustic puppet -- on “Soap,” parses his life with dummies in “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!” at the Brentwood Theatre.
The show, which continues through Feb. 19, is not only a history of ventriloquism but a nostalgic look at how Johnson, 56, became a master of the craft. He even resurrects his first puppet, Squeaky, who had gone into retirement after Johnson introduced Bob on “Soap.”
Johnson began performing at age 11 when he made his cousin’s doll come to life. By high school, he was performing and producing his own local television show in Texas.
Over the years, he’s been a mainstay in clubs and on cruise ships, appeared in TV commercials, performed in two HBO specials, guest starred on variety shows and starred in four TV series.
But he has long harbored a wish to perform on the legitimate stage. “ ‘Camelot’ is the theater,” Johnson explains. “Comedy clubs and nightclubs are not quite it. The theater is a piece of architecture that was built only to see a show, and there is something about that energy and being there that is like no place in the world.”
Johnson appeared off-Broadway in “The Two and Only!” two years ago and is set to open at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway in April.
You must find it striking that you and fellow “Soap” alumnus Billy Crystal are appearing in one-man shows simultaneously.
What are the odds? I thought we were going to be on Broadway together. At the time we really thought we were going to move [“The Two and Only!] from off-Broadway right on to Broadway to the Helen Hayes Theatre. But “Golda’s Balcony” held over there because it was doing so well.
Have you seen his show?
I have not -- so busy -- but I hope to see it this time around. I don’t think he’s seen my show.
In movies such as “Magic” and “Dead of Night” and that “Twilight Zone” episode with Cliff Robertson, the ventriloquists are deranged schizophrenics whose puppets take over their personalities. Why do you think ventriloquists are shown as struggling with their sanity?
In any profession you can go crazy. The psychological split of a ventriloquist is always intriguing. But I think there’s a universal myth that people always push onto ventriloquism because it’s so obvious -- it’s basically Pinocchio, it’s Frankenstein, and it’s the myth of creating something that comes to dominate you, that ultimately you create something that is out of your control. I think that ventriloquism is a really easy metaphor to hang that story on. A lot of people are afraid of clowns, some are afraid of mimes and others are afraid of ventriloquists. I know people who are unnerved about ventriloquism.
In the Bible, ventriloquism is not only put down, but in a couple of passages they actually cast out the demon of ventriloquism.
In the show you mention that the college Christian organization Campus Crusade for Christ said that ventriloquism was evil because Satan was the first ventriloquist when he threw his voice into the serpent who talked to Adam and Eve. Do religious groups still confront you?
There is an element of ventriloquism now, the hobbyists and some professionals I guess, who really dedicate their lives to using ventriloquism as evangelistic promotion of their religion.
You discovered you had a knack for throwing your voice when you were 5.
And by the time I was 11 I was performing and getting paid. I am dyslexic, and I think that learning and motivation and school -- I know it was difficult for me, and it was difficult for my parents. They, being very smart and wonderful people and educators themselves, would try anything that would hold my attention. One of the things my mother would do was disconnect the telephone and let me talk to these two imaginary friends I had. And at some point she realized they were talking back. I was making the voice over the phone. I was simply playing.
Have you noticed that other ventriloquists began the same way you did?
I don’t know if there is a single path. A lot of people start young, a lot of people didn’t start until they were teenagers, but the one consistent thing I know for sure of any ventriloquist I thought was approaching artistry -- they all started before puberty. I believe that you have to carry this imaginary playmate through a time when you would give it up because it is really a childlike fantasy, and if you lose it, it’s very hard to get it back.
Are there many craftsmen who make puppets?
There have never been more than a handful, and techniques have changed. There is one guy who I really love, and he actually carves. But the technique today, because we have so many different materials, is to sculpt and then cast. And it makes it lighter and makes it sometimes better. The old carvers of the ‘30s and ‘40s are hard to find.
Squeaky was your puppet until you did “Soap” and Bob entered the picture. Was it difficult to retire him?
You are supposed to have a partner for the rest of your life, but when I got “Soap” they had a different face in mind than Squeaky. He had to retire, and it was hard to say goodbye to him. But he’s in the show.
-- Susan King