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

Written by DSM Columnists on Wednesday, November 28, 2007 at 8:12 AM

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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'The Two and Only' is one-of-a-kind fun

Written by DSM Columnists on at 12:00 AM

11/28/2007 CST
The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram
'The Two and Only' is one-of-a-kind fun
by Mark Lowry

DALLAS -- In this age of countless forms of electronic entertainment, Jay Johnson's one-man, multidummy show The Two and Only! isn't likely to persuade any youngsters to carry on the craft he has been doing for so long: ventriloquism. (Probably not even fellow ventriloquist Terry Fator, who reached millions more than Johnson has thanks to the reality show America's Got Talent, can accomplish the feat of popularizing an antiquated art.)
But in exploring ventriloquism's history and telling his own, with the help of several very animated friends, Johnson does convince us that the talent is rare and special. The show almost feels like his own way of convincing himself that he's not crazy, as some have concluded about practitioners of this craft.

Johnson's show, which won a Tony Award this year and is directed by Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel, played its first of eight performances at Dallas' Majestic Theatre on Tuesday. Big D kicks off its national tour, fitting for a West Texas guy who went to the University of North Texas and spent many years performing here.

On a striking set (by Beowulf Boritt) of stacked trunks, suitcases and baskets on the horizontal and a swooped-up vertical floor, Johnson spends time with several of his pals, including a tennis ball named Spaulding, a loud, wiry monkey named Darwin, Nethernore the vulture, Amigo the snake and the disembodied head of Long John La Feat. Their voices are thrown by Johnson, some with superfast repartee between human and creation, and each is amazing.

His most special "wooden Americans" are his first major dummy, Squeaky, handcrafted by ventriloquism legend Arthur Sieving, and Bob, who was his puppet when he played a ventriloquist in the TV series Soap. Squeaky's response when Johnson tells him that he wasn't cast in Soap because he's too sweet-looking is one of the show's many priceless moments.

Johnson gets that misty-eyed, shaky voice when speaking nostalgically of Sieving, and in these segments the show almost becomes overly sentimental. But at the same time, it's a sweet love letter to the art form. And by the end of The Two and Only!, we are convinced that what Johnson does is exactly that.

Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!8 p.m. through Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and SundayMajestic Theatre, 1925 Elm St., Dallas$15-$67817-467-2787 or 214-631-2787www.dallassummermusicals.org

Be advised: Some strong languageRun time: One hour, 35 minutes with no intermissionBest reason to go: The one and only Johnson

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'Oswald's Ghost' looks at JFK assassination's lasting grip

Written by DSM Columnists on Tuesday, November 20, 2007 at 12:00 AM

11/20/2007 12am CST
The Dallas Morning News
'Oswald's Ghost' looks at JFK assassination's lasting grip
by Michael Granberry

The newly renovated Texas Theatre was home Monday night to a gripping new movie, by a director named Stone, about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

But not that Stone. The writer-producer-director in this case is Robert Stone, whose terrific documentary Oswald's Ghost was shown to an admiring audience in a setting that was both breathtaking and slightly bizarre.
It marked the Southwest premiere of Mr. Stone's film, which will be shown Jan. 14 on PBS. It's in the midst of a limited theatrical release, with openings scheduled for Nov. 30 in New York and Dec. 7 in Los Angeles. But no future dates have been set for Dallas.

That's a shame. It may well be one of the best movies ever offered about the assassination, and it took on an eerie power being shown in a handsomely renovated theater that will forever be central to the darkest moment in Dallas history.

Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested Nov. 22, 1963, in the Texas Theatre, on Jefferson Street in Oak Cliff, moments after investigators say he gunned down Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit and about an hour after he killed Mr. Kennedy in Dealey Plaza.

By the end of his movie, Mr. Stone comes to his own dramatic conclusion about who killed the president. But it's the getting there that's remarkable.

In an interview before the screening, he said the trigger for him was seeing that other Stone's movie in 1992 and watching the firestorm it created.

"This in itself is an interesting story" is how he characterized his reaction to Oliver Stone's JFK. "Why, after all these years, are we still fighting over this? What is it about the story that keeps us so passionate, so engaged?"
What he didn't want to make was a movie putting forth yet another conspiracy theory or a debunking of all previous conspiracy theories. Rather, he longed to examine something deeper and far more psychological about the American character.

"Nobody had stepped back and told the story of the debate itself," he says. "How did these ideas come about? Who propagated them and why were they so widely believed? And what had they done to this country? Seventy percent of Americans still believe the government was involved in the Kennedy assassination or has worked to cover it up. And that's had a huge impact."

In the end, a seemingly disparate chorus of voices – including the late Norman Mailer – accomplish the filmmaker's objective.

As he says, Oswald's Ghost is "a way of explaining the '60s. We're not arguing anymore about what happened in Dealey Plaza. It's an argument about explaining what came after ... and how did everything go so wrong."

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Grand re-opening set for Texas Theatre

Written by DSM Columnists on Sunday, November 4, 2007 at 3:33 PM

Grand re-opening set for Texas Theatre
By Dan Ronan
DALLAS — The historic Texas Theatre has a brand-new look.

The movie house will forever be remembered as the place where Lee Harvey Oswald was captured, 90 minutes after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Oswald also shot and killed Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit before seeking refuge in the darkened auditorium.

For years, the icon on Jefferson Boulevard in the heart of Oak Cliff has been in a state of disrepair—but no longer. The Texas Theatre reopens Nov. 19 with a screening of the PBS movie Oswald's Ghost.

Standing just a few feet from the seat where Lee Harvey Oswald was captured, Oak Cliff Foundation Chairman Monte Anderson said the nine-year, $3.5 million renovation is nearly complete. "This blighted theater what it was, back in action, is very important for the culture of this neighborhood and the restoration of this neighborhood," Anderson said.

The Oak Cliff Foundation says a professional management company hopes to book the Texas Theatre 200 dates a year, with concerts, movies and other events—even Broadway showson tour. "When you come to a theater, you're coming there for fun and excitement, enthusiasm, and Jefferson Boulevard needs that," Anderson said. "It's already on its way up."

The Texas Theatre was built by Howard Hughes during the depths of the Depression. It was the first air conditioned theater in Dallas, and one of the biggest. Now its 665 seats have been restored; the cushions will be installed in a few days. New carpeting is also on the way.

Restoring the balcony and adding those 400 seats is the next big project. The movie theater with a rich legacy is getting another chance to entertain a new generation. "It can't ever be torn down, so we've saved it from that," Anderson said. "It kind of gives me goose bumps to think about it a little bit."

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Texas Theatre Air Conditioning units Airlifted by Helicopter

Written by DSM Columnists on Thursday, November 1, 2007 at 3:34 PM

Oak Cliff Tribune
Texas Theatre Air Conditioning units Airlifted by Helicopter
By Jo Ann Holt, Columnist

Oak Cliff residents and early morning commuters were treated to an air show last Tuesday Oct. 23, when a helicopter airlifted a 60 ton AC unit and two 20 ton AC units to the Texas Theatre between 7:30-8:30 a.m. The AC units were too heavy to be delivered via flatbed, so the alternative is to airlift them directly to the Texas Theatre, 231 West Jefferson Boulevard, which has been undergoing an extensive renovation and restoration process since 2002.When the Texas Theatre was built in 1931, its systems were state of the art. The cooling and ventilation system, which blew 200,000 cubic feet of air per minute through a water-cooled system pumped from a 4,000-gallon tank, made “The Texas” the first theater in Dallas with air conditioning.

Since that time, the theater has had many owners and somehow escaped the wrecking ball after falling into disrepair in the late 1990’s.

In the latter part of 2000, Dallas Summer Musicals Management Group, a division of Dallas Summer Musicals, made a proposal to the City of Dallas to develop the theater into a critically needed community performing arts center. Preferring to stay in the theater management business as opposed to theater ownership, Dallas Summer Musicals Management Group, along with the City of Dallas approached the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce and its philanthropic arm, the Oak Cliff Foundation, with a plan to manage the theater if the foundation would purchase it.

In 2001, the Oak Cliff Foundation was awarded $1.6 million from the City of Dallas Neighborhood Renaissance Partnership Program to purchase and renovate the theater. The foundation agreed to raise additional funds to complete the renovation and contract Dallas Summer Musicals Management Group to manage the performing arts center.

An extensive renovation and restoration project began in 2002 and continues today.

On November 22, 1963 at approximately 1:45 p.m., nearly 15 Dallas police officers converged on the Texas Theatre in search of a man who had entered without paying. That man was Lee Harvey Oswald—President John F. Kennedy’s accused lone assassin.

Commemorating the 44th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza has joined WGBH Educational Foundation, Oak Cliff Foundation, and Dallas Summer Musicals to stage a free public screening of Oswald’s Ghost Monday, at 7 p.m. November 19 at the Texas Theatre.

Produced by acclaimed director Robert Stone (Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, Radio Bikini) for American Experience in association with the BBC, the documentary film blends historical footage and contemporary interviews to create a thorough account of the Kennedy assassination and aftermath, while examining why this event continues to haunt the nation. After the screening, the Museum’s curator, Gary Mack, moderates a question-and-answer session with Stone, American Experience executive producer Mark Samels, author Josiah Thompson, and journalist Hugh Aynesworth.For more information about the free public screening of Oswald’s Ghost, visit www.jfk.org or call the Museum at 214-747-6660.

For more information about American Experience, visit www.pbs.org/americanexperience.