Monday, April 14, 2014

That Magical Face...

My Trophy Jerry -
I got him in an Ohio Antique shop
while on tour with Sheilds and Yarnell
 I remember the exact moment I first saw that face. He sat in the corner of the front window at Nichols Toy store, eyes cocked toward me as I walked by. If you were in downtown Abernathy it would be impossible not to pass this window. The entire Abernathy, Texas metropolis downtown was only a block long. Nichols was the only toy store in Abernathy and it regularly displayed games, dolls and the newest toys in that window, but there was never a toy like this one before. There was no doubt in my mind this little guy was waiting for me. 
I did not grow up watching the Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show. Lubbock had two television stations when TV finally came to the panhandle of Texas.  One station was a CBS affiliate and the other was NBC. Paul's show was on ABC.
I knew Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney from guest appearances on the other networks. Paul was not the first ventriloquist I ever saw on television.  I have racked my brain trying to remember who was and I can not.  It was likely a vent on the Ed Sullivan Show. My family never ever missed The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night.
I knew exactly what to do with that puppet in the window and I couldn't even pronounce the word ventriloquist at that age. I remember begging my Mom to buy this puppet for me. The request was never taken seriously.  I visited my new friend almost every day. The owner of the toy store demonstrated how the string at the back of the neck opened the mouth but he wouldn't let me play with the doll unless I bought it. Eventually Nichols got tired of demonstrating the doll for me and I had to be satisfied with just looking at him. 
One day when I came to visit, Jerry was gone. In his place in the corner of the window was a little girl's coloring book.  The only Toy store in town had only one Jerry and someone bought him. It would seem that my relationship with my first ventriloquist figure had abruptly come to an end.
A few days later I was invited to the Birthday party for a kid from down the block, Billy Bob Drace. I was very shy as a kid and parties were very intimidating for me.  My Mom insisted that I go and attempt to fit in.  It came time to open the presents. The third present opened contained MY Jerry Mahoney puppet. The rest of the party is a blur. Although "playing with the toys Billy Bob got" was not on the list of party activities that day, I knew eventually I would be back at his house and get to actually touch this magic doll. That time came about a week later when I went over to Billy Bob's house. I had to pretend I was interested in his new board game; we even had to play a round.  But I kept my eye peeled for Jerry. 
Finally I spied him face down, slumped over a small football near the toy chest. I didn't recognize him at first because his green suite was gone and he only had one shoe on.  The muslin fabric of his unclothed body made him look like a ghost in long underwear. 
Judy's Jerry on the shelf.
Same model but not the same puppet.
The original was destroyed in a flood.
I held him up and reached for the string at the back of his neck to open his mouth. Before I could, the mouth gaped open and the chin fell half way out of his head.  The rubber band which held the mouth closed was already broken. As I stared at Jerry in the face... he would not look at me. 
It would be five or six years later before I saw that face again.  This time it was at my cousin Judy's house. He was fully dressed, in perfect condition and it was the more advanced version of Jerry... this one had an independent moving head not just a string at the back of the neck.  Details of that story are chronicled in the play, "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only" (SOON to be available on DVD for a select few.) Needless to say it was the beginning of a 50 year relationship with these magic creations called vent puppets.
Thank you Paul Winchell for the gift of Jerry Mahoney.  His face still lifts my spirits and reminds me of a day when the future was the un- manifested dream of a five year old. 

As you were,


P. Grecian said...

The headstick Jerry turned up in a post on facebook yesterday, and I was transported to my childhood. The blue eyeshadow on mine wore off fast...followed by much of the cheek rouge...but I used him for a long, long time that way. Then I reconfigured his face with Celastic, rewigged him, and he was my first "Louie" for many, many years. Still have him. Thanks, once again, for the memories, Jay.

Bob Conrad said...

Thanks for the memories, my first vent figure was a Jerry with the string in the back bought from the Sears catalog. I latter took him apart and mounted his head on a stick and made a hollow body. He served me well for many years. I think we all owe a lot to Paul and Jerry.23

Pete Biro said...

I loved Winchell and Jerry. One creative man he was. I wound up getting a Len Insul figure from Oscar Oswald in London for 25 Pounds. Still have him. Did not get good enough to do a vent act, but did some MC gags without moving my lips. :)

Cheryl said...

Lovely memories, Jay...and I look very forward to being one of the "select few" to purchase a DVD!!

Ben Veenkamp said...

I can relate somewhat. The first time I saw a vent was you Jay on Soap and that inspired me to pursue this illusionary art. My first puppet didn't even have a moving mouth (there was no where in Australia at the time to buy a real ventriloquist figure) but it didn't stop me from practicing. In fact I recall as a child using many inanimate objects for vent practice, lol even my pet bird (which I guess wasn't actually inanimate)

I hope your DVD will make it's way across the ocean to this Aussie vent :)

Anonymous said...

Loved the WInchell Mahoney show. Want me to sing the theme song? I still remember it. As a kid I preferred Knucklehead Smith but as I grew older, I appreciated Jerry's attitude -- can even see it on his face. Sideways glances with mouth agape still crack me up. But when I got to see you live at The Horn from 10 feet away, I was blown away. Bob's sense of humor is just the best. He was Bob, right? Hope to see you live again someday. Thanks for sharing your talent. Pat