Beak Speak

A parrot is known to mimic conversations, but one entertainer actually developed his talent by copying a parrot’s speech. Parrots don’t have lips, but they use their throats and tongues to talk, which gave a curious little boy an idea.

A young Kevin Johnson taught himself how to speak using a parrot’s technique, which kicked off his ventriloquism career.

“The technique that I learned to do ventriloquism, I learned from a parrot that I had seen in a pet shop,” Johnson said. “I was intrigued that they could talk but they didn’t have lips. I’m like, ‘How do they make the same sounds?’ But I noticed that they use their tongue to do it and that’s basically how I learned the technique, to reteach myself to talk using just the tongue. It took about four years to get it down. It was a long process but it was worth it.”

Johnson didn’t exactly want to be a ventriloquist at first, he had his sights on being a magician like his grandfather Harley Noles.

“Interestingly enough that was not my goal,” Johnson said. “I wanted to be a magician because my grandfather was a magician. I had watched reruns of ‘Howdy Doody’ growing up and for Christmas one year I requested a Howdy Doody doll. But I didn’t get a Howdy Doody doll, I got an Emmett Kelly Jr. pullstring dummy. And I thought, ‘Huh, what am I gonna do with this?’ So that was my entrance into ventriloquism.”

He still had a chance to be in his grandfather’s show if he rehearsed his ventriloquism act enough. At the age of 13, he opened for his grandfather with a 5-minute act with a wooden puppet that his grandfather made for him.

“My grandfather was a perfectionist and he said, ‘If you’re going to do something, you do it whole-heartedly.’ So I worked on the technique to make sure I mastered the technique but then I had to learn to be entertaining, and that is a big difference,” Johnson said. “So I had to hire some people to teach me how to entertain and that helped. My grandfather was a yodeler so he taught me how to yodel. He’s the main influence for everything I’ve done.”

Ventriloquism is a combination of several talents, from singing to acting and comedy. Johnson tried to take some courses to hone all of these talents, but the technique is just different when speaking through a puppet.

“I tried to take voice lessons and the technique they tried to teach me to use was just the opposite of what I needed to do as a ventriloquist,” he said. “They wanted me to open my throat and my mouth and I couldn’t do either of those. So I had to go against the grain and just practice and practice. In college I sang in some groups and learned to sing a little bit, so I tried to learn by being close to singers.”

Johnson landed a gig performing at Legoland California Theme Park, where he put on nearly 9,000 shows in nine years. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions awarded him the honor of “Best Male Performer” in 2004 and 2006 — the only performer to be recognized twice from the IAAPA.

Near the end of his stint at Legoland, Johnson decided to try out for the inaugural season of “America’s Got Talent.”

“It was 2006 that I went on ‘America’s Got Talent’ and I spent two more years at Legoland after that,” Johnson said. “It changed everything. My website crashed for one. I had no idea that many people were going to be interested in following up. Then I had to get a manager because I didn’t know anything about the entertainment business. Everything I had done, I had done on my own and then I was now in an arena that I didn’t understand, so I hired someone to teach me the ropes of the business and we worked together for 11 years.”

Johnson made it to the semifinals of the show, and his appearance lead to a spot on the “Late Show with David Lettermen,” which opened even more doors for him.

“One thing that was different was, before when I’d go to work for a comedy club I’d go in and tell them I’d like to have a night to perform and they’d say, ‘Why don’t you start out on open mic night,’” he said. “So I started out doing open mic nights to try to work my way up in the business, but as soon as we went on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ David Lettermen called and they were doing a ventriloquist week and wanted us to be a part of it. So that was the real door opener. When I called the comedy clubs then they’re like, ‘Oh you’ve been on Lettermen? Which night would you like?’ It was a total change of attitude. So that was a huge door opener.”

With the television exposure, gigs were lining up for Johnson. He found his niche to be performing on cruise ships, which he’s been doing for the past 15 years. He’s also been a regular at the Riverside Resort for several years, and he’s bringing the whole gang back to Don’s Celebrity Theatre Thursday-Sunday, Dec. 1-5 (7 p.m.).

“We’re doing some new elements in Laughlin — we’re doing a holiday edition,” he said. “We’re adding a lot of new holiday elements with songs and characters singing. I’m so excited to bring the family back to Laughlin. I’ll bring Clyde, Matilda, Harley, Haley and Zeke.

“Harley is modeled after my grandfather and Haley is his granddaughter. Zeke is the only wooden head that we use in the show anymore. I’ve gotten away from using wooden head figures, but when you work in television that’s all they want to see, they don’t like the soft puppets. So the main reason I had to get another wooden head was because of doing television commercials and appearances. That’s where Zeke came in.”

Each puppet has a distinct personality, which Johnson creates before even buying a puppet.

“I usually try to develop the personality first and the voice and then I try to find a puppet that would match it,” Johnson explained. “For example, when I bought Zeke, I went through a roster of the dummy creator’s images and found the one that I thought would match the voice and personality of what I had already created. I usually do a full character analysis on all of my characters — how old are they, where are they from, what is their family life like — so when we throw in some improv, on a television interview or wherever, it will still relate to their character.”

In Johnson’s bit with his two birds, Clyde and Matilda, he switches seamlessly back and forth between the differing demeanors and voices, which can be tricky to keep straight.

“You have to act for multiple characters and be distinctly different, simultaneously. It can be a challenge to make sure the right hand stays consistent with its movements and personalities,” he said. “I’ve tried to swap hands, put the puppets on different hands, and it does not work well. My right hand is dominant and Clyde has more the ‘A’ type personality and Matilda is a little more submissive and ditzy, so when I swapped the characters, Matilda was aggressive and Clyde was more submissive. Their personalities changed and I didn’t like it, so that was a short experiment.”

Johnson said the most difficult part is coming up with new material for all of his characters that is funny and appeals to all audiences.

“One of the most challenging portions of what I do is the writing,” he said. “I’ve taken comedy writing courses and I did two years of improv classes to try to learn improv and joke writing. There’s a lot of comedy formulas, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be funny.

“I was very fortunate on my last four-month cruise to be working with a comedian, Phil Palisoul, who used to write for television. So he would watch my show and he’d come back stage with a list and he’d go, ‘Would you like some ideas?’ I was like, ‘Yes, please!’ So he helped me a lot in just polishing bits that we were doing. He’d say, ‘What if you did this and just add this little tag word at the end.’ So it started opening my mind on moving in different directions. Because people want to try to finish the joke in their head but if you can make a hard turn and take them a different direction, that’s what makes good comedy brilliant — to take a turn that’s not expected. He was helping me out with that quite a bit. I’m constantly learning.”

Johnson’s show is great entertainment for every demographic. Audiences will be amazed by his self-taught parrot technique, his thoughtful comedy, singing and yodeling skills.

“We try to stay away from politics and religion. We try not to offend anybody,” he said. “It’s good for the whole family and it’s clean comedy.”