Remembering Johnny Main
By Pete Michaels
I first met Johnny Main before I even MET Johnny Main. Let me
explain. In 1979, I contacted Alan Semok about making a figure for
me. I went to Alan’s home in New Jersey and he showed me his
He also showed me a Super 8mm sound film he had taken of the 1979
Vent Convention. On it were himself, John Arvites, Bill DeMar, Jimmy
Nelson and Johnny Main. Johnny was seated in front of a mirror
working a new puppet that his Vent. friends had chipped in for and
gave to him as a birthday present. This puppet would later become
On this film, Johnny was playing with the puppet, trying out various
voices and manipulations. One of which was an Italian accent. But
more on that later.
I sat transfixed watching this film, and this man who was creating
life from this cute little old man puppet. I wanted to meet him.
Fast forward to the 1980 Convention. It was my first one, and as you
can imagine, I was thrilled to be going and to be meeting those
Vents whom I’d only read or heard about. Johnny Main would be one of
them. Here was this 22 year old from Staten Island NY, driving all
the way to Kentucky with Alan Semok and Todd Stockman in my UN-Air
Conditioned Chevy Van! Back then, I was playing in my band at night,
while working in Manhattan as a payroll clerk during the day.
I looked like Paul Stanley from the rock group KISS, without makeup.
Yes, I WAS that thin back then. I had my new Semok figure, Gitch in
tow as well as my Dad’s VHS Camera and VCR. Those were the days when
you had to attach a camera to a VCR to record.
I set up that camera/VCR in my room, and planned on videotaping my
new vent friends. Many of my new friends came to my room for an
“interview.” Among them; Mark Wade, Patti Davison, Mark Catledge,
Don Stewart, Joel Leder, John Arvites, Alan Semok, Todd Stockman,
Jerry Goodspeed, Steve Hart, the late Stu Scott, Lee Pittsburg, and
of course… Johnny Main.
The one thing I learned about Johnny right away, was the he LOVED to
stay up LATE at the conventions. Often until dawn! He would hold
court in The Cup & Chaucer (now called simply, Chaucer’s), with the
coffee pouring in a steady stream all night. Telling stories of days
and Vents gone by. Then, we’d all end up in the lobby until the sun
came up. I sat mesmerized. He had done and seen it all. Traveling
around the globe, performing for thousands of people in every
He was one of the most likeable souls I’d ever met. He made you feel
like you were an old friend, even though he’d just met you. He would
offer advice to the novice and veteran vent alike.
Sometimes, a conventioneer would hand him a puppet and ask him to
work it for them to see what manipulations could be performed with
it. Johnny would have us all in stitches, often laughing until we
I remember one time in the lobby, a female attendee handed him a
puppet and he gave it a voice like Yosemite Sam of the Warner Bros.
cartoon fame. All he had to do was say her name, and we fell about
laughing hysterically. Another time, He and his figure Snuffy went
at it with Bob Ladd and his figure Elvira in the lobby. (You see,
back then, the lobby had these wonderfully comfortable COUCHES that
we’d relax on in the wee hours.) I wish someone had video taped THAT
In the winter of 1980, I drove to Johnny’s house in Niagara Falls,
NY with my then girlfriend. That weekend was one I’ll never forget.
After an 8 hour drive from Staten Island, we were treated to a nice
dinner. I followed Johnny down to his basement workshop and he
resumed putting a wig on a figure he had created. All the while, I
was filming him with my Super 8mm Sound Camera. He joked around and
had me in stitches, as usual.
That evening, I accompanied him to one of his club shows. It was in
a Burlesque Club. For you young readers out there, think.. GYPSY.
He had the audience rolling on the floor with laughter. The sign of
a true pro in action. He did the telephone voice, one of the BEST
I’d ever heard, and worked with his figures effortlessly. He always
made it look SO easy. The result of thousands of performances, no
The following day I brought out the camera again, and Johnny took me
to “The Closet.” This is where the figures were kept. As I rolled
film, he brought every figure out and did time with them. There were
the Marshall figures. He had several. And the ones he’d made
himself. And of course, there was Papa. My favorite.
There was something about Papa that always made me smile. Maybe it
was because he was also made my Alan Semok, like my Gitch. Maybe it
was because he had a look like no other figure I’d seen. Maybe it
was the CHARACTER that Johnny instilled in him. Probably all of the
above and more. But I loved watching Johnny work him.
In 1981, Johnny MC’d the Saturday night show and used Papa. He gave
me a video copy of himself from that show. That tape would come in
handy one day.
In 1989, I almost didn’t come to the convention. I was going through
a painful divorce, and was feeling lower than whale fritters. My Dad
convinced me to go. When Johnny saw me, alone, he knew something was
wrong. He took me out to dinner and we had a long heart-to-heart. He
talked to me as my Dad had talked to me. Like the old friend and
mentor that he was. I suddenly felt better and when I called my Dad
and told him about it, he wanted me to thank Johnny for him.
I got a call years later to perform on a Canadian TV Show called
“Comedy At Club 54.” Johnny had done it a year or two earlier, and
knew how to get to the club. I Drove up to his house and then to the
club. He sat in the audience during my spot and when I was finished
I asked him if it was okay, “You were great kiddo! Just great!” I
was grinning from ear to ear.
We drove back to his house for some dinner and coffee. Now, it is
well known that Johnny was a smoker. It was his only bad habit. His
house had forced-air ventilation, which meant that no matter where
you were, the smoke smell found you. I’m not a smoker. Never have
been, never will be. But I had played in enough clubs in my life
that I could almost “tune out” the smoke. Almost. As we sat in his
living room watching old Bergen clips on VHS (Johnny LOVED watching
Vent stuff on tape!) I could see something in Johnny’s eyes.
His son was now grown, and had a job and friends, and at this point
in his life, Johnny was pretty much alone. He loved having vent
friends visit, and I could sense his sadness with the thought that
I’d be leaving in the morning.
I left the following day, and told him I’d call him when I got home.
Which I did.
Johnny didn’t make the next convention. He wasn’t feeling well. He
was on some meds. for his blood pressure and other ailments.
He didn’t make the next one either.
I was working at the Funny Bone Comedy Club in Evansville Indiana,
and had just met up with Bill DeMar and Lee Cornell for lunch when
the call came.
My wife called and told me that she had just gotten off the phone
with Mark Wade. Johnny had passed away in his home.
My heart sank and I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t believe it.
My friend, my mentor was gone. I tried to think of the last time I
had talked to him. When was it? What did we talk about? How did we
leave off? How was his son?
I called and spoke to John Jr. I told him through my tears how sorry
I was, and that I’d see him soon. Soon came a few months later when
I got a call to do a gig that Johnny had always done. I drove to
Johnny’s home and met John Jr. and gave my condolences.
I asked him what had happened, and where was Johnny when he passed.
John Jr. told me he was in his office, holding one of his figures
when he passed on. I went into the office, opened the closet door
and when I saw the figures, I began crying like a baby.
Never again would these figures see life. Or so it seemed at the
John Jr. called me up some months later and told me that he had sold
the collection to Dan Willinger. I was shocked at first, but I knew
Dan would provide a good home for them. I asked John Jr. “Even
Papa?” He then told me that he thought about it and talked it over
with Dan and they agreed that Johnny would want ME to have Papa. I
got all choked up with emotion. Johnny asked me for a favor. If I
were to perform with Papa, would I use Johnny’s material? “Of course
I will. It would be an honor.”
We agreed on a price and soon, Papa arrived. When I took him out of
the box, my mind took me back to the first time I’d ever seen him.
In that film at Alan Semok’s home many years ago.
I had to switch the controls (Johnny used his thumb for the mouth)
and give the clothes a good wash. And then, he was ready to live
I dug out those old videos of Johnny and Papa and wrote down the
routines. I really didn’t need to write them down, they were etched
in my mind.
I then made him into a little old Italian man, rather than a Czech.
I dropped the Poulos and just call him Papa. But the material is
still there. You can see video of him on my website.
Young people love him. Old people love him. And I love him. Every
time I put my hand on the controls, it’s like Johnny is moving my
That was my friend… Johnny Main.