The air in England’s West Midlands in 1907 was thick with the dust of coal fires. Once-white bedclothes, hung to dry, took on a shadowy tinge of grey.
In a Birmingham home, in a spartan bedroom, the figure seated in a straight-back wooden chair towered over Ivy Johnson. The little girl stretched to reach her arm into the slit at the back of its shirt. Her small hand worked the lever, squeezing it to make the mouth move.
Down the hall, her grandmother heard voices coming from the room. “They peeped through the door and there was my mom giving a show,” Harry Cobourne, 89, remembers many years later. His mother, at the age of three, was discovering throwing her voice, something she learned by imitating her father.
Samuel Johnson had been born into a working-class shopkeeper’s family from which he’d run away at 13 to pursue his love of theatre. When his father had a stroke, Sam was forced to return home at just 20-years-old to run the family store.
“He was frustrated, I think,” Cobourne says. “He could do everything. I’ve seen him ride a one-wheel bicycle. I’ve seen him do acrobatics. He used to carry me about as a baby and recite Shakespeare to me. And, of course, he was a terrific ventriloquist. He had the best distance voice of anyone I’d ever heard.”
As a married shopkeeper, Sam continued to put on shows and kept a collection of 20 dolls—a gypsy encampment of ventriloquism dummies, including one that smoked. Once her grandmother had discovered Ivy playing with the dolls, Sam was eager to cultivate her natural gift. “She was actually better at two or three of the aspects of ventriloquism than my grand-dad,” says Harry. “She could sing better than he could—or the figure was supposed to be singing, anyway.”
Ivy adopted a doll from her father’s collection. Reggie was nearly as tall as she was. He had dark hair, a brightly painted face, a blue-and-white striped suit with a white collar, and spats over his black shoes. As Ivy was an only child for many years, Reggie became her playmate and—probably rebelling against her parents’ Victorian values—she gave him a very defiant character.
“She could suddenly swivel and raise up the head looking at her. And it was quite a cheeky look as much as to say ‘have you gone bloody mad?’” says Cobourne. Reggie answered back to Ivy, something a child would be slapped across the face for in her era. In spite of his bold personality, she was so attached to him that she would put him to bed at night saying “goodnight,” which he would echo back to her.
When she was just five, Ivy was thrilled to make her public debut. The Temperance Hall, a white brick building in Dudley, was an ideal venue, designed to carry sound from the elliptical stage to every corner of the 800-seat gallery. Reported by the London Daily Mirror as “perfectly self-possessed,” Ivy turned Reggie’s head to the capacity crowd and said, “How do you do?” The audience was completely charmed by the spectacle of the child in conversation with a figure the same size as her.
Ivy announced that she would make her career on the stage. Events in working-class Birmingham rarely made the London papers, but the Daily Mirror ran a story titled “Baby Ventriloquist” plus two large photographs under the headline “The Youngest Ventriloquist in the World.” In one of the photos, she’s wearing a ruffled short-sleeved white dress with her light brown hair pulled back into an unruly bun. She grins widely and displays Reggie’s head apparatus without his costume.
Ivy and Reggie held other performances locally and appeared at birthday parties for the wealthy. “She would have been a great money-maker in those days, and audiences would have loved her,” says Janice Tolley, 68, Ivy’s eldest grandchild. The family isn’t sure whether she ever performed with her father, although, says Janice, “knowing my great grandfather and his reputation, I really am willing to bet that once he discovered that she could do that, he took her once in a while to do professional stuff.”
Ivy appeared to enjoy the attention, but it wouldn’t have been an easy life for a young child, pulled out of school, traveling widely, and working long hours late into the night. Her childhood was spent largely on the stage.
It wasn’t until she was 14 that Ivy was legally able to leave school and begin a formal, professional career. Music Hall was Britain’s equivalent to vaudeville, with variety shows featuring singers and comedians along with other acts like one-legged dancers, jugglers, and her father’s specialties: unicycling, magic, and ventriloquism. Ivy signed a one-year contract with Stoll, one of the top companies running the Music Hall circuit. They booked opulent, multi-level venues like the Tivoli Theatre (later known as the Birmingham Hippodrome)—capacity 2600—and the Liverpool Empire, as well as theatres in Manchester, Edinburgh, and Glasgow.
Music Hall performances usually ran twice a day with some acts appearing twice per show. Ivy started low on the bill and worked her way up over the next six years. It was a grueling life on the circuit with exhausting hours and almost constant train travel around the country, but Ivy was doing what she loved. She travelled with an aunt as her chaperone, and the company soon became her second family.
As she moved up the bill, the professional circuit began to pay handsomely. “I have heard the figure of 100 pounds a week, and that was a terrific sum in those days,” Cobourne says. “She was near the top. The next contract, so I’m told, would have taken her down to the London theatres.
“Suddenly, during that contract, she found that she was pregnant with me. And that was the end of her professional career.”
Ivy had met Fred, her husband-to-be, at home in Dudley between tours when she was 19. He was a dapper man who came from a respectable family slightly above the Johnson’s class. “He obviously had a good line of talk. I was what they called a seven-month baby,” Cobourne laughs. He was born when she was 20.
Marriage and family pulled Ivy off the Music Hall circuit, but that wasn’t the end. She often agreed to top the bill at local charity shows for a ten-shilling fee—far less than she would have made on the professional circuit. Times were tough in the early ‘30s, and Fred’s half-time wages were only twelve shillings a week, so Ivy’s earnings were a big boost.
“We were never starving or anything like that, but it made life a hell of a lot easier,” Harry says. “Ten shillings was a lot in those days. We were common people—we weren’t rich or anything like that—but we met people and were friends with people out of our station altogether.”
“It was an entertaining family. I don’t think anybody had childhoods like we did.” Harry describes family parties as riotous affairs with piano, banjo, xylophone, drums, singing, and dancing. Samuel still enjoyed performing by throwing his voice around the room to the fireplace or a cupboard. Neighbourhood friends would vie for invitations.
Ivy’s theatrical past set them apart from typical families in the Black Country in other ways too. Rundown, heavily industrialized, and blackened by factories and mining activity, the area is said to have inspired JRR Tolkien’s vision of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. The family escaped the thick air with vacations all over the country.
Tolley believes her grandmother used the trips to stay in touch with friends from the stage and landladies at so-called “theatrical digs,” where entertainers stayed while they were on the road. “They could always go to someone’s farm, a friend of my Nan’s, or someone’s house, or down to the seaside to someone that my Nan knew.”
As an adult, Ivy was happy to share those connections from the past with her family, but not her act. “I don’t remember her doing shows for us,” says Janice. “I do remember her going out and doing shows for other people… and my mom being really upset for her never doing shows for us.”
Perhaps she preferred to leave her theatrical past behind. “I just got the impression that she was bitter about it,” says her granddaughter. “I think, though, she was bitter because she didn’t get any of the money she made. Her father, who we all loved, would take the money. He liked to drink, he had a lot of friends, and he had a lot of friends in show business—you know—Houdini and all the other famous people of the time.”
England has a long history of child exploitation, and during the Victorian era, young children worked in factories and mines. The demands on Ivy were far less grim, but in the early 1900s, she and her earnings were regarded as the property of her parents. It wasn’t until 1939, in the United States, that the rights of child actors were finally protected, a shift in attitudes that came too late for Ivy.
“When I was older, she explained to me that she had been on the stage all her life from when she was very little, and that it was not a good life for a child in those days. She didn’t profit from it,” Tolley says.
Adamant that none of her children or grandchildren would face the kind of upbringing she had on the stage, Ivy denied their requests to teach them her techniques. From a young age, her exceptional talent brought much-needed money when work was scarce, and treated a simple Black Country clan to some extraordinary experiences, but her gift died with her.
Still, for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as they pore over the Internet, piecing the story together from old newspaper articles and handbills, her legacy is a powerful reminder that remarkable things can spring from otherwise ordinary lives. For some in the family, it has. I’m Ivy’s great-granddaughter.
After working in Canada’s music industry with Nettwerk Music Group in Vancouver, I moved into print and broadcast journalism, telling stories like this one. I like to think that, by connecting with, entertaining, and hopefully inspiring others, I’ve brought a bit of Ivy’s spirit, spunk, and fortitude into the 21st century.