John Joseph Solari was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents met at the roller skating rink his father managed. His mom, Mary Byrne, was an innovative roller skater, who adapted figure skating moves to the hard floor. She was recruited for the Boston Ice Skating Club by future US Coach Maribel Vinson, but instead married Jay-Jay's dad. When Jay-Jay was a toddler, his father switched to working at a carnival, the family making three trips out to California and back on the traveling circuit.
"We lived in a trailer. We were the stereotypical poor white trash. I liked the carnival. It was comfortable. It was real. It was fun and games. But I was a child, and carnivals are for children, so naturally I would like it. At one of the trailer parks, when I was five, I hooked up with some other white trash imps, and we had a fine time throwing rocks through windows in a factory. I remember the incident clearly. They threw some rocks and broke some windows and then I made the conscious decision to do likewise. I made a fine hurl. It flew true to its mark. It was the most natural thing in the
world. I bonded with projectiles of all types at that moment. Seeing a potential sniper in her midst, and the war being over and Hitler now deceased, my mother decided perhaps some less deadly diversion might be in order for her budding assassin. I was taken to dancing school and could tap dance as though I had been learning it for 20 years. It's just - like throwing rocks accurately - something I can do."
Jay-Jay started with Irish step dancing in Boston; his older brother and younger sister also were given dancing lessons, but it was Jay-Jay who got the jobs. At six he did some radio work in Boston, then did Goodbye Again, a play with Vincent Price, at age eight. Later he did tap solos at the Boston Gardens in a variety show headlined by Sid Ceasar. Jay-Jay says that he never auditioned to get the job, he just went because he was told to by his mother. She never told him how to act or dance or behave at the auditions, as he knew better than her what was needed. He paints a picture of a fiercely ambitious stage mother, but blames his father just as much for not having the strength to oppose her.
The family eventually settled in the city of San Fernando, north of Los Angeles. His father switched from the carnival to working in a stockroom for an aviation-parts supplier. Jay-Jay graduated from stage and live performances to film auditions and television, including Dragnet and The Loretta Young Show, prior to auditioning for the Mickey Mouse Club.
For the second season the show's producers wanted to maintain the roll call using twelve Mouseketeers. Gender balance was also a big concern; they had retained five boys and five girls from the first season, so they added a boy and girl from the new replacements to make their even dozen. Since all the replacements were good dancers, the deciding criteria seems to have been based on singing and smiling ability. Cheryl Holdridge and Jay-Jay were the lucky winners. The roll call segments being filmed only once each season, they got to appear every day in the show's opening segment, though only Jay-Jay did solo bits in the production numbers and skits.
"I was very intimidated when I started the Mouseketeers. There was a one day trial period for me.
I don't remember Cheryl being there. I go into this room and there's all the Mouseketeers. These
icons I used to envy and then I'm entering a room with them already doing some dance together to learn. I go "uh-oh". I see Bobby and Sharon there. I knew these two because we all took tap lessons from Willie Covan in Watts. I knew them from other auditions. When you are a kid "in the movies" you get to know all the other kids being sent out on calls. It's kind of a regular tribe. I had
absolutely no business being involved in any of this show business crap. At least it's crap when you are a child. I wanted to go out and play guns. That's all I ever wanted to do. Play guns. And I had to sing and dance really crappy songs and really crappy dances instead. All that plus the massive guilt trip that was laid on me to do this. God Almighty was dragged off His throne and tossed into the mix. I was now on His personal watch list. He gave me these gifts. Hell awaited if I threw them away.
Parents are the worst. All children should be born orphans.
So I go into this dance in progress and they are all singing this song I don't know but they do, and they are all doing this dance they have all been learning and I have to join in. I'm in the middle of all these gyrating and bouncing and singing Actualized American Idols and I don't even have time to register that Annette herself is there, and Doreen and Darlene and Lonnie and Cubby and Karen and Tommy and I'm in there too. With Sharon and Bobby no less. These two were considered the best dancers on the kid-list of schlubs who spent their childhood in auditions for professional work in Hollywood. I had no business being there. I couldn't do what Bobby did because he did all sorts of weird stuff. Sharon on the other hand was a blur of a tap dancer, plus she had all this "projection." I hated projecting. I hated performing. I just wanted to play guns. But I could learn tap routines. And I guess that's what was needed. Someone who could learn a dance in a day. That was a rough day. Tom Mahoney. I don't think I liked him. I was not an "arm using" dancer. I was kind of a Tom Waits dancer. If Tom Waits were to dance. Head down. Looking at my feet. Listening to my taps."
None of the second season production numbers made it onto the Disney-issued DVD's and video tapes, and they were under-represented in the syndicated shows, so aside from roll call and the closing Alma Mater
, Jay-Jay can be seen today only in audience reaction shots. As a performer he was equally adept at singing, dancing, and comic acting, and clearly had worked professionally before joining the show, about which he was, and remains, unimpressed.
"I don't know how the other Mouseketeers feel or felt about it, but absolutely nothing I would call even remotely interesting ever happened during the whole time I had to report to work, which was, I think, six months. Things a lot more interesting happen every day at the dump. You could hang out at the dump for 24 hours and have a lot more fascinating things to talk about than a Mouseketeer would be able to regale you with regarding the workday. It is only interesting to people who were NOT Mouseketeers."
"I wasn't pals with the other Mouseketeers because they were people I worked with at work. Having a job at 12 is like having a job at 40. You have to do stuff. Because you are a PROFESSIONAL kid, you have to sing and dance and read lines and find marks and respond to cues and take direction, and you're really just too busy working to do anything else. I mean, there's a ton of money involved. It's big business, and with Walt Disney it's - at least when he was alive - it's big business of an innovative and revolutionary nature. But I got along with them all. There was no quarreling that I ever remember. We were all there to try and do a good job of being whatever a Mouseketeer was. Also, Jimmie was very good with kids. He was kind of a Glue For Togetherness. He was a nice guy with an eye on Jesus, trying to live a good life and make a difference to the next generation."
"Willie Covan liked me a lot. Willie Covan was a vaudeville tap dancer with his siblings, in the
days when the darkies had to do their damndest to not get lynched in white America. So they performed in bellhop uniforms and I guess they were quite the group. And Willie was the best one in the Covan troupe. He had this studio in Watts and he was used by the movie studios to teach tap dancing to non-dancers, and to drill and train actual dancers like Debbie Reynolds and Ann Miller. I hated performing. I didn't get it. I get it NOW, but I didn't get it then. My mother had it in her head that I had to "take lessons" and Willie Covan was where that happened in the tap dance world if you were serious about tap dancing. But he didn't take "students". Not white ones. He took black ones because they didn't annoy him with any white man's version of rhythm. And black tap dancing is miles away from white tap dancing.
During one of the annual shows Willie's studio would put on with all his black students for their relatives, just before we parted company, because he was retiring or something, he had me do a dance with him on stage. Dancing alone alongside Willie Covan in his farewell performance was the only time I liked performing. It was more meaningful than the Mouseketeers. We both looked down at our feet. Neither one of us writhed his arms around. And once in a while both of us would smile without being reminded to. And I think the song we danced to was written by Fats Waller, not one of the teletubbies. Amen."
Jay-Jay and the other second season replacements left the show at the end of September 1956, though Cheryl would be rehired for the third season. Jay-Jay had just turned thirteen, which was the usual age at which the careers of child actors vanished. (For teenage roles, casting directors preferred immature-looking eighteen year olds, to avoid legal hassles over schooling and child welfare).
"One of the problems of being a child in show business, is that when it is no longer necessary for anyone to put up with you (since you had no inherent money-making ability on your own but were merely a manufactured product of someone else with money making ability) and you find yourself outside the studio back door with the other trash and a few hissing pieces of dry paper being scutted by the breeze along the cement, and you are there all by yourself, and all the hundreds of other employees who treated you like you were truly deserving of all this attention, they are now still inside and relieved that it is you out there and not them, one of the problems is that once you are out there in that alley...you are only 12, or 14, or maybe 6. You have lost your job. You have failed your parents. You can't go down the street to Warner Brothers and apply for a Mouseketeer job because they don't have any Mouseketeer jobs, and neither does the phone company, nor the supermarket, nor the fry stand. You had the only Mouseketeer job available. It is what you ARE. Being a Mouseketeer is what you DO. And you just got FIRED. Why? Maybe because you SUCK. Or maybe not!! You see, they never tell you. They never sit you down and explain "JJ, we are firing you because you just don't seem to be fitting in with our corporate view of ourselves, and we can't really promote you because you already had the highest job we offer around here. We feel that moving you over to Shipping would make all the others in Shipping uncomfortable, and we can't really make you a camerman or a producer because, well, you're only 12 and you don't know your ass from a hole in the ground. No offense." And so you find yourself fired, without even that little sendoff. Without even a letter of recommendation. Because, really, what could they recommend you for?
And everyone else your age now surrounds you like sharks because your protective shield is gone. Even though you never had a protective shield, the sharks think you did, and maybe in fact you did, while you were on the payroll. Then you are no longer on the payroll. You are a bum. A bum at 12. And you have to try and sort all this out with a 12 year old brain and the people who are supposed to protect you, your parents, join the wolfpack and turn on you. Yeah, we're normal, us Mouseketeers are normal. We spend the rest of our lives realizing - or denying - that no matter what we do from now on we will always be considered losers by the world. For what is bigger than being a 50's circa Mouseketeer? Hey, I blame Annette. If she wasn't so cute nobody woulda watched. If the show had tanked we wouldn'ta had this problem."
Jay-Jay attended Alemany High School in San Fernando, where he was a member of the National Honor Society. He graduated in 1960, then moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where his older brother owned a nightclub and restaurant. Jay-Jay helped his brother manage the restaurant, while performing at the club.
Jay-Jay later returned to Los Angeles, where he attended San Fernando Valley State College. In 1968 he took part in the televised celebration of Mickey Mouse's 40th Birthday, along with eleven other mice. He has been mentioned online as having a bit part in the cult film Two-lane Blacktop (1971). The actual screen credits list the role as played by A. J. Solari, which might be another actor, or a stage name for Jay-Jay. It is known that as time passed he sought to distance himself from his Mouseketeer background. Though he provided a brief update for the 1975 celebrations, he didn't take part in them, nor did he participate in the 1980 television program celebrating the show's 25th Anniversary.
Sometime in the seventies Jay-Jay, now known as "JJ" started writing short stories for magazines. His genre was "biker fiction", which he wrote regularly for over twenty years for Easyriders. His most famous story was No Class Chick, about a biker seeking to join a club, whose initiation entails escorting a member's girlfriend from coast-to-coast, keeping her in sight at all times. The girl dies of natural causes shortly after the trip begins, but the biker is informed that the rules still apply.
Other memorable stories included Bike Telethon, The Recruiter, The Pasadena Run, Bikers at Sea, The Secret Technique, and It's A Miracle. He also wrote non-fiction pieces, such as Something to Celebrate, All You Need To Know About Women, and an etiquette guide for bikers wanting to drop their old ladies called Breaking It Off Polite.
If you enjoy Jane Austen you probably won't care for JJ's work, but it was very popular among the magazine's readers, has since been anthologized in book form and subjected to critical review in a doctoral thesis. Some of JJ's post-Easy Rider writings were published in an anthology called When Bikers Meet Humans (2007).
JJ has been with his wife Cecily for almost three decades now. He has two step-sons from his wife's previous marriage.
"My parents met at a roller rink. Me and Cecily met at an ice rink. Yeah, I know; that's special."