We’ve invited magic legend Johnny Thompson otherwise known as The Great Tomsoni onto the show today. Together with his wife Pamela Hayes Johnny has been performing for packed houses in Las Vegas for decades.
Johnny saw a movie about a Mississippi river boat gambler when he was a kid and he decided he wanted to become a card sharp. He bought The Expert at the Card Table at a Chicago bookstore for 35 cents. He spent the next four years trying to learn everything between those covers. Johnny eventually realized that there wasn’t a lot of places for a 12 year old card cheat to work so he decided to switch to magic.
Johnny started working on a dove magic act in the 1940’s. He soon realized that there was already too many bird magicians on the scene so at the age of 16 in 1951 he joined Jerry Murad’s Harmonicats, a musical act with a number of hits under their belts. He stayed with the group until 1957. But Johnny eventually decided to get back into magic but this time with a focus on close-up magic.
Johnny booked a regular gig at the Playboy Club in New York. Over the next year he would perform three times a week. He slowly began to incorporate more slapstick humour into those performances. By the end of the year he had an act that was almost entirely comedy. The act was an immediate hit.
Over the last few years Johnny has become one of the most sought after magic advisers in the business. He had retired the act in 2015 but by then he had already been occasionally consulting with magicians like Penn and Teller, Chris Angel and Michael Carbonaro.
Johnny was first approached with the concept of Fool Us about 10 years ago. He told Penn and Teller that the hardest part of the concept would be to tell the magician they knew how the trick was done without telling the audience. Johnny suggested Teller could draw out the illusion but they settled on just using magic lingo that the audience wouldn’t know about. He is the guy that decides whether Penn and Teller have actually been fooled during the taping of the show.
Johnny is about to release a new book titled The Magic of Johnny Thompson. The book is a two volume set that details everything Johnny has learned over a six decade long career. One of the trick’s is known as The Gambler’s Ballad a trick that Johnny has been closing his shows with for decades. Showtime recently produced a film called The Gambler’s Ballad: The legend of Johnny Thompson. The film documents Johnny’s life and features him teaching the trick to Teller. The book also features moves that would otherwise have been lost as they were taught to Johnny by long dead magicians.
Johnny says he has been incredibly lucky because his career has spanned an astonishing change in the magic business. His first job was performing in front of freak show in the 1940’s. He met some of the great magicians of the early 20th century when he was coming up like Paul Rosini and Jay Marshall. Chicago was the place where bar magic was invented and there was the remnants of vaudeville was still active when he was a kid.
Johnny says it’s tough to make a career in show business. His goal was to end up on a Vegas stage. It was the Mecca of magic. That’s no longer the case. There’s no place for magicians like Johnny anymore. When the hotel companies replaced the mob in the 1980’s they ended the lounge show and that so many magicians depended on. He says that close-up magic is the one bright spot in the business. Places like Germany still have a large number of close-up theaters. But increasingly, he says, magic is being pushed onto video and online.
What don’t you like about modern magic? What do you like?
Johnny doesn’t like the current fad of people revealing how tricks are done online. He does like how many young an exciting magicians there are in the business right now.
What would you like to ask the listeners?
How many of you have solid, classic magic in their repertoires?
Who should we have on the show next?
What did you like about the episode?
Jonah liked hearing about the history of show business.
Tyler liked hearing that Johnny became a magician because of his love of being a card sharp.
Johnny was just excited to be on a podcast because that’s what will keep the art form alive.