Take Two #58: Johnny Thompson
Johnny Thompson is widely regarded as America’s greatest all-round living magician, and many would say not only in the U.S. but the world. Declarations of that sort typically read as hyperbole and all too often are merely that; I continue to remain appalled at the number of young performers prepared to glibly make such statements about themselves, be it in their promotional materials or out of their own soap-deprived mouths.
But I digress. The point is, in this case, the statement is far from hyperbole. Rather, as Will Sonnett would have said, “No brag; just fact.”
It’s also fair to say that John Thompson may know more about magic than anyone alive. In the past decade we’ve lost a few of his fellow Alexandrian librarians, including Billy McComb, Pat Page, Ali Bongo, and Jay Marshall. But at this moment in time, if you have a question about the actual doing of magic, John Thompson is the man to ask. No one in magic would consider this fact a secret, however, which is why Thompson has served as a magic consultant to most every publicly recognizable name in magic, from Lance Burton to Siegfried and Roy and countless others. It is also why he has served as a full-time consultant to Penn & Teller for many years, as well as being the chief magic consultant on their successful Fool Us! television series. If you’ve seen Penn & Teller, you’ve seen Johnny Thompson’s work.
While Thompson has been a consultant, writer, designer, director, producer et al. for magicians over many decades, he was, is, and has always been, first and foremost, a professional performer. As such, he is also what is widely termed—and embraced with pride by Thompson himself—a “general practitioner.” He is genuinely equally accomplished, and originally creative, in the often specialized magic channels of stage magic, close-up magic, mentalism, comedy magic, classical silent stage magic, and grand illusion. His performing credentials, on stage and on television in dozens of countries throughout the world, not to mention a truckload of awards of recognition, are beyond extensive.
He is all these things and more. He is also married to one of the greatest performing stage partners in the history of stage magic, Pamela Hayes, who plays the indelible comic role of Trixie in their iconic stage act, “The Great Tomsoni & Co.” John and Pam are beloved figures in the international community of magic, who can count their world of international friends in the hundreds, and their fans in the thousands. They are cherished not only for their abundant talents, but also for their loving and generous kindness, and for the profound impact they have had on the entire world of magic. John is not only my cherished friend and mentor of many decades, but John and Pam are, and have long been, like second family to me.
While Take Two is intended as art-appreciation for magicians and non-magicians alike, I hope my non-magician readers will bear with me for a moment while I digress for the magicians. I can say that I am beyond proud of the fact that I am the author, along with John, of his collected works, The Magic of Johnny Thompson, which was released this past spring. The first printing sold out in two-and-a-half weeks at the substantial price of $300, a set of facts which must assuredly count as some kind of record in magic publishing. To the collectively delighted surprise of the book’s authors, editors, publishers and distributors, the book rapidly went into a second printing, which is currently available for the many readers around the world who missed the chance to purchase it in the first round. However, the second printing is identical in every way—a massive two-volume set in a matching slipcase, weighing ten pounds, including more than a thousand photos by the book’s designer, Julie Eng—other than the requisite second-printing identification. And every copy is personally signed twice —once by Johnny Thompson, and once by his alter ego, The Great Tomsoni (whom you may simply call, “Great.”)
The book—an instructional work for magicians, not a biographical one—serves to provide conclusive evidence of my opening claim, reflecting John’s repertoire in close-up magic, trade-show magic, comedy magic, mentalism, stage magic, dove magic, and illusion design. It took me thirteen years to write it, and another two years for the book to be produced. It was a labor of love and, above all, I suspect that long after all my other contributions to magic have been forgotten, my name on this tome will still be considered by readers.
The Great Tomsoni & Co.
Take Two is about performance, and so we proceed. In my Take Two about Cardini, I wrote that, “ …. the Cardini act was clearly a story and, in this way, stood apart from virtually all other manipulative magic acts before and since—with the notable exception of Johnny Thompson and Pamela Hayes as The Great Tomsoni & Co. ...”
The Great Tomsoni & Co. is, in my opinion, one of the two greatest silent acts in all of magic. Writing elsewhere in Take Two about manipulative magic, I have pointed out its frequent limitations as an artistic form. At its best, it celebrates, as Teller has written, “the simple contemplation of beauty,” as in the finest of silent magic done by the likes of Channing Pollock, Lance Burton, or contemporary talents like Lukas Lee and Yu Ho Jin. But what sets the great acts of Cardini and The Great Tomsoni apart, are the elements of character and story.
Cardini’s act tells the story of a slightly tipsy British gentleman to whom extraordinary things keep happening, much to his startled bewilderment. The Great Tomsoni & Co. tells a story—as I describe it in the Thompson book—of “a simultaneously pompous and bumbling performer, who also performs astonishingly beautiful magic. He trips over himself in the small things—his fly is open, he’s caught out after having stolen some restaurant silverware—but in the clinch, he comes through with beautiful magic. And throughout, there is the gum-chewing, unimpressed Trixie, ready to take him down a notch if he gets too carried away with himself, but ever loyal to the adage that the show, truly, must go on …”
The Great Tomsoni & Co. is also one of the most technically perfect and accomplished acts in the entire realm of silent magic, and particularly magic with doves. The legendary Channing Pollock, who created the definitive dove act, was a friend and contemporary of Thompson’s, for whom John—an accomplished professional jazz musician before he turned to magic professionally—had written the musical charts for Pollock’s act. Pollock gave Thompson permission to put a couple of his signature effects to use—the “double dove” production, and the dove-to-silk finale—and John applied these magical feats in what was, in many ways, a satire of Pollock’s sophisticated performance.
Thompson, however, is not only a talented sleight-of-hand artist and innovator, but also a remarkable comic performer, and his partner, Pam, aka Trixie, was already an accomplished working actress when they met. Together they create indelible characters entirely through pantomime and silent acting, portraying an affectionate, unfolding conflict that is engaging and, ultimately, hilarious. The comedy is as strong as the magic, and the magic is incomparable. The act took the Thompsons around the world, to every conceivable venue, opening for top headliners, and in long runs on the biggest stages of Las Vegas, including in the legendary revue show Jubilee at Bally’s.
I will return to discuss and present some of Thompson’s signature close-up and stand-up magic in a bit. But first, with the foregoing introduction, I now ask that you set aside the smart phone and other distractions, expand the browser, turn up the sound, as I present to you: The Great Tomsoni & Co.!
Cups and Balls
There are many, many tricks and routines described in the pages of The Magic of Johnny Thompson. Many entries reflect John’s relationships with mentors and influential colleagues. I’ve written previously in Take Two about Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, two of John’s most cherished mentors. And I dare say that almost every magician I’ve featured in Take Two, with the exception of historical predecessors, has called John a friend.
Some of these names are present, be it explicitly or implicitly, in the performances that follow. Take your time with these—they are all somewhat lengthy, comprising as they do featured signature masterpieces of Johnny Thompson’s repertoire—routines that are literally legendary.
No names are more prevalent in John’s life in magic than those of Vernon and Miller. In John’s highly personalized routine for the timeless classic of magic, the Cups and Balls (see also Take Two #55), which is based significantly but not entirely on Vernon’s own routine, John assumes the role of three historic figures in the lore of the Cups and Balls, namely Pop Krieger, Max Malini, and Vernon himself—whom John is also famous for imitating. It’s fair to say there is no other Cups and Balls routine like this. (For magicians: John has made one significant change in the routine since this was recorded, and which we describe in the book.) Please—set the phone aside, expand the browser to the max, turn up the sound, and enjoy a walk through history and an act of amazing magic.
The Gambler’s Ballad
This is yet another routine that, although we describe it in detail in The Magic of Johnny Thompson, is unlikely to be performed by any other magician—except, that is, Penn Jillette, of Penn & Teller. This is “The Gambler’s Ballad,” a poem written in 1971 by John’s friend Milan Bulovic, recreating the style of the populist Canadian poet Robert Service, who wrote story poems like “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” The routine that John constructed, for which the poem serves as narrative accompaniment, employs a number of legendary techniques of the card cheat’s arsenal, from palming to bottom dealing to controlled shuffling to Three Card Monte. In John’s inimitable performance, he plays all three characters: the narrator, the young upstart cheater, and the wizened old hustler—the latter’s voice that of Vernon. For decades, this tour de force has served as John’s favorite closer for feature shows of close-up magic. It’s a masterwork.
But what’s that I said about Penn Jillette? A few years ago, Penn—an accomplished stage magician but not really a close-up sleight-of-hand artist—became interested, perhaps by way of both personal challenge and of honoring his teacher and mentor, in learning enough of The Ballad to perform it as a collaboration with Johnny. Penn plays the roles of narrator and young buck, and John plays the old man, as the two pass the deck back and forth between them (on at least one occasion, Penn performed the routine solo in its entirety). They performed the routine, after a couple of years of work, only a handful of times, which were recorded on video, and then eventually turned into a loving documentary tribute to Johnny, directed and edited by Emery Emery (and in which I, among many others, appear), “Gambler’s Ballad: The Legend of Johnny Thompson”. The 2018 film has been broadcast on Showtime and may still be found there by subscribers; it is not yet commercially released on DVD or other streaming services.
But to appreciate The Ballad as the signature closer of John Thompson, here it is now for your enjoyment. Phone—browser—volume—you know the drill. Give this all the attention it deserves.
The Egg Bag
John’s other famous mentor is Charlie Miller, a legend in the world of magic, close confidant of Dai Vernon and Max Malini, a charming professional performer of stage and parlor magic, and a master of sleight-of-hand magic and gambling sleights with playing cards. Charlie lived with John and Pam Thompson for a significant period of his life, as he also did with another of John’s closest magical influences, Harry Riser. Charlie had a profound influence on these great magical thinkers and performers.
One of John’s classic routines is the Egg Bag. Charlie Miller learned it from the legendary Max Malini, and taught it to John Thompson—who taught it to me some 30 years ago. We describe this at length in the book, recording many elements for the first time in thorough detail. Here is John’s signature routine. Take your time with all this material—please don’t rush through it or reduce it to glances in dribs and drabs. Set aside the moment, as well as the phone, and watch the master at work.
The Great Tomsoni | $100 Prediction
And finally, this—another signature Johnny Thompson routine, his amazing $100 Prediction. This is a routine that has mystified untold numbers of audiences, as well as countless magicians, for decades. It was the closer of John’s trade-show act, worked out and polished in those demanding trenches of countless shows repeated again and again throughout the day, utilized to stop traffic and integrate key marketing and branding information—a distinct form of infotainment still present today (and in which this writer is often employed). John has also performed this as a piece of close-up magic, parlor magic for mid-sized audiences, banquet magic for corporate gigs, and on stage in large theaters. It truly packs small, plays big, and is an astonishing feat of mentalism, reflecting an array of John’s strengths and brilliant thinking about method, construction, psychology, and performance. I’ve been performing this routine for more than twenty years, and it is the one piece, more than any other, that, speaking purely for my own purposes, I am sad to see included in the book. But for John, I am proud to have written and recorded it for history.
In this performance, John is not performing as himself, but rather in the character of The Great Tomsoni, “The Wizard of Warsaw,” a running joke in John’s comedic work, growing out of his own Chicago Polish heritage, and a way of poking gentle fun at his own contrived character. One more time, please: Phone—browser—music—MAGIC!
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