Legendary magician Johnny Thompson died this weekend at 84. Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve probably been exposed to some of his work through other performers he mentored and designed illusions for — Siegfried and Roy, Criss Angel, David Blaine, Doug Henning, Lance Burton, and Penn & Teller. He worked with the latter for over a quarter of a century, helping them devise tricks and serving as the judge of whether performers on their TV show “Fool Us” had truly gotten something over on the duo. It was said that you might fool P&T, but it was incredibly unlikely you fooled Thompson.
When Martha and I went to see P&T last year, they had incorporated three of Thompson’s original elements into their act. One was some of Johnny’s original props, displayed on stage during the pre-show, available for perusal by audience members who could go up on stage and see them up close. Second was Teller, doing Johnny’s “The Great Tomsoni & Company” routine, as a magician who worked silently while doing wonderful dove work and other tricks (with Georgie Bernasek as the ditzy assistant originally played by Johnny’s wife Pam, with whom he toured the world for decades). The bit was silly, beautiful, and perfectly reproduced by Teller. The third was Thompson’s version of the egg bag trick, with Penn doing some of the same patter his hero used to do onstage, still to great effect.
Last spring, I wrote about a project Penn had taken on with Johnny:
The documentary is named “Gambler’s Ballad,” after a poem-cum-card-trick that Johnny used to do as the closer of his performances, showing off some remarkable close-up work with a deck of cards. A few years ago, Penn learned both the words and maneuvers required to master the “Gambler’s Ballad,” and decided to perform it a few times as a duet with Johnny. Now you have two masters of sleight-of-hand not only telling a compelling story, but also handling the same deck of cards. It’s a beautiful piece of work and a perfect close to the movie.
That 40-minute doc is still available for streaming by Showtime customers here.
Jamy Ian Swiss — also one hell of a sleight-of-hand magician — was very close to Johnny, working with him on many projects and eventually compiling “The Magic Of Johnny Thompson,” a book full of so much information it spans two volumes, weighs ten pounds, and sells for $300. Last April, in his Magiciana column, Jamy wrote a nice appreciation of Johnny, including video of five signature Thompson pieces. I strongly recommend you take a look to see why Johnny was so beloved by so many in the magic community.
Thompson collapsed two weeks ago during a taping of “Fool Us,” and was raced to the hospital, where he died Saturday. I’m sure P&T and the producers will do more to honor him when the show returns to the CW this summer, but in the meantime, enjoy this: