Johnny Thompson. The Incalculable Loss Of A Giant.

This was the tribute piece I wrote for Vanish Magic Magazine after the passing of magical icon and personal friend Johnny Thompson. I have added a few personal photos to the piece.

One of the toughest assignments that come my way as associate editor of Vanish Magic Magazine is that I usually get to write this kind of tribute upon the passing of legendary magical figures. As the oldest staff writer on the magazine, it makes sense as I have sometimes known these magicians for anything up to half a century. It is never easy, often painful, and especially difficult in the case of John Thompson. However, let me give it my best shot.

It is customary, under these circumstances, to focus on a piece that primarily lists dates and achievements, and in this instance, I am sure many tributes will do that more elegantly than I could. However, in some cases numbers, awards and achievements don’t really give the full scope of the situation. Johnny Thompson (AKA The Great Tomsoni) was born in Chicago on July 27th, 1934 and died on March 9th, 2019. In the 84 years between those dates, John may well have acquired, mastered, and shared more knowledge about every aspect of the magical arts than any other individual in the history of magic. 

To me, and so many other magicians, there was a pure visceral emotional jolt on receiving the sad announcement of Johnny’s death. I heard this news during a lecture I was presenting at a magic convention. Some of us had more knowledge of Johnny’s situation than others, but the moment the announcement was made, there was a palpable sense of grief and loss that hit everyone present. Thompson was a man who whether directly or through his body of work has touched magicians off every age across the entire magical ecosystem. Following the news of the death of Marshall Brodien the day before, it was a particularly harsh punch to the assembly of magicians. 

As was the case with Johnny’s dear friends Jay Marshall and Billy McComb it is just astounding to realize how much-concentrated knowledge suddenly disappeared from the world when each of these three left us. This larger than life trinity of teachers all continuously shared their wisdom and did so based on their powerful love of all things magical. None of them had much regard for bad or lazy magicians, but it didn’t stop them from relentlessly sharing their knowledge with an even hand to improve each and any magician and help raise him to the highest level they could achieve. It is also worth noting that all three of these titans shared and encompassed an expansive mastery of each and every branch of the magical arts. These men’s obsessive love of the art would have made a narrow focus on one specific area of magic an inconceivable limitation of their ability to absorb, synthesize and dispense their exceptional knowledge.  

Within minutes of the announcement about Thompson’s passing, the social media was inundated with heartfelt tributes, treasured pictures, and personal reminisces detailing the love and respect that John created within the magic community. As a performer, creator, teacher, and mentor; it was immediately apparent that Thompson was above all valued as a friend by those of us who were lucky enough to spend some time with him. John had a personal warmth and generosity of spirit that could make even casual acquaintances feel sufficiently embraced that after even a brief encounter with him they felt like close friends. It was an exceptional gift.

I first heard about Johnny Thompson from Ken Brooke in London back in the mid-sixties. Ken thought that Johnny was something very, very special, and Ken was not an easy man to impress. If I am strictly honest when I got to meet Thompson for the first time in the mid-seventies, I thought he was one of the scariest men I had ever met! Little did I know that I would be lucky enough to know him well enough eventually to become a close friend. I certainly don’t kid myself I was his best or closest friends, however, when Johnny greeted you with his signature bear hug and a sloppy kiss, you knew you were lucky enough to be part of an exceptional group.

When you write heartfelt final tributes such as this, one usually ends up falling back on a series of overused words like; legendary, iconic, irreplaceable, beloved, etc. I used two of them in the title and first paragraph. All of these words and many more are 100% applicable to the great Johnny Thompson, but go very little distance in actually reaching the vital relevance of the man himself. However, I don’t want to paint a falsely saintly and schmaltzy picture of John; he had definite (and often outspoken) views and a fiery temper that were vital elements in his personality. Thompson was a font of knowledge, but never in a musty or pedantic way, he was a lot of fun to be around. Whether onstage or offstage there was always an aura of laughter that enriched the environment when Johnny was on the scene. Even when he was being serious John never failed to spot the humor in a situation.

I suspect Johnny would have had zero time for any lengthy or mawkish tribute dedicated to his memory. In 2006 I sat near him at the final tribute, and wand breaking ceremony, for Channing Pollack in Las Vegas. When things were getting a little too “syrupy” in nature, John announced in a beautifully articulated stage whisper, “This is about the time when Channing would have said, ‘I think this is the moment to go outside and smoke a joint!’ ” With one sentence he created a laugh and brought the event back to the ground zero of the man we were celebrating. John was a master of making a moment real; in fact, John was just a master, end of story

On behalf of myself and all my colleges at Vanish Magic Magazine, let me express our sadness at the loss of the irreplaceable Johnny Thompson. No one as unique as John lives in a vacuum and we wish to extend our love and sincerest condolences to Johnny’s wife, and partner Pamela Hayes. As the irrepressible other half of “The Great Tomsoni and Company,” Pam along with Johnny have kept audiences applauding and laughing for many years, and along with Pam, the magic world mourns the loss of one of the magic world’s most beloved figures. 

~ by Nick Lewin on April 19, 2019.

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