Johnathan Szeles. Amazing to the end.

When John Edward Szeles was born, in Detroit Michigan on September 9th, 1958, nobody realized that by 1976 the staid and demure magic world would be receiving the first tremors and shock waves from an entirely original phenomenon now known as The Amazing Johnathan. The Johnathan, that the world would come to know, earned his bones as a street performer in San Francisco. It was here that his magic and natural comedic flair coalesced into something new and singular. Another unknown magician performing on those same streets was Harry Anderson, and Harry may well have been instrumental in showing Johnathan how comedy and magic could create a synergistic force that galvanized those street audiences. Several times Johnathan attracted such large crowds that he was arrested for obstruction of the pedestrian traffic.

Szeles quickly progressed from performing on the streets of Fisherman’s Warf to appearing in outdoor shows at Pier 39. In the early ’80s, Johnathan made his first appearance at the legendary Holy City Zoo. His act was a smash hit and A.J.’s success started to pick up speed like an out-of-control locomotive. In 1983 Johnathan made his television debut on The 8th Annual Young Comedians Show. There followed a series of television appearances that continued throughout A.J.’s entire career, almost every TV show that featured comedy was listed on A.J.’s resume. From, Late Night with David Letterman, a record-breaking 24 appearances on Fox TV’s Comic Strip Live, to several specials on Comedy Central; The Amazing Johnathan was spread his blend of chaos, comedy, and magic on the airwaves. In 1991, Johnathan even hosted the variety/game show “Ruckus,” which he co-created with Merv Griffin. Along with his old compadre Harry Anderson, Johnathan became the hip new face of comedy magic. While Harry evolved into his smooth-talking, neo-noir, con-man character, Johnathan fully morphed into his Freddie Krueger of Magic persona.

The new phenomena of national comedy clubs in the ’80s created the ideal venues for Johnathan and allowed live audiences to enjoy his anarchic performances. From 1981 until 2001 Johnathan was the undisputed king of the comedy club circuit and he created a fan base that was unprecedented in the comedy magic world. In the ’90s A.J. visited Australia and characteristically took the country by storm due to his many appearances on Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday, and “take no prisoner” live performances. In 1995 Johnathan married his first wife Sandra Bowing.

While continuing his numerous television appearances, in 2001 Johnathan tired of all his road running and Johnathan stopped touring and took up residency at the world-famous Golden Nugget, in Las Vegas. A.J. received one of the most lucrative deals ever signed in Vegas and quickly became one of the biggest draws on The Strip. Accompanied by his new partner Penny “Psychic Tanya” Wiggins started breaking box office records. For 13 years Jonathan remained one of the top Las Vegas acts, moving from hotel to hotel, and taking his many fans along with him on the journey.

This era of his career was extensively chronicled by Mike Weatherford the Entertainment editor/reviewer for the Las Vegas Review Journal. On hearing the sad news of Johnathan’s passing, Mike offered this tribute; “Timing, as always, was everything. He got established just before the post-9/11 wave of other resident entertainers such as Rita Rudner, George Wallace, and Clint Holmes. But none of them “(came) onstage like a mean drunk, the kind you’d best let the bouncers tend to. As I wrote in 2003. Pulling a guy onstage and torturing for most of the show was ‘interactive’ before Instagram was a word.” Mike added; “Jonathan knew what worked in Vegas from playing Catch A Rising Star since the late ’80s, and his late-evening alternative to topless dance shows hit a groove that sustained him for the decade.” During these years Johnathan won “Best Comedian” award from the Las Vegas Review Journal, Comedian of the Year from Nevada Magazine, Top Ten Acts in Vegas (LVRJ), and also the prestigious Best of Las Vegas Award.

In December 2012, Szeles ended his one-year contract with Bally’s and ceased performing in Las Vegas. Johnathan spent 2013 performing special engagements in the Improv comedy clubs to sold-out houses and standing ovations. However, in 2014 shocked his many fans by announcing he was suffering from a “serious heart condition,” which his website identified as cardiomyopathy, and he announced that he was retiring from performing and his doctors said he had only 12 to 15 months to live. After performing an emotional, and characteristically raucous, series of farewell performances at the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood. However, with the help and loving care of his wife Anastasia Synn, A.J. seemed to be beating the doctor’s prognosis. He was recently featured in two different documentaries, both released in 2019, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary and Always Amazing: The True Story of the Life Death and Return of Amazing Johnathan.

There is so much more that can be said about The Amazing Johnathan. He was mercurial, rowdy, flawed, funny, endlessly creative and one of the most loveable “bad boys” who ever made an audience love him within minutes of walking onstage. Johnathan will be remembered, loved, and missed by a great many people. When magicians meet up his name will be mentioned frequently, stories will be shared and laughter will be remembered and continue for years to come. That’s the way it goes with legends, and there is no question that The Amazing Johnathan was a legend even during his life. He was a hero and inspiration to several generations of magicians. Our deepest sympathy and condolences go out to Anastasia and Johnathan’s family; with somebody so much larger than life than The Amazing Johnathan it leaves a big hole in many people’s lives. 

~ by Nick Lewin on March 18, 2022.

2 Responses to “Johnathan Szeles. Amazing to the end.”

  1. Nicely said.

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