By John Katsilometes / Las Vegas Review-Journal
Just days before he died, Johnny Thompson enjoyed his life’s passion: working with magicians.
Thompson, the legendary showman known as “The Great Tomsoni” and an inspiration to generations of magicians, died Saturday afternoon at Spring Valley Hospital Medical Center in Las Vegas. He was 84.
A consultant on Penn & Teller’s “Fool Us” on the CW, Thompson collapsed Feb. 25 as the show was in rehearsals at the Rio. The famed illusionist was reportedly unresponsive for several minutes, but regained consciousness as he was rushed to the hospital. Thompson has had a history of respiratory problems.
Thompson was a model Vegas showman, usually tuxedo-clad, working with his wife and ditsy stage assistant, Pam. The team developed a highly popular comedy-illusion act, with Thompson’s artistry effectively offset by Pam’s gum-chewing, eye-rolling responses. The duo were a well-known specialty act on the Strip in the 1970s and ’80s.
Thompson performed myriad roles in entertainment — as an actor, musician, writer, consultant make-up artist, clown and even a wrestler early in his career. He started his professional career in 1951 as a harmonica player who toured and recorded with Jerry Murad’s Harmonicats for seven years. He returned to magic, and developed his act with Pam, called The Great Tomsoni and Company. The two toured internationally and made numerous TV appearances as they became a Vegas showroom favorite.
The Academy of Magical Arts has honored Thompson with the award for Best Stage Magician and its highest award, the Master’s Fellowship.
Along with Penn & Teller, Thompson was friendly with, and worked as a consultant with, such Las Vegas stars as Siegfried & Roy; Criss Angel, especially the first couple of seasons of Angel’s “Mindfreak” TV show; David Copperfield; Lance Burton; Mac King; Mat Franco; and David Blaine. He was friends with such long-running Vegas performers as Mike Hammer and Murray Sawchuck, among many others.
Thompson was also close with comic and talk-show host Arsenio Hall, himself an accomplished magician.
In 2017, Penn & Teller revived a seven-minute segment of “The Great Tomsoni and Company” routine for their live show at the Rio. Jillette had also produced a documentary of he and Thompson performing Thompson’s “A Gambler’s Ballad.”
The project began as Jillette’s attempt to learn the famous Thompson card trick based on the 52-stanza poem of the same name. The two performed a live version of the trick at the Orleans in August 2017.
The mutual affection showed as the two veteran entertainers worked out the routine. At one point, as Jillette narrated the piece, one of their microphones buzzed through the theater.
Thompson turned to Jillette and said, “I think that’s you!”
“How do I make it stop?” Jillette asked. Thompson, with a mocking glare, said, “By shutting your mouth!” The crowd laughed, and the act continued, flawlessly.
Jillette posted the message “I miss him so much” on his Twitter page, along with a photo of he and Thompson. The Penn and Teller Instagram also posted a photo of the magic duo with Thompson and Pam, with the post, “Thank you, Johnny. We love you.”
Many other famed entertainers in Las Vegas reacted to the news of Thompson’s death.
From Copperfield, who headlines his own theater at MGM Grand: “He was a great performer, teacher and friend … I’m heartbroken.”
From Franco, who headlines his eponymous theater at Linq Hotel: “I’m deeply saddened by the passing of Johnny Thompson. Beyond being a generous friend and devoted mentor, he was a god-like figure in our community, and I’m thankful for all of the wonderful things he’s left us to remember him by. He was following his passion while selflessly helping others right until the very end. In the words often spoken by Johnny himself, ‘Love you, pal.’ “
Burton, who headlined for decades on the Strip, most recently at Monte Carlo: “I am heartbroken today to lose my longtime friend and mentor Johnny Thompson. For almost 40 years, Johnny has been intimately involved in all aspects of my career. He has written material for my TV shows as well as my live act. From teaching me the ‘Cups and Balls’ to suggesting music for new routines, from inventing new stage illusions to giving me jokes out of his own act, Johnny has been a living oracle. He was quite simply the best magician I ever knew. Johnny Thompson was like a second father to me. In the world of magic, he is irreplaceable.”
From Sawchuck, who headlines at Laugh Factory at Tropicana: “If you listened to him for one hour and only took one thing he told you and used it as a magician, you’d be 10 times better than most. He was magic’s Wikipedia.”
From Hammer, who headlines at Four Queens; “Johnny Thompson was a mentor and family to me. He is a true legend in the magic community and will be missed deeply.”
From John van der Put, who portrays Piff The Magic Dragon at Flamingo Las Vegas, who posted: “The Greatest has gone. It doesn’t matter what you think you can do, or what you think you came up with. Johnny Thompson did it, and did it better. Without Johnny I would have no show, no career, but most importantly, no Johnny.”