The New York Times recently published an obituary on an old friend of mine, Johnny Thompson, a musician who was also a magician, working under the name of The Great Thompsoni. He was 84 when he passed on March 9, and for many years had been a dean of magic, advising many younger magicians on tricks of the trade.
He was originally a member of a popular group out of Chicago called the Harmonicats. I met him when he and two other members of that group played a long run at the New York Playboy Club during the years when I was playing there with the Walter Norris Trio.
In John’s magic act, he skillfully transformed silk handkerchiefs into live doves, and then disappeared the doves again. At the Playboy Club he changed the act, playing it for comedy. Our trio was on stage with him, so we became straight men for his wit.
Backstage, John often did close-up magic for visiting magicians. He had delicately shaped hands that were much larger than they seemed, and so he was adept at palming coins, cards, rubber balls, etc. He could make moves so skillfully that, even though the magicians in his audience knew how he was making things disappear and reappear, they couldn’t see him doing it.
After working in Chicago and New York, John moved to Las Vegas, got married, and taught his wife to be his assistant in his magic act. He also became the mentor and critic of many of the major magic acts that played Las Vegas.
At the Playboy Club, one of John’s bits was to produce a white dove from a white silk handkerchief, then produce an egg that the dove seemed to have laid. He would open the egg, take out a white silk scarf that was rolled up inside, and from it produce another dove.
An Easter party at the club had left some decorations behind, including a tiny baby duckling made of pipe cleaners and fluff. While John was preparing his props, I slipped the duckling into the prop egg. When he produced the egg onstage and opened it, the duckling was sitting on top of the rolled up scarf, looking right at him. John did a wonderful job of keeping a straight face.
Herb Gardner sent me a couple of stories. Herb writes: “In response to Barry Bryson‘s teasing about his girth, Joe Hanchrow snapped, ‘Cancel the following dates…’ Barry replied, ‘That threat would mean more if you actually had any dates for me.’ Joe said, “Well, if I get New Year’s Eve, cancel it!”
Herb also told me: “My new Fitbit watch encourages me to stay in shape by keeping track of how far I walk in a day. It calculates my stride length and then multiplies that by the number of steps I take. Last night it congratulated me for walking eight miles during the hours I was playing a gig on piano. Apparently I tap my foot quite a bit!”
Kenny Berger ran into his old pal Dave Katzenberg at a New Years Day party at the home of Roberta Piket and Billy Mintz. Dave and Ken were seated across from Alan Broadbent. Roberta walked by and asked Dave if he knew Alan. Dave said to Alan, “I’ve heard you play several times.” After a few seconds of dead air, Alan replied, “And….?”
Kenny also told me about a call he got from a guy looking for someone who could play the “theremin, echo cornet and contrabass sax.” Knowing Scott Robinson’s amazing collection of instruments and his proficiency in playing them all, he gave the guy Scott’s number. He later asked Scott if the guy had called him, and Scott said he hadn’t. “Oh, well,” said Kenny, “He must have gotten somebody else.”
John Whimple volunteered to perform at a soup kitchen, where about 75 homeless men and women were having a meal as he performed. One man asked John if he would do “Stairway To Heaven,” saying the song meant a lot to him.
After John did the song, the man came back and put a $5 bill on his amplifier. John told him he was happy to entertain and didn’t want a tip. The man insisted, and left. John quickly put the bill away, embarrassed to be tipped by a homeless man.
While the volunteers were cleaning up and John was packing up, the guy came back and said he couldn’t find his wallet. One of the volunteers said, “Are you sure you had it?” “Yes, I know I had it,” he said, and pointing at John, he added, “I took it out and gave him a $5 tip.” More embarrassment for John.
Speaking of tips, Gary Badger posted the following on Facebook:
“Dad told me about the time he saw Roy Eldridge in a NYC nightclub. Requests were attached to cash and passed down to the stage. Roy picked one up and looked at it. ‘George Washington?’ he said. ‘We don’t know that one!’”