The Great Tomsoni & Co.

Interview with Max Maven

John Thompson was born in Chicago in 1934. At the age of eight he saw a movie about a riverboat gambler. Thus inspired, he located a copy of the classic Erdnase text, "The Expert At The Card Table," which he studied diligently for the next four years.

His interest in magic broadened, and in his early teens he worked a variety of magic-related jobs in carnivals, fairs and touring companies, which allowed him to meet various professional performers. Then, in 1947, Jerry Murad's Harmonicats had their big hit record, "Peg 0' My Heart." John, along with many other American boys at that time, became infatuated with the harmonica. He began learning the instrument, eventually studying with Murad. In 1950 he joined the Harmonicats, touring and recording with them off and on for seven years.
His interest in magic continued during this time. In the 1940's he had seen the seminal dove worker, Cantu. With the help of Chicago magician Joe Tershay, John began to develop a bird act - initially using children's socks as harnesses!
Since, then, of course, he has become an internationally popular performer. Together with his wife and partner, Pam, "The Great Tomsoni & Company," have delighted audiences near and far. Shortly after this interview was conducted, John Thompson was presented with a Performing Fellowship from the Academy of Magical Arts.

MAX: Magicians refer to you as a "G.P." [General Practitioner], because you do stage, close-up, cabaret, illusions, manipulation... That's quite a range. Where does it come from?

JOHN: I needed to eat! Over the years I've done everything from bar magic to balloon animals, if the work was there.

MAX: There's got to be more to it than that, because you invest the extra effort not only to learn the material, but to do it well.

JOHN: I think I got that attitude when I was a kid, studying Erdnase. It was tough material, and as a twelve-year-old, people like Louis Zingone, Paul LePaul and Paul Rosini invested time in me because I'd made the effort to learn it. So that taught me to respect the material and the effort.
MAX: And yet for a time you gave up magic completely.
JOHN: When Channing Pollock hit, about 1955, I said, "There's not room for two dove acts," and I hung up magic. I went back with the Harmonicats for two solid years. Then I put together the Harmonica Jazz Quartet, which ran for five years.
MAX: So how did you get back into magic?

JOHN: Well, I really couldn't stay away. I'd made friends with people like Jay Marshall and Harry Riser. Norm Nielsen and I became close friends. In the early 1960's I'd go up to his shop in Kenosha, Wisconsin every week, and we'd talk magic and develop ideas. We had a lot of fun.
Around that time I was orchestrating different acts. I was working as the musical arranger for the comedy team of Greg Lewis and Gus Christie, who were working the Playboy circuit. I became part of the act.  I'd pretend to be a heckler from the audience. Harry Blackstone [Jr.] was the opening act, and he closed with the shirt pull, so Lewis & Christie would get me up on stage, and they'd try to do the shirt pull like Harry - and they'd rip my shirt to shreds! We got a lot of press out of it.

So we went to New York, to do a revue show at the Playboy Club, and they pushed me into doing a comedy magic act; a parody of Channing.

MAX: Did you know Channing at this point?
JOHN: Yes. We'd met in Chicago through Ricki Dunn. When we met, we discovered how many things we'd invented that were exactly alike; so many crazy things. Channing said to me, "You can have anything of mine," and I said, "Chan, why would I do that? Everyone in magic is doing your act!"

So now, when I got the idea to do a parody, I cleared it with Channing. But he never got to see it until 1976 -- and he thought it was very funny.

MAX: How did you go about creating the comedy act?

JOHN: Well, the first real gag I had was when the dove defecates on my shoulder - which actually happened one night, and then I worked out a way to do it every time.
Tom Palmer had just gotten out of the business, and he gave me several things from his act. But you know how difficult it is to get in someone else's shoes. I tried, but the only gag that always worked for me was the bird crap on the shoulder.

MAX: Because it was yours.

JOHN: Exactly. I got through the other stuff, but the laughs weren't that strong. Then one night I got laughs from the moment I walked on stage. I found out why; the drummer told me my fly was open. So of course, that stayed in the act. Then a few days after that, I walked on stage with one black shoe and one brown...

MAX: So what you're telling us is that this idiot character -

JOHN: Is true! [Laughter] I am absent-minded, as you well know. Most of the gags... The dress coming off is, of course, Tom Palmer's, but I worked on it to change it and make it my own. Tommy also gave me the Genii Tube gag with the thumb, and breaking the egg in the Egg Bag, but all the rest of the stuff really happened to me in the early days with the act. So much happened within the first six weeks of the revue, I ended up with a solid seven minute act.

MAX: At that time, there were nowhere near as many comedy magic acts in the business.

JOHN: That's true, but there were some great ones. Roy Benson was one of my heroes. Carl Ballantine is another idol; a great act that will play forever. And Jay Marshall was very helpful to me; very honest when other people wouldn't have been. Many times it hurt my feelings but in the long run he was always correct.
Over the years, I've had input from other friends. Karrell Fox is a creative friend; a walking marshmallow, full of good ideas. Billy McComb, to me, is the European counter-part to Jay Marshall; a generous man. The first time I met him, he gave me a line which I still use. And Peter Pit has given me many wonderful pieces. But at the start, I really got most of my material from things that happened to me on stage.

MAX: Did you work a solo at this point?

JOHN: No, I used two of the girls from the revue, but they didn't have a lot to do.

MAX: Was it a Polish magician from the start?

JOHN: No, at first it was just a comedy character. After about three months, Greg Lewis for a joke one night introduced me as "Poland's finest magician," and it got a big laugh, 'cause Polish jokes were very hot. So we left it in. And I am Polish, so it worked for me.

These days, I find myself playing it down.  I don't discount it, but it's a softer sell. You made a comment to me, a couple of years ago, which bent me out of shape. You said, "Maybe this is a liability now" - and I remember saying to you, "Look who's talking!" Anyway, it irritated me, but I thought about it, and now my billing has nothing about the Polish bit. I still talk about it, and I'm very pro-Polish, but it's down-played.

MAX: The run in New York was a productive period for you.

JOHN: Yeah. I was also doing trade shows. Marshall Brodien got me into that, and I really learned the ropes through Eddie Tullock. Also, while I was in New York I studied acting with Uta Hagen, and did some dinner theater work.

Pam and I had met a couple of times over the years. She was an actress, but she also did modeling at trade shows, so we worked together a few times. In 1971 she was touring with Bob Crane as his leading lady. I went into the show ["Who Was That Lady"] in a character part, and our romance began to blossom. Bob was kind of cupid for us. Then in 1972 I got a booking in Reno, at John Asquaga's Nugget.

MAX: Was this your first time in Nevada?

JOHN: First time working. In 1962 I went to Las Vegas as a tourist. I saw the Lido show at the Stardust. I fell in love with the show. Seeing that really pushed me back into wanting to perform again. I said, "I want to work this room." It took me twenty years...
MAX: So now, ten years later, you were close by in Reno. How did that gig come about?

JOHN: Well, Norm and I had continued our friendship over the years. He scored earlier than I did, and he did what we all hope someone will do - help the other guy along. He paid all my expenses to Reno, and I showcased on an afternoon show he was working, and they asked us to stay on. Norm and I opened for Carol Charming, Kate Smith ... we became a fixture there, and stayed on for the whole season.

MAX: What came next?

JOHN: By early 1974, Pam and I were in Hollywood, working as actors. We went to a party here, and met a lot of magicians I'd heard about. Bill Larsen came over, and connected me with an agent, which led to Barry Ashton's Vive, Paris Vive Show at the Aladdin in Las Vegas.

MAX: Wasn't this the period during which you worked for three years without a night off?

JOHN: Yeah, almost three years; until late 1976. After nine or ten months, the show moved over to the Flamingo, and we kept working seven nights a week.

When Barry Ashton first saw me work, he said, "I love the act, but I want it a little zanier." So I started working a broader sell, and came up with a lot of things involving the assistant character. It was also during that run that I started doing the character accent on stage.
MAX: Prior to that you'd used your own speaking voice?

JOHN: Yes, but Barry Ashton wanted an all European show, so he insisted on a Polish accent. I found out quickly that lines that I could do in John Thompson's voice didn't necessarily work in the foreign accent. It took me three years to really learn the ins and outs of the talking character.

MAX: Today, the character is complete and detailed.

JOHN: Yes. As soon as I put the costume on, I became the character.

MAX: I've noticed that when you finish prepping, even your body posture changes - but I thought that might just be from the weight of the birds...

JOHN: [Laughter] When I started doing the character, I began studying the reasons a joke would play. I'd discuss each show with the other performers, to analyze each moment. It's an actor's approach; sub-texting. I know Tomsoni's background. I believe that every moment on stage counts. You only have so many minutes.

MAX: So you continue fine-tuning.

JOHN: Which makes the act as fresh for me now as it was the first time. Every time I go out, I know that much more about the character.
MAX: Where was Pam during this time you were working Vegas?
JOHN: She was on the road, acting. During the first year of our marriage, we only saw each other twelve weeks. The next year, eighteen.

Then in March, 1976 there was a strike in Vegas. Bill Larsen asked me to fill in at the Magic Castle banquet, so I talked Pam into doing the act with me. She'd done it a couple of times before, for example at the '74 S.A.M. convention in Boston, but never in the expanded role. She'd seen my assistants work and added a lot of her own ideas. The funny walk came about because her shoes were too tight!

MAX: So how did the banquet go?

JOHN: She was great! It was the first time in my career that I really shared the stage with a partner, and it felt like a million bucks. I didn't even know what she was doing on stage - I didn't dare look! That night we got a standing ovation. As we drove back to Vegas, I said, "There's no way I'm letting you go back on the road. We're gonna do an act together." So she did one more short tour, and then we started working.

MAX: So in a way, Bill Larsen was responsible for Pam joining the act.

JOHN: She may never forgive him! Bill also got me my first network television shot. In 1975 I did an ABC latenight special. Angelique Pettijohn worked it with me. We had trouble at first. They didn't want to use me, because of the open fly gag. So they wound up shooting me from the waist up.

MAX: Just like Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show.

JOHN: [Laughter] Yeah, we had the same distinction. So after Pam joined the act, we worked our first major gig in Cherry Hill, New Jersey for three months: the Latin Casino, largest club in the country at that time. It sat 2500 on one level.

That was a great experience, working a big room with a small act. I remember when people used to tell me that Cardini worked Radio City Music Hall, I found it impossible to believe. Herbie Zarrow showed me a film of that, and when I saw it, it was a magic mirror for me. I learned the technique of selling to the back of the room. Cardini was an inspiration. He knocked me out.

MAX: Who else has knocked you out that way?

JOHN: Aldo Richiardi was the greatest illusionist I ever saw. I became a layman when I saw him. Del Ray is another one who does it to me. Everything he does is so magical. Albert Goshman just thrills me. And I love Lance Burton's work. The minute I saw him, I felt that he had something special. Of course I can't leave out my dear friend and close-up mentor, Harry Riser. He really taught me the meaning of the word effect.
Fred Kaps was another favorite. He transcended his material completely. I mean, when he worked, you believed. He was so natural. I think we have Dai Vernon to thank for that. He brought the level of naturalness in magic to a new high. Charlie Miller is another great performer who's taught me much ... I will always be indebted to him.

MAX: What followed New Jersey?

JOHN: Our next extended run was in the Folies show at the Tropicana in Vegas. We stayed well into 1977. We were able to break in almost an hour's worth of material, piece-by-piece: the comedy mindreading, the de Kolta Chair ...

We did the It's Magic show that year, and then went into the Jubilation show back at the Nugget in Reno. I got headline billing, and we were able to do some time - about thirty minutes.

We mounted the Les Sorcery show in Reno in 1980. It was a revue show I'd written a couple of years before, themed entirely around magic. Of course, Max, you know that whole story; you were in the show for the first eight weeks.

MAX: It was the most popular lounge show in Reno that summer.

JOHN: But we ran into financial problems, producing that show. Lost a lot of money, so the next couple of years were difficult. Finally, we went back to working the act, in a Lenny Miller show at the Sheraton Valley Forge. And then, in '82 we went into the Stardust.

MAX: The Lido show, after twenty years.

JOHN: That show was so important to me. Opening night, I went out to one of the toughest audiences I'd ever worked. I came off drenched with sweat - but I scored, and they told me after the first show that they were going to extend us. We stayed into 1984. Probably the best fun I've ever had.

Since then, I've really been enjoying my work, more than ever. We're about to go to Trump's Castle in Atlantic City for an extended run, and I can't wait!

MAX: How do you see the state of magic today?

JOHN: We go in cycles. Now, illusionists are the thing, and I think they're great for magic. Doug Henning, David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy, Harry Blackstone - they're making magic happen in the public eye today. Of course, let's not forget Mark Wilson, who sustained magic before the current boom.
The level of magic is so high today. If some of the pro's I knew in the forties were to see some of the youngsters of today, like David Roth, they'd [bleep]! Between Vernon, Marlo... so many books are available, so much good material.

And right now, comedy magic is really strong. There are a lot of really funny acts, and some young guys who are real comers.

MAX: Who makes you laugh? In or out of magic?

JOHN: Well, Mike Caldwell has broken me up backstage more than any other human being. I fall into his traps every time. In straight comedy, Shecky Greene is my supreme idol. The funniest man I've ever seen. He is so inventive and multi-talented. Pete Barbutti is incredible. Bill Cosby is a comedic genius.

MAX: You're a real student of comedy.

JOHN: Years ago, Tom Palmer proved to me that the attitude was the funny thing. So I continue studying the attitude, refining the comedy. But you know that, Max. If there's anybody who knows my act backwards and forwards, it's you - you've seen my show from every angle, hundreds of times. If I dropped dead tomorrow, you could reconstruct the act with Pam.

PAM: We're thinking about it!!