Johnny Thompson, a Las Vegas magic legend, dies at 84

Updated March 9, 2019 - 7:32 pm

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.

Announcement of services are pending.

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 protrays 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.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats podcast can be found at Contact him at Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

Entertainment Videos
Arcade ‘speakeasy’ leads to secret door and Banksy art in Las Vegas
Arcade ‘speakeasy’ leads to secret door, Banksy art in Las Vegas (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Hazel in Las Vegas serves modern takes on traditional cocktails
Hazel serves modern takes on traditional cocktails (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas celebrates St. Patrick's Day
Tonight the city lit the Welcome sign green, McMullan's Irish Pub and the Guinness store also prepare for this weekend's St. Patrick's Day festivities. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Reuben sandwich at Served in Henderson, near Las Vegas
Matthew Meyer, chef/owner of Served, makes a Reuben sandwich with house-brined corned beef, house-made sauerkraut and gooey melted cheese at his restaurant in Henderson, outside Las Vegas. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
Las Vegas day club season returns with big-name DJs
Rick Ross, March 23, at Daylight Beach Club at Mandalay Bay The Chainsmokers, March 30, at Encore Beach Club Marshmello, April 6, Kaos Dayclub at the Palms Chuckie, May 11, Marquee Dayclub at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas Calvin Harris, May 11, Wet Republic at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
Pizza expert Chris Bianco makes meatballs in Las Vegas
Chris Bianco, who was the keynote speaker at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, demonstrates meatball making for expo attendees. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Las Vegas pulmonologist talks about new movie dealing with cystic fibrosis
Dr. Craig Nakamura, Director of Cystic Fibrosis Center of Southern Nevada, talks about the upcoming romantic drama “Five Feet Apart” where both of the lead characters suffer from cystic fibrosis. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
World Pizza Champion crowned in Las Vegas
At the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, Italian pizzaiolo Federico De Silvestri took the top prize and more than $12,000. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
Italian wins Pizza Maker of the Year at Pizza Expo
Federico De Silvestri of Verona, Italy, wins the finals in the non-traditional pizza category during the International Pizza Challenge at the International Pizza Expo at the Las Vegas Convention Center Thursday, March 7, 2019. De Silvestri went on to beat winners from each of the four other categories — traditional, pan, pizza Napoletana and Roman — to win Pizza Maker of the Year. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Good Pie Coming To Arts District
Local pizzaiolo Vincent Rotolo says Good Pie is coming to the Arts District. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Local comedian says "It's ok to laugh, ...the comedy club is dark."
K-Von, a half-Persian comedian, talks about his style of comedy which keeps audiences entertained.
Pizza Dough Throwing Competition
Contestants participate in the World Pizza Games at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, Wednesday night. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
World Pizza Games showcased in Las Vegas
The World Pizza Games, part of the International Pizza Expo, drew competitors from all over the world to Las Vegas to compete in events such as dough stretching and box folding. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
Pizza competitors dazzle at international expo
The International Pizza Expo at Las Vegas Convention Center included the first rounds of the World Pizza Games. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas showcases products and trends
At the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, vegan and gluten-free menu choices and compostable packaging were highlighted, as well as Detroit-style and Roman-style pizza. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
Chef Dan Krohmer talks about a new restaurant
Chef Dan Krohmer talks about the construction of his new restaurant at Fremont Street’s Fergusons Downtown complex in downtown Las Vegas. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Neon Museum lights up the Hard Rock Cafe guitar sign
The Neon Museum in Las Vegas flipped the switch on its latest acquisition Monday night, the Hard Rock Cafe guitar sign. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
A Taste of Eataly Las Vegas
Executive Chef Nicole Brisson gives a tour around Eataly Las Vegas, located in the Park MGM. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Order a pretty purple cocktail at North Italia in Las Vegas
Order a pretty purple cocktail at North Italia in Las Vegas (Janna Karel/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Towering triple decker sandwich at Sadelle’s at Bellagio in Las Vegas
Jonah Resnick, executive chef of Sadelle’s, the newest restaurant at Bellagio in Las Vegas, serves a daunting concoction of roast beef layered with house-made cole slaw, turkey and more cole slaw, on rye bread. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal)
Paris Las Vegas Debuts New Eiffel Tower Light Show
The Paris in Las Vegas unveiled its latest Eiffel Tower light show, Wednesday evening. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Video: Las Vegas Omelet House Marks 40th anniversary
Omelet House at Charleston Boulevard and Rancho Drive in Las Vegas, which opened in 1979, is a locals’ favorite, known for fluffy six-egg omelets. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
Golden Knights' Ryan Reaves readying new beer
Ryan Reaves, a forward with the Golden Knights, has plans for a second beer, a lager, through his 7Five Brewing Co. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Bellagio Adds Lady Gaga To The Fountain Playlist
Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” has been added to the rotation of classic tunes played for the dancing waters at Lake Bellagio. The song debuted at 6 p.m. Monday. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Comedian uses laughter to bring understanding about AIDS
Comedian Brandon Cox Sanford talks about how he uses his comedy sketches to bring light to his AIDS diagnosis. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
20th anniversary of the House of Blues in Las Vegas
Sasha Rincon-Camacho, regional marketing director, talks about the 20th anniversary of the House of Blues in Las Vegas. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Meow Wolf opening an 'otherworldly' art experience in Las Vegas
Meow Wolf opening "otherworldly" art experience in Las Vegas (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New caneles pastries served at tea at Waldorf Astoria Las Vegas
Tony Gauthier, executive pastry chef at the Waldorf Astoria Las Vegas, was trained to make caneles in Bordeaux in his native France, and they’re a new feature on the hotel’s afternoon tea. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
Celebrate Margarita Day With The Hot Damn Margarita
Celebrate Margarita Day With The Hot Damn Margarita (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Yard House margarita changes color in the glass
The cocktail, as made by lead bartender Taylor Cole at Town Square in Las Vegas, changes from deep blue to magenta because of a chemical reaction between its butterfly pea flowers and citrus agave. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
Home Front Page Footer Listing