Ask a magic-loving friend who s/he thinks is the best all-around magician today, and you might get disappointed. Your friend could very well name someone you’ve never heard of. Not David Copperfield, Criss Angel, or David Blaine.
The key here is the phrase “all-around.” That qualifier makes the question a tough one to answer, because magic is not just one art, it’s a collection of many specialties. There’s close-up cards, close-up coins, mentalism, escapes, stage illusions, comedy magic, children’s magic, bizarre magic, even gospel magic. There are similar basic principles of magic that underlie all of them, but each field has its own subtleties and methods as well. It’s unusual for a magician to be expert in more than a few areas. It would be like expecting one person to excel at singing opera, country, rock, gospel, and jazz. Or expecting one doctor to be a surgeon, ophthalmologist, and psychiatrist as well.
So, if called to answer, my choice would be Johnny Thompson. Thompson was a student and friend of two of the greatest close-up sleight of hand magicians ever, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller. But Thompson also had an extensive stage career as well, not only as a magician, but as a musician and actor. Unlike some of even the best sleight-of-hand guys, Thompson understands the stage and what it means to perform. He knew everyone in magic, and now at age 80+, he has earned the respect of all of his peers. His resume includes the behind-the scenes advisement of Penn and Teller, Criss Angel, and Lance Burton. There’s a bio of Thompson by Jamy Ian Swiss that’s slated to be published this year. It’s going to contain a lot about Thompson’s life and magic. Fans have been eagerly waiting for this, as it has been almost a decade since plans for the book were first announced.
So here’s my Johnny Thompson story. I was at the Texas Association of Magicians 2013 convention, and two of the headliners were Thompson and Tom Mullica, who is also a very funny and skilled magician. Mullica was performing a stage show, and I was sitting one empty seat away from the aisle. Mullica has a spectator pick a card without looking at it, and has it put aside. Mullica then takes out a big pad, writes something on it, and sets the pad face down.
Next, Mullica steps downstage to the proscenium edge and asks for a volunteer from the audience to name a card. At that moment, I hear some panting and hard breathing on my right, and I turn and there is Johnny Thompson walking quickly with a bit of a limp, down the aisle. He sits down in the aisle seat, right next to me, and I can see that he is working hard to catch his breath. I can hear his heart pounding. Mullica points to him and says, “Sir, name any card.”
Thompson is now wiping sweat off his brow, and manages to get out, “The F-F-F-Five of S-S-S-Spades.” Now I’m starting to really worry about him, and I’m wondering if I should lean over and ask him if he needs some help. I can see close-up he’s an old man, no kid anymore, his face is twitching. Mullica, however, seems, oblivious, and continues. “I’m sorry, what did you say, the Five of Hearts?” And Johnny, now breathing more heavily than ever sputters out, “Not the F-F-F-Five of Huh-Huh-Huh-Hearts, the F-F-F-Five of S-S-S-Spades.” He’s gasping. By this point I’m looking around for someone who can help me carry the magic legend out of the theater. But Mullica remains unperturbed.
“Just as I predicted!” says Mullica; he shows the selected card, then walks over to the face-down pad, turns it around, and now the whole audience can read what’s written on it.
It says: “You will choose the F-F-F-Five of S-S-S-Spades.”