Magicana’s executive director Julie Eng looks back on her long friendship with magical legend Johnny Thompson.
Johnny & Me
“Shhh! Be quiet!”
Why won’t she stop pulling at my sleeve? My sister’s anticipation is making me crazy. Doesn’t she know I already know that it’s coming up?
“He’s going to find it now!” Her tiny voice can get really loud, even in a whisper.
She squeals and The Great Tomsoni’s face says it all. He’s found the wad of bubble gum his beautiful assistant, “& Co.”, has just stashed—her improvised solution after being scolded—inside his top hat. My sister and I look at each other with total delight. We proceed to mimic The Great Tomsoni, move for move, stretching the sticky ball between his fingers. We collapse into hysterics in our backstage hiding spot when he reveals that this is hardly the first time he’s had to deal with his assistant’s antics. With an exasperated sigh and eyes rolling to the rafters, The Great Tomsoni peels back his tuxedo lapel and displays the other dozen pink, gooey masses already squashed on to his jacket. This visual punch line never fails to crack us up.
It’s the late Seventies. I am about six years old, and my little sister, Sandra, and I are tucked away in our “secret spot” backstage at a variety show in British Columbia. Our father, Tony Eng, had been hired to perform his act, Mysteries of the Orient, with our mother, Ann, on a program with several other acts. On the bill was a big headliner from LA, Johnny and Pam Thompson, a.k.a. The Great Tomsoni & Co.
Sandra and I were used to hiding out quietly backstage as our parents performed—in many ways, it was just another gig. But this particular run was more of a treat because it was on the mainland in Vancouver (we lived on the island, in Victoria) and it was over the Easter holidays. In short, it was an adventure! The show was in an open-air space, set up in a giant shopping mall to entertain the crowds throughout the long weekend. There were several shows a day, so the acts rotated frequently to make sure a wide variety of entertainment was offered. But it was pretty obvious that Johnny and Pam were the main attraction, performing more than all the other acts.
This statuesque couple both dazzled and frightened us. Don’t get me wrong though. They were warm and kind, and very gentle to the two little girls backstage who stared open-mouthed, awe-struck watching their every move. They were so glamorous! Pam was simply stunning. She carried herself so elegantly, yet at the same time so hilariously, as Tomsoni’s gum-cracking, bored-out-of-her-mind assistant.
But Johnny was another story. First of all, he towered over us. Watching him from a distance was one thing, but standing before him and looking up, up, up like that… well, it was intimidating. He was beautiful like Pam and very handsome, but he seemed to hold himself with a certain air that scared the daylights out of us. I think it embarrassed our father. Here was The Great Tomsoni—magic royalty— face-to-face with his family, and his girls stood silently in fear of this magic legend.
I can only look back now and realize it was all the make-up and the pretension that the Tomsoni character engendered that made Johnny so strangely artificial to us. In fact, when he was made up as Tomsoni, Johnny had an alarming similarity to the wax figures at Madame Tussauds’, which gave me nightmares. But my sister and I soon realized—after watching him and Pam on and off stage for several shows in a row, for four days straight—that on stage, he was The Great Tomsoni, but off stage, he was Uncle Johnny.
We watched every one of their shows… from the front, the back and the wings of the stage, over and over again. My sister and I were used to watching shows behind the scenes, but this one was somehow different—so precise, so slick. Johnny and Pam created perfection in their chaotic comedy, every single time. It was completely mesmerizing. As children we were both astounded and reassured to know that their timing was so reliable. We couldn’t get enough.
Yet, for all our repeat viewings, we were always surprised by the first, instantaneous pop of the flowing red foulard from Johnny’s fingertips, which was always followed by a hushed “Oh!” when he produced that first dove. (He gets everyone on that first one.) We found ourselves waiting patiently for Pam to stumble out, to notice his shirttail hanging out of his fly, and then to abruptly take off—a perfectly timed sequence to abandon Johnny at the exact moment he was meant to hand the bird off to her. I think I held my breath a little, wondering if the beautiful blonde would forget to sprint off.
By the end of the long weekend, we were happily, and confidently, pantomiming along with them. Now that I look back, that Easter weekend was an invaluable lesson in magic. In eight minutes, Johnny and Pam demonstrated the distilled and refined essence of precision, partnership, and emotion—perfectly. We were left, like everyone else who watched Johnny and Pam, enchanted.
But as two little girls, we also appreciated their amusing absurdities: the bird leaving streaking surprises on Johnny’s lapel; the price tag hanging from his sleeve; the gorgeous gum-chewing assistant being scolded for chomping away during the act; and yes, best of all, Johnny’s discovery of the sticky ball she’s hidden in his top hat.
We had our cues too. When The Great Tomsoni mistakenly “vanishes” his assistant—she’s bolted off stage because he has unknowingly torn off her evening gown, leaving her exposed in a rather compromising costume—Sandra and I would turn to each other and, with our best Tomsoni faces, copy his arms flying triumphantly into the air as he mouths the word, “POOF!”… which always followed with us melting, again, into a heap of giggles.
But we couldn’t help it: we knew it all.
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