Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014 | 11 p.m.
The Amazing Johnathan is the last in line on this night after a series of five speakers at Inspire Theater on Fremont East in downtown Las Vegas. Before him, we have been regaled in tales from such legends as Mary Wilson of The Supremes and comic genius Marty Allen.
A genuine showgirl and two-time cancer survivor, Shellee Renee, has appeared on the same stage as an Olympic athlete and Cirque artist, Christina Jones of “O.” Jeff Kutash has talked of his brief period as “Mr. Disco” with the dance revue Dancin’ Machine, which helped vault him to become one of the city’s top producers with the long-running “Splash” at the Riviera. This is all part of the premiere night of what, hopefully, will be a series of such monologues, "ENTSpeaks," a production of Emmy Award-winning set designer Andy Walmsley.
At the end, it’s the comic magician of whom his contemporaries say is one of the great stage performers of his era. Comic Louie Anderson said that just before the show as he hung around the VIP suite with the night’s speakers. But The Amazing Johnathan, or A.J., as he is commonly known, is not right on this night. He is weak and has trouble walking over any considerable distance. His wife, performance artist Anastasia Synn, has had to sometimes carry him, actually on her back, when his legs fail.
Johnathan is seated onstage, seemingly revived by the lights and exuberant crowd in the 200-seat theater. There will be no illusions from the comic magician, but there will be laughs. He talks of his formative years as an entertainer, growing from a school kid who convinced his parents and teachers that he could really bend spoons, to a street performer (toggling space with such great close-up artists as Harry Anderson) and club comic in San Francisco. “Robin Williams and Dana Carvey, they were friends of mine,” he tells the audience.
A move to Los Angeles and his bitingly funny stage show quickly led to appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman” and specials on HBO and Comedy Central. “I was going to be on a new show that was going to be better than (Johnny) Carson, that was ‘Thicke of the Night.’ I might have jumped on the wrong bandwagon there,” he says, as those who remember Alan Thicke’s doomed late-night talk show laugh.
Johnathan even hosted a game show broadcast from Atlantic City, a Merv Griffin vehicle called “Ruckus,” in the early 1990s. He performed for two presidents, and says, “I did one for Reagan while I was stoned on ecstasy,” he says, nonchalantly, as if reciting rather than confessing. “I don’t know why, but I figured this might be the right place to try ecstasy for the first time. The Secret Service was looking at me like, ‘Oh, man …’ they all knew. They all knew I was doing this (stuff).”
Johnathan reminds of his great success in Las Vegas, highlighted by a 13-year run at Golden Nugget, a gig he resisted initially. “When they said Golden Nugget, I was like, ‘Eeeeh, really?’ But I sold out every night for two years, 500 seats a night. Every single night.”
And over the years, he says, “The greatest time of my life was spent here. I made millions of dollars, I have two beautiful houses, and everything came crashing … ”
And swiftly, the air seems to leave the room. There is a long pause, timed at seven seconds but seeming an eternity.
The great entertainer then says: “Down.”
And adds, “And I was told I have a year to live.”
The audience is unsure how to react. A.J. is known to be one of the great pranksters among entertainers, in Las Vegas or anywhere. Is this real? There is a laugh from the crowd.
“It’s not a joke,” he says.
“So. Um … I promised myself I wasn’t going to cry, but,” he continues, his voice quivering. “It’s very scary. My heart is failing. My wife says it failed long ago. But it is actually failing, for real.”
Johnathan is speaking with great clarity, and also velocity. This information is unspooling fast. It’s almost like being exposed to sleight-of-verbiage, where your brain is still remembering that yarn about the Secret Service but now trying to process impending death.
“Um, I can’t do shows anymore because my legs lock up and my hands lock up, and that’s kind of (crappy) for a magician, going onstage, ‘And for my next trick,’ ” he says, sitting entirely motionless. “So, um, I take this medication. I was told that it might help out, but I’m going to tell you something: Even though I’m sad about it, I’ve got a beautiful wife, I just got married (the audience applauds) and made sure she signed a prenup — that’s how I know she loves me.”
Still able to draw laughter, and certainly in command of the stage, The Amazing Johnathan is nonetheless finished performing.
“I am retired. I don’t do shows anymore. I did my final shows at the Magic Castle,” he says of shows he performed June 30-July 1 at the famed Los Angeles magic fortress. “My friends came out: Penny (Wiggins), Sophie (Evans), Erica (Vanlee), the girls who worked with me for the 20 years I was doing magic. So don’t feel sorry for me because I have had the best, most incredible life that you could have.”
The girls mentioned by Johnathan are crying, as one of the cameras set up by Walmsley catches Wiggins, who brilliantly played sidekick Psychic Tanya, with tears spilling down her cheeks.
He half-jokes, “Everything I have wanted, I’ve got. There’s a lot to be said for devil worship. But the things I own, the 25 classic cars, all that stuff that I thought was so effing cool, means nothing to me now. In fact, if you want one, talk to me after the show.”
This ride, this career, is nearing a close.
“I got my affairs in order and … that’s it,” he says, his voice once more faltering. “Thank you all for coming out.” He hugs his wife near the edge of the stage and walks off with, “Peace. I’ll see you on the other side.”
It all lasted 15 minutes. Whether we see A.J. onstage again remains to be seen, and he does come back onstage to answer a few questions sent earlier by email, joined by Kutash and Allen, but it felt like a final bow. The man who bestowed the title “Amazing” on his own act, his own image, was nothing short of that.