R.I.P. The Amazing Johnathan, unpredictable and inventive magician and stand-up comedian

“The Freddy Kruger Of Magic” was a revolutionary showman, known for deconstructing the rules of sleight of hand and stagecraft

R.I.P. The Amazing Johnathan, unpredictable and inventive magician and stand-up comedian
The Amazing Johnathan Photo: Bobby Bank/WireImage

John Edward Szeles, the magician and stand up comedian better known by his stage name, The Amazing Johnathan, has died. His death, confirmed by his wife, fellow performer Anastasia Synn, was the result of a critical heart condition, a diagnosis he struggled with since 2007. He was 63.

“The last thing I said to him was, ‘I love you, honey, I’ll be with you when you get up from your nap,’” Synn said near midnight Tuesday night. “We were feeding him oranges and strawberries. He was so peaceful. He said, ‘Yay!’ He had the most pure and sweetest look on his face.”

Szeles’ magic was not for the faint of heart. A mix of brazen, aggressive comedy and subversive illusions, The Amazing Johnathan’s bag of tricks appealed to Vegas tourists and magic aficionados alike. His work was riotous, violent, and frenetic. With machine-gun precision, he rattled off bits, tricks, and jokes that left stages covered in faux body parts and audiences in stitches.

Born in Detroit, Michigan, on September 9, 1958, he was the youngest of three children. His family moved to Fraser, MI, where he attended a Christian private school, where he was, according to his website, a “below average student.”

His path from just plain-old Johnathan to the Amazing one began in 1973 when he walked into a local magic shop. There, the owner trained the teenager before his big break: A neighborhood boy’s birthday party. The set ended with young Szeles locked in the trunk of a car and a chorus of boos. He made $4.

Three years later, he was performing on the streets of San Francisco, where he befriended fellow amateur magician and future Night Court star Harry Anderson. The pair were on the cutting edge between magic and comedy, and as Anderson made his rise, so too did the Amazing Johnathan.

In the 1980s, he toured colleges and comedy clubs, establishing himself as one of magic’s most original acts. Soon, he’d make his television debut, appearing on HBO, David Letterman, and The Weird Al Show, where he received his only acting credit as “Uncle Jonathan.”

Over the next 20 years, Szeles flirted with television as a host and featured attraction. He led Merv Griffin’s syndicated variety gameshow, Ruckus for a season, but left due to a contract dispute, Szeles said. However, it was a 1996 appearance on Comedy Central’s Lounge Lizards that helped make him a household name.

Throughout the 2000s, The Amazing Johnathan made a home in Las Vegas, selling out rooms up and down the strip. “For two years, I did 500 seats a night. Ever single night we sold out and then for the next 13 years I had a great time,” he said during a Las Vegas talk in 2014. “The greatest time of my entire life has been here, and I’ve made millions of dollars. I have two beautiful houses, and every thing cam crashing down when I was told I had a year to live.”

In 2007, doctors diagnosed Szeles with cardiomyopathy, a degenerative heart condition that affects the tissue surrounding the heart. This news caused the magician to disappear from stages for five years.

The 2010s saw The Amazing Johnathan attempt to restart his career. He did a final year-long residency in Las Vegas before touring comedy clubs. Nevertheless, his condition worsened.

The Amazing Johnathan’s unpredictable stage show and penchant for on and off stage illusions lead many to question his diagnosis. Like Andy Kaufman before him, some wondered if his illness was an elaborate ruse that would lead to a final reveal.

In 2019's The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, director and friend Ben Berman attempted to get to the truth of Szeles’ condition, peeling away layers of artifice to reveal even more questions. Szeles, for his part, is upfront with Berman about his struggles with drugs (he spends much of the film smoking meth and goading Berman into smoking meth with him) and his heart condition.

Unfortunately, the big reveal was that Johnathan was telling the truth. After years of questions and investigations, he died in his Las Vegas home with his wife by his side.

“Don’t feels sorry for me because I had the best, most incredible life that you could have,” he told audiences in 2014. “I really have. Everything I ever wanted I got. There’s a lot to be said for Devil worship.”

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