He looks good, considering the circumstances. The Amazing Johnathan’s weight is down 50-plus pounds from his bloated heyday. Contrasting the manic decades when the comic-magician progressed from acid to coke to speed, his eyes are calm and focused. He’s chucked the emergency defibrillator vest he decided was cramping his style. At lunch he scarfs a bowl of mushroom soup and a pastrami sandwich, picks fruit from others’ plates and jokes with old pal Bob Rossi, storied magic historian and collector, about his wife nagging him to take his meds.
Then, rising to pay the check, he suddenly wobbles and leans heavily on a neighboring table. His head spins. He breathes slowly and deeply. “Just have to get my balance,” he grunts. “I’m trying not to pass out.”
A few hesitant, shuffling steps point him toward the door. Strapped in a black medical bootie, his right foot drags. The dorsal halves of the first two toes sloughed away a couple days ago when he removed a sock. With negligible circulation reaching his extremities, there was no blood, and no pain. Upon closer examination, he realized the hard, white protrusions he prodded were bone. It was like a tender slab of meat coming apart, he remembers. Like the little red, round cheeses that peel down the middle. The nightmare where your teeth crumble from your gums. His body was failing before his eyes.
Six years ago, at age 50, Johnathan Szeles was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a degenerative weakening of the heart muscle. Type 2 diabetes nixed any chance of a transplant, and a lifetime of unrepentant drug use exacerbated all of it. When he broke the news that he was dying on WTF With Marc Maron’s July 14 podcast, his heart functioned at 12 percent capacity. He had two years, at most. And, as Maron asked, “You could die at any minute?”
“Yeah, I could.”
His father, a military draftsman who died at 61 of a heart attack two weeks after retiring, also suffered from diabetes. Admits Szeles, “I’m following in his footsteps of being an idiot.”
Ending a three-decade career that included 13 years as a Vegas headliner, appearances on Letterman and HBO, multiple Comedy Central specials and International Magic Awards, performances for presidents and shows around the world, Szeles took his final bow July 1 after a private, two-night stand at LA’s hallowed Magic Castle. He’s glad to be retired … mostly.
“I got to see part of the heyday. I was in Vegas when it was still cool, and I made my fortune from it,” he says. “It feels good to sit still for a while. But not for too long. That’s dangerous.”
Soon the man who infamously swallowed razor blades, plucked out his eyeball, skewered his tongue, sawed into his arm, lost gallons of fake blood and masterminded hundreds of other physically gruesome, groundbreaking illusions—and who successfully combined comedy-magic with rock ’n’ roll bombast—will experience a very real and fatal heart attack. What to do with his remaining time is the one nagging, final trick he has yet to solve.
Rows of identical warehouses near McCarran International Airport lie dark and still. Only two units designated “Szeles Mortuary” and “Funeral Supplies” show signs of activity. Inside one, racks of musty costumes, ancient slot-machine panes, outdated electronics and rows of faded theater seats rise to the ceiling. Outside the other, a raised receiving door spills light onto the half-dozen classic American muscle cars temporarily backed out to accommodate around 60 friends, family and Vegas cast and crew members.
“We’re gonna relive the past and have a lot of fun!” Szeles promises, introducing tonight’s two-part finale of Burn Unit, his web talk show of two years. He’s broken out the eyeliner and his trademark black headband for the occasion, welcoming, with co-host Sophie Evans, his beloved team of managers and “six or seven” assistants “… a lot of them my girlfriends!” For two and a half hours they share inside jokes, taunts and behind-the-scenes stories: road manager Chris Ritter sneaking blasting caps past the TSA shortly after 9/11; Erica Vanlee frightening mall shoppers in full vampire makeup; Psychic Tanya comic-actress Penny Wiggins catching a staple in the eye when a real staple gun was mistaken for the usual prop.
Szeles reminisces about touring Italy, France, Russia and Australia, or crossing paths with Joan Rivers, Tony Orlando, Wayne Newton, Pauly Shore and Kevin James. He also cops to behaving like a prima donna, eschewing rehearsal and getting high before and during performances, though all agree he never overdosed or missed a single show.
Panelists and audience members whoop when he quips, “Boys and girls, don’t do drugs, okay? Just because they made me wealthy and famous and cool, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to you,” but eyes brim throughout the evening. Tonight could be the last time most see Szeles alive.
“So many people have asked him for help with their act, or help in writing,” Wiggins says. “Most would charge $200 an hour for the services that he’s given. He freely passes along his advice and opinions; he’s helped people out of financial binds. One time he let someone stay at his house for weeks, because he had nowhere else to go. A lot of people don’t know that about him. He’s just a very big-hearted person.”
The makeshift studio’s murals, speaker boxes and vintage concession stands normally re-create the drive-in movie theaters Szeles worked growing up outside Detroit, where he made teachers believe he could mentally bend spoons, and where reading minds got him laid. Relocating as a teenager to San Francisco in 1976, his street act progressed under the tutelage of future Saturday Night Live and Daily Show writer/performer A. Whitney Brown. Future Night Court star Harry Anderson inspired him to incorporate comedy. He caught a young Penn and Teller, whom he’d later befriend in Vegas, at the Phoenix Theater.
“Comedy-magic is a very, very odd form, because in most cases people are neither funny nor magical,” Penn Jillette says today. “Amazing Johnathan is a good enough comedian to not use magic, and he’s a good enough magician to not use comedy. That is very, very rare.”
After one too many Fisherman’s Wharf arrests for obstruction—not to mention muggings by vanloads of teenagers from the nearby projects—Szeles became a fixture at the Holy City Zoo, performing alongside Ellen DeGeneres, Dana Carvey and Robin Williams, with whom he shared an affinity for cocaine.
“Then, after John Belushi died, everybody stopped doing it,” Szeles recalls. “It woke everybody up. It scared Robin and it scared everybody else. It didn’t scare me.”
Szeles continued turning to “focus” drugs as his career took off following a strategic showcase at the Hollywood Improv. That single 1983 set landed Szeles HBO’s eighth Young Comedians Special (hosted by John Candy, with Bill Maher, Paula Poundstone and a pre-Mystery Science Theater 3000 Joel Hodgson), the first of several Letterman spots and international tours. Richard Avedon photographed him and Elayne Boosler in matching sweaters for a GQ spread.
The ’90s saw the theft of $300,000 by his booking agency and a Merv Griffin game-show deal that went south. Reeling from a blindsiding divorce and unsure of his next move, Szeles met Wiggins at Hermosa Beach’s Comedy and Magic Club. Even before seeing her perform, he asked her to play ditzy assistant/foil Psychic Tanya.
“Every comic said, ‘Amazing Johnathan is the funniest comic we’ve ever seen in our life,’” Wiggins recalls. “I’d heard about him from so many different people. All the magicians were in awe of him.”
The pair took to the road for six months, “writing like maniacs,” then hit Vegas in 2001. Szeles previously gigged at the Sahara as a touring act for two years prior, with his three-week engagements repeatedly selling out and extending. But it wasn’t until the Golden Nugget invited him to fill in a two-week David Brenner vacancy that he became a permanent fixture.
Combining shock illusions, off-color quips, choice puns and an adversarial attitude—a style Jillette praises as “controlled sloppiness”—the anti-establishment madman Amazing Johnathan portrayed wasn’t far removed from the offstage Szeles. “He’s really brave, and really out there,” Jillette says. “He does stuff that’s more gutsy than everybody else in magic. He’s a very fearless performer.”
The subsequent crowds prompted Nugget management to create a new 10 p.m. time slot, which sold out 500 seats nearly every night for the next two years. “We brought business Downtown for the first time since the Rat Pack was at the Nugget,” grins Szeles, who lived like a king in a two-story spa suite complete with unlimited signing privileges.
Drawn to the higher profile of the Strip, he moved the show to the Flamingo in 2004. But a year in, the Nugget offered $3 million for his return. A week before he was slated to open, MGM Mirage sold the Nugget, and its new owners didn’t honor his contract. Szeles and Wiggins relocated to the Riviera for a year (“They wanted to increase my rent when we exceeded their expectations in numbers”), went back to the Sahara for two years (“until creative bookkeeping and hidden cameras were found”), and then spent six years at the unaffiliated Harmon Theatre (“The lighting and sound sucked toward the end, and management stole our $35K deposit”). While at the Harmon, Szeles met performance artist Anastasia Synn. Comedian Gallagher married the couple at Fourth Street’s A Special Memory Chapel this past June.
Synn joined Johnathan and Tanya at Bally’s in 2012, in a less-than-ideal banquet space shared with Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. The stage was in the center of the room, with no wings from which Tanya could emerge. The dressing area was a kitchen. Laying a board across an industrial sink created a vanity.
“The room could never be found by half the people that bought the tickets,” Synn says. “It was way at the back of the casino up the set of escalators. No signage whatsoever. We fought them constantly for signage.”
The advertising dearth came to a head during renovations, when construction workers covered the single poster advertising the show. Synn marvels, “All you could see was his headband!”
Szeles walked out four months into a one-year contract, announcing on Facebook that he’d no longer perform in Vegas.
Sometimes I miss the Old Vegas when they would, at least, look you in the eyes when they lied to you. I recall the days where the casinos would try to help you out instead of making everything so f*cking hard. I’m used to a standard, although very low, that isn’t here anymore. So, after asking nicely a dozen times, I just stopped showing up. I think they should have noticed by now.
It just felt right. It still does.
The Screamont Experience opened that same autumn at Plaza property the Las Vegas Club, Szeles’ first haunted house since discontinuing his legendarily debauched Halloween parties. Each October, he had dropped roughly 20 grand to create a private, intricate, “no restrictions” event in his warehouses, hosting a few hundred invited guests before word of mouth attracted closer to 1,000. After midnight, attendees might catch a group of clowns having sex, performers on bungee cords having sex or a church choir singing, disrobing and commencing an onstage orgy. It was all highly illegal, particularly since alcohol was sold. Though the cops left him alone, Szeles knew he’d pushed his luck.
“The last act we had was a girl hanging upside down from hooks from her vagina and spinning around to Nine Inch Nails. She was painted gold and blood was going everywhere. I said, ‘This is probably going to be the last year I do this. I can’t go any farther than this.’”
Investing his own money in the two-floor Screamont Experience, Szeles designed it as a permanent attraction. The space lost money its first year, and by the second Halloween, Las Vegas Club renovations sent him packing. “The guys at the Plaza were great, and they tried to get me back Downtown, but I wasn’t interested,” he shrugs. “They got Louie [Anderson] instead.”
Szeles announced a year-long farewell tour of clubs and theaters. He made it to May before the seizing up of his arms and legs prevented him from continuing.
In a Henderson gated community filled with stunning mansions, the one Szeles financed as the Amazing Johnathan might be the stunningest. The exterior’s carved lions and spiraling evergreen bushes blend in with the surroundings; the purple Dodge Challenger, black Hudson Hornet and blue-velvet-lined Pontiac Silver Streak in the driveway less so. He’s selling all two dozen of his beloved cars, including the tricked-out stretch limo (a gift from Anthony Cools) in which he’d ferry to and from his second home in Marina Del Rey. He parted with the beach property last month.
What definitively sets The House That Dick Jokes Built apart from its neighbors is the interior. A mounted tarantula hangs on the wall of a bar. When guests crane to study the glass casing, a second toy spider attacks from the ceiling. In the next frame over, a watercolor cow dispenses real milk from its udder. The front guest bathroom features trick photographs of a young girl and boy who transform into a vampire and demented clown. A back bathroom locks, plunges the user into darkness and illuminates a portrait of a rotting, leering skull. In the halls, a chained, bloody doll thrashes when approached, and a hidden cat door propels a mechanical furball into the feet of passersby. (A trio of real house cats—the black Dodger, orange Fuzzy and a small gray foster the rescue shelter named Peek-a-Boo—lounge safely in the living room.) Secret passageways abound.
Szeles takes pride in the customizations, most controlled by universal remote, but acknowledges basic upkeep has fallen off. In the yard, moldering leaves, browning rose bushes and a gunky pool mock his deterioration. A mound of plastic piping gathers dust off to the side. He’d intended to build a water slide from the balcony, a project he now knows he’ll never complete.
These days he gets winded ascending a flight of stairs. His eyesight has started to go, forcing him to print in wide fonts and constantly enlarge his phone screen. He’s rarely able to fall asleep before daybreak, and once he does, it’s for no more than four to six hours. Gone, too, are his notorious practical jokes, the kind that could make even Jillette shudder. “People who scare me, that list is very, very short,” Jillette says. “In fact, it may contain no one but Johnathan.”
Szeles bides his time in a bed littered with art supplies, painting portraits and watching movies. When he could still climb and raise his arms, he decorated the ceiling above his bathtub with a vibrant angel vs. demon yin-yang. A few feet away, 19 different pill bottles sit organized in rows on the bathroom counter.
“It’s hard to get out of bed now,” he says. “I guess most people, the last year of their life they would be traveling around the world, but I’ve already done all that.” He pauses. “It’s really hard for me to focus on any one thing. I start a project that I leave unfinished, I start another project … I just don’t have motivation anymore, because why bother?
“Not doing my show, at first it didn’t bug me. It’s starting to bug me now. I think when you stop working, you die. Everybody says that. It happened to my dad, and you’ve got that on your brain now, too … I’m just confused about what to do.”
He’s considering making a documentary or writing a book, or finally trying heroin. Contributing material or illusions for someone else’s act could keep his mind busy, but campaigning for such a job seems overwhelming. “You’ve gotta put the word out. You gotta hustle. I have no hustle left in me. I think I’ve done everything on my bucket list. When that bucket list is empty, it’s time to go, you know?”
He’d probably be gone already, if not for his family. He’s been in a relationship with Synn for three years, and loves her 14-year-old daughter as his own. “She’s a good kid, she’s really smart and she’s got a wicked sense of humor,” he boasts.
Quiet domesticity with his wife, teenager and cats might not be the grand finale he once anticipated, but as the curtain closes, Szeles has few complaints. He made people laugh, and he had fun doing it. Most important, he embraced life on his own defiant terms. He sees no reason to approach death any differently.