Johnny Hart: Magician who made it from the variety circuit to Vegas

From humble beginnings, he went on to tour the world

Kenneth Shenton
Monday 28 January 2019 12:39 GMT
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The magician in 1965
The magician in 1965

Famous for producing a veritable aviary out of his coat pockets, Johnny Hart who has died aged 75, was one of that select but notable band of British magicians who attained international recognition in the latter years of the last century.

Suave and debonair, and invariably immaculately attired in white tie and tails with never a hair out of place, he was among the very best at creating on-stage illusions that thrilled audiences worldwide. As such, his illustrious career took him from London to Las Vegas via New York, Paris, Copenhagen, Madrid, Shanghai and every major city in the world.

Born on the Fylde Coast at Lytham St Annes, John Bernard Hart spent his formative years in Preston with his mother, Rosaline, stepfather, Robert and younger brother, Peter. There he was educated at St Joseph’s Boys Roman Catholic School before going on to study at Harris Secondary Technical and Commercial School.

With his wife-to-be Lorna in 1962

While initially intent on a career as a research chemist, he was rarely seen without a pack of cards in his hands, and he found himself increasingly in demand, participating in all manner of amateur concert parties. In 1961, he was top of the bill at Preston’s Old Public Hall.

Wider fame subsequently beckoned when later that year, aged only 17, he performed some impeccable manipulative magic to claim the inaugural Young Magician of the Year Award organised by the Magic Circle.

The TV magician David Nixon presented him with a commemorative plaque and a copy of Dai Vernon’s Book of Magic. The two would go on to become good friends, appearing together four years later in the Dora Bryan Show at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool. Nixon never missed an opportunity to present Hart on his long-running Thames Television Show, Magic Box.

Luckily the old-school variety circuit was then still operating, guaranteeing acts such as this a possible career. Prior to making it big in the land of the Big Mac, Hart spent countless hours honing his craft, while training the many animals that became a huge part of his appeal.

Likewise, endless packs of cards would appear from seemingly empty hands. Very early in his career, when working at the Lido in Paris, he was once docked a considerable amount of his weekly wage for each card he missed dropping into his top hat, the management being scared that the dancers would injure themselves.

Man of peace: the magician in 1966

Originally working solo, in 1963, following an appearance on ITV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium, Hart received a letter from a fan, Lorna Sneezum, suggesting that his act might be improved if he had a female assistant. She was duly hired, going on to become the magician’s wife later that year.

Their daughter, Sally would, in time, take over the role of magician’s assistant. The couple added a further three boys to their family, together with a menagerie of numerous cats, budgerigars, a cockatoo and four dogs, all of whom would in some way be found a place in the act.

It was following yet another appearance at the London Palladium that Hart got a call that year to become the first British magician to appear in America on The Ed Sullivan Show. It gave Hart a massive new audience. Invited back a further five times, in 1964, having captivated a continent, he was booked for a season at Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas. For two years, from 1978 onwards, he performed at the MGM Grand Hotel in Reno. With a cast of 150 and billed as The Biggest Show in the World, here his piece de resistance was to make a massive Excalibur car, registration number J-HART, disappear in mid-air and re-appear back on stage seconds later. The illusion cost $90.000.

Hart in his heyday in 1973

With his career carefully guided by promoter Harry Stanley, when not appearing regularly in the theatre or on television, both here and abroad, Hart also became a staple summer season support act. In 1963 he appeared with Bruce Forsyth at the Princess Theatre, Torquay, returning four years later, but now sharing the bill with Max Bygraves. In Blackpool at The Queen’s Theatre the following year alongside Irish tenor Josef Locke, three years later he kept the comedian Ken Dodd company at the resort’s vast Opera House. Returning to the ABC Theatre at Great Yarmouth in 1972, but now with comedy impressionist Mike Yarwood, the duo were successfully reunited again the following year, but now at the ABC Theatre in Blackpool, for what would prove to be a record-breaking run.

In 1984, London’s Cambridge Theatre was ambitiously transformed by American millionaire Charles Mather into what was intended to become Britain’s first permanent magic show, The Magic Castle. Its opening, overseen by Robert Nesbitt and lavishly staged by Dougie Squires with new music by Les Reed and all backed by a 15-piece orchestra, saw Hart (as King of Magic) and Zee (as Master of Illusion) share top billing. An unfortunate double-booking kept Hart in Spain until the opening night, his brother Peter, then the company stage manager, taking his place for the press previews. Despite Hart opening the show with some fine tricks and a dazzling finale that saw Zee and Hart perform a double dissection, sawing two ladies in half, lukewarm reviews hastened the show’s premature end.

The sudden closure of what was meant to be a landmark production was perhaps a portent of more to come, as variety found itself increasingly in retreat. Highly skilful as it still was, Hart’s act had changed little over the years and, like many, he found himself being overtaken by a new generation of entertainers. He would eventually retire and move back to his native Lancashire. Interest in his career was recently reawakened with the publication of a biography, which vividly outlined the endless allure of a man whose magic could so effortlessly redefine what someone believes to be true. There are not many people capable of doing that. Johnny Hart was one.

Johnny Hart, magician and entertainer, born 29 August 1943, died 10 December 2018

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