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From Lancashire to Las Vegas: the Preston magician who captivated a continent

A teenage Johnny Hart at the start of his career as a magician.
A teenage Johnny Hart at the start of his career as a magician.
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America does big very well. Making it big in the land of Big Macs and the Big Apple means thriving under the world's brightest spotlight. But when a Preston magician was invited stateside to step into that spotlight on one of the planet's biggest TV shows in 1962, one thing stood out... just how big the shops were.

"We had a great time working in the USA: we were impressed by the vastness of the supermarkets," says Johnny Hart (now 75), the first British magician ever to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. His act advertised him to millions, and earned him contracts on the stages of Las Vegas and Reno, the entertainment capitals of the world. "Fifty check-outs!"

Johnny Hart performing.

Johnny Hart performing.

Born in Lytham St Annes two years before the end of the second world war, Johnny grew up in Preston, attending St Joseph's Boys RC School and Harris Secondary Technical and Commercial School. It was amongst his classmates that he first found an eager audience for his budding talents, delighting in the gasps as he wheeled out his growing repertoire of card tricks and illusions.

Foregoing a potential career as a research chemist, Johnny instead turned to conjuring up magical concoctions of a different kind, joining the Preston Magic Society, Blackpool Magicians' Club, and The Modern Mystic League in Blackburn, and was soon performing at the Public Hall in Preston at the age of just 17. Honing his craft and building a reputation as one of the country's finest illusionists, Johnny went on to win The Magic Circle's inaugural ‘Young Magician of The Year’ competition in 1961, and with that, a star was born.

Soon enough, Johnny - famed for his ability to materialise birds from thin air - was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Dick Emery, Sir Bruce Forsyth, Mike Yarwood, Ken Dodd, Sir Tom Jones, and Max Bygraves, appearing on 'Sunday Night at The London Palladium' and making big enough waves in the UK to attract attention across the pond. That's when the Ed Sullivan Show called, and Johnny had to find a way to get his budgies and doves across the Atlantic.

"I only had four minutes of airtime [on The Ed Sullivan show], but it was watched by millions of viewers in America," says Johnny (now 75), who received $2,000 and return flights for him and his wife, Lorna, as payment. "Ed liked my act so much that he invited me back five more times and the fee was increased each time [and] luckily, agents and bookers would watch the show and we received offers of more work."

Johnny on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Johnny on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Armed with his first US gig at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas in 1964 and with Lorna and their young daughter Sally as his on-stage assistants, the magician from Preston was well on his way to captivating a continent. A mainstay in some of the planet's capitals of entertainment throughout the '60s and into the '70s, Johnny's personal highlight from a truly eclectic career was his 'Hello Hollywood, Hello' show, which he performed at the MGM Grand Hotel in Reno from 1978 to 1980.

"The show, billed as ‘The Biggest Show in the World’, was performed by 150 cast members on a stage that was an acre in size," he explained. "During my act, I made an Excalibur car disappear (with the genuine registration of 'J-HART') in mid air, and seconds later the same car would reappear on the stage."

The most expensive magic trick he every pulled off, Johnny said the illusion cost around $90,000.

"Over the years, we worked with many of the stars of television and theatre, [and] of all the ‘top of the bill’ entertainers we worked with, Danny La Rue was the best," Johnny said of the late singer, who booked him for a three-year show contract in the 1970s, which involved a three-year run at The Prince of Wales Theatre in 1973.

Johnny Hart on stage in Reno, Nevada with the famous Excalibur car.

Johnny Hart on stage in Reno, Nevada with the famous Excalibur car.

"During the show’s run, theatre had to be evacuated because of a bomb scare during an IRA bombing campaign," he explained. "Danny was still wearing his wig cap and in a state of being half undressed when the police ordered the evacuation. Danny announced: 'I am not going out dressed like this', so [we] decided to hide in the dressing room until the alert was over and the audience were allowed back into the theatre."

One of the "kindest and most generous of men", according to Johnny, Danny held wonderful parties at his home in Henley on the River Thames and at Talk of the Town (now the Hippodrome) in London; it was at once such party that Johnny met Lauren Bacall of How To Marry a Millionaire fame. "Danny was approachable," Johnny said simply. "He never allowed any of the support artistes on his shows to feel excluded."

From Lancashire to Las Vegas; from Preston's Robinson Street to Reno, Johnny is now retired and back living in the North West, armed with an astonishing life story immortalised in a new biography - 'Johnny Hart: International Star of Magic'. And having cultivated a magical 30-year career at the very top of the infamously cutthroat entertainment industry, it's a story well worth telling.

Johnny with his favoured budgies.

Johnny with his favoured budgies.