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July 23, 2014

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Vintage Vegas:

Amazing Johnathan: Presto change-o, it’s a drive-in replica

Image

Sam Morris

The Amazing Jonathan and assistant Erica Vanlee sit in one of the magician’s cars at his indoor drive-in theater, which has been made to look like the Detroit drive-in where he worked in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

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Even among eccentrics, the Amazing Johnathan would be considered an eccentric.

The 50-year-old macabre comic magician lives in a house booby-trapped with scary gags and hidden passages.

On a lark he has re-created inside a warehouse a replica of the Gratiot Drive-In Theatre near Detroit where he worked for about 10 years from age 16.

He has fond memories of the 1,000-car facility, which was built in 1948 and torn down in 1984, the same year the Detroit Tigers won the World Series.

“When I first started working there I was watching the exits so no one would sneak in,” he says. “It was a posh job. I would smoke weed all night and watch movies. I must have seen ‘Tommy’ 5,000 times. I saw all the classics, ‘Last House on the Left’ and all those movies. When I caught people sneaking in I would charge them five bucks. Either they paid me or I would have them turn around and drive back to the main gate and they’d have to pay for all the people in the trunk.”

To pass the time he experimented with magic.

“I practiced the Blackstone card tricks sitting at the exit, thinking I was going to be the next David Copperfield,” Johnathan says. “It didn’t happen.”

His cousin managed the drive-in, so he was never in danger of being fired.

Eventually he became a projectionist and finally a magician, working the streets of San Francisco and for the past 10 years the showrooms of Las Vegas — currently at 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays at the Harmon Theater.

He is sometimes billed as “The Freddy Krueger of Comedy,” perhaps because of all the fake blood and mutilations that creep into his act.

Johnathan’s success — including a special on Comedy Central a couple of years ago — has allowed him to indulge his eccentricities.

About five years ago he developed an interest in classic cars.

“That was when I bought a red ’67 Porsche for my wife,” he says. “I gift-wrapped it and parked it in the driveway. That was the day she told me she was leaving me. She never saw the car. I’ve been driving it ever since.”

Since then his collection of old cars has grown to 22, among them a 1948 Pontiac Silver Streak, 1961 Chevy Impala convertible and a 1963 Ford Thunderbird convertible.

He knows nothing about cars, or almost nothing, so he has a mechanic who works for him full time.

Johnathan built the indoor-outdoor theater in a leased warehouse at East Sunset Road and South Eastern Avenue for his automobile collection. It was ready for use in November after 18 months of construction.

“I thought it would be a great way to display the cars,” he says.

The project took on a life of its own.

At first he had artists paint murals on the walls inside the warehouse. Using old photographs, they re-created the drive-in filled with cars.

He parked six of his own classic cars in the room. The rest are at his home in Green Valley.

It turned out so well he decided to add a projector and screen to make it functional, he says. “So I could have movie nights with my crew and friends.”

Then he added a few technical gadgets that allowed him to re-create the sun setting, the moon rising, a starlit night and even thunder and lightning.

The sounds of crickets are real.

“We caught a couple and put them in the building; now we’ve got like a hundred of them,” he says.

There are speakers, but no mounds, so the front of the cars sit on an incline for a better view of the screen. All of his cars have air shocks so the front ends can be raised and lowered at will.

Johnathan managed to locate several of the old commercials that were common — “Two minutes till show time” and holiday films.

His supply of movies, he says, is extensive — from old classics to first-run features. “I get them legally.”

And what’s a drive-in without a concession stand — steamed hot dogs, White Castle burgers, Milk Duds, Dots, Junior Mints, popcorn and almost every flavor of Crystal Light.

“I have everything but sloppy beef barbecue sandwiches,” Johnathan says.

One thing his concession has that most drive-ins don’t is a coffin standing beside the entry door.

Another is a collapsing wall — designed to scare those who enter.

The drive-in is mostly for friends and acquaintances.

“People love it,” he says. “They can drink in the cars, get rowdy, yell stuff at the screen.”

Those who have used the drive-in include Copperfield, Penn & Teller and rock groups such as Godsmack, Johnathan says.

“It’s not open to the public. It’s by invitation only,” Johnathan says.

For information about the drive-in, visit www.amazingunderground.com.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with it,” he says. “It’s just a work in progress.”

As is Johnathan’s life.

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