Deaf Life12th January 2014

Johnny Fantastica - A Life of Entertaining

Gloucester based John Gapp has enjoyed a lifetime of entertaining audiences all over the world. We think he's just magic!

by Sarah Lawrence

Sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop at the Almondsbury Services on the M5, I was waiting to meet a deaf magician, Mr Fantastica. Having made the arrangements to meet up, I now found myself looking at his picture and hoping I would recognise him in amongst the steady stream of elderly men entering the services, all of whom seemed to have the moustache I was looking for to aid my identification.

‚ÄčI need not have worried, after about 6 or 7 minutes of looking quizzically at each and wondering if we the right person, we finally connected and sat down to have a chat! I had arranged to meet Mr Fantastica, or Johnny Gapp to use his real name, to talk about his life as a magician and his involvement in the World Deaf Magicians organisation, of which he is chair. However, you know how an image can deceive, well in Johnny's case, I was stunned to learn about his life's achievements - what a man! Magician, actor, author, champion kite flyer, international footballer and top class table tennis player, Johnny turned out to be quite a man.

Born in Gloucestershire in 1934, this spritely 79 years old, had a twinkle in his eye, an agile mind and a keen sense of humour, Meeting him was a pleasure. A cheeky little chappy growing up, Johnny told me that he had been off school with a severe headache when he collapsed at the top of the stairs. 7 years of age he was found to be suffering from meningitis and he remained in a coma for 2 months with doctors fighting to save his life. When he woke from his coma, Johnny knew people were talking to him, but he could not hear them, he had lost his hearing.

Returning to his original school, Johnny struggled immediately to understand what his teachers were saying and his education began to struggle, even if his doodle art was improving! At home his mum was doing everything she could to try and communicate, but it was very difficult and frustrating. With limited choice for expert education, Johnny was transferred to the Royal School for the Deaf in Exeter as a boarding student. On the day he was taken there, Johnny had one of the most emotionally confusing days of his life.

He started the day excited, not because he was going to a new school, but because he was going on a train for the first time. Standing on the station as the thundering steam train pulled in, Johnny thought that he had recovered his hearing only to realise that he was feeling the vibrations through the floor of the platform not the sound of the engine itself. When they arrived at the school, Johnny began to feel frightened and isolated as his mum, aunty, headmaster and matron talked about him, but he did not know what was being said.

Without warning Johnny was taken into the hallway where he was met with two older students and a teacher. Led away he expected his mum to be following only to see her walking towards the main entrance, turning briefly to look at him with tears streaming down her face. Suddenly she was gone and Johnny was alone. With no explanation or understanding, he fell to the conclusion that his parents did not want him because he had become deaf. Feeling hurt and abandoned hours and days of tears and heartache followed before things started to settle down.

Feeling frightened and alone, Johnny explained his introduction to sign language, "I was in a strange building miles away from my home and family and all the children were waving and slapping their hands about, using strange gestures. It made me feel as if I was in a mad house. I soon learned that all the arm and hand waving was their way of communicating, so I began to learn and this was my introduction to sign language which I still use today."

Two years later Johnny became interested in magic through a comic strip paper, which showed how to do two tricks. Johnny was fortunate to meet up with a visiting magician, and he helped him learn new tricks and loaned him magic books to read.

At the age of 14 Johnny began performing children's and adults magic shows, constantly learning new tricks and presentation skills. Johnny had a good teacher at the Exeter School who helped him develop his speech using "a balloon, feather and candle," Johnny explained. Having been taught speech, sign language and lip reading, life felt a lot better and Johnny was able to throw himself into his studies, school sports and drama. He continued his education at the Ruskin Cheltenham College of Arts and Technology where he graduated in 1954 with a degree in graphic design.

Studying with the intention of being an Art Teacher for the Deaf, but seeing his family struggling to pay for him, Johnny changed plans and left college to take up a job in advertising as an advert designer. Johnny worked for companies in Devon and London, before moving to the Gloster Aircraft Company when he worked on the Javelin aircraft and the Hoover craft. He then went to the Hawker Siddeley Vending Division where he became Manager of the Art, Printing and Paint Shop.

True to his love of magic, Johnny kept on practicing and performing, earning small bits of money through magic shows that he used to buy bigger and better tricks. Johnny was also a keen model maker at a time when kiting took off in the UK, something which resulted in him designing the 'Gloster Stunter' kite which Johnny was able to manufacture and sell. Taking his kites to different fetes and festivals, Johnny went on to win several kite flying competitions from which he became 'Kite Flyer of the Year'.

Engaged to do kiting demonstration shows around the country, Johnny went to see a magic cabaret show at Pontins in Devon. It was during this show that he came up with the idea to develop his own cabaret show rather than just do children's shows. Johnny spoke to the manager who encouraged him to do so and then come back to him when the show was in place.

After recruiting the right people and months of practice, Johnny took to the stage with his new 'Fantastica' show at Pontins and from that point he became a professional magician. However, things weren't easy, not least because venues wanted to make bookings through agents. Johnny found great difficulty signing up to an agency because they were not interested in a deaf magician. They wanted to make telephone calls easily rather than send him a letter, so he faced rejection purely on the basis that he was deaf. Slowly but surely and forced to use his stage assistant to make phone calls, Johnny's act got more and more bookings.

When his assistant left to get married, Johnny went on to have a solo career, changing his act from doing illusions to stand up magic and comedy. 'Johnny Fantastica' was born. Always keen to find new ways to entertain people, Johnny developed the 'Doctor Deaf' Comedy show which went on to be very popular and remains so.

Despite doing magic since the age of 9, Johnny was unaware that there were any other deaf magicians in the world. It was with some surprise that he learned the 7th World Deaf Magician's Festival was to be held in London in 1998. A festival of magic combined with competitions, Johnny attended and entered, winning the illusion category and making many friends around the world.

Johnny has been an active contributor to deaf life in Gloucestershire and wider afield and has been a member of Gloucester Deaf Club for many years. In the 1970's he help to set up the Western Deaf Sports Council and became its first lifetime President. Through his sporting prowess he played for the Great Britain Deaf Football side in several international matches and was a regular competitor in Deaf indoor games.

He also founded the 'Exeter Deaf Old Pupils Association' in 1962, an organisation that is still running and attracts 300 members to an annual reunion. He is now a lifetime president.

Johnny is still doing his magic all over the country and at many other venues and has added other entertainment to his shows, including tarot readings, mind reading, and palmistry.

At 79 you might think Johnny Fantastica would be slowing down and looking forward to relaxed retirement. Johnny's having none of it, "I hope to continue my love for magic for many more years to come", he told me with a glint in his eye. He is quite a man!

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Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Community / Deaf Life

12th January 2014