While in Vegas showing the sights to my friend who’d never been there, our evenings out were planned around shows from my friends at the Cirque or people I’d interviewed over the years. One new pitch from the hard-working folks at Preferred PR tantalized me into trying something new. I stepped inside the once ground-breaking Sahara Hotel—that grand old place that was at the center of the Vegas Strip back when my roommate toured with one Ms. Minnelli—in the now “low rent” side of the ever-changing LV landscape. I believe it will be Armageddon the day I look out my hotel window to not find construction cranes looming over the lights and glitz of the city sprawl.

Jason and I hopped the monorail directly from an early show of the Cirque’s at the MGM Grand right to the Sahara, both stops on the route. The contrast between the MGM and the Sahara (the last “Rat Pack” hotel left standing on the Strip) was obvious from first sight, but somehow it still fascinated me, as though going back thirtysomething years in one five-minute train ride. Even the Sahara’s shopworn Caravan Café brought back memories of the days when food in Vegas was both excellent and cheap, as this time around I was served the best $12.95 New York steak I’ve had since…well…maybe since back then.

I’d come to the Sahara to see The Amazing Johnathan, who began his über-successful tenure at the Congo Room in 2005. The raucously in-your-face world-traveling cult favorite magician and stand-up comedian—since first playing Vegas in 2001—has sold more than a half-million tickets there, making him one of the most successful headliners in history of the Strip.

Waiting in line for his sold-out nightly 10pm performance (in a town that at Christmas is almost totally deserted—the reason I come there annually at this time), even the Congo Room brought back memories, such as seeing Phyllis Diller play there the night I was married at a little chapel in the parking lot of the nearby Frontier Hotel on my 21st birthday in 1967, and the huge photos on the walls of its former legendary tenants, such as Judy and Dean, Jack Benny, and Johnny Carson made me even more nostalgic.

But there’s little room for nostalgia when faced with the amazing Amazing Johnathan. From a preshow video glance through the audience—when my face, coupled with the title “I’m a homo,” was televised on huge screens throughout the theatre, followed by Jason’s subtitle epithet: “And I’m his bitch”—I knew this wouldn’t be anything akin to seeing Sinatra or Benny play this room sometime in the last century.

Still, what Johnathan brings to the Congo Room is a good thing, as his show, featuring some of the intentionally worst magic tricks practiced anywhere ever on any stage, is friggin’ hilarious. Johnathan, proving himself to surely be the secret lovechild of Meatloaf and Don Rickles, is joined onstage by his goofy assistant of five years, Psychic Tanya, who is simply the embodiment of every blonde joke you’ve ever heard. Played with enormous comedic skill by longtime LA resident Penny Wiggins, these two world-class comics are a match made in heaven, as though Lucille Ball decided to work Alice Cooper onstage at Ricky’s club.

As he shreds his discarded non-working props by the landfill and tears through his riotously unruly show at breakneck speed (whatever this guy is on, I want some), it isn’t hard to imagine why he’s so popular and keeps winning awards. Still, be forewarned: when The Amazing Johnathan tells you to “pick a card, any card,” don’t expect to be amazed, your jaw dropping down to there in wonder of his skills of prestidigitation. Just expect to laugh your head off—that is, when you’re done rolling your eyes and right before you realize he gotcha.

The Sahara Hotel & Casino is located at 2535 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas; for tickets, call (702) 737-2515.


TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER teaches acting and theatre/film history at the New York Film Academy’s west coast campus at Universal Studios. He has been writing about LA theatre since 1987, including 12 years for BackStage, a 23-year tenure as Theatre Editor for Entertainment Today, and currently for As an actor, he received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Best Actor Award as Kenneth Halliwell in the west coast premiere of Nasty Little Secrets at Theatre/Theater and he has also been honored with a Drama-Logue Award as Lennie in Of Mice and Men at the Egyptian Arena, four Maddy Awards, a Award, both NAACP and GLAAD Award nominations, and six acting nominations from LA Weekly. Regionally, he won the Inland Theatre League Award as Ken Talley in Fifth of July; three awards for his direction and performance as Dr. Dysart in Equus; was up for Washington, DC’s Helen Hayes honors as Oscar Wilde in the world premiere of Oscar & Speranza; toured as Amos “Mr. Cellophane” Hart in Chicago; and he has traveled three times to New Orleans for the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, opening the fest in 2003 as Williams himself in Lament for the Moths and since returning to appear in An Ode to Tennessee and opposite Karen Kondazian as A Witch and a Bitch. Never one to suffer from typecasting, Travis’ most recent LA performance, as Rodney in The Katrina Comedy Fest, netted the cast a Best Ensemble Sage Award from ArtsInLA. He has also been seen as Wynchell in the world premiere of Moby Pomerance’s The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder and Frank in Charles Mee’s Summertime at The Boston Court Performing Arts Center, Giuseppe “The Florist” Givola in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for Classical Theatre Lab, Ftatateeta in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at the Lillian, Cheswick in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Rubicon in Ventura, Pete Dye in the world premiere of Stranger at the Bootleg (LA Weekly Award nomination), Shelly Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Egyptian Arena, the Witch of Capri in Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore at the Fountain, and Dr. Van Helsing in The House of Besarab at the Hollywood American Legion Theatre. As a writer, he has also been a frequent contributor to several national magazines and five of his plays have been produced in LA. His first, Surprise Surprise, for which he wrote the screenplay with director Jerry Turner, became a feature film with Travis playing opposite John Brotherton, Luke Eberl, Deborah Shelton and Mary Jo Catlett. His first novel, Waiting for Walk, was completed in 2005, put in a desk drawer, and the ever-slothful, ever-deluded, ever-entitled Travis can’t figure out why no one has magically found it yet and published the goddam thing.