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February 24, 2022

New host of 'Nevada Week' is ready for prime time | Remembering The Amazing Johnathan | My, what a cinematic chin you have!

ON FEBRUARY 4, Kipp Ortenburger kicked off Vegas PBS’s weekly public affairs show, Nevada Week, by ceding the host chair he’d occupied for more than two years to Amber Renee Dixon, a former Channel 3 sports anchor and news reporter. “You definitely have my blessing,” Ortenburger said. “You clearly have the station’s blessing. And (with) the work you’re going to do on this show, I’m sure you’re going to have the viewership’s blessing too.”

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She’s got mine already. In her Nevada Week premiere, Dixon set herself a high bar — and then cleared it in the two subsequent episodes, combining in-studio interviews and panel discussions with in-the-field reporting to cover a few topics comprehensively in 26 minutes. There’s room for improvement, sure, but my questions aren’t about whether she’ll relax into the position (she will), but whether she’ll stay. It’s a tough job, and the show’s recent track record for hosts is shaky.

Before explaining, I should note that I worked for seven years with current Nevada Week executive producer Natalie Cullen when she was online editor at Nevada Public Radio, home of Desert Companion. I still work in the public broadcasting space along with Cullen and Dixon, so I empathize with the challenges they face doing independent journalism in a nonprofit organization. And I’ve actually been on Nevada Week, twice, and was featured in its special series “In Person” a couple months ago.

But my greatest bias — being an unabashed PBS fan girl — preceded all that. Channel 10 has been this TV news junkie’s reliable dealer in an age of increasingly opinion-tainted cable and lightweight local broadcasts. And while my fix comes primarily from NewsHour and Washington Week, I’ve been watching Vegas PBS’s regional public affairs show since the early 2000s, during Mitch Fox’s 28-year tenure as host. The show, then called Nevada Week in Review, launched in 1981 as a roundtable discussion of current events. When I watched, it featured local reporters rehashing their trending stories. What made it interesting was the crosstalk among smart guests about interesting issues. Fox was the detached, well-informed force that kept it all moving smoothly.

Until he didn’t. In 2014 Fox retired, leaving a void. For two years, a series of guest hosts tried their hand at filling his shoes — big names in local journalism such as Steve Sebelius and Glenn Cook — but none lasted long. In March 2015, political commentator Jon Ralston got his own Vegas PBS show, Ralston Live, which aired five nights a week. (He’d previously had a similar program on Channel 3.) But it was cancelled a little more than a year later. Nevada Week in Review, meantime, was put on hiatus in June 2015. The Las Vegas Review Journal’s Jane Ann Morrison reported that Tom Axtell, then-general manager of Vegas PBS, attributed the pause to financial considerations, citing a $100,000-plus budget to pay the host and crew of Nevada Week in Review alone.

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The hiatus lasted three years. In June 2018, Vegas PBS launched Nevada Week, a new format that would “blend in-studio expert panel discussions with in-field story segments,” according to the press announcement. Former News 18 and Channel 8 morning anchor Casey Smith hosted — for a little more than six months. In January 2019, Smith posted on Facebook, “It is with very mixed emotions that I announce I am leaving my position as host of Nevada Week … I wholeheartedly believe in the show and its mission, but I do not have the time to commit to the producing of the program and continuing my full-time position as a mortgage loan officer at FBC Mortgage.” Ortenburger, head of Vegas PBS’s grants and government relations department, took over hosting the weekly show while the organization regrouped. Then, COVID happened, putting everything everywhere on hold. In the fall of 2021, Vegas PBS began anew its search for a permanent host.

Which brings us to Dixon, whose arrival in itself feels like a victory, after the uncertainty. While Ortenburger did solid work, taking his hosting and producing responsibilities seriously, the simple fact is: He already had a full-time job elsewhere in the organization. And he isn’t a journalist; Dixon is.

“Kipp has been so instrumental in this transition,” she says, “but he gets excited when he sees me read a teaser in the 15 allotted seconds off the prompter. He had trouble doing that at times. It’s something I’ve been doing for 10 years. … And also, you have to have the basic journalism skill set.”

Dixon got that skill set at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where she worked on the public affairs program Arizona Horizon — produced by Arizona PBS at ASU. For her first jobs, she covered border issues in South Africa and reported from the field in south Texas. She came to Las Vegas in 2012 to be a general assignment reporter at KSNV, where she eventually moved into sports. She was laid off in March 2021.

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Dixon has only hosted three episodes so far, but the impact of her arrival is already clear. For one thing, she’s a fresh change from past hosts — young, female, English-Spanish bilingual, enjoys MMA and even boxes, herself, in her spare time. Combine this freshness with her journalistic chops, and you get a host who can seamlessly switch gears from touring a memorial park in West Las Vegas with legendary Black activist Ruby Duncan (right) to chatting with R-J entertainment columnist John Katsilometes about Adele’s Las Vegas residency meltdown.

“I’m curious about anything and everything, almost,” Dixon says. Asked if audiences could expect more sports on the program with her at the helm, she replied, “Yes, but in a different way. For example, this week, we’re working on a show about the Superbowl, but it’s focusing on the economic impact — the costs and responsibilities on the host city.”

While Dixon seems to have what it takes to follow in the hallowed tradition of Gwen Ifill, the hope is she will also bring a more social media-friendly news style. Vegas PBS spokeswoman Allison Monette says the hiring committee was looking for someone who could help adapt the show into other formats that are more digestible to a digital audience.

It’s a lot to expect, particularly from a small team. Whereas NewsHour has a staff of 100-plus people, Nevada Week has fewer than 10. Sure, one of these is an international news organization with multiple daily productions on a variety of platforms while the other is a 26-minute weekly regional program. But the bulk of Nevada Week’s production falls on just two people: Cullen and Dixon, the only staff dedicated full-time to the show. They’re responsible for coming up with topics, booking guests, doing research, writing scripts, field reporting, hosting, and more. (A crew handles shooting, editing, sound, and other technical work.) This isn’t uncommon at small news outfits, but it isn’t easy, either. Burnout is a real possibility.

Dixon says she’s eager to do a job worthy of the PBS brand’s cachet. She’s clearly up to it, as Ortenburger noted. Let’s hope she also gets the support she needs to make it work. More than the habits of news junkies like me depend on it; the hope for a well-informed public does, too.

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THE AMAZING JOHNATHAN would probably be the first to laugh if anyone greeted news of his death like I did: “Are you sure?”

After all, the comedy magician sold his book of practical jokes at the merchandise table after shows. He once told me why he couldn’t fake his own death, with a level of detail revealing he had put some real thought into it. He would get hit with tax evasion charges and emotional distress lawsuits, he explained with the matter-of-fact candor that he always used to explain strange things, making you wonder if he was pulling your leg.

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The last seven years cast a pall, but also a weirdly in-character twist, on the Amazing Johnathan story, which ended Tuesday with the death of the 63-year-old John Edward Szeles. Before 2014, his passing might have been received as, how would you say it? … a lifestyle choice. Blame Johnathan’s long association with recreational drugs for the general lack of surprise when a false report of his death hit magicians at a house party a couple of years prior to that.

It’s hard to remember now, but The Amazing Johnathan used to be the only edgy sideshow carnival act you’d see on Fremont Street. Pretending to snort cocaine — or was that Ajax? — was a staple of the act, along with sight gags such as scissors to the head and machetes to the arm. Though he knew the Vegas ropes from clubs such as Catch a Rising Star in the ’80s and ’90s, it was his late-evening showcase at the Golden Nugget in 2001 that caught fire and made him a permanent resident.

“I’m the only unsafe show in town,” was his explanation for the momentum fueled by two Comedy Central specials. He miraculously pulled customers from the Strip to Fremont Street, where a redevelopment project had brought an overhead canopy and light show and … not much else.

Johnathan bounced around a lot of venues in the following years, including the Flamingo, Riviera, Sahara, Bally’s, and the failed jazz club at the Aladdin known as the Harmon Theater. And he managed to hold his own amid diminishing returns as Cirque du Soleil and other big-budget competition multiplied around him.

But things got weird and confusing in early 2014. That’s when Johnathan shared news of his diabetes and a chronic heart condition known as cardiomyopathy, which cut his heart function down to 12 percent — “and at 10 percent you’re dead,” he added. He started performing in a defibrillator vest that would kick in if he had a heart attack. He held a giant garage sale to thin out his warehouse of props and oddities (autographing a drive-in movie speaker for me). He said things that sounded a lot like goodbye to an audience of entertainment-industry folk at the Inspire theater downtown that November. Three months later, two toes had to be amputated.

Those who saw him wheelchair-bound, and worse for the wear, knew it was no joke.

And then, he got better. Sort of. Enough to go back onstage one weekend a month, anyway. He told Desert Companion contributor Julie Seabaugh that a black-market stem-cell therapy had rejuvenated him. “Everything has stopped,” he said. “I actually grew part of a toe back. It’s pretty amazing stuff.

“For $3,000 — cash only — my doctor, in an appointment that’s after hours of his business, he’ll inject them in me where they should go,” he said. “I was to the point where I couldn’t walk anymore, and now I can pretty much walk anywhere.”

It was all so strange that filmmaker Ben Berman broke down the fourth wall, making his own skepticism a climactic on-camera confrontation with Johnathan in 2019’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary.

Now that we’ve really lost him, the usual concern would be all this final-years weirdness clouding his real achievements. But it doesn’t, because it fits so perfectly with his act.

Make no mistake: The Amazing Johnathan was an alter-ego, a stage persona. A demented wild-eyed bully who drew (fake) blood, tortured an audience recruit for the better part of 40 minutes, and made you cheer when his ditzy stage assistant (another wholly crafted persona by Penny Wiggins) finally turned the tables on him. The cruel humor went at least as far back as his high-school days working at a drive-in movie in his native Michigan — “The greatest job in the world!”— and scaring carloads of customers in a Halloween mask.

The running joke of his so-called magic act was that it wasn’t much of one. Most of the tricks were spoiled or revealed. It can be traced back to a high-school attempt at conventional magic, which, the story goes, went so badly that his parents were too embarrassed to go backstage and console him. The magic-gone-wrong approach that grew out of this psychic scarring made him a hero to real magicians, something only magicians can really explain.

But the real magic was the sneakiness of the comedy. The jokes per minute. The asides that seemed improvised, but were honed from years of comedy clubs and, before that, street magic for tips on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Every joke fit — and fit his character.

He wasn’t a madman offstage, but there was still a madness to his notorious Halloween parties (complete with sideshow and sex performers) and other offstage pursuits. David Copperfield bought a private island in the Bahamas and made it a resort for A-list celebrities. The Amazing Johnathan built an indoor drive-in, repurposing his classic-car collection inside his warehouse near the airport. He planned to rent it out for corporate parties. Or maybe that’s what he said to justify the effort. One look at the restroom on the evening we watched Night of the Lepus told me the venture was a long way away from ADA compliance or county permits.

Then there was the Screamont Experience, his 2012 haunted attraction that took over part of the Las Vegas Club in its dying days. Nobody better to design a haunted house, but maybe somebody better at marketing plans.

In his early years in Las Vegas, Johnathan was even reinvesting profits into his show, testing new things like a slow-motion, blacklight “bad karate theater,” as he called it. Maybe that’s why we wanted to believe his health issues were a long con for the ages. We saw what he’d done. What that scattered creative energy could produce if he’d had more physical stamina, more time. Looking at casino entertainment now, we could sure use an unsafe show like his again.


HEAR MORE about The Amazing Johnathan on KNPR's State of Nevada.

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ON FRIDAY NIGHT, fate had positioned me on a stool near the door at the Sand Dollar Lounge where, whoa, I was starting to feel the tingling emanations of a beatific experience. It was 11:20 p.m. On stage, The Soul Juice Band was wailing pure, brassy fire. The bar was busy being a bar: crowded, loud, laughy, shouty. There were bikers and accountants, gym bros and hippies, pool games and third dates, dogs and pizza. A pulsating social amoeba restless to get its new normal on.

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But my attention was fixated on the door, which to my slightly-more-than-somewhat-but-by-no-means-excessively buzzed mind seemed to have configured itself into a cosmic portal through which earthly angels were shambling: The people coming in … their faces — all their blessed, rich, interesting, cinematic faces — struck me as a source of magnetic amazement.

“Is it me,” I shouted rhetorically to my girlfriend over the din, “or does everyone here tonight look like a really great character actor?”

The features on those faces! Each marked by slight but pleasing exaggeration — a particularly heroic chin; or suspicious, deep-set eyes; or a quizzically knitted brow freighted with some secret; or a pensive overbite relaxing into a restrained smile. They were the kind of legible faces that encourage the invention of improbable names and backstories, the crimping of complete strangers into a pageant of Pynchon-novel eccentrics bearing private intrigues and intricate motives. This provocative buffet of nonstop face even sparked a bit of paranoia in me, as though some grander agenda were afoot: Are we, like, on a film set or something? Everyone’s got so much flavor tonight!

Some friends showed up. I invited them to marvel along with me just to make sure I wasn’t tripping: “Is it me, or is everyone’s face tonight just so expressive?”

“It’s you,” a friend said. “You’re just not used to seeing people without masks.”

Stunningly obvious, but there it was. I was tripping. During the long shadow of the pandemic — generally homebound by default, dutifully masked, ever efficiently in-and-out of stores and shops — I’d completely forgotten the richness of faces, the practice and pleasures of people-watching. I’d forgotten how much information faces contain. I’d forgotten how much arcane story there is on a naked human head. With a strange pang, I realized I was merely experiencing the most thoroughly normal night out I’d had since March 2020 — normal, in this case, meaning being able to let my roving gaze go free-range in the social meadow of public life without the ambient anxieties of which masks are a constant reminder. Welcome back, fellow faces.

Right next to us, this poor guy who’d just grabbed his hot pizza from the pickup window dropped it, cheese side down, on the floor, and in a moment of unfortunate but, yes, hilarious synchronicity, it also happened to fall right beneath the descending foot of one of the ladies from our group, insult piling on injury as she accidentally grind-squished the pizza further into the floor beyond all notion of rescue, compressed cheese oozing up like toothpaste, someone’s leash-straining dog suddenly materializing to scrabble at the extruded mess. Peals of comical, unbelieving grief, that poor guy, and an old phrase that struck me anew with tonic force: Jeez, the look on his face!

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Photos and art: Dixon courtesy Vegas PBS, Dixon and Ruby Duncan from Instagram; The Amazing Johnathan by Sabin Orr; The Soul Juice Band by Andrew Kiraly

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