June 22, 2018

High-flying talent

Sam Johnson of Williston performs his daredevil swaypole act on ‘America’s Got Talent.’ The round of competition, taped in Law Vegas, airs July 16 and 17. (Observer coutesy photo)

Sam Johnson of Williston performs his daredevil swaypole act on ‘America’s Got Talent.’ The round of competition, taped in Law Vegas, airs July 16 and 17. (Observer coutesy photo)

Williston’s Johnson to appear on ‘America’s Got Talent’ in July

By Heleigh Bostwick

Observer correspondent

July 3, 2013

“Other kids were into basketball and baseball, but I was into juggling,” said Sam Johnson, whose fascination with the activity eventually led him to a career as an entertainer and street performer.

It’s a career that the Williston resident might just end on a very high note—literally and figuratively—as a contestant on America’s Got Talent, a reality talent competition on NBC where the winner walks away with $1 million. “I’ll be climbing an 80-foot pole and doing a handstand on top,” he said. “It’s called a sway pole.”

When he was 11, Johnson saw Randy Judkins, a master clown and juggler based in Maine, perform at a New Year’s Eve festival. “He needed a volunteer for his act and pointed at me, so I went up on stage,” he said. “As soon as I got home, I asked my dad to teach me how to juggle. I must have stayed up until 2 a.m. and the next morning I was back at it.”

When he was in high school, Johnson joined Circus Smirkus as a juggler, traveling with the troupe during the summer and joining full time for another two years after graduation.

During his travels, he met an old Swedish entertainer, Bernie Wirengard, whose specialty was the sway pole. “I crossed paths with him twice more and always remembered his act,” said Johnson. “When I left Circus Smirkus, I called Bernie. He’d already retired, but I made a deal with him to apprentice.”

For the next two years, Johnson learned how to use the equipment and stay safe. Then, he hit the fair circuit. After a couple of years he turned to street performing, traveling up and down the east coast, including Burlington, where he performed on Church Street.

In 2007, he went back to traveling the fair circuit, this time with a troupe of trapeze girls and jugglers. “We hit the fair circuit pretty hard,” he said. “Traveling across the country and hitting all of the country fairs.” The traveling took a toll on his personal life. Johnson and his wife divorced and he was awarded full custody of their son, Phineaus, now 6.

He started working full time at Spear Street Mowers in Charlotte and put his sway pole equipment in storage for good—or so he thought.

“Last November [2012] the phone rang and it was America’s Got Talent,” he said. “They told me they’d seen a video of me doing the sway pole on YouTube and wanted me to pre-audition for the show.”

Johnson said no, explaining that they could see everything they needed on the video.

“In late February they called again and said I had been accepted to perform in front of the judges,” he said. “I told them that I needed to think about it.”

He consulted friends, family and coworkers. They were all supportive of the idea. His parents agreed to watch his son while he was away. He drove to his storage unit to make sure his equipment was still there, and then told them yes. He started doing pull-ups in the basement to prepare for his performance climb. At the end of March, he rented a truck and drove to New Orleans where the competition was being held.

Despite the grand prize of $1 million, Johnson said he’s thinking more about the overall experience, which he described as “surreal,” than about winning. “I had come to terms with not performing anymore and all of the sudden I am about to perform on the largest venue on earth—12 million people on television!”

Johnson advanced to the next round, held in Las Vegas, but said viewers will have to wait until July 16 and 17 when the next round of America’s Got Talent eliminations air to find out whether he moves on to the quarter-finals in New York City.

The timing of America’s Got Talent was perfect he said. “Right before they called I was working on a pilot show about street entertainers, not just the act, but the person behind it,” said Johnson. “Think of it as an Anthony Bordain type of show, but with street performers instead of food.”

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