Abracadabra: St. Louis has become a flourishing place for magicians

It is a Friday afternoon in August and Keith Jozsef is shuffling cards at Tucker's Place in Soulard. Happy hour has just begun and the regulars are settling in amid wreathes of cigarette smoke. The ambience is still quiet enough to allow for conversational seesaw with Jozsef. And a little magic.

"Pick a card," says Jozsef, fanning what seems to be a shuffled deck of cards.

His spiel begins: "There are 52 cards in the deck: 26 red and 26 black. Red represents the brightness of the sun, and black is the darkness of the night. There are four suits in a deck of cards just like there are four seasons in every year; there are thirteen cards in each suit, just like there are thirteen weeks in the season."

Keith Jozsef, an illusionist, wants to raise the standards of magic as high as some of the tables he floats.
Jennifer Silverberg
Keith Jozsef, an illusionist, wants to raise the standards of magic as high as some of the tables he floats.
Dan Fleshman says his diminutive size helps him relate to the children — and even a few adults — he entertains at local restaurants.
Jennifer Silverberg
Dan Fleshman says his diminutive size helps him relate to the children — and even a few adults — he entertains at local restaurants.

The 30-year-old Jozsef has a penchant for black suit coats and pants. His hair is combed back and rests easy enough that it doesn't need to be slicked. A brown goatee frames the lower half of his face. There's no smiling in his suave routine; Jozsef doesn't joke, and if he does, it's more of a riposte delivered with a confidence that borders on pompousness.

He offers a playing card to an onlooker and asks that it be signed and put back in the deck. Before long, Jozsef pulls out that same card from a wallet within his billfold. It's a move that rarely ceases to earn applause.

"How did you do it?" It is the ubiquitous question every magician gets, to which

Jozsef offers his standard reply: "Rather well, I think."

Since the age of nineteen, when Jozsef became the youngest person ever elected to the International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM) chapter in St. Louis, magic has been his livelihood. Jozsef didn't even need to quit his day job — he never had one to begin with.

St. Louis has a thriving magic community, and membership in the IBM is on the rise. The St. Louis chapter, or "ring," is now up to 150 people, five times more than the average large city. Every August, St. Louis hosts one of the largest magic conferences in the country, the Midwest Magic Jubilee, which features tricksters from all over the world.

Jozsef says it was the legendary David Copperfield who turned him on to magic. "He would sell a presentation. His delivery and timing were phenomenal."

Today's other magic heavyweights include David Blaine and Criss Angel. Blaine has frozen himself in ice and recently hanged himself upside down for 60 hours in Central Park. Angel hosts his own show on A&E called MindFreak. In one of his tricks he walks on water, and in another, he's run over by a steamroller while lying stomach-down on a bed of glass.

But some magicians complain that those routines are more special effects than actual magic.

In 2004, the comedian Chris Rock mocked Blaine's 44-day starvation stunt in London, telling an audience, "Are we so desperate for entertainment that we fall for a trickless magician? Saw a lady in half. Pull a rabbit out of a hat. Do something. What's his last trick? 'I'm in a box and I ain't going to eat. I'm in a box and I ain't going to eat.' That ain't no trick. That's called living in the projects."

Angel, too, has been criticized for doing mediocre tricks, like "escaping from a straitjacket while suspended in air, making birds appear in his hands," as Richard Abowitz, a blogger for the Los Angeles Times, wrote last month. He added that Angel's Believe show is "clearly a work in progress."

"Well, if you watch them and what they do, these guys go off the deep end a little bit," says Ray Belz, a magician from Kirkwood. "They use scenery to make a presentation bigger than it seems."

"To me, it's made-for-TV magic," says Jozsef, who doesn't appreciate the Blaine- and Angel-inspired requests he gets when doing his card tricks. As a teenager, he spent years mastering what is called sleight-of-hand magic. Tricks include coughing a card out of his mouth and making dollar bills vanish and reappear.

"Presentation and routine are the most import aspects of being entertained," notes Belz. These days, he says aspiring magicians aren't asked to master fundamentals such as parlor magic — any magic routine that is not performed onstage or at a table — before they are invited into a club.

Now more than ever, there appears to be a gulf between professional and celebrity magic performances.

Meet the St. Louis' godfather of magic: Harry Monti. He'd never call himself that, but when you possess as much magic knowledge as he has, that's the kind of respect you earn. After six decades of performances, this 73-year-old has probably forgotten more magic tricks than most people can hope to learn in a lifetime.

By his estimation, Monti knows hundreds of different tricks. Every year, he and his wife travel to the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California, a venue many magicians consider the mecca of their profession. At one time, he did as many as 100 shows a year. "In the '30s and '40s, there were some very fine magicians in St. Louis," he says, reflecting on magic's history. "Paul LePaul was a wonderful card manipulator" — which Monti chalks up to LePaul's smooth presentation and pleasing personality.

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