Dai Vernon, another revered magician, did not have an extensive routine, Monti points out. Vernon didn't need one: He mastered ten tricks better than anyone else.

In the '50s and '60s, clubs were popular venues for magic, explains Monti. By the end of the '60s, though, music was the bigger draw. The rabbit and the hat had to make way for rock clubs. "A few years ago, restaurant magic became popular," Monti says, referring to the 1970s and '80s. "It's still valid, but today, with the economic situation, a lot of restaurants are pulling back."

One person who still practices restaurant magic is Dan Fleshman. Fleshman performs his routine every Thursday night at El Maguey in St. Charles. On one recent evening, at five-year-old Alex Weston's table, Fleshman asks him to shake two Styrofoam rabbits together. The boy's face lights up as he opens his hands and a batch of little rabbits spills across the table. "They've had babies!" Fleshman announces.

Steve Corbitt: "There's something about walking onstage in an empty theater. To me it's like being in a church."
Jennifer Silverberg
Steve Corbitt: "There's something about walking onstage in an empty theater. To me it's like being in a church."
Randy Kalin worked for years as an accountant before working gigs as a magician.
Jennifer Silverberg
Randy Kalin worked for years as an accountant before working gigs as a magician.

He likes to weave in comedy when he's performing. His short stature lends itself to a lot of self-deprecating material. When a mother scolds her son for not standing tall in his chair Fleshman responds: "I am standing up." If people stand too closely behind him he likes to quip: "Don't worry, this guy isn't my parole officer or anything."

One of Fleshman's staple tricks requires a salt shaker, a napkin and a 50-cent piece. He'll show you that the coin has two sides before placing it under the salt shaker. Then he covers the salt shaker with a napkin. What side is the coin on now? He lifts the shaker; it's still on the same side. On the count of three he smashes the top of the shaker, which is in the middle of the table. Everyone expects the coin to fall from the bottom of the table. Instead, the salt shaker passes right through the table.

Aside from Blaine and Angel, Monti says the replacement of brick-and-mortar magic shops with DVD technology has had the greatest influence on magic performance these days. Yet while DVDs work well as learning tools, because they don't rely on in-the-flesh instruction, the medium can be limiting. Repetition is important and learning tricks the right way is critical.

"I am the assistant," Steve Corbitt tells the crowd gathered round the circus ring at the City Museum, before asking a four-year-old girl named Sierra to take over the performance. Earlier, he asked her to cut a rope in half, which, after he tied it together, she blew off the knot and it became a single piece of rope. A smattering of applause filled the room.

When the 30-minute performance ends, Corbitt holds out a hat for money and shakes the hands of passing children so hard that their arms wiggle like pieces of spaghetti. "I always felt that life was too important to take seriously," he says.

Corbitt can't remember the last time he went more than a month without performing. Taking a break between shows, he says he enjoys performing magic for audiences at the museum because it allows him to practice the kind of material that hooked him from the beginning. "I love it because one of my first loves was street magic."

Even though the setting seems to cater to children, Corbitt says that over time he has noticed that the adults enjoy the show as much as the kids do. "I am very conscious of audience response," he says, scooping up the playing cards scattered around the ring.

Spending time with Corbitt means watching him bend a spoon that vanishes and resurfaces behind an ear. Inanimate objects become eggs to crack into a glass.

Despite an imposing figure and striking appearance that seems perfectly suited for operatic performance, his easy sense of humor plays naturally into his routine. Turning to look at the crowd of cheery couples, surly teenagers and parents poised with cameras, he yells at them: "Get louder! Get louder!"

"I know performers that do adult shows and die in front of children audiences," he later acknowledges.

In his 25 years of professional performance, Corbitt has had some strange experiences. When he was booked to perform at what he'd later learn was a clothing-optional resort, his first response was practical: "I need pockets." In his line of work, one day you're doing a short routine on Jay Leno and the next you're changing clothes in a parking lot. And he wouldn't change it for the world.

"There's something about walking onstage in an empty theater," he says, smiling. "To me it's like being in a church. A feeling you can't describe, almost like a reverence."

For Jessica Hentoff, the artistic director of Everyday Circus and Circus Day Foundation, the venues that are responsible for booking Corbitt and other magicians, magic is an extension of the circus arts they teach at the school. "What I have found is the only place to learn magic is at magic stores, and they are trying to sell you tricks," she says.

In her mind, the appeal of magic is in its ability to bring your personality to the stage. "You could ask several of them to show you the same trick — they will do it in different ways. That is where the art is."

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