Overall, she adds, "We like our perceptions messed with as long as it doesn't hurt. It's hallucinating without the use of drugs."

On Saturday afternoons at the St. Louis Bread Co. in Sunset Hills, magicians come to talk about tricks and cutting-edge techniques. People broach magic dogma and philosophy. Ben Stuparits, a poofy-haired graphic artist, insists children's magic is a perversion of the original practitioners — seedy characters who were more hustlers than performers.

"I don't do kids' shows. I don't like children," he says matter-of-factly.

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 Webster Groves resident believes too much of magic today involves "one-upmanship," fooling people to let them know the joke is on them. That's why he likes to tell stories when he performs card tricks.

The problem with Blaine and Angel, he says, is they capitalize on public gullibility. "What they have been doing lately is more publicity stunt than magic."

Anthony Palermo, meanwhile, is turning numbered cars into aces and talks about retiring as a magician someday, before traveling the world. The 44-year-old landscape designer also likes to tell stories. He smiles and seems delighted when Angel's name comes up.

A few months ago in Las Vegas, Palermo says, Angel was driving down the street next to Chris Kenner, the executive producer of David Copperfield's show. Kenner was driving a Lamborghini and Angel asked him about it. But it was clear that Angel had no idea who Kenner was, or that he worked for Copperfield. Later, Kenner got Angel's cell number from an assistant and called him back: "This is the man driving the Lamborghini..." Taunting Angel is an appealing notion to the group.

From across the room, Palermo yells out, "We should call him!"

Palermo says he has more respect for David Blaine. Although some magicians consider Blaine a hack because he purchases his own magic, unlike Angel, he's an excellent performer of close-up magic. Then again, Blaine's most recent stunt has not been well received by the group.

"That's the kind of thing that I think doesn't help magicians," says Randy Kalin, the Eureka-based magician whom Jozsef calls his mentor. "If you tell people you're going to do something, you have to do what you're going to do," he says, noting that Blaine's pledge to hang upside down included ten-minute breaks at the end of every hour for health reasons.

Kalin, a thin, silver-haired 49-year-old, says good celebrity entertainers rely on basic concepts in magic to add luster to their show. Whether it is Copperfield's charisma or the eccentricity of Siegfried and Roy, Kalin says, "the purpose is to use magic as a vehicle to entertain."

"Very seldom is something new created," he says, yet there's enough material to devote one's life to. Kalin left his job as an accountant years ago for a "one gig here, one gig there" lifestyle. He books premier acts a year in advance and relies on the network of practicing magicians to get work.

Kalin says when he attends official meetings at magic clubs, he tells aspiring magicians that the only way to get better is to perform in public. This doesn't mean impromptu or sloppy performances, though. "I say you should be skillful enough to know what you're doing," he says. "Not everybody is ready to perform in public situations."

Jozsef is sticking a sword through the back of his wife's neck at the Rockstar Nightclub on South Broadway. It was originally booked as a double performance, but an overbooked series of events pushed everything back. The crowd stares with sweaty drinks in hand as the music thumps so loud that it beats your body and dares you to push back.

Jozsef looks out with a transfixed stare, and proceeds to raise a table in the air. He invites a woman in a black dress named Amanda to join him. The table rises again.

"That was the coolest trick," she says afterward, smoking a cigarette.

Could she tell he was using a gimmick to make the table float?

"Not at all."

Many of the magicians say that as long as they can see someone surprised by a trick, it's worth it. Fleshman seems to feel the same way, though unlike the others, there's a wall between his work and his life. His profession does not define his personality. When people ask him what he does for a living, he says, "I'm an entertainer, here's my card."

The man isn't bored by any means. Clearly, Fleshman enjoys himself in the restaurants as he asks kids to pull his finger and tells parents to watch him closely. He never neglects his audience.

He is friends with magicians, but it is rare for him to attend a meeting, which might have something to do with his domestic life. Many magicians say girlfriends come and go when your primary occupation keeps you busy weekend nights; Fleshman says his wife, a physical therapist, is very picky about his profession. She only tolerates the good stuff. During his free time, Fleshman studies Spanish with the goal of becoming completely fluent. Working in Mexican restaurants is a great way for him to improve his skills.

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