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

Oct 8, 2008 at 4:00 am

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."

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

In some ways, Fleshman uses magic less as a means of mystery than as a vehicle of inspiration. After all, one of his biggest inspirations, he says, is seeing children excited about magic.

"I've had kids get into magic after seeing me," he says. "I just like the performing aspect, you know? Getting a smile out of them and having fun."

The spectacle of an Angel or Blaine routine never would have mattered to him as a youngster.

Fleshman's childhood dream, after all, had nothing to do with magic: "I wanted to be a professional basketball player."