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Now You See It: Texas Masters of Illusion

Talented magicians strut their stuff across the state, bewitching audiences with disappearing acts, levitation, card tricks, and other feats of legerdemain.
Written by Gene Fowler. Photographs by J. Griffis Smith.
Longtime magical maestro Walter “Zaney” Blaney levitates Shannon Keeler near Allen Parkway in Houston.

YUCCA THEATER. MIDLAND. September 21, 1981. The chairman of the local United Way fund-raising campaign stretches out in a supine position onstage. A tuxedoed conjurer stands over him. Known as “the magician with ‘Tex’ appeal,” Scott Wells projects his magic mojo until the Permian Basin oilman rises, parallel to the stage, and “levitates.”

Today, that Midland businessman, George W. Bush, faces challenges far more daunting than floating on air. And while Scott may be the only magician to levitate a future U.S. president, the astounding feat is a mere intro to the amazing world of Texas magic.

Throughout the state, prestidigitators astonish audiences by pulling rabbits out of top hats, sawing live humans in half, and magically reassembling chopped-up neckties. They swap secrets in magic clubs, sell magic paraphernalia, and instruct youngsters in the art of legerdemain. Each Labor Day weekend, the magicians-per-capita demographic skyrockets in a different Texas city, as some 1,500 to 2,500 members of the Texas Association of Magicians gather for an annual convention.

You can “Behold a world of dreams and mystery” year round at Magic Island, on Houston’s Southwest Freeway. You’ll know you’re there when you see the golden head of King Tut on the roof.

The swank supper club is decked out like ancient Egypt with a Victorian twist. Sip a cocktail in the Den of Osiris, then feast in rooms named Cleopatra’s Cham­ber, Pharaoh’s Retreat, and the Court of Nefertiti as wizards perform before your very eyes. After dinner, retreat to Tut­ankhamen’s Palace for the headline act.

“We book acts from Las Vegas like Lance Burton, Mac King, Rick Thomas, and Steve Wyrick, just to name a few,” says Magic Island entertainment director Scott Hollingsworth. Local and regional magicians fill out the bill and sometimes headline as well. “Our guests see at least three different magicians each night,” adds Scott. Frequent Magic Island performers include Frank Price, a former Houston criminal court judge, and one of the few women in magic, Trixie Bond.

In the late 1960s, Scott’s pioneering restaurant magic performances found an enthusiastic audience. Today, people continue to be enthralled, and dining spots re­main some of the best places to see “close-up magic,” tricks performed with coins, cards, and other small items. Cherie Kay, another female magician, performs most Friday and Saturday nights at Dave & Buster’s, a sprawling restaurant/bar/gameroom in Houston. “Magic was not a girl thing when I was growing up,” says Cherie. “My magic kit was an Easy-Bake Oven.”

Cody Fisher mystifies diners at the Dave & Buster’s club in Austin. In addition to strolling tableside magic, Cody often presents a 45-minute stand-up show in the es­tab­lishment’s cozy theater. There, he confounds folks’ perceptions with the “World’s Most Dangerous Card Trick” (a thrilling combination of music, snakes, and in­trigue), and his “Time Travel Transformation” act.

Cherie Kay does a larger show as well. “My ‘Saw Your Boss In Half’ illusion is especially popular,” says Cherie.

“Diamond Jim” Tyler specializes in closeup magic at several Dallas-area restaurants, often using items from his audience. “I might borrow someone’s ring and make it disappear then reappear inside a sugar packet,” explains Diamond Jim. “Or make a ketchup bottle appear from nowhere.”

Alamo City magic fans can catch Michael Tallon’s closeup performances on Friday nights at Lyndy’s Great In­doors. Like other restaurant artists, Michael excels in “magic dealing with ordinary objects that become part of ex­traordinary events.”

Most working magicians also perform at corporate functions, parties, banquets, fairs, and other special events. Oscar Muñoz of Pharr—who headlines magic shows across the land—has given hundreds of performances in Texas schools. “My shows are designed to motivate kids and build self-esteem,” says Oscar. “They sometimes call me Barney because of my oversized pur­ple zoot suit.” As a trademark gag, he “appears” (magic lingo for making something magically appear) a toy Chihuahua. “And kids really love it when I sneeze doughnuts,” adds Oscar.

If you hanker to hocus-pocus your friends and family, check out one of the many magic clubs around the state. As Mesquite magician Chuck Lehr explains, “When you’re new to magic, it can be hard to find people to watch you practice—pretty soon, even your own mother starts avoiding you.”

Most clubs are affiliated “rings” of the International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM) or “assemblies” of the Society of American Magicians (SAM). In Longview, for instance, IBM Ring 286 meets monthly at magician Eugene Wilkes’ combination magic and locksmith shop. At a recent “Magical Memorial Day Barbecue,” members of Houston’s IBM Ring 39 marveled at “the incredible Banachek, world re­nowned for his superior telekinetic and psychic demonstrations.”

The Texas Association of Magicians (TAOM) Labor Day weekend convention hosts performances (often open to the public) by its members and by some of the best magicians from around the world. Lectures, trade shows, and the making of lifelong amigos fill out the action-packed event. “When we convene in San Antonio or Corpus Christi,” says Scott Hol­lings­worth, “we have a lot of magicians from Mex­i­co. Magic is very popular in Mexico.”

At the 2000 convention in Dallas, Walter “Zaney” Blaney fulfilled a lifelong dream of performing on the stage of the magnificent Majestic Theater, where he had thrilled as a boy to the great magicians of yore. Walter broke into the biz in 1950, drumming up bookings by disappearing a birdcage in downtown Dallas offices. Zaney’s career highlights include levitating Johnny Carson’s secretary on the Tonight Show and Dinah herself on the Dinah Shore Show.

Wherever he performs, folks know six-foot-six Zaney Blaney is a Texan. “I come onstage in boots and Stetson, Texas ‘T’ tie, silver vest, and my tux,” says Zaney. And proving that the wand never falls far from the wizard, Walter’s magician daughter, Becky Blaney, though residing in Bal­timore, does a stand-up act about being a Texas gal.

Austin magician Ramon Galindo has filmed and videotaped 47 consecutive TAOM conventions, from 1955 to 2001, as well as magic performances throughout the world. Born in the Mexican state of Nuevo León in 1921, Ramon moved to Texas with his family as a toddler. In Europe, during World War II, as a member of the 571st Anti-Aircraft Automatic Weapons Bat­talion, Ramon used magic tricks on one occasion to defuse a tense situation with Russian POWs.

Known for his parakeet magic, Ramon has often performed in a colorful charro suit and sombrero. A longtime professional tailor as well, he is also acclaimed for making improvements to the traditional “topit,” a coat outfitted with special pockets.

Like other magicians who market their creations, Ramon gets mail orders for his topit coat and parakeet-magic video from around the world. “Diamond Jim” Tyler has produced a book and video titled Pockets Full of Miracles, and Cody Fisher is writing a book, Magic and the Hand, with his hand-therapist wife, Debbie Fisher.

The wares of wizardry in magic shops have inspired countless Texas kids. Take, for example, the Honey Grove magician with the exotic stage name of MarcoM. His life was changed by boyhood pilgrimages to “the font of all Magical Knowledge” at Dallas’ venerable Magic­land, a still-flourishing treasure trove of sup­plies, books, videotapes, DVDs, and, well, magic.

Veteran magician Scott Donaldson, who performed for decades with wife Judy as The Great Scott and Judy, sells magic paraphernalia from the couple’s North Austin home. Scott’s the man to see for those Magic Escape Handcuffs, the Chinese Ring Illusion, or the Buddha Money Mystery.

Though the Great Scott has retired from performing, he may treat a customer or guest to a sample of his art. To which the awestruck visitor often inquires, “How did you do that?”

With a magic twinkle in his eye, the Great Scott savors his reply: “Magnificently.”

Magicians Organizations

Texas Association of Magicians, Box 13533, Austin 78711; www.taom.org.

Magic Clubs/Venues

Magic Island, 2215 Southwest Frwy., Houston 77098; 713/526-2442; www.themagicisland.com.

Dave & Buster's, Mopac at 183, Austin, 512/346-8015; 6010 Richmond Ave., Houston, 713/952-2233; www.daveandbusters.com.

Lyndy's Great Indoors, 5562 Fredericksburg Rd., San Antonio 78229; 210/341-9905.

Magic Shops and Dealers

Magicland, 603 Park Forest Shopping Center, Dallas 75234; 972/241-9898; www.magiclandusa.com.

Merlin's Magic Shop, 127 Nolana Loop, McAllen 78501; 956/631-7466.

JCR Co.'s World of Magic and Fun, 255 E. Rampart, Ste. 107, San Antonio 78216; 210/366-9386; www.jcrmagic.com.

Frankel's Costume Co., "Magician On Premises," 2801 Polk, Houston 77003; 713/228-9445.

Scott Magic Co., 1007 Kramer Ln., Austin 78758; 512/837-4752; http://home.austin.rr.com/ScottMagic. Call before visiting.

H&R Magic Books, 3839 Liles Ln., Humble 77396; 281/540-7229; www.magicbookshop.com.

T. Myers Magic Inc., 6513 Thomas Springs Rd., Austin 78736; 512/288-7925 or 800/648-6221; www.tmyers.com.

Bob Hale's Magic Attic, 606 Fort Worth, Wichita Falls 76301; 940/767-5380.

From the February 2003 issue.

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