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Magic Kingdom?

Angela Smith
Angela Smith Photo by Charles Slate - cslate@thesunnews.com

"Nothing I do can't be done by a 10-year-old with 15 years of practice."

-Harry Blackstone, Jr.

Driving down Seaboard Street in Myrtle Beach, locals have grown accustomed to the hodgepodge of body piercing and tattoo shops, the ubiquitous strip club and industrial supply houses, along with a hefty dose of rush hour gridlock - but few would suspect that they are within a stone's throw of a world of magic. In a modified warehouse just off the beaten path sits a magic loft and a mind-boggling collection of stage magic, housed in what is known as the Illusionarium.

While Los Angeles boasts the iconic Magic Castle, a world-renowned club and longtime showcase for magicians from all points on the globe, the Grand Strand has a card up its sleeve with this magic loft - a haven for local magicians and the de facto clubhouse for the Grand Strand Magicians Society, the local chapter, or "ring," of an organization called the International Brotherhood of Magicians [IBM]. If this were a motorcycle club, it might be called the Tricksters - the one percenters of magic.

In this same space, a group of committed individuals has been putting the finishing touches on plans for the second annual Magic at the Beach [www.magicatthebeach.org], a convention that kicks off today at the Ocean Dunes Resort and Villas - featuring a formidable group of magicians from around the world - illusionists, sleight of hand specialists, mind readers - prestidigitators and presenters of all stripes - conjuring up a three-day frenzy of performances, lectures, meet-and-greets, and all-around immersion in the magical arts. Also on hand are dealers - purveyors of magical merchandise - peddling everything from books and tricks to illusions and more.

Capping the festivities on Saturday is the Champions of Magic gala show at the Carolina Opry's Gilmore Auditorium to benefit the Children's Museum of South Carolina, featuring performances by a variety of performers and running the gamut from illusion magic to mentalism to comedy and a bit of vaudeville.

As magic comes to the forefront this weekend, Weekly Surge dug deeper to determine how the magical arts are bubbling just below the surface locally, right under our very noses. Is there a thriving subculture at play on the Grand Strand? We discovered a diverse group with deep ties to magic and a few rabbits pulled from top hats.

Use Your Illusion

Like George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," if it weren't for Dave Tanner, there would be no magic loft, no Illusionarium - and the Grand Strand Magicians Society would likely be meeting in someone's living room.

Owner of Broadway Magic at Broadway at the Beach, Tanner has enjoyed a charmed life in magic. When he was 14, Tanner's father took him to see a magician by the name of Reese Hart - a longtime Pawleys Island resident and a chemist credited with the invention of Cold Fire, a substance used by magicians for pyrotechnic effects. This meeting unfolded into a lifelong friendship, with Hart taking Tanner under his wing and ushering him into a world of magic and possibility. Years later when Hart passed away, Tanner was astonished to learn that the Hart estate - including the home in Pawleys Island - had been bequeathed to him. Tanner lives in that home to this day.

While in the Air Force, Tanner spent two years touring the world with Tops In Blue, its premier entertainment group. "We went to 23 countries and all 50 states," he says. "That was quite a learning experience for a 20-year-old. I've been to places you just wouldn't believe." Since then, Tanner has performed extensively in the Southeast, and was named Magician of the Year by the South Carolina Association of Magicians in 2002.

From the time he was 12 and received his first box of tricks for Christmas, Tanner has been systemically amassing a world-class collection of antique magic stage illusions, old puzzles and other oddities. The Illusionarium and magic loft belong to Tanner, and the assortment of working stage illusions and vintage posters therein represent perhaps half of this stash. He maintains a growing list of items that once belonged to the legendary Harry Houdini. "I have three sets of handcuffs, lock picking tools he fabricated himself, and several of the keys he used for different escapes." Add a straightjacket and prized magic wand to the mix and it's easy to figure out Tanner's Cheshire grin. "It's super cool, man," he enthuses.

Tanner has seen magicians on the Grand Strand come and go, and maintains that the subculture of magic is growing here. "In 1975, I was the only guy here that did magic, and now we've got 30 or 40 in our club." And while the IBM is not directly involved with Magic at the Beach, it's a no-brainer to him that magic is flourishing here. But he'd like to see more growth. "I wish we had one major magic show during the summer, but most of the time it's a lot of restaurant magicians and private corporate events, but it's still a pretty tight brotherhood - and sisterhood now."

As co-chair of Magic at the Beach, Tanner has high hopes for the event its second time at bat. "The word's out. Last year we were pleasantly surprised at the turnout," he says. "We filled the entire bottom of The Palace Theatre, and they were overwhelmed."

Last year, Tanner says that organizers had weekly meetings for six months, discussing everything from who was going to pick up food to who was going to handle the spotlight at lectures. "It was a fine-tuned machine, and things went so doggone smooth, it was scary. The way to make a convention successful is to make it seem effortless." Just like magic.

The Business of Magic

Roman LePree has a heart for magic and a head for business. Having worked in magic in one form or another on the Grand Strand since age 14 LePree has more than two decades of experience under his belt. When he was 13, he met Tanner for the first time.

"I was working as a pizza chef in this little restaurant, and Dave was dating one of the waitresses there," he says. "She knew I was into magic, introduced us, and he kind of took me under his wing." Uncannily reminiscent of Tanner's experience with Hart, Tanner began helping LePree with magic and started taking him to magic conventions in the region. And also reminiscent is the fact that they began a long friendship. "When I got out of high school, I was running a magic shop, doing shows and started street performing." At about that time, construction had begun at Broadway at the Beach, and Tanner was thinking about opening Broadway Magic. "He asked me if I'd consider helping him run the store, and I said, 'well, sure.' He put his name in for that, I performed for a year or two, and came on with Broadway Magic when it opened in 1995."

Along the way, the idea surfaced for a wholesale division. "Back then, a lot of the stuff you'd buy came from places like India - and it was really poorly packaged and the instructions were written in broken English." LePree, who is also a graphic artist, started repackaging much of this merchandise. "We had a couple of items that we made ourselves that sold really well." The pair decided to run with these two products and started a wholesale partnership called Trickmaster.

Flash forward: Trickmaster [www.trickmastermagic.com] is now a thriving wholesale operation - designing, manufacturing and distributing roughly 350 products to magic dealers around the globe. Tanner has long since sold his interest in the company to LePree, making Trickmaster LePree's baby - and the business is conducted from Broadway Magic. "I sunk a bunch of money into it and went full steam ahead." And he still runs the retail shop for Tanner.

As co-chairmen for Magic at the Beach, LePree says he and Tanner are the money guys and the main decision makers, and everyone involved brings unique strengths to the table. "We felt that last year's event was a success, so we decided to do it again," he says. "But I imagine it's going to take us a few years before we have everything totally in place and know exactly what to. The biggest thing about last year is the money we spent on advertising, but we're not sure what worked - what people came in because of radio, television or newspapers. So we may find that scaling back this year might be too much or works out perfectly."

LePree is not shocked that the local chapter of the IBM is flourishing here. "We really have a good group of guys - and one of the better meeting facilities," he says. "Most rings have to meet at the back of a Shoney's. We're one of the few that actually have designated meeting space set up for that. We get a lot of snowbirds that like magic and come in the winter." He says that the potential for bickering and cliquishness is always present in any club atmosphere. "We have a lot of tolerance here. Most of the guys know each other pretty well and we all get along."

But has he seen a growth in the magic community at large?

"That's a good question. When I was younger I wasn't really plugged in as much, and we didn't have a club. We probably didn't know everybody that was into magic. I still talk to the same guys that I used to talk to then - like Ron Conley [of Conley's House of Magic at Barefoot Landing]."

Hail to the Chief

"I'm really just a juggler disguised as a magician," quips Mike Heidtman, also known as Cap'n Mike and The Seaside Showman, but that statement might be just off the mark. A seasoned performer at home in any variety arts setting, Heidtman is a graduate of the famed Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College and later toured with its circus and with Clown Alley as an assistant singing ringmaster. He was a featured performer with the Seaside Clown Cavalcade at the bygone Myrtle Beach Pavilion. Since 2001, he has performed as one half of the Fettuccini Brothers, a traveling variety act heavy on juggling and comedy. Heidtman is equally comfortable with close-up and stage illusions, enjoys performing fancy rope tricks and plays a mean concertina. When not performing shows on the road, he is lead demonstrator at Broadway Magic.

"Dave and Roman take good care of me," he says. "And they are understanding if I've got a show to do. So I've kind of got the best of both worlds here - able to feed my performance ego as well as make it nice for the people who come in. People tell me all the time, 'man, this must be a great job.' I tell them it's not much like work - but don't let my boss hear me say that."

Heidtman is also president of IBM Ring 334 - The Grand Strand Magicians Society.

"I've been president for a year," he says, "and I'm serving a two-year term. We've got a strong organization here. [McDonald's founder] Ray Kroc once said, 'None of us is as good as all of us,' and it really takes all of us together to really make things happen." In a previous conversation, Heidtman mentioned that the IBM was not quite the Knights Templar, the super-secret organization of Crusaders with ties to the early Catholic Church and the Freemasons, most recently revisited in "The Da Vinci Code."

"It's not really shrouded in mystery - and anybody with a strong interest in magic is welcome to become a member. In order to do this, you need two sponsors - members in good standing with the brotherhood. Once these people sign as sponsors, you pay your dues and you begin a probationary period where another member could contest your membership, if let's say somebody became aware that I had gone on a local TV show and exposed some secrets of magic to the public. They don't like that at all. But once you jump through all of those hoops, you become part of the organization."

Heidtman says that magicians from other places tell him that Myrtle Beach's magic loft is the best meeting space for magicians that they have ever seen. "All of this comes courtesy of Dave," he says. "He lets us use this space and does not ask anything of the club for using it. So it's his generosity and it's our little secret place to meet. Because we have the magic loft, we can perform and talk openly about the art of magic and magic secrets without being concerned about somebody from the lay audience learning these secrets, which all magicians guard so closely. These magicians, man - they take their art very seriously."

But what motivates folks to pursue magic?

"I'm sure it's different for everyone, however, you hear the story often about getting a magic kit for Christmas when they were a kid and they started doing tricks for family and friends. Then that leads to school talent shows, birthday parties and beyond. In reference to learning new effects, magic is a great motivator - it's about setting goals and working to accomplish them. Then you do it again. In my opinion it helps their self esteem, particularly amongst young people."

The wunderkinds

For any type of organization to chart its future, their has to be an element of youth, as Heidtman alluded to.

Champions of Magic emcee, Chris Capehart, recently told 19-year-old Matthew McCoy that he [McCoy] is the youngest person he knows that runs talent for magic conventions. A musical theatre major at Coastal Carolina University, McCoy was tapped last year by Magic at the Beach organizers as stage and talent manager not only because of his extensive contacts within the magic community, but also his innate understanding of stagecraft.

"I started doing magic when I was five," he says. "My dad was a clown at our local church, and I wanted to be a clown, too. I went to the local magic shop, bought some clown makeup and a costume and saw some magic tricks while I was there. This opened the door to my world of magic."

By the time he was 13, McCoy was managing a neighborhood magic shop and getting paid with store credit. By 15 he had won first place in two teen stage contests in two states - and started traveling and performing at magic conventions. For a time, he was assistant to international magic star, Jade, and appeared with her at the International Magic Convention in London. He is a recipient of the Siegfried and Roy Masters of the Impossible [SARMOTI] Legacy Award for creativity, which he garnered at the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas.

We would think booking well-decorated performers and setting up a large-scale event like Magic at the Beach would be fraught with angst, but McCoy took all of this in his stride. "I contacted and booked many of the acts - got in touch with Topas' agent to get him. I worked with Levent personally to bring him in. Chris Capehart is a personal friend of mine, and Charlie Frye calls me the magic son that he never had." He also cites personal friendships with mentalist husband-and-wife team Christian & Katalina.

But securing the talent, sending out contracts and booking flights is only part of the deal. "The general public only sees one show, but we actually produce four shows over the three-day convention. I pick the order of the acts and direct the flow of each show." In regard to Champions of Magic, Mc Coy receives each performer's music and tech sheets months in advance, and designs the layout of lighting, pipe and drape curtain systems, and double-checks all manner of performance scenarios. "If the lights go out too soon or the music stops in the middle of an act, I take the blame whether it's my fault or not. It's a lot of responsibility. This is one of the fastest-growing magic gatherings in the Southeast, and I couldn't ask for a more fun job."

And when all is said and done, McCoy looks forward to a little downtime. "I love going to SOHO or Denny's and hear world-class entertainers talk about their travels, embarrassing stories, and how much magic they have done. Magic is something we people have in common - and we come together for three days to share, learn, create, enjoy and be a family about. I don't think any other group or organization has that."

Another testament to the youth movement is 19-year-old magician Brandon Wagster [www.wagstermagic.com], seen by many performers - including Tanner and Heidtman - as a force to be reckoned with in the magic community. Already a recipient of multiple awards, including Junior Magician of the Year for the Midlands [2004], a first place win at the South Carolina Association of Magicians Competition [2005], and a 2nd place Adult Stage Magic win at last year's Magic at the Beach - Wagster returns this year from West Columbia with an opening slot at the Champions of Magic show - with assistant Hannah Mertz.

"I do a lot of everything, but the one thing I am known for among magicians is card manipulation," he says. "It's basically different types of flourishes - producing fans of cards from thin air or pulling cards from my mouth - and that's some of the hardest magic to learn."

Although this year marks Wagster's first foray into public performance on the Grand Strand, he is no stranger to the area. "When I was growing up, we would come down for at least a week every year." He is also no stranger to the local magic community. "Most of my friends are involved with the convention - Michelle (Householder), Mike - Dave and Roman - these are people who have watched me grow up in magic. And the fact that they have asked me to come perform is a real honor - from one performer to another."

Wagster has close ties indeed to the folks involved with Magic at the Beach - and will perform illusions at the show. He has been practicing his moves at the Illusionarium.

"When we were blocking the show, we realized that something was missing - big illusions," says Heidtman. "I knew that Brandon was ready to purchase some major stage illusions but hadn't received them yet. Dave agreed to lend him some big box illusions from the Illusionarium - and Brandon and his assistant Hannah have been coming down here to practice."

Tanner is impressed with Wagster's stage moves. "He is very well spoken, and I watched him grow up. He's borrowing a couple of my illusions and also bringing a couple of his own brand new illusions. I think it'll be the sleeper of the big show."

And what if Wagster upstages everyone from the outset?

"I hope he does," laughs Tanner. "Brandon's going places."

The Great Escape

Eric Hall, Assistant Theatre Professor at Coastal Carolina University, caught the magic bug at 14, seemingly the magical age for this enchantment to take hold, but when he started learning about Houdini, he kicked things up a notch. "I wanted to do escape magic in high school," he says. "There was a janitor there who was also a bonded locksmith, and he taught me about lock picking. My senior year, I escaped from a Civil War jail in Rolla, Missouri. I was cuffed several times and locked through the bars upstairs in the jail, and the locked front door was the only way out. I got out."

You might have seen Hall escape from a straitjacket through the years at various venues along the Grand Strand. At last year's Magic at the Beach convention, Hall performed an hour-long opening show. "I did a lot of escapes, including a new one I had created with my head locked in this aquarium full of water," he says. "It was like a set of stocks with a hole for each wrist, and my head in the middle, locked onto the top of the aquarium like a lid. That was the finale."

This year, Hall is making an apparent 180 and competing in the convention's close-up magic contest. "It's a part of magic that I have always been interested in - tricks with cards and coins - the kinds of things you do for a small, intimate group." He cites the contest as a way to showcase a routine, and because he will be under scrutiny by other magicians, a more polished undertaking. "I have a favorite card trick that I have always wanted to use as a major part of my routine - and I finally over the years have sort of put it together in a way that I like it - and we'll see if anybody else likes it."

Hall is no stranger to the magic loft or the Grand Strand Magicians Society. But was he impressed with the local magic community when he arrived here to take his position with CCU? "I was kind of blown away," he says. "I went to Broadway Magic and asked if there was a ring down here, and when I started going to the meetings, I noticed - wow - there is really a huge amount of magic happening here."

Although Hall has not seen a subculture of magic emerging at CCU, he is impressed with what goes on at the loft. "If you don't seek it out, you may not even notice it, but once you find it, you see so many facets." And he's doing his part to keep the variety arts alive. "I also like to promote the ukulele here and there when I can - keeping all of the weird things alive," he laughs.

And speaking of promotion, Michelle Householder, is a true believer in magic. A convention organizer, media/marketing liaison and self-described "gofer girl" for Magic at the Beach, she says she stumbled on to this world of illusion quite by accident. "I was taking my kids down to the flea market to see the puppies, fish and other fun stuff - as a way to keep them engaged - and we ran into a magician named Jim Lee, who sold magic down there." Her son had gotten a card magic book for Christmas, so he was already interested. "Jim showed him some card tricks, and we were roped." An invitation to the club followed, and Householder says she has been attending for six years.

"Magic is the best hobby for young kids," she says. "It keeps them occupied and out of trouble. I couldn't give that to my son fast enough - he was like a little sponge, and would practice until he had calluses on his hands from learning how to do a muscle pass [a move that allows a coin to seemingly jump from a magician's hand]. It was just awesome to watch."

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