This magic moment

Local magicians use your illusion

“We love to foster new magic addicts,” says magician Dean Hankey.

“We love to foster new magic addicts,” says magician Dean Hankey.

Photo By Allison Young

With a quick flourish of a curtain, a woman disappears into a metal box. Then, with dramatic panache, magician Eli Kerr drives a series of flaming spears through the box. His assistants spin the box around, to show the audience every angle. Kerr removes the spears, waves the curtain, and the woman reappears—unharmed, of course. It seems the trick is over, until Kerr waves the curtain again and, unexpectedly, a second woman appears.

It’s a good little piece of magic—one that’s impressive for its athleticism and showmanship, even if you think you know how it’s done. Kerr performed it at his recent run of shows at Sammy’s Showroom in Harrah’s, and there’s a good clip floating around the internet of him performing it on the NBC show America’s Got Talent.

What some locals might not know, if they’ve only ever seen him on billboards around town, is that Kerr is a local guy who grew up in Carson City. And interestingly enough, just down the road at the Eldorado is another magic show—this one’s ongoing—called Kevin & Caruso’s Magique. And they’re also guys who grew up in Reno.

“I don’t think both hotels said we should do a magic show at the same time,” says Kevin Jeffrey, the “Kevin” half of the duo. “I think it just happened to work out like that, which is strange unto itself. … But Eli and I have been friends since we were teenagers, so there was certainly no bad blood between us about it, In fact, he allowed us to use his warehouse to rehearse our show.”

Jeffrey was born and raised in Reno, and has spent the last 20 years working in magic, staging big productions—lots of pyrotechnics and costume changes—in Florida and for Carnival Cruise lines. Kevin and Caruso’s Reno production is one of these big shows, also featuring guest magician Mark Kornhauser, another local magician with a national reputation.

“It used to be better to be from somewhere else,” says Kerr. But as tourism numbers have declined in recent years, the casinos have made a larger effort to appeal to locals, which has meant more locals in the spotlight. This isn’t to say that these performers are benefiting from a local favoritism—they’re fully legit magic acts that happen to be local. And magic shows are good for Reno stages because of the shows’ wide appeal.

“It’s one of the only areas of entertainment where you have the opportunity to reach such a huge demographic,” says Jeffrey, adding that audience members range in age from 5 to 95.

Though it might appear that the two magic shows were in direct competition, and were hosted by rival casinos, it’s interesting that there exists among the magicians themselves a spirit of camaraderie and collaboration.

Kerr owns an 8,000-square-foot warehouse east of Carson City that serves as an industrial magic shop. In addition to being an onstage performer, Kerr also builds props and illusion devices for himself and other magicians. The warehouse, which he jokingly calls “the batcave,” is a workshop for building illusions, a storage place for the many props for his magic shows and his annual haunted house events every October. There’s also a lounge area, offices and a gym.

Kerr and a colleague, Erin Lopez, build all sorts of strange props and illusions there for Kerr, Kevin and Caruso, acclaimed local magic duo Kalin and Jinger, and many others.

“It’s not like you just go to work building a house and that’s how it’s done,” says Lopez. “You’re working from an idea someone scribbled on a napkin, and you have to figure it out. … It’s not just hammering nails and collecting a paycheck.”

And though it was originally intended to be more of a workspace than a rehearsal space, Kerr’s warehouse has taken on that role as well. He rehearsed his show there, as did Kevin and Caruso. Kerr has also rented it out to a burlesque troupe or two as well as to other magicians.

“Magicians, especially those that do large illusions, often don’t have a place to do it,” says Kerr.

Kerr believes that collaboration is good for magic, which tends to be viewed as an underdog artform. He says he benefits from other magicians having successful shows.

Local magician and prop-master Eli Kerr swallowing fire!

Photo By Allison Young

“Someone else’s bad show would hurt my business more than a good one,” he says. A bad experience at one magic show would discourage an audience from attending another magician’s show.

He says that growing up in Northern Nevada helped instill in him some of that collaborative spirit. Magicians from larger markets, with more firmly entrenched magic scenes, like Las Vegas or Los Angeles, tend to have an off-putting competitive edge.

One of Kerr’s most frequent collaborators is his sister, Katie Kerr—she’s one of his assistants, the woman in the box.

“He had a box and needed a girl to get in it,” she says. “After that, I was hooked. … It gets pretty physical, you get a lot of bruises—and impaled, and cut in half.”

Unlike being a dancer, she says, it helps for a magician’s assistant to be petite like her—getting crammed into various boxes and other tiny spaces is easier that way. And she agrees that there’s a collaborative spirit among local magicians.

“Everybody ends up working together,” she says. “We support each other, go see each others’ shows.”

And though he’s lived out of the state for several years, Jeffrey says Northern Nevada was a good place to come of age as a magician.

“I remember many times where we’d be at the rib cook-off or the state fair, and Eli was on one end of the street performing the ’Metamorphosis’”—a famous trick where a magician seems to suddenly transform into an assistant or vice versa—“and we’d be on the other end of the fair doing the same thing,” says Jeffrey. “It wasn’t like we were the only ones doing this. There was a community of magicians.”

Licensed to illusion

Many of the local magicians cite Dean Hankey as a mentor figure. He’s the founder and president of High Sierra Magic Circle, a local magic club that meets once a month at a Denny’s Restaurant. (Where else?) He describes the club as “small, but proactive.” The group recruits international lecturers to give presentations about magic-related topics a few times a year.

Hankey describes the membership as ranging “from interested enthusiasts, hobbyists and collectors to full-time professional performers.” The group formed five years ago. Guests are welcome to check it out a couple of times, and membership dues are $15 for a year—which goes to recruiting the guest speakers. A second, more informal group, Washoe Wizards, also meets once a month at the same Denny’s, 205 Nugget Ave., Sparks. There’s a lot of overlap in membership, but the Wizards tend to be experienced magicians. The High Sierra meetings appeal more to newbies looking to learn.

“It’s a common interest social environment first, but because our common interest is magic, we always get around to speaking about magic,” says Hankey.

“The meetings are great,” says Randy Cagle, who, at age 23, is one of the younger members of the group. “A lot of these guys have a wealth of knowledge. Even if I know all the tricks they’re doing I’m still learning something about it, they’ve doing it so long they know all the nuances. And they’re nice guys.”

In magic, there’s a hint of tension between the sharing of knowledge and the protecting of secrets. Topics discussed freely among dues-paying members might be taboo around outsiders.

“There is a considerable subculture in magic, both locally and internationally, and there is a level of secrecy, for sure, in the industry, but we love to foster new magic addicts,” says Hankey. “Most of us, especially of the male persuasion, were fascinated by magic when we were kids. And for some of us, it just sort of stuck. But largely because—and this is kind of a community conjecture or communal hypothesis—why we’re into magic is because we’re otherwise social reprobates. It was kind of a social coping tool. … It gave us a tool to more effectively cope in social situations—to be like, ’Hey, let me show you this!’”

For some magicians, that “social coping mechanism” evolved into an artform. For Kerr, for example, that includes building unique art objects and performing on stage.

Kevin and Caruso’s <i>Magique</i> is a show of grand illusions at the Eldorado.

Photo By Allison Young

“Magic, to magicians, really is an artform,” he says. “Unfortunately it’s at the bottom of the list for traditional art people.”

Kerr has been dedicated to his craft since high school—he didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs. He was working every weekend—building props, practicing tricks, performing at banquets, corporate events and whatever else. He’d often volunteer to perform at charity events.

“There’s not one charitable organization that doesn’t want someone to come perform at their benefit event,” he says.

Kerr says it helped people remember him that he’s unique looking. He has a very fair complexion, and long blond hair—he looks like either an ancient warlock or a 1970s blues guitarist.

Of course, magic has changed a lot over the years, partly because of the advent of the internet. Like record stores and video shops, brick-and-mortar magic shops have largely made like a rabbit and disappeared. This has eliminated one of the primary meeting places for magicians. The internet has also changed the way aspiring magicians learn tricks—many of them now do so by watching online videos. They learn technique but not the showmanship that comes from learning the trick from a mentor and then performing in front of an audience.

Dennis “Merlinski” Dobies, a member of the High Sierra Magic Circle, teaches magic courses at Truckee Meadows Community College. He hasn’t taught the classes in a couple of years, but will do so again this fall. He’s a former school principal from Honolulu who moved here 10 years ago. He teaches magic in three tiers: first, tricks; then, routines; and finally, showmanship.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean entertainment if you know some tricks,” he says. “There’s a big difference. It’s all about presentation. You could have the best chops in the world and bore people to death. … What makes the magic is your delivery of it and how you present it. That’s what my third class is—you’ve learned these things, you’ve linked them together, now let’s make it fun and entertaining for your audience. You don’t want to bore people or get arrested for loitering in front of a microphone.”

“There’s a ton of performers who do good magic but not good entertainment, because, again, the problem of the disconnect between the apprenticeship that comes from live teaching and developing a personality versus learning through a disconnected medium like video or the internet,” says Hankey.

But some younger magicians, like Cagle, seem to enjoy developing routines that aren’t revealed online.

“It’s actually really impressive how secretive magicians can keep it,” he says. “Even on the internet you can find stuff but it’s surprising how much is even kept off YouTube. Most of the tricks I do, I’ve looked for on YouTube, and you can’t find them. It’s pretty impressive the brotherhood that’s formed over that.”

“We love keeping secrets,” says Hankey. “We’re not going to tell you how to saw a lady in half, or do some of the classics and standards. But we love teaching people the basic principles of magic.”

But the illusions themselves are not why magic has such perennial appeal—as Kerr says, “Every 10 years, Reno blows up with magic”—it’s the personalities that present them. There are a lot of analogues to music. There are boring virtuosi. And there are rock stars with barely better-than-amateur chops.

The key to magic is presentation—pacing a show well, and presenting it with humor and personality.

“For me to go to a magic show and be fooled is a pretty tall order at this point in my career,” says Hankey. “I go and I say, ’What spectacular costumes,’ or ’What fascinating staging,’ or ’What an entertaining presentation of that classic piece of entertainment.’”

“If the most entertaining thing in my show was the expensive prop I rolled out, then something’s wrong,” says Kerr. It’s kind of like when you see a band and the best thing about them is their amps. “Hopefully when you leave one of my shows, you feel like you’ve made a new friend.”

The metal box illusion he performed on television is an ancient trick—sometimes called the “Indian basket trick”—but he added some modern twists, some technological updates, some pyrotechnics, some athleticism—he and his assistants tossing around flaming spears—and, most importantly the force of his own personality, and made the trick his own.

“Magic is not mainstream, and it never will be,” he says. “People are never going to jump in their cars and turn on their magic tricks. It can be a fun form of entertainment, but not every day.”

Then again, the whole point of magic is that it’s not part of the everyday experience. It’s unusual.