The Amazement Business

Hawai‘i is one of the nation’s hot spots for professional prestidigitation
Story by Larry Lieberman. Photos by Ryan Dearth.

I’m in a packed Waikīkī showroom, holding four random playing cards. Following instructions on a big video screen, all of us in the audience of nearly four hundred at John Hirokawa’s Magic of Polynesia show tear our cards in half. The video tells us to rearrange them, sit on one, throw some in the air. I tuck half the king of diamonds under my leg and keep following directions.

Move some cards to the top of the deck, move some to the bottom. Toss some more above your head. Card fragments are flying everywhere. Eventually we’re all holding just one remaining piece, and gasps erupt around the room as people complete the last step. I pull up the half-card I’ve been sitting on and find a perfect match with the last piece left in my hand. My king is whole again.

Having the trick unfold in our own hands has made it all the more amazing, but then amazement is what the magic business is all about. And it’s a business that Hawai‘i has played a singular role in, reaching people from around the world. “We have such an international audience every night,” Hirokawa says. “When you’ve got them all experiencing a trick or laughing together despite the language and cultural separation, it’s like there are no boundaries and we’re all just humans. You just won’t find that anywhere else.”

Today’s best-known Island conjurer, Magic of Polynesia star John Hirokawa, draws people from around the world to one of the country’s few large-scale illusion shows outside Las Vegas.

The known history of magical entertainment in Hawai‘i goes back at least to 1912, when an impeccably dressed showman with a thick Austrian accent arrived on Kaua‘i to perform at a special luncheon for Queen Lili‘uokalani. Max Malini, now revered among conjurers worldwide as one of the original masters of close-up magic, was no stranger to royalty. Starting as an immigrant performing on the streets of New York, he became an international celebrity whose private audiences included four US presidents, two kings of England and numerous other luminaries.

Known for such baffling acts as biting the button off a dignitary’s coat sleeve then magically spitting it back on, or borrowing someone’s hat only to reveal a large block of ice beneath it, Malini returned to perform in Hawai‘i many times. Eventually he chose to retire in Honolulu, playing for local crowds at places like the Elks Club and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel’s Monarch Room. Just months before succumbing to cancer in 1942, he gave his last performance, entertaining US troops as the drums of World War II beat across the Pacific.

On the morning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, 21-year-old Jimmy “Tengu” Yoshida, who would eventually become known as “Hawai‘i’s Godfather of Magic,” was swimming in the ocean with his future bride. Life in the Islands and around the world changed forever that day, but after the war Yoshida, a believer in magic’s ability to unite people from all cultures, used the craft to help rebuild bridges between East and West. Widely credited with helping to popularize close-up magic internationally, this ambassador of abracadabra opened a magic shop in Honolulu, importing high-quality silks and other magic paraphernalia from Japan and introducing them to magicians across the country.

The widespread use of silk handkerchiefs in magic acts today can largely be traced back to Yoshida’s efforts at promoting the art—and materials—of his trade. His labors earned him induction into the Society of American Magicians Hall of Fame, an honor he shares with Harry Houdini among others. “Jimmy realized nobody would buy magic unless there was a reason to, so he started teaching classes,” says Yoshida protégé Curtis Kam, an internationally renowned close-up artist in his own right. “And he realized no one would take the classes unless there was a reason for that also, so he started sponsoring magic contests where people could compete with each other.”

Like Hirokawa, Kam was part of a bumper crop of young talent that blossomed under Yoshida’s mentorship in the 1970s and spread magic throughout the Islands, performing at parties, conventions and events. “From the time I was sixteen, I’ve never been unemployed,” says Kam, whose subsequent Yale education and law practice didn’t get in the way of his magical passion.“When you’re a teenager, doing magic shows beats mowing lawns or anything else you might get into. You get paid a lot more and work a lot less.”

In 1976 a new show opened in town with a 19-year-old star who came to the Islands with a fresh and dramatic style of presenting magic. His name, borrowed from a Dickens novel, was David Copperfield. Today few remember that the most successful solo performer of all time—with over $4 billion in ticket sales, eleven Guinness World Records and more awards than any other magician in history—had his first headlining engagement at the modest Pagoda Hotel, a local institution tucked off the beaten track in midtown Honolulu.

Copperfield was enchanted with Hawai‘i, as Max Malini had been before him. “Over a period of about two years I lived there a lot and just loved it,” he recalls over the phone from Vegas. “Entertainers like Don Ho and Danny Kaleikini really made me feel part of the community, and I was influenced by that a lot. In Hawai‘i they really take you in. The audiences were great, and I was creating new material all the time, combining magic and storytelling. I learned so much. It really prepared me for everything that came afterward.”

Magical moonlighter Glen Bailey says that with Hawai‘i’s tradition of first-birthday “baby luau” parties, “there’s more performing opportunities here than you would typically find anywhere else in the country.”

Although most of Hawai‘i’s working magicians are content to ply the party circuit while keeping day jobs, the dream of performing magic full time became an obsession for one of Yoshida’s youngest students after he saw Copperfield perform. John Hirokawa was just nine years old when he won a magic contest that Copperfield and Yoshida put on at the Pagoda, which earned him the opportunity to perform with his hero.

“I saw Copperfield and it completely blew my mind,” the wiry illusionist says in the volcano-themed Waikīkī Beachcomber showroom after his act. “He was different from anyone I’d ever seen. He took magic and made a theatrical experience around it. I wanted to be just like him.” “John was a great kid,” Copperfield reciprocates. “So young at the time, and he’s gone on to make a great career out of magic. I’m happy to have been one of the people that helped him get started.”

While finishing college with a business degree (“My mother wanted me to be a mattress salesman so I’d have something to ‘fall back on,’” he jokes), Hirokawa landed a show at the military’s Hale Koa Hotel and later graduated to the Hilton’s iconic domed showroom. EventuallyMagic of Polynesia settled in at the Beachcomber under the sponsorship of the tour company Roberts Hawaii, creating one of the country’s few major-production illusionist shows outside of Las Vegas. The act covers everything from intimate, close-up magic to large-scale illusions like making a full-size helicopter appear from thin air or levitating a Lamborghini.

“Magic, to me, is astonishment,” says Hirokawa, who first became interested in the craft at around the age of five after seeing the movie Houdini, starring Tony Curtis. “It’s about amazing people.”

Backstage, a warren of small rooms and passageways bustles with dancers donning hula garb and stagehands navigating around props and lighting equipment. “There’s no room for error,” says Simeon “Sims” Martin, one of the dinner show’s stage managers and director of pyrotechnics.“If someone misses their mark, people can get hurt.” The soundtrack, lights and special effects are timed to every movement on stage. The entire room is part of the experience, with sculpted faux lava walls, island décor and tropical thunder and lightning on cue.

The show has another claim to fame, too: For several years around the turn of the millennium, its musical warm-up act was an explosive local teenage prodigy then called Bruno Hernandez, now Bruno Mars. In his Album of the Year acceptance speech for 24K Magic at this year’s Grammys, Mars gave global props to his old high school gig: “I’m 15 years old and I’m opening up a show in Hawai‘i called Magic of Polynesia. I remember seeing people dancing with each other who had never even met, from two sides of the globe. Toasting with each other. Celebrating together. All I wanted to do with this album, was that.”

Hirokawa’s show might be the biggest and best known, but there’s plenty of other prestidigitation appearing around the Islands if you know where to look. On Maui a more intimate experience awaits visitors to Warren & Annabelle’s in Lahaina, where host Warren Gibson and his ghostly, piano-playing houseguest Annabelle entertain along with performers from around the country. Now in their nineteenth year, they regularly sell out two shows a night, six nights a week. On the Big Island the internationally known artist Kozak has settled into a residency with his Kona Kozy Comedy & Magic Show in the Shops at Mauna Lani. His chops have earned him no less a fan than Copperfield, who tells me, “It’s a terrific show. Kozak is doing great stuff.”

On a sunny Saturday afternoon I pull into a packed community center parking lot in suburban Mililani. The facility holds two large halls, both rented out for “baby luau” parties. In the largest room, friends and family of the year-old birthday girl are being treated to a major blowout, with balloon-animal artists, musicians, DJs and a huge buffet lunch. In the midst of it all, Glen Bailey wanders from table to table in a red sport coat, leaving a trail of bewilderment behind him. At one of the tables, he shows off four playing cards—all eights. Placing the two red eights face down on the back of a guest’s hand, he snaps his fingers then turns them over to reveal that they’ve changed to the black eights. In unison, everyone at the table says, “Whaaat!?”

“What’s different about magic in Hawai‘i? It’s the baby parties,” Bailey says, preparing to shift from his tableside set to a thirty-minute stage performance designed to amaze the crowd, even if lost on the guest of honor. “There’s more performing opportunities here than you would typically find anywhere else in the country, especially because of the tradition of first-year baby luaus. Hawai‘i’s the only place that does it. Every single weekend there’s one to two hundred baby’s first birthday parties happening on O‘ahu alone.” Bailey speculates that the custom originated long ago, when an infant’s survival past its first year was an important milestone to celebrate. Whether or not that’s the case, the tradition of large gatherings for first birthdays is now practiced almost universally throughout the state, meaning gigs for magicians.

Hawai‘i’s special take on trickery hasn’t gone unnoticed by the magical community at large. This year longtime Hawai‘i magician Ron Ishimaru takes the helm as national president of the Society of American Magicians (SAM). Ishimaru, a retired engineer but lifelong magician, mentor and host of magic programs for kids, says he’s concerned about the challenges and competing interests that are keeping younger generations from taking up the art.

“Magic is awesome, exciting and forever evolving,” Ishimaru says, but “like many fraternities and organizations, membership has been declining and aging. This is a challenge—to unite magicians, from professionals to enthusiasts, to foster the fellowship of magic.” The Hawai‘i chapter of SAM fulfills that mission locally, meeting monthly to enjoy pizza, host guest speakers and exchange tricks. Across the country other chapters do the same.

While some Hawai‘i magicians may aspire to Hirokawa or even Copperfield levels of fame and fortune, for most the motivating factor isn’t money or even learning the secrets of the art. The real magic that drives performers and audiences alike isn’t in how the tricks are done; it’s in how they make people feel. “For the last twenty-seven years I’ve never gone without doing at least four or five shows a month,” says Bailey, who also holds a longtime day job with the Air Force. “But just like me, almost all of the magicians here have regular jobs. They’re firemen; they’re bus drivers; they’re policemen or dentists. They come from all walks of life, but they take up magic for the love of it … and it just follows them for a lifetime.” HH