Issue 7.4: August/September 2004

The Grand Illusion

by Lee Siegel
photos by 
Dana Edmunds

It's dummies galore
in the prop room of
Vegas' Planet Mirth

Las Vegas is a magic show. It’s a flamboyant illusion shimmering in the barrens of the Mojave Desert, a fanciful city conjured up for pleasure (not to mention profit), a glittered mirage, as the name of one hotel and casino readily concedes. That it’s all make-believe allows you to believe unbelievable things in Vegas, at least for a while. I was willing to bet ten bucks that the ball spinning in the roulette wheel might magically come to rest in the twenty-two spot, because my birthday falls on the twenty-second of July. It didn’t. But that didn’t shake the amusement of temporarily suspending reason and logic. There’s gratification in fantasy: That’s the pleasure of Vegas and that’s the pleasure of magic.

And Vegas is full of magic—not just the figurative, but the literal. There are more magic shows there than in any other city in the world and more magicians living and working there than anywhere else—some 400 by one magician’s count. That, I thought, was a connection worth exploring.

I used to be a magician myself. That was fifty years ago, when my parents gave me Professor Mysto’s Hocus Pocus Magic Set and a magician’s costume with a top hat, cape, white gloves and a wand. On a kid’s television show, I’d seen Professor Mysto himself cut a woman in half with an electric buzz saw and—the cool part—put her back together. Sadly, my magic set didn’t come with a buzz saw, but it did include a Mysto Magic Finger Chopper, a little guillotine with a blade that sliced across two holes: one for a finger and one for a cigarette. When I raised the Chopper’s blade and slammed it down, it seemed to pass right through my finger, miraculously leaving that appendage intact before slicing the cigarette in half. I must have gone through more than a pack a day of my father’s Lucky Strikes with my Chopper, and it always thrilled me. My mother, too, seemed to delight in the trick—a reaction that taught me that, under the right circumstances, people like to be deceived.

Some twenty years ago I showed a Chopper-inspired trick to a little girl in Hawai‘i named Joan Dukore. I removed the tip of my thumb and rejoined it as neatly as Professor Mysto had rejoined the lower half of his assistant. Today Joan is a magician in Vegas and her mother blames me. But, said Joan when I saw her in Vegas recently, "That wasn’t the trick that did it." She was dressed in the jester costume she wears for her close-up act, getting ready to head to work in the Venetian Hotel’s illusion of St. Mark’s Square. "The trick that did it," she recollected with a sweetly ironic smile, "was when you turned my allowance of one quarter into two. I was really amazed. I thought people could make money with magic. Maybe that’s why I’m here, because Las Vegas is the only place I know where a magician has a chance of earning a living."

I asked Joan why Vegas and magic are so integrally connected. "When someone sees a magic trick, they think anything’s possible. And that’s what you have to believe to gamble," she theorized. "Magic tempts the gamblers here. When I do a more elaborate version of the allowance trick you did, people imagine they might be able to do a similar trick with a slot machine. I work with dice and cards, too. If I can bring four aces to the top of a well-shuffled deck, why can’t they draw four of a kind in a poker hand?"

Joan has done everything that aspiring magicians in town do to conjure up a living: performing at benefits and parties, working industrial shows and conventions. "I used to do close-up magic for people waiting in line to see Celine Dion," she told me. "I’ve worked at magic shops and in restaurants, going from table to table. I used to work in front of the Outback Steakhouse, distracting customers waiting for a table. That was a tough gig. Derrick Burton took over for me. You should meet him. He’s a really sweet guy."

Derrick Burton

When I arrived in the parking lot outside the Outback Steakhouse at about 8:30 that night, there were indeed waiting customers. A fair-haired young man in a dark suit, his tuxedo shirt unbuttoned at the collar, ambled over to a restless cluster of five surly, exasperated men. "Been waiting long?" he asked. Any other question and the men present probably would have ignored him, told him to go away, or punched him.

"Yeah," answered one, "almost an hour. ‘Waiter’ takes on a whole new meaning at this restaurant."

It was no doubt the innocently smiling Derrick’s assurance that he’d try to find out about their table that commanded their attention long enough for him to begin to snatch red balls of light from one man’s elbow. The magician put one of the glowing balls up his nose, then produced it from his mouth. More balls appeared from pockets, from behind ears, from out of dark thin air.

"Pick a card, any card," Derrick said; as a card was chosen, there was a snide question: "If you’re such a good magician, why can’t you make a table appear?"

Undaunted, Derrick progressed to coins and sponge balls. A few tricks later, his haphazard audience was smiling, then even laughing, exclaiming, "That was amazing!" and asking, "How did you do that?" But, alas, after Derrick had finished, with still no table in sight, the guys headed across the parking lot to Taco Bell.

I stayed and Derrick told me his story. It was like that stage trick in which a showgirl is locked into a box and then a tiger hops out. About five years ago, in Derrick’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, his mother revealed that the man Derrick had always thought was his father wasn’t, in fact, his biological parent. His real father, he discovered much to his amazement, was none other than Lance Burton, Las Vegas’ "Master Magician."

Derrick has Lance Burton’s boyish glance and impish smile. He supposes that he has also inherited his father’s knack for sleight of hand and acumen as a magician. He occasionally works as a demonstrator at his father’s magic shop and, he proudly told me, the Master Magician is helping him to develop a bird act. "But what I’m most learning from him is personality, talking to an audience, being likeable in my act," said Derrick. "Lance Burton’s just as personable in life as he is on the stage. That’s the secret of his success."

While I was speaking to Derrick in the Outback parking lot, his father was across town at the 1,200-seat Lance Burton Theater in the Monte Carlo Hotel and Casino, vanishing a sports car, levitating showgirls and producing doves from his fingertips. The Lance Burton Show epitomizes the high-wrought Las Vegas magic spectacular: It’s got razzle-dazzle sets, bejeweled costumes, grandiloquent music, Broadway choreography, extravagant illusions, fire and smoke, feathers and silk, and dramatic vignettes with magical twists, turns and special effects. The father’s magic is as big as the son’s is small.

Later, when I met Lance Burton after his show, I asked him my question: "Why is magic so much more prevalent here than anywhere else?"

"I don’t know," the Master Magician answered modestly, with his son’s coy smile. It was as if I’d asked him how he’d vanished the sports car or levitated the showgirls. I guess magicians can’t be expected to reveal all they know.

Penn (left) and Teller

Penn and Teller are at the other end of the magic spectrum, using magic both to lampoon and redefine the art. In a raucous parody of the Lance Burton genre of Vegas magic show, these two flaunt red-glittered vests and break into peacockish dance and snazzy song as Penn puts Teller in a box, cuts him to pieces and restores him. Then they show you how it’s done. Their whole show is an edgy work that insinuates what magic, at its most comic and serious levels, is all about. "We’re here to help you fool yourselves," the irrepressibly robust Penn informs the audience. "It’s what you’ve been doing your whole lives."

Several years ago, I spent a few weeks in India with Penn and Teller, working as a consultant on a film they were doing. As a professor of Indian culture, I was hired to explain the connections between India and magic. Now I was in Vegas, I thought Penn and Teller could explain a few connections to me.

We met for lunch at the Great American Bar and Grill in the Rio. "Welcome to my Calcutta," Teller greeted me with a smile. He was with Penn and magician Kevin James, pickpocket Apollo Robins and Vegas old-timer Johnny "the Great Tomsoni" Thompson. Right away, everyone agreed that magic was particularly appropriate to the town because there are so many foreign visitors who don’t speak English. "You don’t need to understand what’s being said in a magic show to be amazed," someone pointed out. Someone else suggested that a magic show is something you probably see just once, and so magic relies on Vegas’ constant influx of visitors: 35,000,000 a year and counting.

Penn theorized that magic is popular in Vegas because most visitors feel compelled to see a live show: "You can enjoy a singer or comedian on television, but a magician, like a topless dancer, is a lot better live and in person." (A few days later, Penn’s simile inspired me to see Showgirls of Magic at the Hotel San Remo. The ads promised "gorgeous topless dancers and mystifying magic" and a "stage so close to the crowd that the audience is impressed as each illusion unfolds right in front of their eyes." It made sense to me: Magic is about fantasy and fantasy is rooted, I think, in erotic impulses. Sexy showgirls seem to be a perfunctory ingredient in all the Las Vegas magic spectaculars.)

Apollo Robins

Teller had a different idea. "Even a bad magic act demonstrates that what you see with your eyes and what you know about reality are two different things," he said. In other words, magic’s inherent paradox makes it perfect for the outlandish world that is Las Vegas. The magic show is a metaphor for the city itself, a place filled with hotels and casinos where you’re supposedly visiting Paris, New York, Venice, Bellagio, Monte Carlo, Rio, Mandalay, the Greek Isles, even ancient Rome or the pharaoh’s Egypt—knowing, of course, that you’re in Las Vegas.

Johnny Thompson has been a fixture in Vegas magic circles for decades. "Magic started here back in 1941, when the El Rancho Vegas was the only resort on the Strip," he told us. "They booked performers to entertain guests. There were a lot of vaudevillians available—singers, comedians, strippers, instrumentalists, dancers, you name it. Poodle acts, jugglers, ventriloquists, impersonators and, of course, magicians. All the new hotels got variety shows, and it became standard for a magic act to be the opening number. In the late ’60s, Siegfried and Roy got a contract to do their bird act in the Folies Bergere at the Tropicana. Then in the ’70s, Lefty Rosenthal—remember, the character played by De Niro in Casino?—booked them to do a full review that got bigger and bigger each year. Siegfried and Roy had wild animals, showgirls, entertainment on the scale of the biggest Broadway shows. They established Vegas as the capital of magic as spectacle."

When I brought up Joan Dukore’s idea that magic and Vegas are connected through gambling, Apollo noted that that’s an association casino managers avoid. "They don’t want people suspecting that the black-jack dealer might be adept at sleight of hand," he said. "They don’t want card tricks in casinos. In fact, the casinos often hire magicians to look for cheats. Away from the casinos, I’m sometimes hired to do card magic for private parties, and I show how cheats and cons work. I think of it as a con man petting zoo." Apollo is an extraordinarily skilled pickpocket with an act that plays on sleight of hand and misdirection—techniques that can be used for either entertainment or crime. Much to my astonishment, at the end of lunch he pointed out that he was wearing my watch. "The only difference between me and a thief," he remarked, "is that I give back the stuff I steal." Then he handed me my wallet.

Jeff McBride

The magic-Vegas question came up again with magician Jeff McBride after his performance in the World’s Greatest Magic Show at the Greek Isles. His theory: "It’s because of the light here in Las Vegas," he exclaimed with what seemed like genuine conviction, "the long days bright with sunlight outside and the dazzling twenty-four hours of electric light inside the casinos. Wherever there’s light, there’s magic."

Jeff conceives of his magic as "pagan expressionism." His act involves manipulating masks in an allegorical drama that evokes mystic rite. He says magic works in Las Vegas because the city is a primordial, mythic place where atavistic impulses are aroused. "Las Vegas induces a mystic state in sleep-deprived visitors who, whether they’re aware of it or not, are celebrating bacchanal just as it was celebrated in ancient times, in Egypt, Rome, Greece," Jeff said. "Thus the Luxor, Caesar’s Palace, the Greek Isles. Listen to the sound in the casino, the music and the ching-ching-ching of the slot machines, and you’ll hear 120 beats a minute. That’s the tempo that induces brainwave patterns to shift from a beta to an alpha state. That’s the state of mind in which magic happens. The magic show invites the audience to see the real magic in the world. There is real magic in Las Vegas, and it was here in the desert before there were any shows."

Jeff’s rhetoric and imagery suggest "real" magic while Penn and Teller’s is meant to demonstrate that the only magic that can actually be done is not magic at all—it’s tricks and the pleasure of it comes in being fooled. Either way, pleasure is everywhere in Vegas—the perfect place to take a vacation from reality.