- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2007

ohan Palacios is a natural showman. When the 8-year-old begins to wave his arms and mysteriously chant the impromptu incantation “Abracadabra, presto, magico,” all eyes turn to watch a little red ball disappear and then reappear from underneath a plastic cup.

This simple but baffling trick is one of many Rohan and his fellow magicians-in-training learned recently at the new Magical Mystery Camp. The five-day program is sponsored by Headfirst, a popular summer camp provider in the District, and held weekly throughout the summer at St. Alban’s School on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral.

Rohan says the camp has given him a “new respect” for magic, while camper Clare Sprecht, a soft-spoken 10-year-old, says, “It’s just fun to impress people using magic and hear them ask, ‘How did you do that?’ ”

But Antwan Wright and the other campers know that a good magician must carefully guard the tricks of his magical trade. “I showed my dad a card trick, and he kept asking me how I did it, but I wouldn’t tell him,” the 11-year-old says. “It’s magic; it’s supposed to be a secret.”

What is not a secret is the increasing popularity of summer magic camps, with new programs appearing across the country this year.

Most magic camps teach basic sleight of hand techniques using simple household items such as a ball, coin or deck of cards, but Camp Curtain Call in Dugspur, Va., is taking magic camp to a new level.

For the first time, the performing-arts camp is offering a weeklong magic-intensive session that will give magic-minded children the opportunity to learn some of the most advanced tricks in the industry. The camp, taking place this week, will culminate in a Las Vegas-style review show put on by the campers, complete with large illusion props, fog machines and special lighting.

Camp Curtain Call’s founder, Eddie Armbrister, says he began life as a “painfully shy kid,” but for more than two decades, he has been working as a corporate magician, combining magic and motivational speaking for crowds of businessmen from companies such as Coca-Cola and Magnavox.

Mr. Armbrister’s change from shy child to showman began when a magician performed for his first-grade class, sparking what would become a lifelong passion for all things magical. Now the attorney-turned-professional-magician is working to show youngsters at Camp Curtain Call what a difference magic can make.

Though magic historically has been viewed as a source of entertainment, its educational benefits are quickly becoming the talk of the magic town.

“Magic instills a sense of confidence and comfort in social settings as well as improved public-speaking skills, dexterity, memory and coordination,” explains Josh Norris, a professional magician from Northwest. Mr. Norris began touring the country with his magic show at age 14 and performs weekly at Axis Restaurant in Northwest and for corporate events throughout Maryland and Virginia.

Jann Goodsell agrees that magic can play a positive role in the life of a child. “Many children blossom as they gain the confidence that comes from mastering magic and presenting it to an audience,” says the director of the Society of Young Magicians, a nonprofit organization that promotes magic among children and teens.

Christopher McCauley, who teaches at the Magical Mystery Camp in the District and has been teaching after-school magic programs for the past five years, says, “It’s not unusual to have a child come in who is afraid to walk into the class, but after teaching them magic, they are not afraid to get up onstage in front of 50 people and perform a trick.”

It is not just children who can benefit from learning to perform magic. For the current World Champion Magician Rick Merrill, the twofold rewards of magic apply equally to every performer, regardless of age.

“First, by doing magic, you get to make other people feel good. You get to brighten someone’s day with a ‘Willy Wonka’ moment,” says the Grand Rapids, Mich., resident. “Second, you get to feel good yourself. Magic is such a fun form of entertainment that you cannot help but have a good time when performing it.”

Magic Castle founder and Hollywood Walk of Fame inductee Milt Larsen agrees that magic can be a universal source of enjoyment.

“Magicians live in a world of fantasy, and in the real world, which is oftentimes so tragic, it is kind of wonderful to be an escapist,” he says.

At the age of 76, Mr. Larsen is a colorful character who says he has been performing magic since he was 1 year old. His Magic Castle in Hollywood, the most prestigious magicians club in the nation, is often credited for the renaissance of magic sweeping the country.

“A few years ago, magicians were lucky to get work doing an occasional kids’ show, but now magic is extremely popular,” Mr. Larsen says, pointing to famed illusionists and Magic Castle members such as David Copperfield and Criss Angel. The resurgence of interest in magic also has been linked to the Harry Potter phenomenon and such movies as “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Prestige,” which have fueled a renewed interest in the fantasy world and, by extension, magic.

The popularity of magic, regardless of the source, undoubtedly is furthered by the adaptability of magic to young and old, professional or hobbyist.

“There are thousands of teachers, doctors and social workers who use magic as a tool to impart a message, put their patients at ease, work with children and much more,” says Mr. Norris, the magician who has been performing since he was 14.

Mr. Norris also stresses the ability of close-up magic, the kind that uses small objects rather than large illusion props, to be tailored to any situation or audience. “If anyone asks you to show them a trick, it is a lot easier to find a deck of cards than a giant magic box and Bengal tiger,” he quips.

Still, most magicians agree that giving the gift of happiness to the audience is the best part of their art.

“When you perform a magic trick for someone, you might have just shown them the most amazing, wonderful thing they have seen all day, all week or all year,” says Geoff Weber, a magician from Lorton who performs at private parties in the metropolitan area. “You have a created a memory they will carry with them forever.”

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