LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) - Jamie O’Hara’s first job was working behind the counter in a magic shop. He was 10 years old, growing up in the suburbs of New York City.
On a recent Friday afternoon, visitors to Raze Studio Illusions & Magic in Las Cruces, New Mexico, were greeted by O’Hara - general manager and resident magician - from behind the counter.
“Being back behind the counter in a magic shop is, like, fantasy, living the dream - and also a little weird,” O’Hara said. After establishing a successful career as a professional magician, he’s now teaching young magic enthusiasts about the art form.
“I’m demonstrating magic tricks for the public to buy, but most of that stuff is not in my repertoire. Some of it is - I do my own version of it,” he explained. “But I’m going to have to learn a bunch of tricks for the public so that people can get started - and quickly. It’s just really exciting, but an interesting challenge for me. It’s an unusual twist for me to be back in this position. But it’s spreading the love of magic, and that’s a really fun thing.”
The theater’s vibrant, red and black carpet lets you know that you are, unmistakably, in a performance space. The authentic, Houdini-era handcuffs mounted to the wall and various magic memorabilia make it clear that it’s a space where magic happens.
“The tiny handcuffs are from about 100 years ago, and are very similar to what Houdini would’ve escaped from,” he explained.
A highlight reel of owner Imran Raza’s performances plays on a large-screen television mounted to the wall.
Raza, a local physician, performs magic under the stage name of Raze - from whence the studio gets its name. As an adolescent, growing up in Pakistan, Raza first encountered magic and fell in love.
“I was in 10th grade, and there was a gala going on,” Raza recalled. “And this (magician) was burning napkins and making them turn into money. He’d wad up a napkin, light it on fire, and turn it into a note which he’d give to the people. And I thought, ‘What the … This is really cool!’”
After the show, Raza approached the magician and said he wanted to learn how to do what he’d just seen. The magician initially declined the young man’s requests.
“He said, ‘No, you cant. Because this is my secret from generations and we are magicians, going back generations,’” Raza recalled. “‘I am not going to give it away to anybody - especially a kid, who doesn’t even know what this is,’ he said.”
But Raza was persistent. An excellent student, he began tutoring his peers for money - which he would take to the magician’s house in exchange for magic lessons.
“And, of course, my dad didn’t like it because he wanted me to focus on my studies,” Raza laughed. “In his mind, he wanted to do good for me. He wanted me to become a doctor, which was his dream. And I wanted to be a doctor, too.”
Ironically, it was magic that helped put Dr. Raza through medical school in Pakistan. He’d perform magic shows to earn money for books and fees. In Pakistan, he performed on television, at large hotels and big parties, he said.
In 2000, Raza moved to the United States. Though he had a medical degree, he was not licensed to practice medicine in the country. Living in New Jersey at the time, he could not get a job in the medical field - because he was overqualified.
“I had all sorts of odd jobs,” Raza said. “I was working as a security guard, and at a restaurant, and selling sunglasses at a kiosk in the mall. Whatever I could do to make ends meet.”
Eventually, Raza applied to the residency program at Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces. After the first day of interviews, it wasn’t looking promising. On the second day of interviews, the potential residents gathered for a social. The program’s director at the time noticed that Raza had expressed an interest in magic on his application, and asked him about it.
“I said, ‘Give me 30 minutes at the social.” And he blew their minds.
“The boss came up to me and said, ‘I’ve interviewed thousands of doctors, but I’ve never seen anything like that. You have blown me away.’ He said, ‘Is your offer still standing?’”
“I said, ‘What offer?’ And he said, ‘The offer that you gave me - that you wanted a job?’”
Bert Garrett was the head of MMC’s residency program at the time. He remembers fondly the impression Raza made upon him.
“The thing about doctors - and I’ve interviewed thousands of them - they need to have a sense of humor, some interest outside of medicine. They need to have people skills. Those are the types of physicians I wanted for the program.”
Garrett said Raza’s performance at the residents’ social was astounding.
“It was fabulous - a wonderful show,” Garrett remembered. “He really demonstrated to me that he had that. I cannot recommend highly enough that the residents of Las Cruces that they see his show. It’s fun, and it’s really clear that he enjoys doing it.”
Raza made it into the residency program and earned his license to practice medicine in the U.S.
“When I was on (pediatrics) rotation, I remember going room-to-room, performing magic on Christmas day,” he recalls. “The children and adults all loved it. Magic, you know, is not just for kids.”
Since then, Raza has left the hospital and started a private practice. He has become financially secure and purchased the shopping center on Rinconada Boulevard where his practice is located. He has two tenants - Goodwill Industries and Cricket. He had one other office space that had gone unrented.
In 2019, Raza performed two large-venue shows: At New Mexico State University’s Atkinson Recital Hall and the Rio Grande Theatre. Both shows sold out.
Raza said that he hopes audiences will not hold him to a lower standard because he is a doctor.
“I want people to judge me at the level of a professional illusionist,” he said. “Come watch my show, and give me honest feedback.”
With his financial success, Raza has been able to purchase a wide variety of props for his act, and a truck to transport those props. He hopes to book performances in Tucson, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The nearest illusionists, he said, are in Phoenix and Houston.
“Magic, in many ways, has gotten me to where I am,” Raza said. “And now I want to use it to give back to this wonderful community.”
O’Hara grew up Edgemont - less than an hour north of New York City. There, his grandmother had opened a costume rental store, Westchester Costume, when she was in her sixties. In those days, you couldn’t just purchase an inexpensive costume at a retail store, he explained; you had to go to a rental place.
“They mainly catered to plays and festivals - that sort of stuff,” he said.
As O’Hara’s grandmother aged, the costume shop was taken over by one of his uncles. Two of O’Hara’s cousins were magicians and, eventually, a magic counter was added to the business.
“Just like a tire store doesn’t always sell rims, but when they do it makes perfect sense. If they sold pizza, that would be a surprise - or crochet supplies,” O’Hara joked. “So for a costume shop to have a magic counter, or gag counter, is not weird.”
But O’Hara’s interest in magic had already been piqued when a female magician, “Queenie,” performed at his birthday party when he turned 7.
During his early adolescence, O’Hara was given a chance to work behind that counter, where he was mentored in magic by his older cousins and other local magicians.
“I was learning to do sleight of hand by amazing magicians, and I demonstrated magic over-the-counter, like I am now again doing,” he chuckled. “It was my part-time job as a young teenager. And so, having this come full-circle, is not something that I would ever, in my wildest of dreams, have expected to occur.”
O’Hara moved to Las Cruces in 1982, and started doing magic full-time in 1987. He had been doing restaurant work, and wanted to pursue magic as a profession.
Since then, he has performed nearly 9,200 shows. About 4,000 were birthday party shows - about 3,900 of which were for celebrants under the age of 14. The remaining 100 were for people aged 49-99, he told the Sun-News. He also emcees the Hatch Chile Festival and other area events.
He has also performed at more than 2,000 school assemblies and library shows around the state. O’Hara performed at the Southern New Mexico State Fair for 22 consecutive years - about 350 performances.
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