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It's no illusion: Magicians can make big bucks

Although many people regard magicians as small-time players who eke out a living as children’s birthday-party entertainers, that perception, ladies and gentlemen, is an illusion.
/ Source: contributor

The film “The Illusionist,” which opened Friday, contains several scenes where Edward Norton, the title character, discusses with his manager the not too shabby revenue generated by his performances. When it comes to money, there’s nothing illusionary about the often big-bucks profession of magic, either in the movies or real life.           

Although many people regard magicians as small-time players who eke out a living as children’s birthday-party entertainers, that perception, ladies and gentlemen, is an illusion.

“Show business is comprised of two things – the show and the business,” says Aaron Radatz, a magician and illusionist who’s based in Las Vegas and performs, in a tan suit with “a very relaxed look,” in the U.S. and abroad. His annual income, in an average or above-average year, has hit seven-figures. “At the top of the pyramid, you can do very well, especially people who have had their own television specials.”

(Although many people use the terms interchangeably, a magician generally performs sleight of hand tricks with cards or coins, while an illusionist does tricks – such as sawing a body in half or making animals disappear – using larger stage props.)

People like Radatz are nipping at the heels of media-familiar names like David Blaine, Penn & Teller and David Copperfield.

Student of legendary Harry Blackstone
Radatz, 29, basically self-taught – he also studied with legendary magician Harry Blackstone, Jr. – has been performing and earning a living as a magician since he was 14, when he performed at senior citizen homes and kids’ gatherings. His part-time teenage efforts brought in an annual income equivalent, he says, to what people might earn working full time at a fast-food eatery.

Knowing he’d be doing this professionally for life, Radatz – who’s signature stage move “is starting off as the invisible man and assembling myself piece by piece visibly in front of the audience – majored in marketing at Central Michigan University. The business focus has made all the difference. Currently his main sources of income are split between performances at corporate events, casinos and theme parks. Corporate work, such as making a CEO “appear” at the beginning of a presentation, is especially lucrative, commanding a five-figure price tag.

“There are a lot more quality performers out there than there are business people,” he says, conceding that many magicians are hobbyists, rather than full-time performers.  “But if your locale is saturated, you have to determine where else to take the show and you have to create the work. You’re always looking for opportunities to either bring your quality of work up to another level on the artistic side, and also to increase revenues and decrease expenses, like building and transporting special props.” Currently, his main project is to get more television work.

Added income from DVD sales
Also underscoring the need for business chops is Frank DeMasi, a full-time magician from Livingston, N.J., who performs as “Magic Frank” and earns six figures. DeMasi, also self-taught and earning a living from his magic since he was a teenager, performs mainly sleight of hand and family shows and birthday parties regionally. His annual income also includes revenues from the sales of his “Magic Frank’s Lessons in Magic” DVD series. Like Radatz, DeMasi has expanded his business to include private instruction classes and a fanzine. He’s even got a fan club.

“A lot of people think you just hang out and do your shows, which is not true,” DeMasi says. “I still practice four to six hours a day.”

DeMasi, 39, suggests that consumers who hire magicians sometimes fall prey to the allure of lower prices from part-time performers who may charge half of what a professional asks. “But you get what you pay for,” he says. He described one occasion when a woman phoned him in desperation because the magician she had booked for her child’s birthday party hadn’t shown up. She had never asked for a contract.

Greg Bordner, who owns Abbott’s Magic Manufacturing Company, in Colon, Mich. – Abbott’s is the legendary manufacturer of magical apparatus, such as head-choppers, that was co-founded by Bordner’s father in 1934 – says that a performer first needs to have a quality act. “That’s the biggest downfall, not being that good on stage,” he says. “But to get booked, they have to have a good list of people to email and follow up. Business is more important than the show.”

Not as simple as waving a magic wand
The verdict is that being a prosperous magician is not as simple as waving a, well, magic wand.

“Usually, if someone is going to be really successful, they will invent their own routine and the way they present it,” says Bordner. “The method might be unique to them, so they don’t want the method to be known.” Bordner cites one well known magician who bought a strait-jacket at Abbott’s to see how it worked, but then customized it.

Unless magicians can double themselves, Radatz suggests working with a partner. ”Creating a team is so important in this business,” he says. “You can’t do everything your self and produce quality work.” Radatz’s only paid employee is his business partner, whom he’s known since high school. Teaming up with a management-savvy partner is especially helpful, when the magician is more artist than business person, he says.

Radatz also notes that magicians at the top of their game can earn as much as or more than physicians and attorneys. That’s enough to dispel the notion of magic as being only about “the rabbit, top hat and tails look, which is old fashioned. It’s very much an art form that has evolved with the times.” To prosper in the art, however, requires a good business head, either with or without the top hat.