Profile: A conjurer of magicians

Jeff McBride is more than a skilled performer of magic. He is also perhaps his best teacher

The master dresses in a flowing black robe. There’s subtle drama in the way he points a finger or flicks a wrist, his delivery marked by expectant pauses, the way he stares at you with those penetrating brown eyes. Remember, though, don’t dwell on his face – that’s exactly what Jeff McBride wants. Keep an eye on those hands. Always watch the hands.

The veteran magician has set numerous Guinness World Records for his dexterity, such as rolling a silver dollar between his fingers 31 times in one minute. A gonzo trick involves an entire game falling out of his mouth. A scholar of magic who has one of the nation’s most comprehensive libraries of his art form, McBride performs around the world and has lectured before the International Brotherhood of Magicians — the Smithsonian, too — detailing the obscure history of magic and drama, as well as their applications. in everyday life.

At a recent party, the 59-year-old did what he perhaps loves most: mentoring young magicians, lending an experienced eye to their timing and delivery. It features the cast of 10 of the night: There’s Rick Maisel, the escape artist; card shark Jeff Lockett; Will Bradshaw and his dancing cane; Jarol Martin, born in Cuba, which evokes whole streetlights.

“You may have seen Jarol on the Masters of Illusion show. He made the lamps,” McBride tells Tetro, a fire magician who will soon appear on the same show.

They have all gathered in McBride’s wizard’s lair. Red curtains fall from the ceiling to the floor, framing a stage filled with incense and an ambient mystical rhythm. The lighting is dim, the windows covered to keep secrets unrevealed. Leer masks from the corners. Even some chairs are gothic. Magicians, of course, feel at home. Now is the time to go to work.

For 18 years, McBride used the hall for his School of Magic and Mystery, considered the premier institution for teaching the art of stage magic. He gives lessons to magicians around the world, via Skype and through video consultations on The Locked Room, a private website. But how do you help foster the next generation of sleight-of-hand virtuosos in a city that’s considered the very capital of magic – a place crowded with talent, including high-powered performers of the craft?

More than a decade ago, McBride founded Wonderground, a monthly public showcase in which practitioners experiment with new materials in front of an audience of colleagues and dedicated fans. (Sometimes headliners such as Mat Franco, Lance Burton and Criss Angel also perform unannounced sets.)

The three-hour show at The Olive Mediterranean Grill is a virtual magic parlor that combines stage performances and dancers with close-up card tricks, tarot readings, jugglers and fire-eaters. Each month offers a new program. For the magicians, the stage evokes an intimate jazz club, where they reveal numbers that they have been working on for months, even years. McBride likens it to a gym for magicians. For performers, the stakes — and the pressure — are immense.

The night before, McBride collects the cast from his home for a last-minute setting. He announces each to polite applause, offering technical advice and emotional support.

One by one, the performers do five-minute acts from a dining hall to a step that serves as a stage, their peers seated in folding chairs, filling out comment cards before McBride weighs in, sometimes recording acts for a further study. The room is tense. This crowd can spot the slightest flaw. McBride tells performer Joan DuKore to sing her words, even with a deck of cards in her mouth. A novice points his hand to a lathe and slumps sadly in his chair as his peers lend him a hand. “You won’t be the first person to screw up a magic trick,” says an artist named Bizarro, “and you won’t be the last.”

When Martin, the magician of the lamp, completes a new act involving color-changing scarves, the master silently gives a thumbs up, making him blush with pride.

***

McBride grew up in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where a borrowed library book became her Bible, her practical guide to probing the impossible: The Golden Book of Magic, by The Great Merlini. “As a third-grader, it set my mind on fire,” he recalls. “Kids crave empowerment, and I got that early on.” His first trick, the one that remains in his repertoire, was to pass a pencil through a handkerchief, which he attempted without reading the whole chapter. He tore the handkerchief, shouting “No, no, no”, as he tried to stick it back together. He got better, working at resorts around the Catskills, where he was spotted by a talent scout.

After that, he appeared on the TV show What’s My Line? Eventually moving to Manhattan, McBride did busking and worked at Flosso-Hornmann Magic, a boutique once partly owned by Houdini himself. At night he studied at the American Mime Theater and, at 19, got a regular gig at a joint called Club Idis. He then opened for Diana Ross at Radio City Music Hall. In the mid-1980s McBride moved to Las Vegas and performed at venues such as Caesars, Hilton and Golden Nugget.

Burton says McBride holds a special place in magic. “He is not just a top-notch magician, but an organizer who has created an entire magical community that many people, including myself, are thrilled to be a part of.” Former protege Mat Franco still shows up at McBride’s classes. “Jeff doesn’t just teach, he gives people confidence in what they’re doing,” he says. “These are life lessons, not just magic tricks.” Even David Copperfield chimes in: “Jeff McBride has enormous skills and knowledge of our art.

John E. McLaughlin, who in 2004 briefly served as acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, says the magic McBride instructs is central to espionage, pointing to a Cold War-era booklet titled The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception. Now a magician himself, McLaughlin praises McBride’s purse. “If I have a question about magic, he either knows the answer or how to find it, from the history to the deeper meaning of the art form.”

For decades, McBride studied with Eugene Burger, a religious scholar known for his close-up skills, who taught McBride’s master classes until his death in 2017. “He made magic relevant to life. “, says McBride, “more than just a trick or a puzzle.

Burger also instilled in McBride the joy of teaching. “At a crucial stage in my career, I was burning the candle at both ends. Eugene showed me how to burn off one end and use it to light someone else’s candle, without putting out my own light.

***

Performers arrive hours before the 8 p.m. show at Wonderground, congregating amid couches and chairs arranged around low tables, where patrons can then eat, drink and smoke hookahs under red-tinted lighting. They discuss their mentor.

As a boy, Tetro saw McBride perform on TV and decided, this is what I want to do. Years later, the professor took the young performer to his library to help him develop a new illusion. According to magician Will Bradshaw, “Jeff spends more time reading and doing magic than anyone I’ve ever met.” No wonder the Society of American Magicians elected him to the Magic Hall of Fame in January.

At 8 p.m., McBride is on stage, dressed in signature black, an ornamental red scarf cascading down the back of his top hat. In the first act, five performers – including McBride’s wife, Abigail – perform a belly dancing improvisation while the master works in the hall. It’s not until magician David DaVinci, whose tricks feature exotic parrots, arrives for a brief set, that McBride relaxes. He sits down on a sofa to enjoy the act, without an ounce of envy or overstatement. “It’s so difficult,” he says. “He makes it look so easy.”

McBride’s proteges perform without observable errors, making the master proud. When Martin, Cuba’s illusionist, finishes his number, McBride joins him on stage. It was Martin’s first time performing the routine in front of a live audience, he says.

“I did it well thanks to you,” Martin replies. “You are like a hero to me.”

The following night, the magicians meet again at McBride’s house. Normally, they would review their Wonderground performances. But tonight, the band wants to help Tetro celebrate his Masters of Illusion debut. McBride scans the faces of his students, marveling at their audacity. “It takes years of practice just to get there,” he says, “not to mention creating something original.”

Tetro’s fire levitation act is short but thrilling. Then McBride pats her on the shoulder. “It looked clean,” he says. The room applauds, McBride the loudest of them all.

Brian L. Hartfield