Dave’s Killer Magic Shop
• Where: 910 N.E. Minnehaha St., Suite 1.
• Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
• Information: 360-448-9022 or the shop's website
• Coming up: Dave’s Killer Magic Shop presents a lecture by touring comedy magician Geoff Williams, 7 p.m. June 13 at The Portlander Inn, 10350 N. Vancouver Way, Portland.
Magic refuses to vanish from culture
Local practitioners help keep their art alive amid obstacles.
Outside of hubs such as Las Vegas, where David Copperfield, Penn & Teller and other big acts have found a home, there are few full-time magicians.
“There’s a lot of great magicians, but only a handful who are making the big bucks,” said Vancouver’s Mark Barrett, a resident historian for two regional magic clubs.
Yet magic remains entrenched in our culture, 86 years after the death of Harry Houdini. However, modern portrayals of magicians are not always positive.
A main character in the television comedy “Arrested Development” is a magician and egotistical buffoon who makes a yacht “disappear” with the help of high-powered explosives. And in the recent film “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” Jim Carrey plays a crazed, long-haired street magician who goes to depraved lengths for a trick, a performance that satirizes the body-punishing routines of David Blaine and the highly stylized and sometimes-ridiculed Criss Angel.
But those portrayals don’t bother comedy magician Adam Johnson, known as “Adam the Great.” There’s enough positive interest in what he does that Johnson was able to make magic his full-time career a decade ago, after years booking occasional gigs and a stint as a magical waiter at the now-closed Edelweiss Inn in Vancouver.
He recently brought his enthusiastic 10-year-old boy into the act as “Mason the Magnificent.”
“He’s coming out of his shell,” Johnson said.
The 39-year-old Vancouver resident is encouraged youngsters like his son are taking an interest, many learning the ropes through online tutorials or DVDs.
“I think it’s coming back around. It got weird for a while,” Johnson said about the magic industry. “These kids can learn so fast these days because of YouTube. It’s amazing.”
But what fledging magicians can’t glean from a tutorial video are nuances that can only come from imagination and a thirst to perform, said Carey Heim, a 52-year-old part-time magician from Ridgefield who has served as a mentor for a few local magicians, including Adam the Great.
“What’s going to happen is the true art of magic will be lost. It’s so generic when you look at a YouTube video,” Heim said. “Anybody can copy a performance. You want it to be personal.”
The smirking store owner behind the counter was curiously calm for someone whose wallet had suddenly burst into flames.
Dave Lemberg was commenting how similar his black leather wallet was to a customer's when it magically ignited in his hands. But faster than you can say "abracadabra," the fire vanished as Lemberg slipped the unscathed billfold back into his rear pocket.
It's business as usual in a store that specializes in the impossible.
Since opening in April 2012, Dave's Killer Magic Shop — one of only a few magic stores in the Northwest — has become an unofficial meeting place for area magicians, some professional, many amateur, who gather to talk shop, practice stage patter and develop routines with guidance from other performers.
Lemberg and his wife, Gina, started the shop, 910 N.E. Minnehaha St., after years as online retailers. He's banking on fulfilling an underdeveloped niche in the area, overseeing a space where magicians can connect and the uninitiated can casually join the fold.
Danny Schreiber, president of the Portland-area Society of American Magicians, estimates there are a few hundred working magicians in the region, most of whom perform part-time just like he does, as Professor DR Schreiber, the "Historical Conjurer." There are about 65 members in Schreiber's group, part of the oldest magic society in the world. Many of those are also involved with The Portland Society of Magicians, founded in 1922.
Lemberg's shop serves a vital purpose by providing a home base for the magic community, Schreiber said.
"To create a brick-and-mortar magic shop nowadays is pretty rare," Schreiber said. "Magicians have used (magic shops) as kind
of like their impromptu clubhouse, a place to learn new tricks, find out what's the gossip."
Makings of a magician
Magic came into Lemberg's life just as it did for so many others who devote themselves to the art of illusion: an amateur magic set.
The 50-year-old Union High School chemistry teacher was given the set as a Christmas gift in the early 1970s. He got the bug, but didn't fully embrace the craft until he was older. At an educational conference in 1991, he learned the benefits of using simple magic tricks in the classroom and soon began incorporating the occasional routine as a spoonful of sugar to help make his science lessons easier to swallow.
About four years ago, he began performing in public, often with Tom Cramer as the humorous, Vaudeville-throwback "The Tom and Dave Show."
Now his attention is focused on the store, as Lemberg does what he can to build business while fostering local magic culture.
Though some are mass-produced novelties, many of the items Lemberg stocks were created and distributed by magicians, who sell their original routines as a way to conjure up some cash. A black-and-white illustrated book that seems to fill with color when its pages are flipped costs only a few dollars, while more elaborate illusions, including a $150 coin-bending gimmick called "Coinvexed," can empty your wallet. Speaking of which, you can pick up your own "Fire Wallet" for $35.
"The old joke is magicians don't give away their secrets; they sell them," said magician Schreiber, who lives in West Linn, Ore.
Lemberg said his shop is losing money, but he has hopes it will soon begin to thrive thanks to constant community outreach. He often hosts lectures by professional magicians, as well as classes for kids.
"We're not making any (profits) yet — and we will — but the whole idea is to build a magic community," Lemberg said. "We're making more magicians in Clark County."
As historian for both the local chapter of The Society of American Magicians and The Portland Society of Magicians, Mark Barrett has devoted years to studying the evolution of the industry.
Filled with vintage magic sets, hand-crafted equipment and show posters advertising legends long gone, Barrett's small garage in Northeast Hazel Dell is a one-man museum dedicated to magic's past. Barrett still has his first childhood magic set from the early 1970s, with tape now holding the packaging together.
Much of his extensive collection was purchased from estate sales after fellow magicians died, which he said seems to be happening more and more as magic's demographics seem to be shifting older.
"A lot of them are already gone," he said.
The professional delivery driver who performs magic as a clown named "Rusty Buttons," couldn't — or wouldn't — say how much it's all worth, but said the value to him isn't monetary. His collection represents something more, a fond nostalgia for an era that has passed, when magicians, dressed to the nines, performed seemingly impossible feats to the wonderment of an audience who cared less about how a trick was done than the joy of being fooled.
With the ubiquity of spoilers on the Internet, Barrett said the secrets of most routines can be found with a quick Web search. He said it's in our nature to wonder how a trick is performed, but it used to be much more difficult to discover the truth when the secrets were held only within the minds of magicians or in a hard-to-find book.
Some performers, such as notorious 1970s spoon bender Uri Geller, have claimed to be blessed with supernatural powers. But most magicians freely admit the seemingly impossible feats they pull off on a regular basis are only tricks to inspire awe — usually incorporating a perception-shattering mix of optical illusions, sleight of hand and linguistic deception.
But some magicians believe the audience's willing suspension of disbelief is threatened when a trick becomes a puzzle that can be solved with a visit to YouTube. When magic is taken out of magic, what's left?
Barrett fears it's becoming a disappearing act.
"It's a dying art," he said. "We would love to see some new people in our fraternity. We're not always going to be around."
Barrett believes a shop like Lemberg's can help ensure a stronger future for magic in the Pacific Northwest.
Passing it on
Lemberg said magic has always been based around mentoring. Experts pass their knowledge to protégés, who perfect the tricks and later teach them to others. And on and on and on.
"That's the way magic shops used to work. And we're bringing it back," Lemberg said.
During a casual workshop for kids May 11, Lemberg mesmerized 8-year-old Jaedin Feist outside his store by passing a small spongy ball from his clenched fist to hers. As she released her grip, Jaedin discovered she was now holding two red balls (named "Sponge" and "Bob," Lemberg joked) instead of only one.
Jaedin's eyes widened as she asked how it was done.
"It's magic," Lemberg said as Jaedin turned to her grandmother to try and mimic the routine.
"This is 'Sponge' and this is 'Bob,'" the girl began.