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This was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 11, 1998.

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An Evening of Abracadabra

On Thursday, November 12, at 7:45 p.m., the Society

of American Magicians, Assembly 181, will be called to order by

president

Rich Westcott. And like a guest at the best illusionist’s show, he

won’t know what to expect. "At a doctors’ meeting, all you meet

is doctors," says Westcott, a full-time magician and the force

behind Magic By Westcraft. "At our meetings you might meet anyone

from an undertaker to a stockbroker."

Whether most of us noticed it or not, October was National Magic Month

and Wescott is expecting a big turnout. Most S.A.M. meetings are open

to the public and draw a crowd of performers, hobbyists, collectors,

and magic historians. The chapter is part of an international

fraternal

order with 7,000 members, and a vital part of a thriving New Jersey

magician network. "We collaborate because we can all grow and

nobody is the same," says Westcott. "You and I can do the

same trick, but we’ll do it differently, according to our own

personalities."

Westcott’s Magic By Westcraft is itself a local source of largesse.

Although he does more than 700 performances a year, driving more than

1,000 miles a week, there are still many engagements he simply can’t

make. Those he refers to other S.A.M. members, like Helen Vetter,

a clown and magician whose company, Jest For Fun, is based in Red

Bank. Although Vetter works as a bookkeeper two days a week, "for

an illusion of normalcy" she claims, she has been honing her craft

as a clown, which she counts as her third career, for 10 years.

"Being born to very serious, Depression-era parents, becoming

a clown wasn’t something I felt I could do," she says. "So

I went to college and became a dental hygienist for 10 years, and

then managed a Waldenbooks store for another seven. The problem was,

I kept getting bored." Has magic held her interest? "The

longer

I’m in it, the more I want to learn and that really sustains me,"

she says. According to Vetter, the variety the job offers, like

getting

the opportunity to work at Bruce Springsteen’s home painting kids’

faces, is a real plus. "You just don’t know where you’ll be or

how people will react, so every day is a real adventure."

Calling himself a semi-professional magician, Kevin

Vinicombe is another S.A.M. member, one who claims two other

professional

"alter egos." Vinicombe helps his wife Georgianne manage her

Monday Morning Flower and Balloon Company stores in Princeton and

Yardley, and he is also an executive recruiter with GSP International

in Woodbridge, pulling positions out of hats for accounting and

finance

professionals. Like Westcott, Vinicombe has a particular affinity

for performing magic for children — whom, he says, "are

probably

the most difficult people to perform for. Adults want to be tricked

and given something to analyze, but children need to be entertained.

You can’t just stand up there doing tricks for children — you

have to be a polished performer."

Another Assembly 181 regular, Michael Gutman, does only a few magic

shows a month. That’s because his day job — he’s a lawyer with

Riley & Gutman in Freehold, and holds an MBA as well as a JD —

takes up a good deal of time. Like the other S.A.M. members, his

fascination

with magic began when he was a child, and he first joined the

International

Brotherhood of Magicians’ youth division when he was 14. Magic was

how he worked his way through college, and he finds that 25 years

as a performer — Gutman is now 35 — bring real benefits.

"I’m primarily a real estate attorney, so I often do homebuyers’

and sellers’ seminars," he says. "My background has been a

real asset for public speaking. And I usually do a magic trick at

the end of every real estate closing. A law professor once told me

that the closing is the magic moment when a deed gets transferred

— so I knew that was my cue to work a trick into every

closing."

The combination of vocation and avocation keeps things fun, and even

among legal clients, Gutman always finds an appreciative audience.

"We all have something inside us that wants to do the

impossible,"

he says. "That’s what magic is: obtaining the unobtainable."

And Howard Markowitz, the owner of Moto Photo on Quakerbridge Road

in Mercerville, attends S.A.M. meetings — not as a performer,

but as a collector of unusual, often handmade pieces of magic

paraphernalia.

And by "paraphernalia," does he mean magic tricks? "Dogs

do tricks," he replies. "Magicians do illusions."

S.A.M. meetings might include demonstrations of magic equipment, while

other evenings are devoted to mini-workshops in rope, coin, and

impromptu

magic, trouble-shooting sessions, and roundtable discussions on how

to cope with such occupational dilemmas as dealing with hecklers and

choosing a volunteer.

"Do you pick the child who is wildly waving his arms, saying,

`Me, me, me, me, me!’ or do you pick the child who’s sitting quietly,

raising his hand. Or do you pick the child who isn’t doing anything

at all, except looking hopeful?" asks one member. Westcott usually

picks volunteers from among the last two categories, finding

particularly

fertile performer ground in the undemonstratively hopeful. "People

are often amazed at how even shy children respond to being in a

performance,"

he says. "I once had a two-year-old help me who, his mother said,

couldn’t be talked into going to his own father!"

Members of Assembly 181 share favorite techniques, critique each

other’s

work, and work together on improvisation. The international order

— like its counterpart, the International Brotherhood of Magicians

— can be counted upon for friendly support worldwide, as Westcott

and his wife found out during a trip to Holland. Having contacted

two retired Dutch magicians, they were delighted to find themselves

introduced to the world of Dutch magic, the elder pros showering

Westcott

with 20 or 30 tricks, he now recalls. "I was just embarrassed

by how many tricks they gave me. When I got back, I sent off a package

of things they didn’t have. It’s that kind of an organization."

When it comes to illusions, Westcott has had plenty of practice. A

large man with a ready and frequent laugh, Westcott, who will turn

50 this fall, fell in love with magic the day he saw his minister

pulling rolls of lifesavers out of delighted children’s ears. He

practiced

his magic part-time until his wedding anniversary, 1990. That’s when

the biotech firm he worked for as an administrator ran through its

last bit of venture capital, and Westcott found himself out of a job.

As magic became a fulltime occupation, Westcott decided to concentrate

on the preschool market, despite warnings from other performers.

"Everybody

said little children couldn’t sit still for half an hour, let alone

the 45 minutes it takes to do my show," he recalls. "But I

found it easy to hold their attention, and I haven’t looked back

since."

With a repertoire of six different children’s shows — including

Santa’s Gift of Giving, Captain Richard’s Pirate Magic Show, and the

Teddy Bear’s Picnic Magic Show — and one show specifically for

adults, Westcott now performs at more than 400 nursery schools —

a real switch from the restaurants he used to work on weekends as

a part-timer. "Now, I’m doing magic when everyone else is working

for Xerox," he says. "There are actually weekends when I have

off."

He has performed at an ostrich farm, done parties to celebrate Ramadan

and Kahlil Gibran’s birthday, and entertained a Halloween gathering

where all the girls came dressed as the Little Mermaid, all unable

to walk because of their tails. He gave a memorable performance at

Johnson & Johnson, helping the company introduce its new online staff

newsletter. Claiming he was a paper reduction expert from Copperfield

Industries, Westcott stuffed a bag with different scarves, each one

representing a newsletter section, then gave the bag a shake —

and transformed it into a 36-inch silk scarf emblazoned with the

newsletter’s

desktop screen. His summers are filled with performances at corporate

picnics and family reunions.

There are three major classifications of magic, Westcott explains:

close up, in which a magician sits at a table or approaches people

to entertain; platform, which entails performing for an audience of

up to 100 people in a living room or small club; and then stage magic

for larger crowds, which includes grand illusion. Magic goes through

cycles of popularity and is currently riding a wave, one Westcott

credits superstars like David Copperfield for creating. There are

now several magic specials on television in any given month, an

indication

of how vast — and cross-generational — the audience for magic

is.

And what makes magic so, well, magical? "It’s not just the

surprise

and it’s not necessarily the wonder," Westcott says. "It’s

touching people’s emotions. They usually feel laughter and sometimes

amazement, but they’re always responding to a story the magician has

to tell."

— Phyllis B. Maguire

Society of American Magicians Assembly 181, Georgetown

Condo Association Clubhouse, East Windsor, 609-860-2737 or

609-730-0780.

S.A.M. usually meets the first Thursday of every month through June

and new members are welcome. Next meeting is Thursday, November

12, 7:45 p.m. Guest speaker is Bob Little, Wild Man Wild.


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