Santa Monica’s Albie Selznick spreads the gospel of illusion
By Evan Henerson
Your kid has been pestering you for more ever since that birthday party when the guy sawed a lady in half and made live rabbits jump out of her stomach. But you have no connections with anybody at the members-only club of clubs, The Magic Castle, and you don’t have the scratch for a trip to Vegas. The YouTube segments and TV shows are getting played out. You want magic, and you want it live.
Not only does longtime actor-magician Albie Selznick feel your void, he’s figured out a way to fill it: by giving a bunch of his magical friends a place to work their best routines and try out some new illusions.
Starting May 2, a rotating lineup of more than 20 illusionists will take the stage at the Santa Monica Playhouse for the second incarnation of Magic Monday. Selznick and producer Michelle Grant have booked eight May and June dates hoping that the variety act will blossom into a long-running engagement featuring a new set of magicians for each date.
The lure of Magic Monday, which Selznick debuted last winter at the Odyssey Theatre, is as much tied to the unique quality of the entertainment as it is to the programming slot. Monday may be an unconventional night to hit the town, round up the family or book a date night. But the producers contend that a full evening of magical entertainment — both on stage and during a pre-show, close-up encounter — makes for a thrilling way to start the week.
“There’s so much magic on TV. All of my guys are doing the shows like ‘America’s Got Talent,’ ‘Don’t Blink’ and ‘Wizard Wars,’” said Selznick, who will host each evening and perform a trick or two of his own. “People love the magic on TV, but there’s no place to see it live.”
“We’re looking to change that,” added Grant. “Our model is comedy clubs. We’re looking at a cabaret, comedy club type of situation and see if it grows into something.”
Reincarnating Magic Monday in Santa Monica is both a convenience for Selznick, who lives there, and a kind of creative homecoming. He performed his autobiographical theater performance, “Smoke and Mirrors,” at both the Santa Monica Playhouse and the Promenade Playhouse before taking it to venues throughout Los Angeles. With its Victorian feel and its courtyard, the Santa Monica Playhouse’s 88-seat mainstage makes for a perfect venue to spin stories and feats of wonder, according to Selznick.
“This is sort of what I call the parlor,” Selznick said. “It’s a medium stage, so I think most people will be doing standing up parlor tricks where they’re not sitting at a table doing tricks, but they’re not having fog machines and fireworks. I may levitate somebody. That will work.”
The magic of “Smoke and Mirrors” contained an undercurrent of death, and Selznick will open the first Magic Monday both with a ghost story and a new trick. Also taking the stage that night will be veteran illusionist Christopher Hart, who played the disembodied hand, Thing, in the “Addams Family” films. Lest the evening get too dark, the opening lineup also includes the French magical comedian Titou and magical “clowntomime” Hillel, who performs inside a giant balloon.
“The theater work we do is intimate as opposed to the 2,000-seat spectacles,” said Santa Monica Playhouse Co-Artistic Director Evelyn Rudie. “I love those also, but that’s a whole different kind of thing done in big huge theaters. It’s a more impersonal experience. This fills a niche for us that we have never had before Albie.”
All of the performing magicians are Magic Castle members and award-winning magicians from all over the world. To add variety to the lineup, the magicians will be joined by artists with other specialties like jugglers Jack & Jerri and puppeteer Scott Land. Selznick and Grant said they’ll consider programming an after-hours show for 21-and-over audiences down the line, but for the initial run the producers are focusing on world-class magic and plenty of variety for family audiences.
That plan sits well with the participating prestidigitators who are pleased to have a place to practice some new material. They contend that it’s still possible to make a living solely as a professional magician, but one must be prepared to hustle for gigs on TV programs, tours and conventions. Even the Magic Castle places limits on the numbers of times per year its members can take the stage. Unless you’re David Copperfield, Criss Angel, Penn and Teller or Derek DelGaudio, headlining opportunities are rare.
Hart, who developed his craft working at the now defunct Hollywood Magic store on Hollywood Boulevard and later worked as a professional consultant, says the market has changed even if appetites for magic haven’t.
“I can always find place to perform,” said Hart, who also works as an actor. “I always have the ability to do stuff if I look for it. I may not get paid for it. That’s part of the process. There used to be revue shows in Las Vegas. Now it’s all Cirque du Soleil.”
Naathan Phan, who performs four nights weekly at Teatro Martini dinner theater in Buena Park, also acts, sings, does comedy and twists balloons. Billed as “the Magic Asian Man,” Phan takes the stage for Magic Monday on June 23 with his fellow “mugician” Rob Ramirez. The two previously developed an act together for the Magic Castle.
“There are not a lot of people performing at private events or at children’s birthday parties, if that sort of thing doesn’t offend your better sensibilities,” says Phan. “Magic is popular. There are lots of opportunities to perform. However, you do have to know what they are or have your name out there so that people who see you can say, ‘Oh, this would be a good fit.’”
Although he practiced magic since childhood, Selznick has enjoyed a lengthy career acting in film, television and stage. In the 1990s, he toured with his magic and juggling group, the Mums, often opening for pop music groups and at the Magic Castle, where he later became a member. Selznick developed “Smoke and Mirrors” through a series of stories he told in Larry Moss’s acting class, and he has performed the show at multiple theaters with a planned return at the Colony Theatre in Burbank in the fall.
The show grew out of Selznick’s desire to come to terms with the death of his father when Selznick was 9. Part magic show, part autobiography, “Smoke and Mirrors” has become a vehicle which allows him to combine his two art forms and stay in practice. He has tinkered with the show over the years, adding new illusions and stories.
“For me, magic and the idea of fantasy was, I think, what religion does to a lot of people. It gives you a reason to hope,” he said. “It’s something that’s beyond just day to day drudgery of life, a reason for living. I think that, for me, the belief in fantasy and magic was sort of my substitute for religion.”
He invited several of his friends to take the stage at the Odyssey for the nights when “Smoke and Mirrors” was dark. Everybody said yes, and the event became a community get together for magicians.
“There’s so many great magicians, and if you’re not playing the Castle, you have to go on cruises or go to Vegas or China,” Selznick said. “I thought it would be really good for magicians to be able to perform in L.A.”
No matter who’s up, Jonathan Grossman expects to be at every Magic Monday with his magic-besotted son Owen. Owen caught the magic bug early, devoured the “Harry Potter” series, studied books and learned tricks. His father promised to take him to an age-appropriate magic show when one came around, and the two saw “Smoke and Mirrors” at the Santa Monica Playhouse when Owen was 7.
The Grossmans attended every date of the first run of Magic Monday at the Odyssey. By the end of the run, Selznick had roped off spaces in the front row for the Grossmans, and he recruited Owen to help with one of the tricks.
“We always get there early to see the close-up magic,” said Grossman, a composer and musician who lives in Marina del Rey. “To be able to see the thing that Owen and I love most, to see such a variety of magicians in our neighborhood, to have an affordable night out with such high entertainment value and to be able to bring my child is incredible.”
Magic Mondays launch May 2 and continue through June 27 at Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica. A 7:30 p.m. pre-show happens in the lobby before each 8 p.m. stage show. Tickets are $25. Call (310) 450-2849 or visit magicmondayla.com.