The text message was from Smoothini, the Ghetto Houdini.
"Abracadabra," it said. Presumably, this was code for "I'm awake, and I'm ready for the interview."
That was the case. But as Las Vegas illusionist-magician-trickster Tomas de la Cruz (a.k.a. "Smoothini") said on the phone a few minutes later, "I have to use that word some time. I don't use it on stage, so I find ways to make 'abracadabra' cool."
He chuckles, but it's clear he's also serious about making abracadabra — or magic — cool. That's a longstanding goal of Smoothini, a 30-year-old hipster bar magician and former Marine who performs at the Hard Rock Cafe, Pour 24 bar in New York New York and Zingers karaoke bar. He's an underground sleight-of-hander, a sophisticated but bawdy conjuror whose one desire, he says, is to make people laugh and ooh and ah.
He is the antithesis of Vegas' "big show."
Planning your trip
Smoothini, the Ghetto Houdini, performs Wednesdays through Sundays. You can find him 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. at Zingers, 3743 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; before that, he can usually be seen at the Hard Rock Cafe second-floor bar from 8 to 10:30 p.m.; and after 2 a.m. at New York New York's Pour 24. For more information, see his website, http://www.smoothini.com, or find him on Facebook.
Working for tips in clubs on the Strip and performing fully staged magic shows in a private New York New York suite (20-person capacity; $69 for show and snacks), Smoothini communes with the dead, makes common items disappear and reappear, pulls sex toys out of women's cleavage, does classic card tricks with new twists, indulges in mind reading and prediction, and occasionally digresses into the karaoke Kodak moment.
"He did kind of blow my mind," said Michaeleanne McCarthy, who saw the magician at Zingers in late April while visiting from Austin, Texas. "I didn't have any expectations; I had only heard about him through some friends. But I wanted to see him because I liked the sound of his name.... He is slick, not so much ghetto. He was doing this one trick for us at our table, and sometime during that trick, he mysteriously got this cuff bracelet off my arm and started pulling it out of my bra."
McCarthy points out that when Smoothini approaches a table while doing bar magic, one of the first things he asks is if the observers mind him reaching into their cleavage during his act. McCarthy had granted permission. "Next thing I know, he's pulling stuff out of my shirt left and right. He was great. I would definitely see him again, no doubt — but I might wear a turtleneck next time."
Since he began practicing sleight-of-hand as a teenager in Brooklyn, the Dominican-born performer has tried to open up magic to younger, edgier audiences. And as evidenced by his regulars around Vegas, he's developed that niche — a 20ish to 50ish crowd with a tawdry since of humor.
De La Cruz, who joined the Marine Corps right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and passed much of his spare time in Iraq performing magic for Iraqi children and his fellow troops (he finished his final tour in 2006 and headed to L.A. and Vegas to perform), notes that magicians are an odd lot.
"Magicians love to cater to as large a market as possible," he said. "Comedians are specific to their own demographic, and every other level of performing arts is like that. But with magic it's different. Back in the 1950s and '60s, magicians still wore top hats and tuxes, going back as far as the 1880s. They didn't progress with the times.
"But I don't like to take it all that seriously. It's better to laugh about things. That's the point.... If you really believe someone can pull a rabbit out of a hat, then either your education system has failed you or somebody has failed you.
"I'm not Houdini. I'm Ghetto Houdini."
Which is why it's so funny that De La Cruz-cum-Smoothini sometimes texts or emails a simple "abracadabra." He's owning magic's past while poking fun at its true believers.