Sleight-of-Hand Champion : Huntington Beach Close-Up Magician Johnny Ace Palmer Seeks Star Status for His Art

Times Staff Writer

The "World Champion Magician" is living in Huntington Beach and is setting up shop in Irvine.

His name probably won't be recognized by anyone who isn't familiar with magic's inner circle, its esoteric ins and outs. But once you've seen him, Johnny Ace Palmer may not be a name you'll forget. He's bringing his "close-up magic" act to the 45-seat Backstage Theatre for a 12-week run that starts tonight. Also on the bill: comedian/magician T.C. Tahoe and manipulation magician Mitch Williams.

Close-up magic deals with small objects--cards, coins, thimbles, finger rings, cups and balls--and is featured mostly at small gatherings, on restaurant tables and in convention hospitality suites. Relying on sleight-of-hand, misdirection, and the performer's originality and personality--all at very close range--it's at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from large, Las Vegas-style illusion shows with their high-tech boxes, exotic animals and scantily clad assistants.

In an age that finds the airwaves reserved for performers who can make an elephant--or a jet, or the Statue of Liberty--disappear, it's no surprise that no close-up magician has attained the star status of a David Copperfield or a Doug Henning. Still, Palmer is gaining notoriety.

Last year, he became the first close-up magician ever to win one of magic's most prestigious competitions, the Grande Prix Championship at the Hague, the Netherlands. It was there that he was crowned "World Champion."

"It was my lifetime goal," says the 29-year-old. And now, he has another lifetime goal: to bring close-up magic the popularity--and, to magic in general, the acclaim--he feels it deserves.

"People usually ask, when I say I'm a magician, 'Do you do birthday parties?' When my fiancee says I'm a magician, people always ask, 'Oh really, does he pull rabbits out of hats? Does he saw ladies in half? Does he make you disappear?'

"It's kind of a bad reputation."

Palmer's interest in magic was sparked when he was a toddler in Warren, Ohio. His grandfather used to play a game with him called "where-go," hiding such objects as coins and marbles and asking Johnny to find them.

"I liked (the idea) of hiding things and finding things, the trickiness of it," Palmer recalls.

Around the same time, "my dad showed me a card trick, and then I showed it to his friends. It was a simple card trick--but a lot of times in magic, simple tricks can fool the most complex minds. Anyway, it fooled all his friends. They all asked how I did it. I got a lot of attention, and it made them laugh and smile. I enjoyed that."

He learned more tricks from books and then started trading tricks with other people. And by the time he was 5 years old, he knew what he wanted to do for a living.

He got his first paying job at age 12, doing a stand-up parlor style show at a church. He got $20. "My mom was a single parent since I was 9, and I helped buy groceries with my magic. My magic supplemented the family budget. I was doing birthday parties, church shows, even club dates. . . ."

In high school, his nickname was "the magician." He paid his own way through Kent State University doing magic tricks. He majored in psychology and theater.

"People enjoy the fun parts of magic," he says. " I like to make it fun. . . . Your attitude is crucial. I feel I was put on this earth to do magic--specifically close-up magic, because that's what I do best."

Johnny Ace Palmer, Mitch Williams and T.C. Tahoe open Thursday at the Backstage Theatre, 2691 Richter St., Irvine. Continues Thursdays through Sundays at 7 and 9 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2, through Nov. 26. Tickets: $7 to $10. Information: (714) 553-8066.

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