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A Great Escape : Magic: A little sleight of hand--and a lot of luck--helped when Petrick and Mia escaped their Communist-ruled homeland. They perform at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Thursday and Friday.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Magicians often create the illusion of defying death in elaborate escapes, but Petrick and Mia Krejcik were ready to lay down their lives for the one they pulled off in 1979.

In their greatest feat to date, the husband-wife team managed to extricate themselves from their native Czechoslovakia, then still under Communist rule, with the help of a little sleight of hand and a lot of nerve.

Petrick and Mia, as they are known professionally, managed to make it to the United States, where they were granted political asylum and eventually gained citizenship. They perform Thursday and Friday nights at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, in a revue they call “Christmas Magic With Petrick and Mia.”

The pair had been prepared for gunplay after resolving to flee their homeland by crashing the gate separating Yugoslavia from Austria in the last stage of a lengthy odyssey. They bulletproofed the back of their Ford Cortina, and Petrick built a small periscope so he could drive from the floor.

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As it happened, those precautions weren’t necessary.

The saga began when the team was invited to perform at Hollywood’s Magic Castle by owner Milt Larsen. When they sought permission from the Czech government to travel to the United States, it was denied. So they began to contemplate escape.

At first, they considered something showy, as a way to gain notoriety. It was, after all, the era of balloon escapes from East Germany and other well-publicized stunts.

“I prepared several plans, and some of them were very dangerous,” Petrick said by phone from the couple’s home in Moorpark, north of Thousand Oaks.

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Later, they opted for something less showy but no less dangerous, hoping to bluff and perhaps crash their way through the three checkpoints then separating Czechoslovakia from West Germany. A friend persuaded them to go to Yugoslavia instead, and cross into Austria at that less-fortified border station.

They got permission to vacation in Yugoslavia (then also under Communist rule). They had permission to cross into Hungary and then into Yugoslavia, but they still worried that a search of their small car--stuffed with all their magic gear, and little else--would reveal that their plans included something other than a simple vacation.

They made it safely through the first crossing, during which Petrick performed a few tricks for the guard to help ease the passage, and then through the second. The most difficult still remained, however.

At the crossing into Austria, Petrick had decided that when he got to the head of the line, he would crash the gate and take his chances. When there was still one car ahead of them, however, a border guard knocked on the window and asked to see their papers.

They had none, so Petrick made up a story about a last-minute magic engagement in Austria. He then offered to do some tricks again, ready to jump back into his car and crash the gate as soon as the car ahead of him went through. Then something unexpected happened: The guard waved them through, even without the proper papers.

“I’m getting ready, down below the seats. I couldn’t believe it,” Mia recalled. “We were just stunned. It was amazing.”

The trek was not yet complete.

They drove to Frankfurt, West Germany, and tried to buy plane tickets to the United States, but their life savings came to only 1,300 German marks--less than $800. They managed at the last minute to catch a charter flight to Kansas City, Kan. (They had to ask whether it was in the United States.) They were almost broke when they arrived--on the day their Magic Castle engagement was set to begin.

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“We left our car at the Frankfurt airport. We don’t even know what happened to it,” Petrick said. He called Larsen at the Magic Castle, and he wired money for a plane ticket to Los Angeles.

Petrick and Mia were not able to talk about their escape until the fall of communism--they were afraid to jeopardize their families back home. They have returned twice since.

Mia remembers the first time they drove from Germany into what is now the Czech Republic. “I felt the same feeling (as) when I was leaving,” she said. “All the feelings just came back. I was so tense.”

While in Prague, Petrick revisited the magic club where he first performed as a lad of 15, and where he later went on to be named the country’s top magician a record three times. Since coming to the United States, he and Mia have been cementing an international reputation, traveling worldwide to perform and lecture.

Their Irvine show will feature magic of the large-scale stage variety, with lots of animals (including a macaw who does a card trick of his own), the levitation of a child chosen from the audience, and the magical appearance of Santa Claus. Petrick designed most of the illusions himself.

“There is lots of comedy, illusions, exotic birds, animals,” Petrick said. In the holiday spirit, the team has donated 150 tickets to needy children in the area.


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