Sunday afternoon at Wizardz is Birthday Central. Evenings the magic club and bar at Universal CityWalk caters to everyone of whatever age who ever said Aaaaaaahhhh over a coin deftly plucked from his or her ear. But the 3 p.m. show on Sunday is pretty much given over to kids celebrating their birthdays. Sean, Parker, Shelby, Bev and Angie are all birthday boys or girls, and when their names appear on the screen inside the Wizardz 300-seat theater, their buds applaud like maniacs.
The daily dinner-theater shows at Wizardz feature changing magic acts, but they all follow a basic formula. The first three quarters of an hour of the two-hour show is devoted to a meal of indifferent quality (choice of beef, chicken or vegetable entree), served with Prussian efficiency. The all-inclusive price of $27.95 for adults, $19.95 for children includes unlimited iced tea or soft drinks. Grown-ups can order wine, beer or specialty drinks a la carte.
Then, the show, complete with pounding score and laser light effects. Magic is a many-splendored thing at Wizardz, and the management always tries to include three variations on the ancient theme: a manipulation or classical magic act, a comedy act and an illusionist. On a recent Sunday, Tony Clark opened the show with an elegant classical act. Supermodel handsome, he is also a first-rate magician, a student of the late, legendary Tony Slydini. Wearing a Phantom of the Opera half-mask, the suave and able performer makes half a dozen doves materialize and produces fan after fan of giant playing cards.
Clark is followed by Chip Lowell, the comedy act. A redhead who looks like Huck Finn, Clark is a shameless crowd-pleaser. A prop comic and juggler who has opened for Barry Manilow and the Bangles, Clark knows what this young audience wants and delivers it. "Do you want to see fabulous juggling," he asks, pausing just long enough, then continuing, "Or do you want to see dangerous juggling?" The 10-something crowd is unanimous. Bring on the Christians, bring on the lions. "Dangerous juggling!" they scream.
The third act features illusionist Joaquin Ayala. Ayala is a tall, theatrical-looking young man, born in Mexico, who works with his wife Lilia and daughter Nadia. The stage is lighted by fire through much of their act, their props feature skulls, and Lilia Ayala dresses more like a Las Vegas showgirl than like Mrs. Houdini. At one point, the illusionist helps his wife into a box on a palanquin, then slams blazing spears into the box. Needless to say, she emerges unscathed.
Clark's elegant sleight-of-hand seems to have little impact on the young audience. They are not nuts about Ayala, either. "I thought he was corny," says Graham Gill, a 10-year-old guest at the birthday party of Sean Coon, 11, of Long Beach.
The clear fave is Lowell, 31, a juggler, actor and writer as well as a magician. Lowell, who lives in Glendale, grew up in the circus. His father clowned for Ringling Bros. and other major shows. His mother did an iron-jaw act, dangling from a leather mouthpiece 30 feet above the ground. Lowell grew up in a neighborhood of circus performers' trailers, where your next-door neighbor could be a plate spinner or a tight-rope walker or a lion tamer. He was in his first elephant stampede at the age of 9.
Lowell has a Silly Putty face and is proud of the fact that he does all kinds of comedy, "from cerebral to absolutely lobotomized." The room belongs to him early in his act when he produces a ventriloquist's dummy from his trunk, then tosses it away before subjecting the crowd to a single moment of expert voice-throwing. The relief is palpable.
Lowell likes to poke fun at all the variety and circus-art skills. When he juggles, he doesn't miss a beat if he drops his machete or toilet plunger. He just picks it up and tries again. Lowell is in the entertainment business, he explains, not in the business of setting arcane records. He is sometimes asked by other jugglers what his numbers are, he says, explaining that they want to know how many plungers he can juggle at a time. They will proudly tell him, "Right now my numbers are around 7 or 8." He answers: "My highest number is four." For Lowell, juggling and magic are means to an end. The trick is moving the audience, he says. "You want to grab something emotional."
The club attracts about 100,000 visitors a year, said Fred B. Wood, president of Wizardz. There is talk of franchising the business worldwide, with Florida and Southeast Asia among the probable next sites. Wood, a magician who often emcees the show, says he tries to give audiences a cross-section of the world of magic and tries to appeal to everyone. Sunday's G-rated show, he says, "is as risque as it gets."
Wizardz is very different from the legendary Magic Castle in Hollywood, America's mecca for serious magicians from around the world. That is a private club, Wood points out. Wizardz is a public venue. Lowell describes the Magic Castle as an institution "by magicians for magicians." Wizardz aspires to be something far less exclusive.
For people who love magic, the real fun begins in the bar at 6 each evening. Forget the illusionists and the psychic readers. In the evening you can nurse a drink, look down at the City Walk crowd and, if you are lucky, a close-up magician will come to your table and knock your socks off.
Illusionists use smoke and mirrors and expensive equipment to wow the audience. Close-up magicians such as Wizardz regular Paul David of Chino Hills use a pack of cards, a few simple props and a shrewd understanding of human psychology.
"Magic doesn't happen on the table," says David. "It happens in the hearts and minds of the people who watch it."
David declines to say anything negative about David Copperfield and the other millionaire illusionists. But as a close-up magician he practices the form of the art that is most admired within the profession, the form that requires real talent and never-ending practice, the form that pays bupkis --nothing. "I just walk out with my suit on," he says. "I don't need a lot of boxes or animals."
Chris Mitchell, who also does table magic in the bar and sometimes emcees the shows at Wizardz, says it's a great venue for magicians because it provides the rare steady job and gives them exposure that leads to other gigs, including lucrative private parties.
The Studio City man was recently able to quit his day job as a graphic designer to do magic full time. Producing aces of spades in unlikely places hardly seems like a job, Mitchell says.
"If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life."