How does one arrive at a life as an illusionist? In the 1820s, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, widely regarded as one of the fathers of modern magic, stumbled upon the craft by accident. The son of a French watchmaker, the young Robert-Houdin had planned to follow in his father's footsteps until an absent-minded bookseller sent him home with the wrong package. Upon later inspection, the 18-year-old realized that instead of an instructional guide on clockmaking he had received a two-volume treatise on conjuring. It was an accident that sent him down a mystic path of magic and mechanics that led to the creation of more than one automaton.
By the late 1860s, just after the end of the American Civil War, Charleston found itself a favorite stop for touring prestidigitators and masters of legerdemain. Appearing at Hibernian Hall was the renowned Professor Sargent, also referred to as the "Wizard of the South," who the Charleston Daily News described as fortunate to live in the 19th century "or his knowledge of the black arts would assuredly cost him his head." Risk of decapitation aside, there was also celebrated wizard and ventriloquist Professor St. Maur, who served in the army of Virginia during the war and turned to a life of entertainment after the battles ended. Along with necromancer and illusionist Professor Anderson and various other traveling acts, these men delighted Charleston audiences looking for a distraction from the everyday troubles of the time. Today, especially at 49 Archdale St., there are still those in the city who carry on their work.
Stepping into the Palmetto Crescent Parlour tucked away off of King Street, there is a strong sense of the past. Old family portraits are arranged along the deep red walls. A large stuffed peacock is perched in a corner, plumage spread wide in a fan. A 1901 Victrola spins a weary tune called "Orange Blossom Lane." Inside the parlor on the far wall hangs the portrait of Kellar O'Neil, and upon his shoulder stands a tiny red imp whispering in his ear. It is here that O'Neil performs intimate shows for audiences hoping to see some conjuring and be led to believe their thoughts have been read. Also known as the Southern Charmer, O'Neil bills himself as a mystifier of the finest affairs and master of the mind. With a few slight gestures, he can summon objects from nowhere — be they live animals or otherwise.
O'Neil says he's practiced magic since the age of eight, passing along and building upon the sleight of hand he witnessed sitting around the dinner table with his grandparents. After making his rounds on the corporate events circuit, he decided it was time for something new. After two years of planning and searching for the perfect spot, he opened up his parlor just yards away from Memminger Auditorium in downtown Charleston. For him, performing is about passing on the sense of wonder that he felt as a kid.
"Seeing a magic show for the first time, or miracle shows as I like to call them, was just really cool as a child. If you see things on television, you say, 'Wow, how cool,' but there is something special when you see it in person," he says. "It doesn't have to be a massive stage illusion to be impressive. Sometimes I actually think the smaller things happening right in front of your eyes can be even more impressive than sitting in a seat watching these big things happen on the stage."
O'Neil says a lot of his mentors were never big-time performers, but sometimes those are the best people from which to learn. Often they pay closer attention to the technical aspects of an illusion. Of course, magicians are a secretive lot. It comes with the job. This means that learning the inner workings of magic requires establishing a strong trust, proving that you have a true interest in performing, and a passion for improving upon the craft.
"There are people that I have looked up to who have taught me things, magicians who have shared their secrets with me, and over time, I've taken what they have given me and then I've grown my own pieces," says O'Neil. "There's an old saying that nothing is new in magic. A lot of our forefathers created these illusions, and they passed them down through generation to generation from this magician to that magician. But the trick is you take them and you make them your own. Everyone has different presentations of a certain effect, but you have to take those pieces and then make them belong to you."
Pulling out a small teaspoon, O'Neil recalls how his grandfather would play good-natured tricks on him as a kid. He believes it's important to intertwine a family story with his performances because even though you may not have grown up with mystics in the family, everyone can relate to celebrating the memory of a loved one who shared something special with you. Taking the spoon between his index finger and thumb, O'Neil admits that the bending spoon illusion may be one of the most overdone tricks in magic, but there's still something entertaining about watching the illusion unfold. Slowly, the spoon begins to give way and droop between his fingers. He says there are dozens of ways to bend a spoon — part of the fun is guessing how it is done. Then, with the snap of his wrist, O'Neil lets the spoon dangle, revealing a tiny hinge in the middle. Unveiling the old-fashioned simplicity of the illusion is very in keeping with his style.
"It's not all what you think it is," he says, "but it still amazed you."
In the 1970s, self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller toured the late-show circuit, leading audiences to believe that through his mental abilities alone he could warp metal and read minds. His reputation got to the point where famed illusionist and skeptic James Randi, also known as the Amazing Randi, wrote a book and appeared on television openly dispelling Geller's paranormal abilities. O'Neil makes it clear that his performance is for entertainment purposes only. He doesn't wish to mislead anyone into truly believing that he can peer into their thoughts or commune with the dead. While he says there's always at least one skeptic at each show, often seated on the front row attempting to spot the secrets of each illusion, there are also those who are a little too willing to believe in something supernatural.
"I use the caveat and say, 'Hey, you know you've seen some things tonight, and you may have thought that I read your mind, but what I did tonight was truly for entertainment.' But you always have people who believe," he says. "I've even gotten phone calls before. They call up and say, 'Hey, I saw you read this guy's mind. Could you come and tell me about my dead grandmother."
It's moments like this when O'Neil realizes that some who claim psychic abilities are all too willing to take advantage of those in a fragile state of mind. But whether a true believer, skeptic, or just someone looking to get away from the troubles of the real world, O'Neil feels that the urge to believe in the unexplainable is part of what makes us human.
"Do we all want to believe in magic? I think so, because I think that it goes somewhere deep within us that we want to believe," he says. "We want to look at the cup half full in life. Even though we can see the negative side of things, we still want to see the positive, and I think magic is the same way. I think that when they see somebody doing something impossible, they want to believe that it is real."
At just 17 years old, Caleb Alexander has already set out a clear path for himself as an illusionist. This summer he's embarked on a 50-show tour that's taken him across the state, booking every performance himself. With his act loaded into a road case and a duffel bag stuffed with clothes, he says one of the unique challenges at his age is reserving a motel room. Once the tour is over, he'll return to Charleston to finish up high school, and then he plans to head back out on the road.
In addition to live performances, Alexander also has his own line of magic kits and other merchandise for sale at local Wonder Works stores. A veteran of the YEScarolina youth entrepreneur course, he's well trained in the business of magic.
"For me, this is literally all I do. I cannot express that enough, and so I think it's about just having one thing and doing that well and not being worried about what other people think." —Illusionist Caleb Alexanderclick to tweet
"Basically, I want to be a touring illusionist. I want to do theaters and performing arts centers across the country. So right now I am using every single dollar that I'm making and I'm putting it back into the magic and buying huge illusions," he says. "I'm just trying to build up my illusion show, so I can tour nationally next summer after I graduate. This is more of a stepping block for me."
Alexander received his first magic kit at the age of three, and since that time, he's lived and breathed the craft. It's not unusual — or uncommon is probably the better word — to see him produce a dove from thin air or make a person disappear. He's also willing to try his hand at escaping the confines of a straightjacket. An only child, he says performing gives him the attention he craves. Now his goal is to turn his passion into something that can earn him a living.
"I believe that if you like to do anything, you can pretty much monetize on it. So for me, being a magician, I love doing shows, but you can't really scale that," he says. "Just having streams of revenue other than the shows when you're not performing is, I think, really important. You know how artists have CDs and T-shirts and merch. Well, I thought it would be wise to have the magic kits and other magic products just like any other artist would."
But more than just the money, Alexander wants to inspire the next generation of illusionists. While he has his eye on being the next David Copperfield, David Blaine, or Criss Angel, Alexander hopes that the kids who come to see his show will want to follow down the same path he's traveling. Although most kids fumble through a magic kit at some point in their lives, few ever decide to dedicate themselves to it fully. And in pursuing his goal to be the next big name in magic, the 17-year-old shows no signs of wavering. While his chosen profession is all about misdirection and distraction, Alexander remains focused.
"I think that the drive and the focus and the hustle and all that solely comes from just doing one thing and that's it. For me, this is all I want to do, and I'm wired differently from other people, very differently," he says. "Other people might get caught up in their friend's issues or relationship issues or something — there's just so many things in life that can drive you off from the one thing that you want to do. For me, this is literally all I do. I cannot express that enough, and so I think it's about just having one thing and doing that well and not being worried about what other people think."
Harry Houdini, perhaps the most famous figure in the history of illusionists, once said his chief task in life was to conquer fear. While the public only sees the thrill of an accomplished trick, suggested the escape artist, they fail to recognize the years of training and preparation that went into making it look like a thing of ease. This is probably the greatest truth behind all magic. Like other art forms and sciences, it's a calling that demands its practitioners improve upon those who came before — while also improving upon themselves.
"No one except myself can appreciate how I have to work at this job every single day, never letting up for a moment," Houdini said. "I always have on my mind the thought that next year I must do something greater, something more wonderful." And there remain those who feel the same way.