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Justin Willman, Alternative Magician, Mixes the Dark Arts With Irony

Justin Willman

Michael MaplesJustin Willman

It's Tuesday

night in the loftlike performance area semi-hidden behind Meltdown

Comics' retail floor, and a crowd of more than 60 in neatly arranged

chairs intently watches the show's youthful host, Justin Willman. He

disappears behind a large black cloth, then asks an audience member to

name a fruit. When a woman blurts out "banana," Willman instantly drops

the cloth to reveal himself in a comically outsized banana costume.

He

then tosses out a beach ball to determine the next audience

participant. It happens to be a young child named Winter, who helps

Willman create a random tweet: "Playing Marco Polo with Antonio Banderas

in Florida." The illusionist then reaches to a secured metal box

overhead, pulling from it a piece of paper. Written on it: the very same

tweet.

Willman, 32, clearly has the nuts and bolts of magic down.

But he might also be described as an "alt-magician." At his live

monthly variety show at Meltdown Comics, he brings in other equally

adept magicians, as well as top comedians and music acts, mixing in a

spirit of whimsical fun and a disarming goofiness with the sleight of

hand.

The vibe is as much Pee-wee's Playhouse as it is David Copperfield.

"If

there's anything that's 'alternative' in what I do," Willman says

offstage, "it's a healthy sense of irony and self-awareness. It spoofs

the magic that doesn't know it's being silly. You know, the animals, the

fog machines." He's all magician, but he's also part comedian.

Magic

is a competitive field, but Willman still speaks of a "brotherhood" of

professionals whose work he respects. Onstage, he eagerly introduces the

night's first guest illusionist, Ben Seidman, a youngish blond fellow

fresh from Vegas' Mandalay Bay Casino.

Seidman starts with some

banter: "If a homeless person approaches you on the street, just

out-crazy him." He contorts his face into a grotesquely funny

expression, then goes into his first round of disappearing-object

tricks.

Next, a young duo called David & Lehman takes the

floor. The act involves guessing the exact number an audience member is

thinking.

Participants in this year's Hollywood Fringe Festival,

the two trade in a somewhat dry, preppy-collegiate shtick, their

interplay reminiscent of the Smothers Brothers. But it's their

successful mind-reading trick that delivers the biggest punch.

Later,

in a coffee shop near the Hollywood Hills, Willman dissects the way

that his cadre of irony-drenched young performers is shaking up the

protocol and formality of the magic world.

"Rob Zabrecky, who just won the Magic Castle's 'Stage Magician' award," Willman says, "he's like a Tim Burton, Addams Family

character. The true pros -- a great bar of excellence -- is that the most

memorable thing isn't gonna be the 'trick,' it's the personality. It's

an art form where people unfortunately think that you could buy the

trick, the talent, in a magic store."

Willman has been careful to

craft a personality every bit as indispensable as his bag of tricks. A

St. Louis native, he was doing a hybrid bicycling/rollerblading stunt at

age 13 when he flew over the handlebars and wound up in a cast for six

months. He spent much of that time in the hospital.

In keeping

with similar such "tragedy-leads-to-triumph" stories, Willman was

visited in the hospital by a wandering magician who did tricks for the

bedridden kids.

Quickly obsessed, the wide-eyed youth asked his mother to help him acquire some store-bought tricks.

"In

St. Louis, there was a half magic shop, half adult-novelty store,"

Willman recalls. "And my mom picked me up a magic instruction book.

After I got out of the hospital, I took magic classes at the half-magic,

half-dildo store. It was the first thing I was really good at -- better

than average at. And it was a good conduit for my personality. I didn't

know how to have conversations with girls and so forth."

After

graduating from Boston's Emerson College -- and, in his last year,

participating in the school's unique internship program in Los Angeles --

Willman moved here to give professional magic a shot.

As Justin

Kredible, he soon made a living doing private shows -- birthdays, bar

mitzvahs, parties -- sometimes as many as eight gigs in a weekend.

The

lucrative college market followed, leading to 150 campus shows a year.

That made him one of the busiest magicians in the country.

"I was

able to do the show I wanted to do," he says of the college-gig years.

"More risque, with adult themes and such. Crowd work was a really

important element there."

Even now he could pass for an undergraduate; his college fans could be forgiven for assuming he was younger than they were.

These

days, in a return to his roots, Willman himself regularly visits

Children's Hospital. He also hosts two shows on the Food Network -- Cupcake Wars and Last Cake Standing -- which have nothing to do with magic but utilize the performer's skills at easygoing-yet-snappy improvisation.

The

television shows guarantee bigger audiences at his live appearances --

he recently played a busy week at Hollywood's prestigious Magic Castle

and now is entrenched in the super-lucrative corporate market.

They

also give him the freedom to pursue his live-magic dream goals: a large

touring show leading to an extended residency in Vegas.

"For the

average person, when it comes to magic, there's one guy," he says.

"They'll think of Criss Angel or David Blaine. They don't realize the

variety, the level of depth out there."

He points out that a

magician is the one performer who can literally visually transcend

reality. He shares as proof a classic anecdote of Lance Burton getting

mugged in Vegas, using sleight of hand to pull out seemingly "empty"

pockets.

"Here in Starbucks, if I reached into one of their CDs

and pulled out a $20 bill and paid them with that, it'd be a great

gift," he says.

And then Willman shares his all-time favorite postshow compliment: "I hate magic, but I love your show."

Justin will be performing at Club Nokia on September 29 with a new show called Justin Willman: Tricked Out. Tickets go on sale July 27 and are available at ticketmaster.com.

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Meltdown Comics
miles

7522 Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90046

323-851-7223

www.meltcomics.com