Fr. Jim Blantz was busy this past Sunday. At 8:30 a.m., Blantz presided over Mass, wrapping up a three-week stint filling in at Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. Less than seven hours later, Blantz was beginning his class in Hollywood.
But Blantz wasn't teaching Sunday School. The class was at the Magic Castle, and instead of preaching the Gospel, he was kicking off a week-long engagement at the Castle with a Magicians Only lecture.
Blantz is not like most Catholic priests. He is also a practicing magician.
A member of the Order of the Holy Cross, Blantz, an 81-year-old with a laugh as energetic as any 20-year-old's, is set to celebrate his 60th anniversary in the clergy next year. He's been doing magic for the past 41 years.
Blantz performed his first magic trick while staying with friends of another priest's in New York. The daughter of the family, a 12-year-old girl, did a trick for him. “'Do you know any magic?'” Blantz recalls her asking. “I knew one trick. So I did it, and she was thrilled.”
Soon enough, Blantz found himself on a mission trip to Uganda, surrounded by 30 kids who didn't speak English. “I thought about the magic trick,” he said. “So I took out a coin and made it vanish. And they were thrilled.”
After leaving Uganda, Blantz went to Bangladesh — then known as East Pakistan — and happened upon a book on magic left over from World War II. Unfortunately, he quickly became ill. Sent back to Uganda, he was bedridden for four months — time he spent studying up.
When he finally returned to the U.S., he attended a magic picnic — a meet-up of sorts for magicians — and met Jim Ryan, a well-known magician who took Blantz under his wing. The tricks Ryan taught him are the same tricks he does to this day.
Blantz's act focuses on cardwork and wordplay, using many techniques not utilized by modern magicians. It doesn't use expensive equipment, nor does it rely heavily on complicated visual illusions. The act itself only changes in very minor ways.
“I've done the same act for 41 years,” Blantz joked. “I think I've got it down.”
When asked about any parallels between his two callings, Blantz emphasized that he avoids mixing his identities as priest and magician. Unlike other magic priests (most of whom are Protestant, not Catholic), Blantz does not perform “Gospel magic,” a form meant to teach scripture through tricks.
“I couldn't do it,” he says. “I find that you either have to do violence to the Scripture or to the magic trick to make it work.”
He does perform in a collar occasionally, which seems like an odd contradiction with Blantz's desire to keep his magic and priestly work separate. Blantz's reasoning, however, is much simpler (and funnier): “If you're coming into my room, I can wear what I damn please. In other words, at the Magic Castle [this] week, you're coming into a room that says 'Fr. Blantz.' And if you don't want to see a priest, you can stay the heck out,” he said with a hearty laugh.
In a constantly shifting world, Blantz has kept chugging along, whether in Chatsworth for over 30 years to his current retirement in Arizona. When asked if things have changed for him in the decades since he started doing magic, Blantz deadpanned, “We got a new Pope.”
Blantz donates all his earnings from his shows back to missions like those in Uganda and Bangladesh. Even in retirement he's happily working, taking on both guest stints like the one at Good Shepherd and more magic performances than he has in years.
For Blantz, it's all in pursuit of giving his audiences small pleasures.
“Any gift God has given us, you're supposed to use it for others. And my gift is entertaining people,” Blantz says. “For the hour that I am onstage, you forget that your kid is on drugs, or your mother has cancer, or that you lost your job. You just enjoy that moment. That, I feel, is my gift.”
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