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In an era when the secrets of magic’s most famous illusions are mostly just a Google search away, why does stage magic continue to pack theatres? For American magician Rick Thomas, the answer is simple. “Anybody can do a trick, but very few people can perform magic,” he explains.
As a child, he locked himself in his bedroom to practise his magic routines, but instead of basing his stage persona on any magician, he looked to great showmen like Liberace, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly for clues on how to captivate an audience.
Thomas’ shows are maximalist, visually spectacular affairs.Credit:
“I watched them and said: these people dance and sing like everybody else, but what makes them different and grand? The secret is personality and presentation. That’s it. You can have two people doing the same dance, but only one shines on stage, through attitude, style, whatever it is – that’s what makes you a star.”
Growing up in the magic mecca of Long Beach, California, Thomas started practising at seven and had his first professional gig at age 13. A seminal early moment came when he was doing a multiplying billiard balls routine, a classic trick where the illusionist uses sleight of hand to deceive the audience into thinking balls are appearing and vanishing. When he spilt some balls into the audience, he flushed with embarrassment and scurried into the crowd on his hands and knees to retrieve his props. “Now, I’d say: ‘Thank you very much, those balls are yours as a souvenir. Here’s my next trick…’,” he laughs.
Thomas insists that off-stage he is quite shy.Credit:
These days, Thomas is a sleight-of-hand master and the kind of theatre-filling performer he once studied. He received the keys to the city of Las Vegas after his show ran there for 15 years. He was also crowned Entertainer of the Year in the country music-dominated theatre strip in Branson, Missouri.
His act is a maximalist, visually spectacular affair, complete with extravagant costumes and choreographed dancing – he grew up competing in ballroom dancing and his wife and assistant Tara has a ballet background. The centrepiece is a levitation routine that earned the approval of former Vegas colleagues Siegfried and Roy.
Thomas spent a year developing the routine with his trick makers, experiencing a eureka moment late one night: “When I figured out a way to make somebody fly up into the air and vanish, that was a big deal. I ran downstairs and wrote it down on a piece of paper, woke up the next morning and luckily understood what I had written.”
It’s not just Thomas and Tara who float above the stage during the show; the audience also gets in on the act. “There is a moment in the show where I bring a little boy on stage and teach him how to make a girl float in the air. Then, I bring a little girl on stage and share with her how to make her dreams come true and tell her she needs to follow her dreams throughout her life, no matter what anybody tells her.”
Following your wildest and most fanciful dreams is very much part of the Rick Thomas MO. He says his levitation routine has been an enduring crowd-pleaser because it plays into a universal fantasy. “Everybody has at some point wished or dreamt they could fly in the air. It’s the most amazing feeling.”
For all his on-stage theatrics, Thomas says he is a shy person off-stage and finds it hard to make small talk at parties. “Even to this day, I’m petrified before I step out on stage. I’m petrified for one reason: I want to make sure that the audience appreciates how much I want to perform for them and how hard I have worked to get there … I give it everything I’ve got.”
While many of Thomas’s peers from his early days in magic “have put aside their childish ways and gone on to real jobs”, he’s never had any desire to do anything else. “People ask me when did I start being a magician. I can promise you I’ve always been a magician. It is who I am and I love the art of magic.”
Rick Thomas plays the State Theatre, Sydney, Jan 1-3.
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