There's magic in Las Vegas rank-and-file talent
Legions of entertainers land in Vegas, and Englishman Mat Black is one desert transplant making a living at his craft.
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When he was 10, he encountered the thing magicians talk about in hushed tones of inevitability: magic shops. If you're destined for the world of wizardry, "you just feel special when you walk into your first magic shop," he says. His was Davenports, a 110-year-old store tucked in the Charing Cross subway station. Black was impressed by the tricks, the books, and the old guard of magicians sitting in the corner, trying to uncover other magicians' secrets.Skip to next paragraph
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By the time he was a teen, Black was good enough at magic to put it to work for him. Performing at birthday parties earned him more pocket cash than any of his friends had, and his talent for wonder attracted girls. But the real fun began when he was 17 and found a partner.
"I was standing at the bus stop ... and I look over, and there's pretty much a shorter version of me standing there," he recalls. "I was wearing a pinstripe suit, and so was he. We both had on black shirts." Black pauses and delivers the next line like a detective in a 1950s movie: "He also had a case ... so I reached in my pocket and pulled out a deck of cards. I stood at the bus stop, flourishing" – he demonstrates fanning and contracting a deck of cards effortlessly – "just doing card moves, which is the mating call of magicians. Sure enough, he came over."
Black and his new compatriot, Chris Paris (also a stage name), spent three years as "Black and Paris," garnering increasing attention for their combination of comedy, magic, and performance art. Like true performers, they would go to almost any length for an audience, and a joke.
When magician David Blaine went to London and lived in a box for 44 days, a trick reported around the world, Black and Paris spoofed the act. They got a big wicker basket, hauled it to the shores of Brighton's beaches, and lived in it for three days in November – including what turned out to be the coldest night of the year – trying to rev up publicity for their show at Old Market Theater. "People came down to the beach and sat with us for hours," he remembers. "We had 35, 40 people set up a fire, read the newspaper."
This shared sensibility won them exposure on the British TV channel Sky One and brought them some steady income. That is until Black visited Las Vegas two years ago and the most wonderful, terrible of all cliches happened: He met a girl, fell in love, and got married in two months.
He knew virtually no one else in Vegas, but he caught all the right eyes quickly.
Jeff McBride, consultant to the world's most high-profile magicians, says Black has the talent to "one day hav[e] a major impact on audiences around the world." He was so confident in Black that he let him attend his School of Magic and Mystery ("Hogwarts," Black calls it) for free. Black was already a practiced magician but the training gave him a leg up. "We saw him make the shift from ... trickster, which is just somebody who dabbles, to the next stage of magic ... a person [who] starts to take serious steps toward advancing his craft."
It sounds like art, and in a lot of ways it is, for Black. He's trained as an actor, and when he explains his show, he talks about character development and Stanislavsky, the man who invented the method acting method used by people like Daniel Day-Lewis. Black writes intricate scripts for each of his shows – dialogue, asides, one-liners. "I come up with a story. I'll pick a trick, and I'll say, 'OK, this is my story.' Then I'll start to pick things in the story that can be turned into lines in the script," he says. "Without all of that stuff ... it would be a good trick.... People would be like, 'I don't know how it works, you got me, well done.' But it's not theatrical in any way. It has no meaning."
The payoff for Black is what the best performances can achieve: "Magic is the one thing in the world that will make people, if done correctly, revert to when they're 5 years old and looking at something for the first time. You get that look of wonder in their eyes, and that little smile creeps on their face."