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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Mat Black says he knows his illusions with cards and dollar bills are a success when he sees people's faces get that look of wonder that a 5-year-old gets when looking at something for the first time.
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    Street magician: Fedora, suit, sneakers – and captivating tricks – are the trademark of Mat Black. He says he knows his illusions with cards (top) and dollar bills are a success when he sees people’s faces get that look of wonder that a 5-year-old gets when looking at something for the first time.
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Hands are a strange thing to dwell on, but Mat Black's demand notice. He has long, slender fingers with short, well-kept nails. Like a violinist, he spends several hours at a time training them to move: a flick of the wrist here, a tap there. He needs the muscles to remember what to do when he is distracted by the story he's telling, or by his nerves. One wrong move and he looks like the worst kind of idiot: the guy who interrupted your meal to show you a magic trick only to botch it, dropping coins from all the wrong places or forgetting where the queen of hearts went.

This hasn't happened to Mr. Black, yet. In a world of adolescent dabblers, he's a budding pro, a man who provides for his wife and baby by seeming to make pens disappear, or cards change, or, most eerily, to read your mind.

Black is an up-and-coming magician who moved from the beaches of Brighton, England, to a city convinced it's seen everything.

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The bar for standing out here is pretty high, but Black sails over it. He is 6-foot, 5-inches tall and looks, according to the catalog of compliments he has received, like everyone: Ashton Kutcher, Johnny Depp, and, on some days, Brad Pitt. When he works, he wears an outfit that seems more personal style than stage costume: black pants and sport coat and black Converse sneakers with white laces. If there's a singular trademark here, it's the black fedora, "which instantly makes me cooler" than the average magician, Black jokes.

But his greatest asset on first pass seems to be his British accent, which earns him a little more patience than strangers might otherwise give when a tall man clad in black approaches their table with a deck of cards and says, "I'd like to do a few tricks for you."

All of this, though, is the act. In fact, Mat Black is a stage name for the magician-character who entertains moving table to table most evenings at La Salsa Cantina, a Mexican restaurant on the Strip. But like Stephen Colbert, Black doesn't break character. The name, the clothes, the persona – these are the sum of the guy he wants the public to know.

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Black is a close-up magician – think of him finding your card under your hat, not pulling a giant tiger out of his. This isn't exactly rare in Vegas; there's a steady supply of young street magicians working on their craft, hoping to knock Lance Burton off the Monte Carlo kiosk and rake in millions a year themselves. Coming to Vegas to do magic and hit it big is either the most logical bet or the most naive: Everyone who comes here thinks about leaving a little richer, but very few do. If the quick wealth this city offers is truly an illusion, though, maybe magicians have the best odds.

The mystifying feats that master magicians like Penn and Teller or Johnny Thompson offer in showrooms up and down the Strip are a fundamental part of the city's promise that regular rules don't apply here.

But Black wants to take the craft down a notch. In a town where magicians use big production staffs and huge stage illusions, Black's magic is refreshingly pragmatic. He can turn dollar bills into 20s. He can teach you how to cheat at poker and stack the deck with aces – though you'll still lose, because Black can make any hand a royal flush, and that's not a secret he's willing to share. His tricks have context, stories, and lots of jokes.

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Black says he has been a performer all his life, milking moments of comedy and drama since he was a child. He discovered magic when his parents gave him a few tricks – "ropes, plastic props, horrible things that weren't too complicated." He performed for his family, but says, "They were like, 'You ain't foolin' me kid, but I'll clap anyway.'"

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.

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."

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