On a recent Wednesday at the James City County Library, Ron Grossman took his magic wand out of a box and tapped it on a table.
A group of eager magicians came to attention.
“Most of us have just fallen in love with magic,” said Steve Mains, treasurer of the Society of American Magicians. “It’s an art form. Some people paint, others sing. We do magic.”
Assembly 226 is the local chapter of the Society of American Magicians and brings together magicians from across Hampton Roads. The chapter, which has about 15 members of various ages and skill levels, meets about once a month to share tricks and tips for performances.
Each magician in the group holds the practice to a high standard, doing research on tricks and memorizing the names of the magicians who developed them. In order to attend a meeting, a potential member needs to perform some sort of trick to prove themselves.
While the Williamsburg chapter started in 1991, the national organization is the oldest magic society in the world, according to its website. It boasts members from Harry Houdini to David Copperfield and, more recently, a group of Williamsburg magicians dedicated to the craft.
“We’re not here to fool people, we’re here to entertain,” Grossman said.
Grossman, a Princeton alumnus and former Olympic team physician, first got into magic because he needed a hobby after retiring. After six years, though, he found that what he loves most is seeing the excitement in the crowd when it appears something impossible has happened.
And his favorite audience is always his grandchildren.
“It’s the looks on their faces when you make something appear seemingly out of nowhere,” Grossman said. “There’s nothing better than that.”
For most of the magicians in the group, it’s the thrill of connecting with the audience that keeps them coming back. When Michael Heckenberger, president of Assembly 226, did his first stage performance, he knew he was hooked.
When he was going through officer training school for the Air Force, Heckenberger had the opportunity to perform at the final awards ceremony. He brought his favorite trick on stage, the Chinese rings, and magically made the rings link together.
What made his performance special though, is that while trying to hook the rings together he explained to his fellow officer candidates how the rings were just like them — they started separate, they sometimes butted together, but in the end they all came together.
“It was the one and only standing ovation I got in my life,” Heckenberger said. “And it wasn’t because of the magic, it was the emotion.”
More than just magic
For James MollenKamp, one of the youngest members of the chapter at 19, magic is more than card tricks and disappearing coins.
It’s the connection with the audience that makes half the show, Mollenkamp said. That’s why he has developed his skills in mentalism, the theory that psychological phenomena is understood through the creative mind.
“What I love about mentalism is that it’s so personal,” he said. “Ultimately, magic is about you, but mentalism is about them.”
Mentalism is a different form of magic that looks at the psychological and personality of a person, Mollenkamp said. These types of tricks involve mind-reading acts or hypnosis.
His favorite trick is the “Q & A” trick where, during the intermission of a performance, audience members write down questions on pieces of paper and place them in a jar. Mollencamp then returns and guesses each question in the bowl before he pulls it out.
While he portrays a confident persona, there are times when a trick goes wrong on stage and a good magician has to know how to keep the show going, Mollenkamp said.
“I love what magic does to you, I love the adrenaline rush,” he said. “When I start a performance, I never know where it’s going and that’s exciting to not only me, but the audience as well.”
But none of the magicians gets up on stage without doing their homework. Every performance and trick is researched and rehearsed before standing in front of an audience.
The magicians are all well-studied in their practice, each with their own preferences and idols, and they abide by the one steadfast rule of magic: never reveal how the magic happens.
But, when the meeting is over they’ll tell you where to find the books that do — under call number 793.8 in the library.