Sleight of hand

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Using a quarter from the pocket of his shorts, local magician Michael Kaufman enchants his audience with his nimble hands and charming humor. Like a human piggy bank, he knocked the coin into the top of his head and out it came from his mouth.


In his thick, raspy New York accent, Kaufman said that he had just what he needed in his pockets to put on a show. Playing cards, a handkerchief, a metal ring and the quarter.


A full-time professional magician for more than 30 years, 58-year-old Kaufman, or Mystical Magical Michael, has performed more than 20,000 shows and is one of at least 60 magicians in town.


Austin has a surprisingly vibrant magic scene. Along with Harry Houdini’s personal collection of theater arts at the Harry Ransom Center, the city has three magic club organizations: International Brotherhood of Magicians, Society of American Magicians and Young Magicians Club. The Austin chapter of the most prestigious and oldest, the Society of American Magicians, is the second-largest assembly in the world.


Kaufman’s tricks all share a common denominator: They tell a story. From small tricks such as “hypnotizing” an upside down jug of water to spill on command to grand finales such as levitating a person off a box, Kaufman’s acts lure the audience in for a surprise.


“The art of performance is to suck people into my little world, my story. [The process] is kind of like a legal con game,” Kaufman said.


His goal is to have people jump ahead with preconceived answers and then stump them with a
clever twist.  


“Movies are like that, poems are like [that], music is like that, and magic is the same thing,” he said.


While working as a busboy at Colorado University in his 20s during the 1970s, he became intrigued when he saw a magician performing a changing color handkerchief trick in the lunchroom.


Coincidentally, the day after, he passed by a wizard magic shop in downtown Boulder. He went inside and told an employee what he saw the day earlier and bought the trick for about $2.50. He spent the next three hours under a bridge, trying to figure out the trick, looking at the step-by-step pictures. Unable to get the trick down, Kaufman returned to the shop the next day.


“He brought me back to the backroom and showed me, and I go, ‘Ah, that’s so easy!’” Kaufman said. “Suddenly, something that was so complicated became so easy.”


After buying more tricks and performing for family and friends, Kaufman began doing street shows full time. In 1978, he joined the Renaissance Festival. With the festival ending in November in Houston, performers often stay in Texas for their time off in the winter, Kaufman said. The low cost of living was what got Kaufman to living steady in Austin in the mid-’80s and performing at some of the city’s oldest venues.


In between touring with the festival and performing locally, Kaufman has also performed internationally from Germany to Thailand to the Himalayas.


To settle his nerves, Kaufman talks to himself before every show. Communication is a key component in his show, Kaufman says, because dialogue between him and the audience is what drives the show.


“I know sometimes I’m a little bit anxious, I move a little bit fast. I grew up from New York City, so my speech pattern is a lot quicker,” he said. “I’ve learned how to slow it up in performances so people could understand me, and I don’t just roll over my punch lines.”


Through layers of stories, Kaufman said he controls the minds of his audience and inspires them to distend their belief.


The trick where he levitates an audience member off a box, for instance, is an illusion.


“You know no one could just do that,” he said.


But for those who know how the tricks are done — magicians — the performance is enjoyable because of the unique style and personality the magician puts in the act.


“Sometimes, I know how he does what he does, but he still entertains me,” said Kent Cummins, fellow local magician. “And sometimes, I think I know what he does, but he tricks me.”


Think of it as musicians, he said. A musician can watch another musician and know the chords but can also still admire that musician’s skills. That’s the same way with magic and magicians, Cummins said.


For Kaufman, the applause that follows is just the cherry on top.


“When you have 300 people looking at you, and they all do something [like applaud], their focus is all on you. It’s like the best drug in the world,” he said. “It is. It stimulates you, and when you’re done with the show, whew, you’re like buzzed.”