Keys to a secret world – Illusionists offer advice for budding magicians |

Keys to a secret world – Illusionists offer advice for budding magicians

The picture of a young Dave Denney appears as if stolen from the archives of “Amateur Hour.”

The pages of his old high school yearbook show the youngster dressed in a suit on the stage of the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, circa 1962, in one of his earliest public magic exhibitions.

Denney, now 60, keeps his prep school yearbook tucked in a shelf next to books dedicated to what some call the “dark arts.”

The basement of Denney’s Banner Mountain-area home is filled with magical touches: a wand dating from 1938, an antique Gilbert “Mysto Magic” exhibition set, old worn leather fedoras, silver globes, and a smattering of brightly-hued silks used to delight audiences and defy the laws of science.

It’s been more than 50 years since Denney tried his first sleight-of-hand as a grade-schooler.

Yet, as he pours milk into a hat and tosses the seemingly sodden headpiece to an unsuspecting visitor who miraculously stays dry, Denney is as excited as the 8-year-old boy who first tried to fool a group of Optimists with his bag of tricks at a talent show in rural Nebraska.

Magic is about spectacle, performance, imagery, even science, say a handful of local residents who practice magic regularly.

Denney sees magic as a performance art, where your mind views the impossible.

“Whether it sends me off to dreamland or not, you’re no longer thinking how the magician did it, you’re just enjoying what you see,” he said.

Ironically, the challenge is in making the audience believe the impossible is possible, Denney said.

It’s not a cheap hobby, local magicians say. Nor is it for those who find studying a foreign concept – if you want to impress others, that is.

But it is an easy hobby to try, even if it is hard to master.

Kathy Hillis, who co-owns Mountain Pastimes in Nevada City, says that’s why there’s always a loyal cadre of ‘tweeners eager to learn the … ahem … tricks of the trade at the magic store on Broad Street.

Sales associates demonstrate magic tricks and peddle the latest creations to a clientele that skews toward young boys.

“The mind of a young person loves to figure things out,” she said. “I tell them, what we do is really not magic, it’s just fun.”

Bruce Gauthier, the founder of the Magician’s Guild of Nevada County, uses his nonprofit to help educate budding magicians.

In doing so, the secrets of magic must be unlocked.

That’s fine, Gauthier said, as long as you’re prepared for a commitment to the craft.

“To be privy to the secrets of magic, you have to be willing to make a personal investment,” he said.

Which means you must be willing to invest time and money to perfect each “effect,” the term magicians prefer.

Gauthier protégé Walter Zelhofer has been refining his act since he was a student at Lyman Gilmore Middle School.

Now a freshman majoring in international business at San Diego State University, Zelhofer, 18, is aspiring to be one of the few magicians who are household names.

Zelhofer, a Nevada Union High School graduate, is a member of the prestigious Magic Castle in Los Angeles, a private clubhouse for those affiliated with the Academy of Magical Arts.

Zelhofer said he studies magic about 3 to 4 hours a day. “It’s turned into an obsession,” he admits.

He’s completely serious when describing his desire to someday be mentioned in the same breath as Las Vegas legend Lance Burton or magic’s reigning king, David Copperfield.

“It’s a competitive world out there, which is why it’s good to have a degree to fall on” in case the magic thing doesn’t work out, he said.

For now, Zelhofer, as well as Gauthier and Denney have a steady roster of clients.

Denney, a member of Mensa and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who made his living developing ultrasound equipment, might seem a bit too analytical for a magician.

Then again, there’s plenty of thought involved when it comes to executing the perfect effect, he said.

“It feels good when it’s over,” Denney said, “when I haven’t made a mistake.”

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