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Meet the Johnny Appleseed of Magic

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A little girl wearing a striped overshirt and floral skirt steps up to the Magic Shop booth, flicking back her flat shoulder-length hair. An oversized purple and white chiffon hair bow seals the deal. Her voice a schoolyard taunt: "Show me. Magic!"

There's a flurry of voices and passersby behind her—leisurely strolling lovers, candy-amped toddlers, fatigued moms, tubby dads, teen girls in urban swag—but this girl's presence commands, her big brown eyes tuned to the magician's graceful hands and manicured nails. Her face a study in wonder and puzzlement, just like the countless who've watched him before.

She ignores the sweet reek of camel manure, frying onions and popcorn, and the bright yellows, reds and greens on the fairground midway, her face a study in wonder and puzzlement. Mom and dad flank her, half-skeptical but hardly bored. Little brother's too short for the action but tries to pull himself up to the counter anyway.

Emory Williams Jr. manning magic at Pima County Fair.
  • Emory Williams Jr. manning magic at Pima County Fair.

"Let me show you the most popular trick ever sold in the magic shop," he says to the girl, his headset mic booming through mounted speakers. His hands visible on matching TV monitors for all to see. "That would be this deck of cards. It's a very special deck. Do you have a finger you're not using?"

The girl nods. She's instructed to choose a card.

"I won't look; I've seen the trick before," he adds.

He nods at mom, says to the girl, "Make sure your sister sees it back there."

She inserts the card into the deck.

"Now that card has taken a liking to you. It's going to start following you around the fair here for the rest of the night. Kind of like a stalker, but it's not a bad thing, OK?"

She nods.

"How old are you?"

"Eleven. But I'm little for my age."

"Eleven? That's how old I was when I was your age."

He counts cards, and the 11th card is the one the girl chose.

She's stunned, as are the 15 who've gathered around.

"It pops up when you least expect it."

"Kind of like an old boyfriend," he says, nodding at the mother. "You know the one I'm talking about, right?"

Mom laughs.

Next, the deck returns to a single suit. The girl cries, "They're all the same!"

The graceful hands then somehow return the deck to normal, diamond and hearts, spade and clubs.

"See, the deck isn't so special at all," he says.

The kids fall in love. The card deck is for sale here, with lots of other gags and tricks. The magician's skills are pitch-perfect. They have to be.

Emory Williams Jr.’s sleight of hand. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Emory Williams Jr.’s sleight of hand.

Grayed Ken-doll hair and bespectacled, the married, 64-year-old magician looks more like a tent preacher crossed with an insurance salesman than a third-generation magic man steadfastly adhering to the old-school illusionist's codes and oaths. There are no masks or wands or hats here, and he won't reveal any trick secret. This is the magician's work-a-day, all night long. The coffee mug and home-packed food behind the curtain of his impressive and elaborate self-built booth. (Said booth folds into a trailer and attaches to his GMC van. Four months each year he's on a fair circuit through the Midwest and South, bringing magic to kids. Saves a grand a week sleeping in the one-seater van—it's tricked out: a comfy queen-sized bed, refrigerator, TV, internet etc.)

He's self-contained for the modern magic world. That same world reflected in the magician's telling tagline, which he just uttered to the hair-bow girl, "Do you want fries with that?" The line is a joke, yeah, but a total self-own. Emory Williams Jr. knows where he stands.

Tonight, he stands between Dippin' Dots ice cream and Mary Kaye cosmetics inside Thurber Hall at the Pima County Fair. The booth boasts a "Magic Shop" banner and a hanging picture of his magician dad and mom. Decks of cards and other magic trinkets and gags for sale, neatly displayed on his wide, clean, felt-topped counter. He runs the prices down again, third time this hour. The repetition must be brutal.

"But you can buy everything in a package at a discount, $35. ... It also gets you a DVD that teaches everything, exactly the way I do it. I know because it's me on the DVD. It's kinda scary, it means I go home with you."

Soon he sells a single ball and vase trick, a few bucks.

"And when you open it you'll know exactly how it works," he tells the teen customer. "It's that easy, OK?"

Some tricks here are old as the hills, he'll point out—the ball and vase illusion, for example, has likely been around since ancient Egypt.

Close-up magic is difficult as hell. Requires dexterity, uncommon grace. The trick sciences are well-known. But the presentation and performance, the art of it, is what sustains magic. Illusion is presentation; it's the handling, the patter, the charisma.

Hardly matters Emory looks like any boomer with good hair. No need for costuming or style consultants. Emory maintains entertainer intangibles to back up mad skillsets, even when it amounts to selling tricks for kids. It's easy to spot the sensation, the inspiration, a look in his eyes, in his mannerisms, that there's a bigger purpose here for him. This sharply intelligent manboy sees lots, knows lots but reveals little—his head for precise detail, and of Illusionists and illusions that came before him, is a magician essential.

There's also the skilled, honed acumen of a pitchman able to read the body language of kids and parents. Emory entertains the kids, and they hit the parents up for the trick sets. It's the kids who sell the shop's wares. (Yep, and maybe there's a sucker every minute: Up close, nearly a dozen times, I've watched Emory turn a $1 bill into a $100 bill—no crumpling, and he's wearing short sleeves—and each time I'm flummoxed.)

Some call Emory the Johnny Appleseed of magic.

"I'm out here planting magic seeds all over the country for all the little kids to get into. Problem is, most of them won't follow through. It's a point-of-sale, an impulse purchase. They buy and then they go to YouTube and prank their friend and never go in the magic shop again. But every now and then you get one."

If he's in the mood, he'll blow minds. And why not? It's in his blood. He's been at it for decades. Been a member of the prestigious Academy of Magical Arts, the international magician's guild housed in Hollywood's Magic Castle. Emory has performed there many times since joining in '75.

So he fits into the pantheon of old garter-sleeved magicians in the post-Criss Angel world. (Angel's sort of the Mötley Crüe of magic—almost single-handedly finished off the fraternal order of magicians. The predictable, showy money-grabs and calculated outrage for sell-outs under the guise of art.) A good magician is egoless. It's heretical to make it about themselves. Teller of Penn and Teller doesn't speak. The Masked Magician, the onetime Vegas-y sensation, conversely, gave away countless trade secrets on a tedious Fox TV show.


Some enraptured kids at the County Fair. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Some enraptured kids at the County Fair.
Some enraptured kids at the County Fair. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Some enraptured kids at the County Fair.

At 5 years old, Emory was learning magic from his dad, Emory Williams Sr. Now dad grew up in Missouri farmlands, 1930s, the youngest of 12 children. He'd apprenticed with magicians in the 1940s, married his childhood sweetheart (still married) and pursued magic for life.

The parents settled outside of Tucson, a planned retirement, but instead opened a magic shop on 22nd near Wilmot street in '89, which became a clubhouse of sorts for local magicians. The place expanded, several times.

The younger Emory went on to study theology at an English university. But he became a hunter of truth in Southern California—an insurance investigator, worked as a litigator too, a non-attorney hearing representative who negotiated million-dollar settlements. ("It helps if you watch a lot of court TV shows," he laughs.) He's done other things, too, including video game design. Like his dad, performing magic was a constant. He and his wife moved to Arizona in '96, joined up with his folks at the Williams Magic Shop, for fulltime magic. Emory soon stopped performing publicly to market the business.

The tradition of magic had been shifting, and when the economy tanked in '08, the 22nd Street shop, with its thousands of square feet, shuttered. Williams Magic opened a store in Vail, Arizona, which now operates a small storefront, seven nights a week, in Tucson's Trail Dust Town. It's run by Emory, his wife and his parents.

The family also created a mind-bogglingly customized 42-foot RV to contain an entire store inventory of illusions and magic, thousands of items. Their intent was to take the Williams Magic Shop (and teachings) to customers around the country, which they also do. Thirty-seven states and counting.

Emory offers a road analogy as umbrella explanation: "Route 66 had all the little cities and stops and shops along the way. When the interstate came in, they bypassed the little towns and all the little shops started to close and the towns started to dry up. That's what happened to the magic industry. It used to be if you had an interest in magic you had to go to a magic shop, or you may have done it through mail order—if they were in another city. The internet came in and it's bypassed all the magic shops. Now, kids can just get on their phone and can find the same thing made in China for a third the price and buy and have it delivered. They don't have to walk into a magic shop, which means they're not getting face-to-face contact. They're not being coached on how to entertain and to present and interact and how to become a magician. They're buying pranks. So magic shops dried up. When the shops dried up there's no one to cultivate the next generation."

Yeah, you can't mess with change and progress, and the guy who made horse-buggy whips had to quit too, etc. But this isn't forward movement, not when technology so ruthlessly speeds us into murky futures we don't realize so much beauty has vanished. It's that way in the arts, in music—and magic too. Pranks and gags, The Masked Magician and short attention spans. The antithesis of the art. The arguments are the same—the kids no longer pay attention to anything, the internet has ruined magic, long-held secrets revealed.

But really, magic is storytelling. Magic is humanity, passed down generations. There's apprenticeship, study and long-hour suffering—the 10,000-hour rule, at least. Like any art, one must understand what came before to begin to master it, to ensure evolvement, to even be any damn good, worthy of attention. It's about devotion. It's like writing books or painting canvases or recording good records or even practicing medicine. Without total effort it's a cheap trick.


Emory Williams Jr. shows the kids what’s up. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Emory Williams Jr. shows the kids what’s up.


Michael DeSchalit, a compact guy with close-cropped hair,
the gestalt of a reality TV star, he of hypnozone.com, appears at the fair's magic shop booth with his wife and daughter. This longtime magician, who's performed everywhere—from the Four Seasons in Vegas to the Magic Castle in Hollywood—has known Emory for nigh 30 years. He has just sold his Tucson home and is leaving the illusion trade to focus more on his hypnosis business and shows. He's big in the certified hypnosis game, as a lecturer, performer, etc. There's little money in magic and illusion anymore he says. He's moving to Vegas.

He's talking magician's toil. How guys like Emory and his family can survive on the little sales and magic sets, keeping the spirit of illusion alive.

He shrugs. "He does well enough. Selling the stuff. It's the $1.50 movie principle. Fill all the seats or charge $10 and see."

If Emory's tired of shtick, there's no telling. Not with an audience of doe-eyed kids with candy-smeared lips giving off adrenaline, energy. He feels that too, man.

A 15-year-old girl stands all wide-eyed at the booth, her show-me attitude fades into a drifty grin and concentration. She almost invests in some magic but instead chooses a bottle of invisible ink. Emory pulls a tiny bottle out. "That's $2."

She digs out the bills and tax and hands it over.

His knowing nod. "Would you like fries with that?"

Go to Williamsmagic.com for more info.

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