Ellie Verni of Ellicott City watches as Theo Rushin performs a trick during the Columbia Conjurors' annual Tommy Ivey Close-Up Magic Show.

Ellie Verni of Ellicott City watches as Theo Rushin performs a trick during the Columbia Conjurors' annual Tommy Ivey Close-Up Magic Show. (photo by Sarah Pastrana / May 23, 2013)

My lips are sealed.

If it’s a revelation about the illusions magicians create that you are expecting, just stop reading now. I have given my word to follow the magicians’ code of secrecy, sworn to the Columbia Conjurors Assembly #141 of the Society of American Magicians.

You’ll never hear it from me.

But after the Columbia Conjurors’ annual Tommy Ivey Close-Up Magic Show, at which audience members and performers get up close and personal over table magic, would I even have had anything to reveal?


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I was hoping to (privately) figure out some enigmatic effects (“tricks” to us layfolk) on my own or with expert consultation from 12-year-old aspiring magician Matt (“The Matt-gician”) Verni, who attended the show with sometime-assistant, sometime-competitor sister Ellie, 10, and parents Anthony and Stephanie Verni of Ellicott City.

No flashes of light, loud bangs and purple smoke to awe (and distract) the audience here, just sleight of hand, and patter of mouth, to amaze and bemuse us. Some dozen Conjurors circulated among four tables, each with its own audience. Ours included Centennial High student Juhi Dwivedi, who is trying to get a magic club started there and brought along a group of friends to rev up enthusiasm.

We watched playing cards defy the laws of physics, showing half-face and half-back at once (courtesy of Conjurors treasurer Bob Leedom), and change faces by individual card (via club VP John Gazmen) or entire deck (by 16-year-old Miles Miller-Dickson).

We experienced Ralph Fowler’s “mentalism,” in which he “read” the symbols we secretly chose, took part in club president Theo Ruffin’s sci-fi experiments with “MIT prototype” time tunnels, gasped at Craig Schneider’s savantlike facility with numbers and laughed nervously at S. Brent Morris’ finger-size mini-guillotine.

Some of us were chosen to assist in the acts, but while that may have helped the magicians it didn’t help us much to penetrate the mysteries on display.

The art of magic

Columbia Conjurors is an assembly of the Society of American Magicians, founded by Harry Houdini himself and said to be the oldest and most prestigious magic organization in the world. It is dedicated to elevating the art of magic, encouraging harmony among practitioners, opposing public exposure of magic and preventing theft of magical inventions.

The Close-Up Magic Show and a biennial performance at Leisure World in Silver Spring (which last year was so popular it ran twice) are the Conjurors’ only club performances for the public. The group currently includes 26 members (more than 150 during the group’s 34-year history), and laity are not invited to regular meetings, where inside information is discussed.

The Columbia Conjurors hail from Towson to Bowie and Germantown to Georgetown, Del., and are bonded in their common love for fascinating audiences through illusion. Members’ backgrounds run the gamut -- Bob Leedom is a retired jet fighter radar systems designer, while Craig Schneider is an endodontist, Theo Rushin Jr. is a software developer, Ellen Miller is a retired math teacher and Rob Niccolini is an attorney.

And then there’s Peter Wood, the only full-time professional in the group.

Like many a conjuror, Wood’s interest was piqued by a magic set he received for his 5th birthday, but unlike some, he didn’t take a hiatus for other interests.

“At age 10, on the way home from a magic shop where I had spent my birthday money, my mom remarked, ‘You know, some people get paid to do this,’ ” he recalls.

And sure enough, soon some neighborhood friends did pay him to entertain at a birthday party. He made business cards and bolstered word of mouth with a little marketing, and by high school and college, business had snowballed. Wood paid his way through the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with his shows, some of which include the talents of fellow magician brother Matt, with whom he has performed at the Howard County Fair for almost 15 years. At UMBC, Wood majored in technical theater (including special effects, lighting and set design) -- the closest thing there is to a degree in magic.
“By the time I graduated in 2006, I was lucky enough to be making enough money to try going full time,” he says.

Upcoming shows require preparation and polishing up; otherwise most of Wood’s time is spent marketing to businesses and organizations and working on new material. “The way I practice,” he explains, “is by performing,” in contrast to occasional performers who may practice an hour a day or so to keep their skills up to speed, according to Ralph Fowler.

Not Leedom, the Conjurors’ treasurer admits. But then he isn’t one of those who caught the magic bug early.

“I’m an engineer. There’s always interest in knowing how things work,” he says, so when he noticed a magic course in the Howard Community College noncredit catalog back in 1980, he signed on, met the instructor “doctor of card shuffling” S. Brent Morris, attended a Conjurors meeting as part of the class and hasn’t left since. 

After all, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Morris says, quoting no less an authority than science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. So no wonder club president Rushin loves science fiction, as witnessed in his close-up performance. But he does it all -- escaping from straitjackets, a razor blade routine, street magic on the Ocean City boardwalk, and strolling magic at the National Press Club and Georgetown Hospital.

Says the college dance major whose wife encouraged him to return to his youthful interest in magic for their daughter’s elementary school shows, “Any time I get a chance to perform it’s fun for me.”

The Columbia Conjurors meet monthly, usually on the second Monday of the month, at 8 p.m. at Christ Episcopal Church in Columbia. For additional information, go to sam141.org.

Magic for hire

Several members of the Columbia Conjurors perform independently at special events.

Atlantis Magic Productions
Matt Neufeld specializes in children’s birthday parties, especially ages 7-12, as well as stage and parlor magic for families and communities. mattneufeld@hotmail.com; 301-263-9800, Ext. 124.

Dan the Magic Man
Dan Cogliano performs for children ages 3-8 with a mixture of magic, comedy and puppets. familymagicshows.com; info@familymagicshows.com; 410-212-9332.

Magic Carpet Entertainment
Ellen & Wayne Miller specialize in community and corporate picnics and fairs. Pockets and the Magician do walk-around entertainment, balloon sculptures and face-painting. magiccarpetentertainment.com; magiccarpet@comcast.net; 410-730-1598.

The Magic of George Bradley
includes close-up, parlor and stage magic for events and functions. GeorgeBradleyMagic.com; george@georgebradleymagic.com; 240-481-6677.

The Magic of Pravin & Vaibhav
has father-and-teen-son team performing magic and creating balloon animals at birthday parties, community events and company picnics. PravinPonnuri@hotmail.com; 410-340-0529.

Shazam Magic
Peter Wood, accompanied at large events by brother Matt, performs stage and strolling magic and parties for adult crowds and family audiences. ShazamMagic.com; Peter@ShazamMagic.com; 301-246-2442.

Need some magic in your life?

Traditional magic shops have become fewer and further between, but wizard-wannabes will now find Magic in the Mill at Savage Mill (in the new Weave Building), where magician Pravin Ponnuri offers the paraphernalia of magic, juggling, face-painting, gags and pranks -- with free demos -- on Friday evenings and weekends. Birthday parties by arrangement, too. Call 410-340-0529 or e-mail PravinPonnuri@hotmail.com with questions.

Every third Sunday of the month, Friends of the Magi host Magic Sundays at Chapala Restaurant in Burtonsville. Sleight-of-hand artists visit tables during lunch at 2 p.m. Headliners perform onstage 3-5 p.m. Tickets for show and lunch: adults $15, kids under 9 free; kids’ menu price $6 applies in between. Maximum two children ages 4 and up per adult. For reservations call 301-421-0924 or go to magicsundays.com/reserve.