Magician channels childhood hardships into distinctive, funny performances

The Baltimore Sun

Jack Julius was 7 years old when his foster family dropped him off at the Villa Maria Orphanage in Baltimore. He doesn't remember the exact reason - the family moved or someone became ill - but Jack soon found an unlikely way to recover from the blow.

A magician showed up at the orphanage, and as quickly as you can say "abracadabra," the outgoing and optimistic little boy discovered his calling.

The man, whose blond hair stuck right up a la Alfalfa from The Little Rascals, mesmerized Jack, particularly the trick of balancing a ball on an umbrella's tip. It wasn't long before Jack borrowed that for his own budding act.

"Magic and performing was a way to deal with the crisis in my life," said Julius, 46. "Since I didn't have a real family growing up, the audience was my family."

To this day, Julius thrives on entertaining in hopes of leaving his audience "spellbound, gasping for air." The Edgewater resident juggles requests for appearances from corporate and private customers in Maryland and Washington, D.C., and has worked up and down the East Coast, and in Brazil, Canada, Japan and Hong Kong.

On stage, Julius suspends his wife, Taiwan-born Yu Ting Wu, above the tips of three swords. The illusion reaches its finale when Julius removes all but one sword. He is especially fond of producing doves out of thin air, newspaper or a balloon.

Performing on the street, Julius combines what he calls a mix of comedy, magic, mime, sketches and "abstract mime" - a mix of mime and dance. He finishes his street act with Houdini's famous "Metamorphosis": He is chained and put inside a padlocked trunk, then a giant bag, and in the blink of an eye trades places with his wife standing atop the trunk.

When performing close-up magic, Julius uses small props like cards and coins. He has someone cut a rope in two with scissors, then the knot he has tied magically slides off the restored piece of rope.

"I'll open my wallet and fire flares out," he said, delighted at the shock this generates.

Born Jack Butchik in 1961, he adopted his birth father's surname about 20 years ago. He didn't know until recently he had a sister.

Julius lived at the orphanage until age 12, when he moved into a second foster home - he lived in seven, plus a halfway house over the course of his childhood - and began collecting every book he could find on the famous magician Harry Houdini, maybe 15 to 20 books, he says.

At age 12, he talked his foster parents into sending him to magic camp in New York State. He studied the work of mime Marcel Marceau, was inspired by magician Doug Henning and adopted Robin Williams' offbeat style of dress from the late 1970s sitcom Mork and Mindy. He memorized two of the comedian's albums.

School became his practice stage. If Julius arrived late for class, he said, he would walk into the room like a robot or mechanical man, moving like a young Michael Jackson.

He entertained in the halls, the cafeteria and after classes at every school he attended, which included four high schools. Fellow Severna Park High graduate Michele Danoff, an Annapolis graphic designer, remembers when Julius arrived.

"He was very talented," said Danoff. "He looked like a young Robin Williams. When he performed magic tricks and mime in the lobby, everybody was stopping and having a great time."

A painter and photographer, he financed several semesters at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore with money earned from street performing in New York City.

One of the biggest challenges for the irrepressible entertainer was trying to hold a job. He said he has had, at one time or another, "every conceivable job there is" to make ends meet.

Julius said he was fired once when a fast-food manager caught him making burgers like a mechanical man and greeting guests in mime. He said he lost a job as a waiter at the Maryland Inn for spending too much time entertaining his customers, although, he said, the tips were great.

While working in a restaurant kitchen, he said he was fired for juggling eggs.

During a homeless stretch when he first moved to Annapolis, Julius found one of his few successful jobs in a bookstore on Main Street. He became its manager and began writing a book, Seasons in the Sun, about life in an orphanage. He now thinks the unpublished book might make a good screenplay which, of course, he plans to write.

Julius' first magic acts were "serious," he said, until he entered a talent show with other magicians and tried to something with fire.

"A voice off-stage whispered, 'You can't use fire.'" He recalled. "So, I said 'OK.' My Houdini escape act was failing, and everybody was laughing." He loved the audience's response and made comedy part of his act.

Comedy again came to his rescue one day while he was doing a street performance and a man who had had too much to drink began to heckle him. Julius pointed at the man and announced, "Hey, everybody, I'd like you to meet my dad!"

Julius prefers black-and-white costumes, but he's also known to wear wild checkered pants and polka-dot shirts. He generally tops his outfit off with a chef's hat.

An animal lover, Julius has worked for more than 20 years with a dove named Jasper. He and his wife, known to her friends as Tanya and to Julius as Ting, have two other doves, Blue and Baby Blue, and three cats.

Houdini, a white-faced Norwegian forest cat, turns his head sideways and up and down when spoken to and is the one most likely to have a future in show biz, said Julius. Goofy, a 16-year old black-and-white cat, opens doors, and Gigi, a long-haired gray feline, is considered the ditzy one of the group because of her wide-eyed, innocent expression.

Paula Phillips, an Annapolis visual and performing arts publicist who hired Julius to work at 49 West Coffeehouse, Winebar and Gallery, said he inspires her.

"Don't you think the world needs magic now - to suspend belief and be in a place of wonder?" she said. "When I saw how much he had learned since he began, I really admired him."

You can catch Julius in action on May 5 at the daylong Cinco de Mayo celebration at Chevy's Fresh Mex, 2430 Solomons Island Road in Annapolis, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. May 6 at the Maryland Maritime Heritage Festival at City Dock and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at 49 West the last Saturday of each month.

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