An Interview with Magician Mark Collier

Originally appeared in the Santa Barbara News-Press.

What’s your best trick or your favorite trick?

It changes. It’s situational. Whatever will get the best reaction at this particular time for this particular audience. I have tricks that are my favorite for a while but then my interest shifts and I have more fun doing something else. I would rather show you some of my favorites than describe them to you anyway (tomorrow, noon, Paseo Nuevo fountain).

What’s the best thing about magic?

The Delight! Magic can rock your world in a way few other art forms can. People need to have their universe turned upside down once in a while. There is an unpredictable element. Some people are uncomfortable with it but sometimes it can seem like real magic even to me. How many artforms can make the hair stand-up on the back of your head? People need to be astonished. Life can become so predictable. It is rare to see something that you have never seen or anticipated before. Magic can do that.

What’s the hardest thing about magic?

The hardest thing about Strolling Magic is the approach. Getting permission from a group of strangers to interupt their conversation and perform magic can be daunting to say the least. I have to establish credibility right away. When you are at a party or a restaurant, you are used to being approached by a waiter, bartender Maitre de’ etc. but when an uninvited entertainer approaches and wants your attention, it can be uncomfortable. What if you say yes and then they aren’t good?

Being a good strolling magician means you have to be able to judge when to approach a table and once there, how long to stay. Sometimes one person will say no thanks when others at the table are obviously interested.

What’s the biggest screw up you’ve ever made in magic?

No comment.

I’ll tell you off the record. I did something stupid in my early years as a magician that if published might contribute to the general mistrust that many people feel towards magicians. I don’t like it when people say things like, “There’s the magician, hold onto your wallet.”

I am an entertainer not a thief. Many magicians steal watches, wallets etc. Even though they return them, it can cast a shadow of mistrust. I don’t steal watches. I don’t gamble and if I did I wouldn’t cheat. I won’t even borrow a finger ring for a magic trick because these are things people treasure. If I borrow a hundred dollar bill, it can be replaced so the comedy of jeopardizing it is at my expense as much as the spectator’s. If I borrow a ring, who knows the value? It could be a family heirloom with extreme sentimental value. Now this person is truly uncomfortable and all the comedy is at their expense. Add to that, the fact that the stone may be ready to fall out or maybe has already fallen out and been lost (possibly unkown to the spectator). Now I return the ring and they notice the stone is missing. The worst-case scenario is completely unacceptable.

What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever had happen during a show or routine, or even one-on-one?

I don’t know about the funniest but one time…at band camp.

I was performing at I Madonnari on the lawn and there was concern about fire juggling since it was the year after the Painted Cave Fire. I had a pressurized water fire extinguisher sitting off to the side. I was in the middle of a magic trick when this 10 or 12-year-old kid in the front row stands up, turns his back to me and faces the crowd. He begins loudly explaining to the audience how he thinks I’m doing the trick. I calmly walked over and picked up the fire extinguisher and blasted him in the middle of his back. I held the trigger and continued spraying him as he ran out of range. As soon as he was out of range, I asked the crowd, “Who else thinks they know how I did that trick?”

Not one person had a clue.

You said the city used to chase you away, now they’re inviting you to perform for them. What’s that feel like?

I love Santa Barbara and feel very indebted to this community for supporting me. I make a living doing what I love because people in this city (and the City itself) pay me to play. I think sometimes the thinking is a little narrow-minded but I love this town.

I thought Mason B. Mason should have been allowed to play and for the most part he was. He was put through a lot of hassle that he didn’t deserve. He was a great addition to the downtown scene. I miss him.

The lady that isn’t allowed to be the crossing guard at the downtown farmer’s market is missed as well. Santa Barbara has become and is still becoming more and more generic.

We used to have more color in Santa Barbara. Summer Solstice has turned into another moneymaker. I can’t juggle in the park after the parade anymore. The stage and all the food and craft booths have made it too crowded. The drummers are drowned out by the stage music.

To get back to your question, I guess for a while I was part of the local color. When I was doing street shows, I wasn’t really at the level to be hired by the City anyway. Now that I am at that level, I don’t do street shows. I have no bitterness and I don’t feel vindicated. Things are what they are. They are and have always been almost just about right.

Describe ‘strolling magician’—How many people competed for that Strolling Magician title?

There was about 20 magicians that competed at the Strolling Olympics in September 2004. The Strolling Olympics were held three times in 2004 so in March of 2005, I competed against two other magicians at the Annual Magic Castle Awards Banquet which was held at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood. This is a black tie affair and the three ‘Strolling Olympians’ did walkaround magic during the cocktail hour and everyone cast a ballot as they entered the dining room. Later in the evening, I was called on stage to receive my trophy.

Did your days on the streets in SB help you in that strolling magic arena..knowing how to read and work a crowd versus more premeditated stage magic?

Working the streets helped me to gain confidence in myself as a performer. If there is one thing that will help you overcome the fear of failure, it is failure. On the streets, I failed repeatedly. Failure wasn’t as bad as the fear of it. We would lose the crowd. They would leave before we had a chance to pass the hat but it was a chance to ask questions. What could/should we have done differently? Did we lose them during the segue? Was the show paced too slowly? The last time this happened, was it at the same point in the show?

I never considered quitting. I did think a lot about how to improve (and fail less often). All experience helps.

Bartending and restaurant work in general has been beneficial because I understand the business. When I work the Palace, it’s not just about me. I am there to help the restaurant run more smoothly. I don’t expect or want the waiters to wait until I’m done to bring the food. Strolling magic is modular. I can cut to the chase and wrap it up quickly if I need to. I may even just say, “Your food is here we’ll finish this some other time.”

The same is true for any gig; I ask myself why was I hired. It’s not just about me being good or funny. I might be hired by an employer to show appreciation to employees and/or clients. I need to make them look/feel good. If it’s a new product release, that product is more important than I am. I am there to help make the product look good.

What’s the best gig you’ve ever landed?

Tahiti. For two weeks, myself and two other performers were flown around French Polynesia to perform as part of a Chamber of Commerce type promotion. Since there were breaks of up to two hours between shows and we were always near the beach, we brought our swimsuits and swam in the lagoon several times a day. A couple of times, we stayed with a Tahitian family right on the beach in Moorea.

When they flew us to Riatia for a show in the town marketplace, they had bussed all of the school kids on the entire island to the airport. They were all dressed up as clowns and each had a lei for us. All we could do was kneel down and let these kids pile the leis on our heads until they covered our eyes. It was very touching (even though I generally don’t like clowns).

What’s the hardest gig you’ve ever landed?

Funny you should ask. Japan. I spent two months in Japan. I was working at a Dutch style theme park just outside of Nagasaki called Holland Village. For a long time, Japan was literally an isolated nation. They didn’t want Western Civilization influencing their culture: specifically, Christianity. For some reson the Dutch Trading Company was able to convince them that wasn’t going to be a problem. Bidness was Bidness so to speak. So for a very long time, all international trade was restricted to the seaport in Nagasaki As a result, there is quite a history of Dutch influence in and around Nagasaki (sailors will be sailors).

The reason it was such a hard gig is that there was no interpreter and very little English spoken. I was a walking freak show. People would stop and point at me from across the street. They had never seen anyone so tall (I’m 6’3”).

I was doing 4 half-hour shows a day, six days a week. That wasn’t the problem. The time in between shows sucked the life out of me. It was a lot of sitting around while everyone chain smoked cigarettes, spoke Japanese and read Japanese novel comic books. We’d go do a show and come back and sit for another two hours. I grew a lot older in those two months than I had in years.

Who are some of the famous people or notables you’ve performed for?

I was performing at the San Ysidro Ranch at a benefit for the Sheriff’s Council. James Cameron (famous Hollywood director) was among those present (in fact he hired me later to perform at his Malibu estate). In the middle of the show I stopped and acted like I just recognized Andy Granatelli who was also in the audience. I said, “Mr. Granatelli……What is that….French?” It got a pretty good laugh. He acted like he was coming at me with a steak knife.