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Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
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St. Charles is famous for its historical riverfront; for being a rendezvous point for Lewis and Clark; for being close to the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. What it isn’t particularly known for is being the international hub for a worldwide fraternity of magicians. Yet right across the bridge from St. Louis exists a little-known organization called IBM—the International Brotherhood of Magicians. It boasts more than 12,000 members. And the fact that it’s based in St. Charles has nothing to do with the location’s apparent inconspicuousness.
“The president [of the IBM] at the time brought it to St. Louis,” explains magician Terry Richison, “because he happened to be from St. Louis. It had been in South County for many, many years.” Dressed in black, and with a hairstyle to match, Richison looks as though he came upon his magician persona by way of Zorro. It’s all an act—and he’s the first to admit it.
“We’re actors playing a part,” he says. “None of us have any special powers.” That should be obvious, of course—but, says Richison, some people refuse to believe that magic is just smoke and mirrors. In their eyes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
“Oh, I get it once or twice a year,” he says. “I’m getting ready to do a show, and somebody—and many times it’s the person who hired me—will ask, ‘Do you have a pact with the devil?’”
Richison cites one legerdemainist who begins his show with the admission, “I have no special powers. I only give you the illusion that I do. But I’ll let you decide.”
Ambiguity helps maintain the charade. And like any magician worth his weight in sparkly dust, Richison keeps the tricks of his trade under his hat.
“The producer of one show actually came up to me and said, ‘Hey, how did you cut that rope in two pieces?’ I said ‘Very well,’ and then he left me alone. Even my assistants don’t know how I do everything. They know what they need to do—but they don’t want to know everything.”
The only legitimate way to gain access to the dazzling, how-do-you-do-it secrets of a magician is to actually become one. With enough practice, it’s a skill set that’s available to anybody. Best of all, you can come as you are. The door to the IBM headquarters doesn’t have a sign saying, No cape, no hat, no service.
“We have janitors, teachers, engineers,” says Richison. “We have people who don’t even perform—but they’re collectors.” The elephant in the room is the question of how somebody gets through the door in the first place. Short of making that elephant disappear, how does a layperson gain membership?
“You have to get two other magicians to sponsor you,” he says. “There are a couple of ways to do that. You can find a mentor. Or the library is just full of books that actually teach magic.” Library books tend to disappear, of course, but Richison insists that if you have enough ambition, sooner or later the sponsors will materialize. What he seems to be saying is that if you love magic and wear your heart on your sleeve, eventually you’ll have room in that sleeve to conceal things.
“If you have a sincere interest, you’ll have no trouble getting in,” he says. “We have professional magicians; we have hobbyists; we have people who do it part time; we have kids who are just starting. We have a nun.”
One of Richison’s loftier ambitions is to make the Arch disappear. The proposed feat has proven to be a tall order, not on account of the supposed impossibility of pulling off such a monumental illusion, but rather because of the red tape involved in gaining access to the grounds. Security, especially since 9/11, has been prohibitively tight. Still, he hasn’t given up. “I have an engineering degree. And the degree takes my mind and twists it in such a way that I can see things that most people can’t.” His eyes are quicker than most people’s hands—at least until the applause.
Terry Richison and the International Brotherhood of Magicians team up with the St. Louis assembly of The Society of American Magicians for the Midwest Magic Jubilee August 11 through 13 at the Hilton St. Louis Airport Hotel, 10330 Natural Bridge. Call 314-791-9108 or go to
mmjubilee.com for details.