Updated: Feb 22
"Live fifteen-minute magic show! The show starts now!"
You might have heard this if you've ever been on vacation at Universal Studios in Orlando. There was a walk-through facade of Hollywood Boulevard with landmarks like the Brown Derby, Schwabs, and Mel's Diner. At Williams of Hollywood, magicians would try to pull you into a theater to watch a fifteen-minute magic show/sales pitch. I was one of those magicians.
Scrolling through craigslist, I found a help wanted ad for magicians. Curiosity got the best of me, especially since it said that you don't have to know any magic to qualify for this position. As a former employee of Daytona Magic (another story for another time), I felt like I had my foot in the door.
Photo of me before one of my shifts at Daytona Magic Shop, circa 2012.
For the interview, I met with the owner of Theatre Magic, Attillio, and his Chief of Operations, David Mann, in an old dusty warehouse in an antique shopping plaza. David was a chill older gentleman known for his work with the dancing cane illusion. He wore a striking green suit that smelled like a thousand burning cigarettes. Attillio had combed black hair and dressed like a mob boss. They asked, "Can you shuffle a deck? Have you ever done magic before?" I showed them a few of my tricks and sleights. They hired me on the spot.
My immediate hiring was followed by two weeks of intense magician's Bootcamp. We started with three new hires. We learned the script, blocking (where to put your feet on the stage), and how the tricks worked. After the first week, just me and a guy named Chris remained. Chris had never done a magic show before. He was a goofy guy and had his unique brand of charm. We helped each other learn the magic so that we were ready to perform.
After two weeks of the most intense magic training we had ever experienced, they sent us to Universal Studios to be trained by the theme park. That was an easy one-day orientation program with horrible dad jokes. Following orientation, David came and grabbed us away from the departing group and brought us into the back of the magic shop. We watched from behind the audience as a magician named Doug Wonder floated a card, then a coin, followed by a borrowed dollar bill from the audience. Doug was one of many amazing magicians at Theatre Magic. I remember being nervous about doing my first show following him. They had someone in the wings ready to step in if I messed up. I ended up doing just fine.
Photo of me holding up the LIVE MAGIC SHOW sign with Marge Simpson at Universal Studios Orlando.
For a year, I did hundreds of fifteen-minute shows with the same script, the same show, the same movements. The show's repetition was tolerable because of the diverse audience reactions and a family of jokester magicians. There was a good mix of people who wanted to be a magician and people just doing a job. I made some life-long friends at Theatre Magic.
Between shows, everyone liked to talk shop about new tricks, magic specials on TV, what magicians were in town. We would talk about some of the show's past alumni and where they were now. Some of the notable alumni included Nick Locapo, a charming magician with the best hair in magic. The Amazing Jafo, who performed on the CW show Penn & Teller's Fool Us. Dalton Wayne left the company to work at Penguin Magic. Finally, Carl Skeens (III) and Tyler Sutter of 20 Penny Circus were the most talked-about.
Carl and Tyler performed together at Halloween Horror Nights and toured the United States with their show 20 Penny Circus. Both dressed as clowns and performed sideshow stunts for audiences with questionable taste—their words, not mine. Carl would walk on glass and hang a bowling ball from his genitals while Tyler ate fire and swallowed swords. Not only was their sideshow performance impressive, but their magic chops were equally remarkable. Their tour was followed by a short period of being the poster boys for Ripley's Believe it or Not! They both left Theatre Magic to create their show sometime before I showed up.
Blood, Dicks, and Magic Tricks - A 20 Penny Documentary (This video contains content that may not be suitable for squeamish audiences.)
After a fight with the author, "who shall not be named," and Universal Studios executives, Theatre Magic closed their theme park stores. I continued working at their location in Kissimmee, Florida, for a few months and then quit.
Ace Cunnings, my former roommate and friend in magic, informed me of a new magic shop opening at the Artegon Marketplace in Orlando. Artegon was a new concept of a mall; they were looking for small businesses to work with, focusing on fine arts, craftwork, and entertainment. Your Entertainment Spot, or as we called it YES Magic, was opened by a balloon twister turned magician named William Green. I would drive to visit the shop every day and spend time with Anna, the CFO of the business who sat behind the counter.
Next door to the magic shop was a furniture store owned by a gay couple. Anna called me up and asked, "Do you wanna work next door to us?" "Absolutely!" I said. The job was effortless. My job was to greet people when they entered the half workshop, half showroom. If they had a question about a price, I would read it off the tag. On my lunch breaks, I would run over to the magic shop. I would perform some of the old Theatre Magic pitches behind the counter when customers walked in. I realized quickly that the prices at YES Magic needed adjustment. They were selling a twenty-two-dollar trick for five dollars. Following some price adjustments and a few months getting the shop back on its feet, William offered me a job. I quickly let the bosses of the furniture store know that I was putting in my two weeks notice.
Working at YES Magic was highly amusing. The front of the shop had walls of tricks that I could fiddle with and learn all day. Beyond the register was a door that led to a theater. At the front of the theater sat a small stage where unique variety acts would perform every week. Often, magicians would stop in to buy balloons for gigs or replacement pieces for their worn-out tricks, one of those magicians was Carl Skeens. Carl had a Johnny Knoxville vibe about him. Both of his parents were entertainers. His dad created the bullet catch David Blane used in his television special. Carl grew up around showbiz. You didn't have to know him to admire his charisma.
Carl pretending to be a wizard behind the counter at YES Magic Shop.
It was funny that Carl's character in 20 Penny was silent because he could command a room no matter how big (or small). I loved his stories. He had insider stories, magic gossip, and a mental library of past magicians' old forgotten magic tricks. His brain was a wealth of knowledge. Established magicians would go to him for solutions. Carl also knew how to play pranks. One morning, Anna and I were opening up the magic shop, and Carl threaded invisible thread across the door to create an invisible spiderweb for us to walk through. We spent several minutes pulling tiny threads off of our bodies. Anna yelled at him the next day, and he let out this laugh-snort. I miss that laugh.
Artegon closed after a couple of years. The owners ran it like a playground for rich people, which didn't bring the foot traffic needed. Carl would come over to my apartment and talk magic, circus, and be silly and tell life stories. We would message through Facebook and gossip about the magic community when he was on tour. We would run it by each other whenever we had a magic epiphany.
Drifting Away from Magic
The abrupt closing of the Artegon shop left YES without a source of income until we could find a place. William and I went looking for cheap retail spaces. We finally found one in Sanford, Florida. We signed a year contract with the building's property manager.
My life got busy when the new YES Magic location opened. During the first three months, I worked seven days a week open to close without days off. William took balloon gigs which were an easy way to make money for replenishing the store's depleting inventory. When we were finally able to hire other employees, I felt burnt out. One morning, I called up Carl and a couple of my magician friends and said, "let's go to the beach." We got in my car and drove to my parents' condo in New Smyrna. That night, we drank alcohol, made tacos, watched silly movies, and played music together.
Your Entertainment Spot struggled in the Seminole Towne Centre. On weekdays the mall was mainly filled with employees with nothing to do. Weekends were when we had to make money to keep a roof over our heads. The store would be full of people watching trick demonstrations on Saturdays, followed by half of that on Sundays. Eventually, I parted ways with YES Magic for a higher-paying management position at Spencer's Gifts. YES remained open for a couple of months after I left but then closed for good.
Spencer's took up most of my time. While working there, I met my boyfriend, Caden, on Tinder. I spent my days off driving thirty-five minutes to my boyfriend's house. There wasn't much time for magic. My other magician friends drifted in different directions as well.
Genii Magic Convention L-R Back, Carl, Brett Loudermilk, Me, Trey Tayloe, front Ace Cunnings.
The Elephant and the Cum Rag
In 2018 Caden and I were at each other's house every day we had off. Caden's health sadly began to deteriorate, and most of my time was spent taking care of him and trying to find us an apartment. I lost touch with Carl for a bit. He, too, seemed busy with life. Occasionally we would send each other a meme. Maybe exchange a few comments on a mutual friend's post. During that time, Carl got married, moved out of state, and his mom was in the hospital with cancer. Carl was also teaching magic classes. We would briefly chat through these events, but he would disappear for long periods and then show back up.
I last saw Carl at our apartment. His mom had just passed away. He and his wife were having complications, so he moved back to Orlando. I saw a different Carl. He had a showbiz smile, but I could see right through it. Things weren't going well. We spent some time talking about ideas for his show. We talked magic avoided the elephant in the room.
If there is one thing to know about magicians, they are good at hiding the elephant.
"I have this trick in my show where I pull comical items out of a spectator's borrowed bag," he said. My memory is foggy about how the trick went, but I remember Carl bringing up that he pulls a towel out of the bag at some point. Taking a puff off my vape, I almost choked when I blurted out, "Cum Rags!" Confused, Carl asked, "Excuse me?" I looked at him excitedly with big eyes. "You pull a towel out of the bag with the words CUM RAG printed on it, only the magician doesn't notice and commences wiping his face with it, discarding it into the audience. After the show, you can have the CUM RAG at the merch table!" A genuine smile crossed Carls's face. "I am so doing that!" The evening came quick, and it was time for Carl to go. I walked him to his car. He told me he wasn't doing well. I gave him a huge hug and told him how important he was to me. That was such an understatement.
When news broke about Covid-19, Caden and I left our jobs to spend our time in quarantine together. Carl ended up getting back with his wife. He stopped communicating with friends. Well, sort of. When he wasn't home, he would reach out to me. By January 2021, Carl's dad got Covid-19 and passed away. Carl was devastated. I don't think he was ever really happy after that.
Carl was open about his mental health with me, but I don't feel like it's my place to explain all the details of what led to this tragedy. A select few magicians and close friends know. All magicians have their secrets, but this is a secret I will let Carl take to the grave. He knew his friends loved him; we all did everything to get him to stay with us.
Caden and I were moving to Wisconsin at the end of the year. In a desperate attempt to get Carl out of the house and on an adventure, I asked if he wanted to help drive the moving truck. I offered food, pay, and hotel stays as an incentive. On July 27th, 2021, I received a message from him, "I'm actually gigging on the 24th and have court on the 25th. I'm sorry!". That was the last message I received from Carl.
On September 23rd, 2021, Caden and I drove from Florida to our new place in Wisconsin. The next few weeks were spent setting up our new apartment and getting established with the local Mayo clinic. I had hardly heard a peep from Carl on social media other than his random Facebook Livestreams. Slightly more than a month after moving, he went live on Facebook to sell merchandise. He had air fresheners, pins, and CUM RAGS!
A screenshot of Carl's final Facebook live holding our CUM RAG.
Caden was having some health complications on October 30th, so we drove to the hospital around 5:00 PM. I recall sitting in the lobby scrolling through Facebook. A post from Carl came up "Depression sucks. Today is not a good mental health day. When everything feels like it's crumbling, what are your tricks to fix it?" I began to type my response, but the nurse called us into the hospital. After the stress of being at the hospital, I forgot about the post until the next day. In the morning, I received a message from Anna "Did you hear about Carl?" My heart sank so deep that I thought I was about to birth an organ. I knew what had happened without reading his wall. Eventually, I did get to his wall. Carl had passed away.
After his death, there were celebrations of his life; performers from all over visited to pay their respects. I was watching from a live stream of the event. There was laughter, tears, music, and everything Carl loved. It was a perfect tribute. While digging for artifacts from our friendship, I found a video message he sent me about his dad's passing. He spoke about reading his dad's obituary:
"I remember thinking that the fact that someone's entire being, um, everything they were, all the choices they had made can be boiled down to seven lines. Seven lines don't feel like enough."
Carl was right. Seven lines aren't enough to write about someone you love. At about seventy-something lines in, I've barely touched the surface of my friend's life. An African proverb commonly used in eulogies says something along the lines of "When an old friend dies, a library burns." When Carl died, the library vanished along with its secrets.
I leave you with this recording of Carl singing Dink's Song. He performed this during one of his Facebook lives.
If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline '1-800-273-TALK (8255)' or text TALK to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line.