In a recent On the Road television special filmed for the FOX Family network, master magician Lance Burton made a bus disappear.
A full touring bus…with furniture, dressing rooms, costumes, showgirls, and presumably scarves, rabbits, and magic wands vanished from downtown Boston and appeared in the desert outside Las Vegas.
Don’t bother asking Burton how he did it. This Kentucky-born showman isn’t telling. It’s all part of the mystique that goes hand in hand with Burton’s sleight-of-hand and the rest of the illusions in his ever-growing bag of tricks. He’ll say only that Jim Steinmeyer, producer of the On the Road series and a prolific inventor of magic tricks, made the panels behind which the bus disappears.
Modesty characterizes the headlining magician who first felt the draw of the Las Vegas Strip as a 5-year-old boy at a Christmas party for the employees of Frito-Lay where his mom worked.
“I was the kid volunteer who went up on stage and the magician pulled silver dollars from behind my ears,” says Burton, who now lives in Las Vegas but still speaks with a telltale Kentucky drawl. The spellbinder who impressed the young Burton was Louisville magician Harry Collins, who figured prominently in the molding of Burton the magician.
Under Collins’ wing, the Louisville native learned the basics of magic: the techniques of performing sleight-of-hand, the manner of manipulating playing cards, the art of misdirection. Even as a 12-year-old performing for his friends, Burton had set his sights on becoming a world-class magician.
“A lot of kids get interested in magic for a while and then move on to sports or something else. But for some reason I never grew out of that phase,” he laughs.
Instead, Burton kept reading books on magic, studying magicians at work, and buying magic tricks from the local magic shop, financing them with money he earned mowing lawns and doing other odd jobs.
As he grew older, he worked at perfecting his act. Burton performed thousands of shows–many for free–on his way to becoming the number-one prestidigitator and venerated escape artist in the international community of magicians.
“When you set out to build a career in the magic business–or any kind of show business–it’s a really tough business. There’s only one way to get good: you have to do a lot of shows. You learn by trial and error, by evaluating your show, by finding a place to be bad because in the beginning, you’re not going to be good.”
And Burton is very good–a talent in tailcoat who performs a classically conceived magic show in the tradition of the greatest names in the business.
He has performed for the president of the United States (Reagan) and was presented to the Queen of England. Closer to home, he performed at Col. Harland Sanders’ (yes, the Col. Sanders) 88th birthday party in the late ’70s aboard the Belle of Louisville. The Academy of Magical Arts twice awarded him “Magician of the Year.” He’s appeared on The Tonight Show 15 times and he has filmed numerous television specials. He was inducted in 2000 into the Casino Legends Hall of Fame at the Tropicana (where he began his career almost two decades ago as an act in the Folies Bergere), alongside The Smothers Brothers and The Righteous Brothers, among other stars.
Despite his world travels Burton still likes the idea that his shows display his Kentucky upbringing.
“One of the things performers bring to a performance is who they are and where they were raised–that affects his performance. Every time one of my shows is reviewed, there is always something in it about Kentucky, about the magician who is a Southern gentleman.”
Burton says, “You can spot a performer who grew up in New York with their brash high energy and you can spot someone from Kentucky. You can take the boy away from the fried chicken but you can’t take the Kentucky fried chicken out of the boy.”
He is a magician’s magician who helps young hopefuls fulfill their dreams. His Young Magician’s Showcase, a televised performance of up-and-coming magicians, is the first time in the history of television that young people have been given the chance to display their own magic skill. But helping children is a cause Burton espoused long ago on his own road to fame and fortune. His main charities are directed toward children, and donations from the taping of his NBC specials go to these charities.
Burton also has his own theater in Las Vegas: the $27 million Lance Burton Theatre at the Monte Carlo Resort & Casino opened five years ago. It was built especially for Burton and designed to his specifications as part of a 13-year contract–the longest legal agreement ever given to an entertainer in Las Vegas history.
Living in Vegas allows Burton to have a fairly normal life.
“Most of the time in entertainment you have to live on the road and travel from town to town,” he says. “Vegas allows you to do what you love to do but you don’t have to live out of hotels. You can have a house, a dog, drive to work every day.”
It’s a routine life that allows Burton to work on his routines–and he’s constantly engaged in the business of show business.
“When you do magic, you just have to keep your eyes open and your mind open at all times. Inspiration (for new tricks and illusions) comes from books, movies, dreams–it can come from anywhere.
“I have notes going back 20 years. I have tricks in my show that go back to when I was a teenager practicing at my grandparents’ farm in Russell Springs in south-central Kentucky. Sometimes it takes that long to put it all together because I don’t quite know how I’ll do it, or I’m not sure of the presentation–the pieces of the puzzle come at different times.”
Burton never tires of magic or of seeing the surprise and fascination that washes over the faces in his audience.
“I didn’t know it was a trick when Harry (Collins) pulled the silver dollars out of my ears. I was awestruck by the whole concept of magic. Now I know how the tricks work and I don’t get that feeling I had as a kid very often. But what does happen is every night that I do my show, I get to relive that feeling of awe vicariously through the audience.
“When I pull the silver dollars out of the kid’s ears, when I make the car disappear, I get to see and hear the audience reaction and it brings back that sense of awe I had.”
You can find out more about Lance Burton at http://www.lanceburton.com.
On May 12, 1994, the “Mantle of Magic” passed to Lance Burton from master magician Lee Grabel. This honor, which can be neither bought nor sold, has been passed in an unbroken line that began with magician Harry Keller in the late 19th century.
“The history of magic is a long and rich tradition that’s fairly well documented going back thousands of years,” says Burton.
The late 1800s to early 1900s were commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Magic. Burton says, “All these magicians were touring and performing in vaudeville and theaters. The number-one magician was Harry Keller. When he retired in 1908, he named Howard Thurston as his successor.”
Burton says it was a business arrangement that meant Thurston could continue performing Keller’s show. He invested a substantial amount of money in the show and built it up to an extravaganza with a dozen showgirls and variety acts. He traveled around the country in much the same manner as the Ice Capades show tours. In 1936 Thurston named another magician, Dante, as successor of his show.
“Dante went overseas and became a huge success on the world stage,” says Burton. “He returned to America and then retired in the early ’50s. In 1955 he passed the “Mantle of Magic” to Lee Grabel.
“I read all this when I was in junior high school and became fascinated by it, never thinking I would have anything to do with it,” he marvels.
Half a century later, Burton would have everything to do with it.
“A few years ago, Lee Grabel came to my show. I knew who he was because I’d read his book. Then one day, he called me up and said he was never going to perform again. He retired and named me his successor and gave me his entire show.”
Grabel’s show, packed away in a 60-foot trailer, had been sitting, unopened, for the last 20 or 30 years. With the passing of the “Mantle of Magic” to Burton, the unbroken chain of succession reaches back more than 100 years.