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Monday, Nov. 19, 2012

If It’s David Seebach, It Must Be Magic

Milwaukee illusionist explores the secrets of his trade

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“What’s the secret of magic?” ponders David Seebach. “The secret of magic is the magician.”

He would know. Seebach is arguably the most famous modern magician in the land of Houdini. He’s performed at Rainbow Summer, State Fair Park and the dearly departed County Stadium. He’s an annual Summerfest fixture, 33 years and counting.

He’s a nationally renowned winner of the “Best of the Best” award at the annual Magic Get Together and star of Hollywood's Magic Castle—magicdom’s crown jewel. Corporations demand his talents: Buick, Ford, General Electric, IBM, John Deere, McDonald's, Sony and Walgreens, as well as Miller Brewing and Mercury Marine, locally.

A musical was even once written about Seebach. It Must Be Magic played at the Pabst Theater for 60 sold-out shows.

“A 19th-century magician once said, ‘A magician is just an actor playing the role of wizard,’” he says. “And I think that’s true. The audience doesn’t care what the trick is. Performing is what separates us. The skill is creating emotion, be it laughter, drama or frightening fear.

“And like a lot of art, magic requires music, costumes, lighting—theatrics of all kinds and coordination,” he adds.

Seebach was well prepared, then, by UW-Milwaukee’s theater department. He started a long-running benefit show as a student, graduated with honors and later returned to teach a course in magic. While still a student, he cut his teeth at a northern Wisconsin resort, “working seven nights a week, shows twice a day,” he recalls. “I’d entertain audiences up close, during the cocktail hour. Then, later in the evening, I’d take the stage in the nightclub.

“I found that people stayed at the resort for a few days and came to my show every night. So I had to have different tricks,” he continues. “That was a challenge. I was only 19. But by the time I graduated, I had attracted a producer.”

Since then, Seebach has performed coast to coast. “Milwaukee is still my favorite, though,” he insists. “I grew up here, near where 35th Street, Burleigh Street and Fond du Lac Avenue come together.” These days he travels with “The Maestro and the Magician,” a show designed for a full symphony orchestra—local ones, be it the Buffalo Philharmonic or Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

And he always stays on the lookout for new tricks.

“I read multiple magicians’ magazines. I check what other magicians are doing. I scour estate sales. Or I look for something really old,” he says. “If you just go back a little ways, suddenly nobody remembers.”

His recent scores include a bunch of tricks from one Greg Hanrahan. “Born in 1946 in Green Bay,” Seebach says, “performed mostly on the West Coast as Paul ‘The Great’ Svengari.”

Seebach scooped up the tricks in a North Side estate sale. He also found “a high-end ‘Sawing a Woman in Halves’ prop and an intricate handmade cabinet and matching table fabricated by Norm Nielsen, a world-renowned magician from Racine. Also a curious invention—Abbott's ‘Frame of Life and Death.’ Also, a seldom-seen illusion, ‘Little By Little,’ where a lovely assistant gets moved from here to there, piece by piece; hence the name,” he says. “Hardly done anywhere anymore. I found two versions on YouTube.”

This year, he added it to his classic Halloween show, “Illusions in the Night.”

“We’ve been doing [the Halloween show] since 1991—my absolute favorite show,” he says. “We can do all these frightening things. It’s set in a cemetery at night. We start by cremating someone. We saw a girl in half with an electric buzz saw. Not in a box, either—right there, with paramedics on stage. At the end, there’s a blackout; all the lights go out and there’s ghosts and spooks everywhere. It’s an old trick, but few dare try it.

“Like I say, I love it,” he adds.

And he even included his pet tiger. It’s good to be a wizard.

Willy Thorn is a journalist, author, playwright and artist. He has worked professionally in Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Sydney, Australia, and Bangkok, Thailand. His first book, Brother Booker Ashe: It's Amazing What the Lord Can Do, was published by Marquette University Press.