Legerdemain Man Ray Anderson
The fact that magicians around the world revere the magic man of Esther's Follies is no illusion
By Jesse Sublett, Fri., Nov. 30, 2018
Are those bright lights in the night sky we've been seeing lately a comet on a doomsday collision course or spotlights from West Coast entertainment capitals, hungrily seeking out Ray Anderson, Austin's much-loved magician, illusionist, and longtime MVP of Esther's Follies? Could be both, actually, but in these pages, I'm only allowed to talk about Ray Anderson.
This past April, the magician we love to call Ray-Ray flew to Los Angeles to receive a prestigious award from his peers in the Academy of Magical Arts. The glitzy ceremony was held at the Orpheum Theater, where Houdini once astounded and confounded his fans. The star-studded audience included top-billed professional magicians and multizwhyphenate stars like David Copperfield, Mark Wilson, David Williamson, Shimada, Nick Lewin, Dick Van Dyke, and Larry Wilmore (the magician/comedian/TV host/producer who produced and emceed the show). At the climax of the evening, Ray Anderson was presented with the AMA Performing Fellowship.
"I am so honored by this award – I mean, you're in a room with 1,500 people, the who's who of magic," Anderson told me five months later, and he still seems giddy, as if the taste of the night's champagne still sparkled on the lips of his made-for-the-marquee mug. "The AMA is like the Oscars of magic. My award was the Performing Fellowship, for stage magic. Shimada, a very famous Japanese magician, also quite old, was given a Lifetime Achievement award, and here's David Copperfield picking up his [Master's Fellowship] award at the same time I am. And these awards are the ones they wait to give out at the end of the night, you know, because they save the biggest awards for last."
Listen, you and I may love and revere the man who's been making magic on Sixth Street for 30 years, but it's big-time news for an organization of professional magicians and scholars of magic, based in Hollywood (but with members from around the world), to officially, and with great fanfare, recognize the excellence of a magician's work in Austin, Texas – 1,400 miles away. The AMA award is a recognition of not only Anderson's longevity in the business but also the fact that people from all over the world have been traveling to Austin to see him perform his unique brand of magic.
"I am so honored to be on the very short list of performers who have received the award," says Anderson, reeling off an impressive handful of his predecessors: Harry Blackstone Jr., Doug Henning, Penn & Teller, and Copperfield. Ray was also inducted into the Hall of Fame – "the best of the best" – with a lifetime membership to the AMA's exclusive and delightfully eccentric Magic Castle, a château on a hill in Hollywood where admission is limited to members and invited guests. It's the kind of joint where you have to speak a secret phrase to an owl statue, but once inside, you have choices to make: Close-Up Gallery, Parlour of Prestidigitation, Palace of Mystery, the Peller Theatre, Hat and Hare Pub, or W.C. Fields Bar?
The Magic Castle is also a swell place to throw a party after a magicians' award show, according to Anderson. "You have all these magicians in one place, just hanging out, visiting," he says. "At the same time, there are magic shows going on in the different theatres or out in the open, in a hallway or something, magicians demonstrating tricks to each other. It's all the magic luminaries, magicians I grew up with as a kid, along with my contemporaries. The thing is, most of them perform in California or Vegas, but I've chosen to stay in Austin, so I rarely get to see them and socialize with them."
Scott Wells, a professional magician from Houston, explained why the AMA would make an exception for Anderson: "Ray is my favorite magician," says Wells. "There are many people who are well-known within the magic fraternity who, when I mention Ray's name, they'll say, 'Oh yeah, I've been to Austin and seen his show.' It's gotten to be a cult thing with magicians; they'll travel far and wide and across the world to come to Austin to see the show."
One of the many magicians who recently made the pilgrimage to 525 E. Sixth is Jim Steinmeyer, head of the AMA board of directors. Steinmeyer is also an inventor of magical devices. Many of the large-scale illusions being used by magicians all over the world – including works commissioned by Disney – originated in Steinmeyer's imagination. Last year, Steinmeyer came to Austin to see Anderson perform his varied repertoire – the Claw illusion, the levitation of assistant Ellana Kelter over a kid's inflatable pool, the comedy bit as sleazy Amazing Frank, the dancing cane, and other acts – which are integrated seamlessly into the 90-minute Esther's Follies bullet train of comedy and political satire.
"Ray was nervous," says Nick Lewin, a magician who performed for years in Las Vegas and L.A. before moving to Austin five years ago. "Ray was nervous because Jim Steinmeyer had flown to Austin to see him at Esther's Follies and Ray was performing an illusion that Jim had invented. There's nothing much more alarming to a magician than having the guy sitting [in] the front row who invented the thing you're doing. He knows all the little nuances to look for, things the average person would have no clue about."
Steinmeyer not only nominated Anderson for the award but also sang his praises to the Orpheum audience in his introduction – yet more reason for the Austin magician to feel so wowed by the experience. Anderson never forgets where he came from. In his acceptance speech, he also gave a shout-out to Mark Wilson, explaining that when he was a kid growing up in Victoria, Texas, Wilson's televised Magic Circus specials changed his life.
"I had no idea you could do magic for a living," says Anderson. "No one in Victoria had told me that before. When I saw Mark doing these shows, I said, 'Hey, this guy is doing this and it's his job!'"
One of the things I love about Anderson is that the young, fresh-faced kid from Victoria is still quite evident in the person we know today, a much-admired perfectionist, several decades and thousands of performances later. Conversations with him are peppered with names of people who inspired or mentored him, not in a name-checking kind of way, but with heartfelt affection and acknowledgment, followed by a colorful anecdote or two and "____ was just wonderful, and I'm so glad I had the chance to know him/her."
In those ranks are several of the hometown practitioners of the trade who helped him along the way, like Kent Cummins, whose SamWitch Shop on Congress Avenue was a gathering place for local magicians in the Eighties. Or the Great Scott (the stage name of Fred Donaldson), who ran a magic shop in the back of his garage on Kramer and helped Anderson learn the tricks he bought. Or the Great O'Quinn Cairo III, an East Austin native and neighbor to jazz bassist Gene Ramey, who founded the Zebra Lounge on East Eleventh and led a 20-piece jazz orchestra in addition to being one of the few African-American magicians in the area.
"When I was 14 or 15, my dad was in Austin for a convention and he saw O'Quinn Cairo III doing close-up magic at the old Spaghetti Warehouse. My dad told him he had a son who was interested in magic. So O'Quinn gave him a card and also a magic trick to give me. His card said he specialized in 'black magic,' but I had no idea he was black, so I didn't get the joke at the time. When I came to Austin to attend UT, I got to meet O'Quinn, and he was just a really great guy, a sweet guy."
Or Mario Lorenz, the guy who steered college-age Ray to a little variety show on East Sixth.
"I became friends with Mario when I was a UT student, doing table magic at restaurants and pubs on weekends," says Anderson. "In 1983, Mario told me about Esther's Follies, which was still at the original location [515 E. Sixth]. Mario was doing a juggler/variety act there, and he said, 'You might like it, I'm thinking of moving on, so you might get a slot there.' So he brought me one night and introduced me to Michael Shelton. I looked around, and I just knew this was the kind of thing I wanted to be involved in. I think I was working there the very next week. I owe it all to Mario."
Or the tailor to magicians and Texas pols, Ramon Galindo. "Ramon is 97 now," Anderson tells me. "He fought in World War II and he founded Ace Custom Tailors [on West Fifth Street]. He made suits for Lyndon B. Johnson and John Connally. He made stage costumes, too. He made the bolero jacket Stevie Ray Vaughan wore onstage. He made my first stage costume, and one for Harry Blackstone Jr., with all the hidden compartments inside. He had this little studio in his tailor shop. He would invite magicians to come videotape their act. Ramon's claim to fame is that when a lot of people were working with doves, he used parakeets. He would make five parakeets appear, one sitting on each of his fingers and his thumb. He's a really neat guy.
"All these people have touched my life in one way or the other," says Anderson. And in the stories of O'Quinn Cairo and Ramon Galindo, he adds, it's important to remember that the discrimination they faced in the everyday world was also present in the more insular world of magic.
"For a long time, the magic community was an old white men's club, a bunch of old white men doing magic for each other," he says. "I know it was hard for Ramon, for example, who was supposed to win a contest one time and they weren't going to give it to him simply because he was Hispanic. He raised hell and finally got the award and actually set the tone for people who came after."
The noticeable breaking down of barriers in the magic world is yet another reason for Ray Anderson's bubbly mood since his trip to L.A. this past spring.
"I'm only the second [male magician] to thank his husband during his acceptance speech. Neil Patrick Harris was president of the Magic Castle for years and helped bring it back after [a decline]. There's a large presence of gay magicians now. And historically, there haven't been many female magicians at all, but [the numbers are rapidly on the rise], which is really cool."
Ray Anderson performs in Esther’s Follies every Thu., 8pm; Fri.-Sat., 8 & 10pm; at Esther’s Follies, 525 E. Sixth. For more information, visit www.esthersfollies.com.