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Wednesday, March 4, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 7.0° F  Fair
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The Grand Illusionist: Matthew Teague tries to make it as a full-time Madison magician
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As an entrepreneur, Teague holds the cards in his career.
Credit:Sharon Vanorny

Matthew Teague has a problem. In fact, the 28-year-old magician has a couple of them.

First, it's loud. Presumably, the atmosphere at Nakoma Golf Club is more sedate most days. But it's a Friday night in mid-December, and holiday celebrations are in full swing. Bass shakes the walls as a band covers Beyoncé in the next room.

That makes it difficult for Teague's audience, the employees of a Madison business at their company Christmas party, to hear him. And although one thinks of magic as primarily a visual art - "Now you see it, now you don't" - his patter is an essential component. It's not so much that it distracts. It's that it helps draw you in, creates suspense and gives the big reveal more impact, much like a movie soundtrack does.

The crowd is scattered among three round tables. Teague has been making stops at each between courses; he prefers not to compete with food. As the meal winds down, one of the company's higher-ups has a request for him.

"See that guy in the glasses over there?" the man asks, pointing to another table. "He thinks he's invincible. He doesn't believe in magic at all."

This turns out to be true. The guy in glasses, whose name is Pat, scoffs openly when Teague makes a set of coins disappear and reappear one by one.

"He doesn't have four coins! He's got five coins!" Pat admonishes his dining companions. "It's an illusion! Misdirection!"

"That turned way bad real fast," Teague mutters to me a minute later, as he takes a break so the partygoers can enjoy dessert.

He doesn't have a very competitive nature, and he's not interested in vanquishing skeptics like Pat. He just wants them to have fun.

"If he feels like I blew his mind, he feels defeated," Teague says. "You always want to just give them the experience they want."

Through the rabbit hole

"I think the hardest thing about becoming a professional magician is changing people's minds about magic," Teague told me earlier. "People say, 'I don't like magic,' and to me, that's like telling a musician, 'I don't like music.' You do like music. You just haven't heard the music you like yet."

For his part, Teague never had to be convinced. "My typical answer is, I got tricked," he says, when asked how he got into magic. His grandpa, an amateur illusionist, pulled coins from behind his 6-year-old ears.

"I always thought it was the coolest thing in the world," Teague says.

Then, around age 13, while living in New Mexico, he met a professional magician named "Tall" Paul Cochrell.

"I completely fell through the rabbit hole," Teague says.

Teague performed at his middle school in Verona and on State Street for passersby. At 15, he got a job at T.G.I. Friday's, doing magic for customers. He went on to work at the retail magic shop How'd You Do That? in West Towne Mall and the bar at the magic-friendly Safe House in Milwaukee.

And then about four years ago, he made what some might call a curious choice.

"Right around the time the economy really tanked, I was working at Hemingway's [Cigar Lounge in Fitchburg], and I just decided to go full time with magic," Teague says.

That may sound like the worst possible time to launch a career in a very niche industry, in a city the size of Madison. But Teague says it actually worked in his favor: The recession scared a lot of potential competitors back to their day jobs.

A fortuitous connection with John Aspinwall, owner of Mermaid Car Wash and part owner of Tuscany Grill, got him his first corporate gigs.

"I started to realize there were a lot of people who had businesses and budgets for entertainment, and who were looking for someone like me," Teague says. "I basically changed from thinking about it as an artist and started looking at it as an entrepreneur."

He's performed for companies all over Madison. The winter holidays, with their attendant events, are his busy season. He did a show for Rob and Carl Reiner last year and played at the legendary Magic Castle in Los Angeles.

Closer to home, he's done a lot of work for the UW's athletic department, even performing at former football coach Bret Bielema's wedding celebration in March 2012. Earlier performances convinced Bielema and his fiancée to include Teague in the nuptial festivities.

"We have a wives' dinner to kick things off every fall, and John Aspinwall suggested we hire him to perform at that," Bielema says. "He just blew me away. At the end of the night, he's got everybody, the whole team, piled up around him. [Linebacker] Culmer St. Jean literally wanted to fight him unless he told him how he did a trick."

One can see where St. Jean is coming from. When I show up for our first interview, at a café, Teague jokingly apologizes for not having enough money to buy my drink, flashing a few singles at me. I look away, and a second later, the bills have somehow turned into twenties.

As I sit across the table from him, he reveals cards I've picked, makes them float and bends cutlery without appearing to touch it, after letting me examine it, of course. (The metal was too strong for me to bend with bare hands.) I realize there are rational explanations for each trick, but I don't really want to know them. After all, the point is to be a little awestruck.

"Even when I'm having a rough day, when I see the first person light up, just completely overwhelmed by this moment of astonishment and awakening wonder, it's so worth it," Teague says. "I think it's that as we get older, we don't think about wonder anymore."

Fistful of dollars

Teague had something of a wondrous year in 2012. During the summer, he locked down a regular gig strolling around the floor and performing for guests at Ho-Chunk Gaming in Black River Falls. He calls it "a huge game-changer" since the regular income alleviated a lot of financial stress.

"Every time he's here, we talk before he gets going, and he always says, 'Let me show you something new,'" says Rob Reider, the casino's marketing director. "Everything is sleight of hand. But when you know that, and you're looking for it and can't find it, it just makes it that much more impressive."

That's one thing about being a magician in a market the size of Madison: "I'm constantly learning and changing my act because I have repeat clients," Teague says.

He draws on old magic books and discussions with fellow magicians.

"You can revamp the old stuff and put a little twist on it, and nobody recognizes it anymore," he says.

But it's tough to introduce new material; you can't really workshop a trick onstage. As Teague puts it, "People don't pay you to fail." So he frequently practices on his girlfriend, a magic fan. (He used to date girls who didn't care for magic. "I have no idea why I thought that was a good idea. I guess I wanted them to like me for me," he says.)

And he devises his own illusions, too. In fact, a trick he and friend James Mattex developed earned them the chance to spend a day in New York City with their hero, celebrity illusionist David Blaine.

Blaine was considering buying the trick, which is standard operating procedure in the world of magic. Big performers will purchase an illusion from another magician who came up with it, at which point it becomes the buyer's exclusive intellectual property.

Blaine didn't buy the trick (another big name did - you've heard of him), but he did talk shop and do tricks with Teague and Mattex at his office. "We ended up hanging out all day," Teague says. "He has a pet alligator."

That encounter, and those with other colleagues around the country, helped Teague gradually realize that he could take his act beyond Madison. He takes care of his 3-year-old son, Hezekiah, Monday through Thursday each week, so he's exploring the possibility of performing out of town on weekends.

"It's kind of bizarre how far this has come," he says. "You wouldn't think you'd be one of those kids doing magic tricks."

The power of wonder

Back at Nakoma Golf Club, Teague has just asked a gentleman named Nate to autograph a 20-dollar bill and hand it to him.

"The great thing about this trick, Nate, is that it can be done multiple times," Teague says. "Have you got another twenty?"

The crowd laughs, including Pat the scoffer. Teague has poured a glass of Coke from what appeared to be an empty can, pulled an eight of clubs from a Christmas tree on the opposite side of the room and contorted a couple more pieces of flatware. Pat has been shaking his head, frowning and leaning forward, watching the magician intently.

To close his set, Teague removes his shoe, which he was clearly wearing the entire time, and shakes it, causing a whole lime to fall out. He offers up the lime for examination - it has not been compromised - and then sets about slicing it open.

Buried in the very center of the fruit is a tiny, tightly compressed wad of paper. He plucks it out and hands it to Nate. It's the twenty, with Nate's name written clearly across its face.

The crowd hoots and hollers, applauding delightedly. Pat, still shaking his head but smiling now, stands up and strides forward, hand extended. He grasps Teague's hand and shakes vigorously, patting him on the shoulder.

"For the first 10 years, I didn't have the right approach," Teague told me earlier in the night. "I started taking it for granted, the impact magic could have on people."

It hit home when people started telling him about tricks they'd seen as children decades earlier.

"Some of the moments I'm creating for people, they might remember for 50 years," he says. "It kind of sounds cheesy, but I'm dead serious about the 'awakening wonder' thing."

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