Story and photos by Jeff Berg
It is 1995. Jamie O'Hara is at an IBM convention in Oakland, Calif. He is sitting nine rows back at a performance in an auditorium, and there are 2,000 people at the convention, and all 2,000 have something in common.
The man on the stage asks for an audience member, any audience member, to produce a handkerchief. There is silence. No one in the crowd responds. Perhaps they are not as impressed as they should be. But O'Hara reacts, and is called up on stage. The two men exchange pleasantries.
The man takes O'Hara's proffered bandanna and ties a knot in it. Soon the small piece of cloth takes on a life of its own. It dances in the air. It floats about the stage. It creates moments of awe and wonder.
Magic is the art of illusion.
Hours later, at 2 a.m., O'Hara sees the same man again. Although somewhat shy about being in the presence of a man who can make cloth dance, O'Hara approaches him, and asks the man to sign the handkerchief that he used to create a wonderment for the audience. To O'Hara's surprise, the man remembers him and his name, and invites him to sit and visit.
This IBM is the "International Brotherhood of Magicians," and the man on the stage was world-renowned magician Harry Blackstone, Jr.
Jamie O'Hara is also a magician—a.k.a. The Magic Guy—albeit not yet world-renowned, living in Las Cruces. He drives an average of 45,000 miles a year, performing as many as 350 magic shows annually throughout southwest New Mexico and west Texas. He figures that during his career as a magician, which began in earnest in 1989, he has done more than 5,000 shows, and is closing in on the 1 million mark in counting the number of people who have seen him perform over the years.
O'Hara shares a story that he related to Blackstone, who of course is the son of the famed Harry Blackstone, Sr. It starts when one of O'Hara's mentors, Tom Komicereck, who lived in Alamogordo, called him to cover a gig at a church he couldn't do. O'Hara, still just dabbling part-time in the art of magic, was working as a waiter at Meson de Mesilla at the time.
"I made all of the arrangements at work to have someone cover my shift, and went up to Alamo. There was probably an audience of 150, and I did a 35-minute stand-up routine. They all laughed and clapped, but it all seemed like it was on cue, and I'm thinking, 'I suck.' It was a goal of mine to create a spontaneous standing ovation, not one of those that everyone gets nowadays.
"I finished the performance to a good round of applause, and 30 to 40 of the audience members stood in line to shake my hand."
One of them, O'Hara says, was an elderly woman he guessed to be about 90 years old. "She came up to me and gave me a handshake and a hug. She says, 'Young man, I have had such a wonderful time tonight. When I was nine years old, my dad took me to see Harry Blackstone, Sr. I was called on stage, and he 'baked a cake' in my sweater pocket!'"
O'Hara recalls, "I drove home on cloud nine. I knew that I could put together a program that would help people forget their lives. Magic helps people pretend."
It was then that he decided to go full-time as a magician. It was certainly good timing, as the shift at the restaurant that he thought he had covered, actually was not. O'Hara lost his job over this misunderstanding.
O'Hara's father passed away when he was 10 and his mom went to work. "My grandmother had a costume rental business," he recalls. "Most of the costumes that were in the shop were things that she had sewed herself. It never did too well, because most of the market for costumes ran from October through January, and most of the business was from ethnic groups or because of the holidays." Soon, an uncle assumed the costume shop, and expanded it to include a magic shop. "The two businesses are often allied," O'Hara explains. "I really got into magic when I was 10 or 12."
But his interest faltered when he discovered music. "When I was 13, I got the normal brain damage that comes with being a teenager. I focused on music when I was a teenager, and only did a little magic," he says. O'Hara has been playing the guitar for 27 years and the mandolin for 24.
He puts a CD in the car stereo as he drives south on I-25. His van, with sputtering air-conditioning, is soon quite a bit cooler as some excellent homemade blues emanates from the speakers. A good friend had died several weeks earlier, and O'Hara was unable to attend the services, but he wrote and recorded the cuts on the CD, which were then played at the funeral.
"But now music is my hobby and magic is my job," O'Hara says.
At 18, he moved to Las Cruces to reconnect with an older brother who'd come here. At that time, he concedes, "I was not the kind of teenager you would want your teen to hang around with."
But soon O'Hara went through what he calls a "religious conversion." He is now a long-time and active member of the Sierra Vista Community Church in Las Cruces.
Odd jobs ensued upon his arrival in southwest New Mexico, including selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, giving guitar lessons, and working as a waiter. He also tried his hand at restaurant management for Little Caesars Pizza.
"I am a good people manager," he insists. But once the magic bug bit again for good, all of those other occupations became history.
This should be a fairly small show, nearly the last of a series O'Hara has contracted for with the El Paso library system. Each of the city's 12 libraries has had a visit from The Magic Guy this summer, as have all 16 of the Albuquerque library branches.
His range of venues is as amazing as his act. O'Hara has covered the gamut from this type of engagement to past performances at the Chavez Theater in El Paso in front of about 3,000 people, to the Southern New Mexico State Fair, which had 700-900 people per show.
O'Hara does not do any type of "blue" humor. Whatever the venue, each show is family friendly yet planned for the specific type of audience, whether a kids' birthday party or a packed auditorium.
As O'Hara sets up his equipment, Caleb Cremeans, the security officer for the library, has stepped up to lend a hand. As it turns out, Cremeans is an amateur magician himself, and a minister at a local nondenominational church. O'Hara answers all of his questions quickly and in detail, even the one where Cremeans asks how to handle church members who think that magic is some type of devil's handiwork.
About 90 kids and parents are on hand for O'Hara's show. He has been gently teasing the early birds, and also tossing out a few jokes and one-liners to help keep the parents amused: "Life is not fair, which is good, because some people would get what they deserve!"
The small, windowless meeting room is packed, and most of the audience seems to be early grade-school age. O'Hara warms up the kids with gentle taunts and bad puns before his first trick.
"Who had ice cream for breakfast? Who has talked on the telephone this summer?" He continues the questions to the kids rapid-fire, and then when he has them all muddled and raising and lowering their hands, he combines all of the previous questions into one long one, which involves having pizza and ice cream for breakfast, talking on the phone to an alien at your grandmother's house while swimming. Or something close to that.
"I'm my own opening act," he explains later. "It is really important to get them warmed up."
Since this is a library show, the "magic words" for the day are "wild about reading." He uses the phrase throughout the show, encouraging kids to read, use the library, and get library cards. A musical interlude—"I wrote it myself"—occurs halfway through his 50-minute act, and it is only at this point that some of the kids seem a bit inattentive. But he soon regains all of them by making balloon animals, which he tells the youngsters he learned from "reading a book when I was eight years old." He also has a bouquet of enchanted flowers, a coloring book that can erase itself, and a box of tricks with cloth banners of different animals on them. The box trick involves lots of audience participation, before he closes the show with the rabbit magically appearing.
During the show, one young man, a bit older than most of the other kids, takes a turn as an amateur heckler. O'Hara is not one to put up with this behavior, and soon, by using a gentle but firm tone of voice and reminding the boy that the "show is for everybody," he gets the boy to calm down. The boy's mom, a petite woman with an infant daughter next to her, later chides her son for his conduct.
With Cremeans' help, O'Hara loads up the van. He stops for a quick lunch before he's due at the Armijo Library, located in the El Paso barrio, just off downtown.
In between bites of jalapenos, O'Hara recalls another lunch, some time before: "I was in a Subway sandwich shop. A guy comes into the store, and says he saw me in the third grade, and remembers me talking about not using drugs. His name was Tito, and he is now 26 and an engineer over at NASA. He still remembered that, so I know that they can be getting more out of a show than laughter and amusement."
If laughter and amusement are what his audiences remember, that's OK too, of course. After lunch, a small boy in the audience of the second Summer Reading Program show raises his hand while O'Hara is setting up his props. "I know you!" the boy says. "I saw you put a card on the ceiling a couple of years ago!"
Many of O'Hara's performances are based on his desire to do community outreach. Besides the library shows, which he also does all over New Mexico, he offers a show that has a "drug-free fun" message, which has been presented to more than 300,000 students. Another, the Safe and Happy Magic Show, sends a message to kids about playing and thinking safely. As an "edutainer," O'Hara has taken these programs to schools not just in New Mexico and El Paso, but around the country.
Another program he's designed for kids is called Motivatekids.com. It incorporates a number of positive message activities including assemblies about recycling, careers, physical fitness and character. O'Hara works with other "assembly specialists," including Rick Hall (the "Gymnastics Guy"), Gayle Travis (the "Library Lady") and Paul Glickman ("The Puppet Man").
But O'Hara sees himself first and foremost as a magician and entertainer.
Not wanting to be compared with other artists, O'Hara grimaces a bit when he thinks of how some performers apply for grants and such. He recalls one time when he was seeking some financial backing himself: "The paperwork would sometimes read, 'Magicians, clowns, ventriloquists'—and sometimes mimes—'need not apply. ' I do 350 shows a year, and I don't need to be subsidized; I can make it on my own. Some artists cannot make it on their own. The are on some kind of elitist cloud.
"I am listed in the New Mexico Directory of Touring and Performing Artists," he adds. "That in itself proves that magic is an art form."
With help from magical mentors such as Phil Klipper, James Oliver and Brett Stephens, O'Hara has become a master of his craft. His repertoire contains nearly 200 different tricks, and he is an expert at close-up magic and sleight-of-hand tricks.
He does admit that the constant travel is starting to wear him down somewhat. "I've been doing shows for 15 years in New Mexico libraries, 30 to 40 all over the state every summer," he says. "I am getting tired of traveling, and can't handle the driving like I used to. But I have some other irons in the fire related to show business, that will help change the time factor and allow me to look forward to retirement."
He finishes setting up for his second show, at the Armijo Library, arranging his portable sound system, guitar and amp, and the stage props.
Pretty soon he is performing before an audience of 91. Even the homeless men who had gathered in the library to read and cool off on the blistering summer afternoon are soon watching and laughing as O'Hara, without a hint of weariness, talks to a puppet named Reggie Raccoon. Three "cool dudes" standing in the back, posturing as teenagers are wont to do, are taken in by The Magic Guy's skill—much as he was by Harry Blackstone, Jr.
"This is my gift," O'Hara likes to say. "My fingers are obedient."