LOW PROFILE Believing in Magic

Aspiring magician George Millward won’t settle for the illusion of success.

“IT’S FUN TO KNOW, BUT IT’S more fun to be fooled,” reads the sign on the wall of Mag-icland, the North Dallas salt lick for local magicians at every level of accomplishment. It’s hard to imagine a sentence richer in shades of meaning.

To think about magic in terms of the transaction between performer and audience is to begin exploring a series of nestled boxes, brightly colored and seemingly empty, each revealing itself only at the perfect instant. One Who Knows stands before Those Who Would Be Fooled, and the exchange begins.

We know it’s all a trick… isn’t it? We want to see how it’s done, yet simultaneously want to believe that real magic is occurring. The magician is there to do what he knows without letting us catch him at what we know he’s doing. If he fails-if we spot the palmed prop or crimped card- we do not usually delight in our discovery: we feel cheated, angry, empty. But when the magician succeeds, for that moment the magic has proved to be real-real enough to let us feel like children again. George Millward, One Who Knows, lives with his eight Java doves a tiny apartment in Oak Lawn. There he practices his magic an average of six hours a day, as he has for many of his 42 years. He doesn’t own a car, so he walks and buses through his life. to his occasional gigs (bumming rides when he works with the birds) and to his weekend rent-payer as a magician/bartender at Ruggeri’s Ristorante. So far, the rewards of a life of illusion have been meager-and Millward is certified as one of the good ones, having won the Best Stage Magic award at the Texas Society of Magicians’ statewide competition last Labor Day weekend.

Graying, slender, looking a little like a road-company George Sanders in the white tie, tails and dignity he has donned for the occasion, Millward is waiting to show his stuff this particular Tuesday evening at the Cocky Crow Ice House on Knox Street.

A regular at this regular magicians’ venue-one of the few in Dallas-he sips a Miller as a stage the size of a twin mattress is set up. Maybe 35 people swirl about the tiny bar. Some are pub regulars, some magic buffs, and about 10 are themselves magicians in various stages of development. Exchanging waves and greetings with his fans and acquaintances, Millward talks about his brand of magic. “I didn’t go out and buy a box.” he says. “That is, my act uses no fake props or mechanical devices. It’s all hand work, sleight-of-hand. A lot of my tricks are variations on the classics, and some of them I wrote and published myself.”

Howard Hale, the working magician who owns Magicland, is a Millward admirer of long standing. “About 80 percent of all magicians are prop magicians, and almost all the rest use a blend of props and manipulation,” he says. “Of the remainder, the pure manipulators, there are maybe half a dozen in the Southwest you’d dare put up in front of an audience. George is one of them.”

Millward’s choice of a difficult specialty witmnaaifficult pro-fession appears consistent with his seeming love of doing things the hard way. The son of alcoholic parents, he left his tough Chicago neighborhood at 14, five years after discovering magic. He lived mostly on the street, practicing his magic when he could, going to school and working scruffy jobs. George dropped out of high school a few months before graduation, dealt for a mob poker game for four years and kept practicing. He worked his way through trade school, emerging as a cabinetmaker, and then put himself through the University of Chicago, earning a seldom-used degree in chemistry. Through it all, his one constant was magic.

As a boy, George’s first mentor was Jay Marshall, who worked all over the world as “Jasper the Great” and made numerous appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” But according to Millward, magic isn’t exactly taught. The basic techniques of manipulation-palming, dealing seconds (appearing to deal an unknown card from the top of the deck while actually dealing the known card below it), misdirection-are very simple to demonstrate and incredibly difficult to master. “Anyone who’s willing to devote three hours a day for five years can deal seconds,” he says. “Because you’re practicing on your own so intensely, each magician develops variations on the basic moves that customize them for his hands, so they can’t truly be passed along.”

Almost all hand work employs these skills, which renders most written tricks as practically pointless as a recipe for a nuclear device that might begin, “Heat 150 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium to 2,800 degrees. . .” Says Hale, “Anyone can buy a piano and play ’Mary Had a Little Lamb’ that same day. How far you progress from there depends partly on your talent, but more on your willingness to practice.”

Now Brian Bloodworm, the other magician appearing at the Cocky Crow tonight, mounts the tiny stage. His act is very funny, as much comedy as magic. Occasionally the seams part and the trick is visible, but the guy is so entertaining no one seems to mind. Bloodworth passes the hat and steps down. Millward, who can be quite critical of other magicians and of himself, is fairly restrained: “He was on too long and began to lose them at the end,” he says.

IN 1979, MILLWARD WAS TENDING BAR AND DOing magic shows in a Chicago bar when a shootout between police and patrons caused him to rethink his life. “I was just arriving when it happened,” he says. “The cops were firing from behind cars, and the people inside were shooting back. Talk about a tough crowd-this was my audience.” Hitchhiking west, he paused in Amarillo, working as a cabinetmaker for a store fixture company, playing backgammon and practicing his magic. Later that year, he tried Dallas, where he won a backgammon tournament and used the proceeds to set up shop as a custom cabinetmaker on W. Commerce Street. And he kept practicing. According to Millward, his fortunes followed the contours of the real estate boom and bust, and he found himself broke “and far worse, bored,” in 1984.

It was Dallas artist, writer and restaurant consultant George Toomer who finally pointed out the obvious. “I told him he should go into magic full time and helped package him and got him work at some of the restaurants 1 was involved with” Toomer says. “1 mean, what else are you gonna do with a guy who lives with pigeons?”

Since then, Millward has been working trade shows, markets, parties and restaurants, sustaining himself with bartending jobs. He bemoans the lack of magicians1 venues in Dallas, a complaint also voiced by Hale: “There’s just no showcase for magicians here. There are several internationally known performers who live in Dallas, but all of them make their living on the road.”

Which is George’s aspiration. “I hope to begin touring to places like the Magic Island in Houston, the Magic Castle in Los Angeles and other clubs and shows around the country,” he says. “If I can get on that circuit, I can gross $125,000 to $150,000 a year, even without playing Las Vegas and Atlantic Citv.” Modest numbers by superstar standards, but George feels confident he’ll get there. “I know I’ll make it.”

Partly because of his strong showing in the Texas Society of Magicians competition, Millward was contacted recently by L.A.’s Magic Castle for a gig that might pay him as much as $2,500 per week. The dates aren’t yet firm, but it could be, at last, the beginning.

MEANWHILE, IT’S TIME. MILLWARD TAKES THE stage and begins a flowing, flawless performance. He effortlessly tosses off some card tricks, then performs with the classic interlocking rings. He works deliberately and as close to some of his open-mouthed audience as you are to this page, repeating many moves three or four times. He closes with a routine involving a cocktail shaker, a shot glass and a cat’s toy that’s as difficult to describe as it is to believe. Again and again, he slowly repeats his moves. Again and again, the audience gasps, then applauds.

After 10 perfect minutes that somehow seem both endless and too short, minutes purchased with thousands of hours of practice, Millward steps down from the stage. The hat is passed on his behalf.

He relaxes at a moonlit table on the patio, accepting the thanks and congratulations of his audience, “it works both ways.” he says. “The audience gets to see my tricks, and that’s the magic for them. But I get to see their eyes light up, so they’re the magic for me. I’d call it an even trade.” Then George counts his take: $27.

Dreams can come true. But sometimes it takes a while.


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.