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November 1, 2009

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Magician conjures an improved image

I'VE only seen magic shows on television, never a "live" one. And if they weren't of the type done by super showman David Copperfield, they involved a white-gloved man in a top hat and tails pulling a rabbit out of a hat or a clown sawing a blond showgirl in half.

So Armando Lucero, 53, resident of Los Angeles and currently living in temporary digs on Xiangyang Road S., didn't fit the conventional view of a magician as I met him this week in the classy tea shop on the ground floor of Bund 18.

He is a wiry man of olive complexion with a slight stature, an engaging personality and a mind that enjoys ranging across a variety of discussion points. No glitzy vest and bow tie or shiny shoes.

Lucero is spending weeks, if not months, in Shanghai scoping out a "close-up" magic theater project which will include music and performance art in the Art Deco Bund 18 retail and entertainment complex.

It's already in the planning stage and he hopes it will be ready before the end of next year.

"I'm here to study and learn about the culture and see how we can attract people to a complex which has 70 percent foreign customers and would like to reach more Chinese," he said.

"The concept is unusual as there are not many places where close-up magicians can perform in a theatrical setting, other than the Magic Castle in Hollywood, Magic Circle in London and magic bars all over Japan.

"It's usually a performer in a room or a magician in a box but when I think of a theater I think of all the tools of a theater with light and artistic help, decor and production values."

The veteran magician has been plying his craft for the past 40 years and his specialty is the art of close-up magic at which he is recognized for his skill with cards and coins.

His performance pedigree includes stages in international cities around the world plus long stints in Las Vegas at Caesar's Palace, the Venetian, MGM Grand and the like, as well as starring roles in productions such as "Mystique" and "Imagine."

Lucero, a widower with a daughter, Angela, 26, is in collaboration on the Bund 18 project with two Japanese investors, Yoshiaki Nishio and Akitsugu Tomita.

Nishio is the main partner, a businessman who currently owns and manages "three of the most successful magic bars in Tokyo and dreams of building an entertainment hotel." Tomita wants to build a casino, possibly in Macau, which will include a hotel and theater.

Lucero has a long-term view of the Shanghai project's development. His first move will be to open an intimate 30-person performance area, the second to expand to 100-person capacity and the third to open a separate, stand-alone performance venue for 2,000 customers.

He's got his eye on one of the back room areas within the super relaxing, haute bohemian style environment of Lounge 18 whose eclectic mix of avant-garde gallery, quirky furniture and wall hangings make it an ideal hangout on a lazy afternoon overlooking the Bund, Huangpu River and Pudong area.

By day it's a sedate venue for artists, writers, public figures and traders but by night it transforms into a hectic party place.

Lucero is on a mission to lift the perception of his craft and he sees Lounge 18 as an ideal venue.

"Magicians have done such a good job of providing magic for anyone, at any time, that we've turned into performing monkeys," he said.

"Most people don't understand that magic can be high art and I understand that because 99 percent of the magic I've seen is not art.

"The magic I'm talking about presenting here is done by people who have practiced for years to develop effects and when I watch them they are like Beethoven and Mozart. They're coming up with this stuff on their own and work on it for years but have no place to perform it.

"They are like artists in search of a museum, but there's no place for them to hang their art," he said.

Lucero believes his theater concept will enhance the skills recognition of magicians.

"It's sort of like going to a French restaurant with all the service, settings and the ambience that sells the meal they finally give you. If you take all that away and serve it on a paper plate, it's hard to recognize what it is."

His venue will be "very classy" so the ticket prices will be quite high, in stark contrast to the venues worked by most close-up magicians. And while he's collating the market knowledge and conceptualizing the first show in Shanghai he's also got his eye on the future.

"I am dealing with close-up magic for this venue but I am also writing a large-scale show with a group of interested sponsors that is going to take three years to develop," he said.

"I need a place to start and being at Bund 18 and in Shanghai gets me into two happening places at once and from there I can start working in new ideas."

Lucero thinks deeply about the philosophy of his art and its understandable that he can be hurt by its general perception.

"I like to create my own material and one of the sad things is that when I perform something that took me years to develop, I've had people say to me 'well that's really nice, where can I buy it so I can teach my six-year-old'."

That's what he'll be trying to change with his Shanghai magic.

Q: How do you define magic?

A: An overwhelming experiential moment of awe inspiring astonishment from having witnessed something beyond our comprehension.

Q: What's your feeling of the Shanghai market in terms of a magic show?

A: That's what I'm here to find out. I can't really say yet. I'm quite new having been here only three weeks and only once before for three days.

But there's no difference here, everybody loves magic so I don't see a problem, other than how to communicate it and I haven't figured that out yet.

Q: Is what you're proposing offered anywhere else?

A: Yes, it's done by a magician named Steve Cohen at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

It's a close-up magic venue like a small theater where he charges US$250 a head and started only months ago in this poor economic climate.

Everybody said you can't do it, but he did and voila. So I know it can work.

And he had the same problem, convincing people that you can sell tickets at a high price for what they think are magic tricks. But people seeing him in that setting realize it is awesome.

Q: Why will you develop this concept at Bund 18?

A: Well, they're interested, it's a prime spot in Shanghai, it's compatible with Lounge 18 and the idea is right.

Q: You specialize in close-up magic but have you done the full range?

A: Yes, I've done stage magic, designed illusions, do close-up magic and the challenging stand-up magic.

If you ask other magicians, most know me and Lu Chen, the famous Chinese close-up magician and television star, and I know each other.

Q: Have you been able to make a living as a magician?

A: Sometimes I get paid very well, sometimes I don't. It's tough for the most part because we don't have venues to perform at.

I worked recently at some private venues in Japan but I have developed a workshop where I teach magicians in Las Vegas and charge US$3,500 for lessons.


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