The Magic of Baltimore interviews
Kevin D. Kirtley…
Kevin D. Kirtley…
Baltimore’s working master magician.
Kevin D. Kirtley has been performing magic for over 46 years, entertaining the likes of Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer, Mayor Clarence 'Du' Burns of Baltimore, Itzhak Perlman, David Zinman-Conductor, Members & Patrons of The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Olympic Champion Figure Skater Kimmi Meisner’s family and countless others!
Voted Harford County’s Best Magician in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
Kevin, thank you for taking the time to share with The Magic of Baltimore.
My Pleasure and thank you for asking to interview me. I’m very humbled. As I said at an earlier date, I feel there are many more deserving than myself! I’m no Master… maybe a disaster. lol!
Hardly. It’s known you started magic at age eleven. Do you remember what specifically gave you “the bug?”
My older brother, Richard Shane Kirtley, first drew me to the magical arts. He was actually the first magician/musician of the family and I was his audience whenever he wanted to try a new magic trick. I actually learned the “French Drop” sleight from watching him do this on me over and over again… which is a “no-no” in magic. “Never do the same trick again for the same audience!” Oddly, by his repeating it, I not only learned how to do this sleight, but also came up with a little twist, where I could do it again and fool the heck out of people, even master magicians… which I’ll get into later.
This is reaching back, but you grew up near Mark Walker (master puppeteer, historian, author of the acclaimed Ghost Masters, Master Illusionists and an upcoming book on Phil Thomas) and experienced his haunted houses at your local church. What childhood feelings or memories can you share about that and growing up in Highlandtown and Baltimore during the 60s?
Actually, I didn’t meet Mark Walker until around 1984-85. We were members of the same Parrish, St. Elizabeth of Hungary and lived in the same neighborhood. I’ve known his brother Scott since the 10th grade. Scott was in my graduating Class of 1973 (Patterson High School) and we shared an interest in the magical arts. We were friends, but never really “hung out” together.
It wasn’t until I started working at the ‘Phil Thomas Yogi Magic Mart’ in Baltimore, Md., that I actually met Mark Walker. Mark came into the shop asking if we could mention the “Haunted House” he was having at our Parrish. I knew who he was and of course we agreed to do so. (My son, still talks of that attraction)
Mark also did an escape while sealed in a glass box filled with water and appeared at another part of the carnival. We began running into one another from then on. He would perform at the Fells Point Festival every year. Also as you know, he’s an accomplished puppeteer!
In the neighborhood I live in, we had Johnny Eck, Mark Walker, Dave Pivec (was an NFL backup Defensive Lineman for the LA Rams and part of the Legendary Fearsome Foursome) Frank Zappa, Lou Walston and many others grew up in that East Baltimore neighborhood. Like all neighborhoods of that time... a wonderful place to grow up.
What are your earliest memories of Yogi Magic Mart or meeting Phil Thomas?
I was 12 years old and doing “Dime Magic Shows” in my back yard, around 1967. After a week of shows, I had $22. That was a lot of money for a 12-year old boy in 1967. My brother “Ricky” asked how much money I had made. He then told me not to spend any of it…
Well, that Saturday we took the #23 bus to Charles & Saratoga, up to the 3rd Floor, I believe, at 310 N. Charles St. My brother hadn’t been there in years, but the moment we walked into the shop, Phil Thomas (the owner and my mentor), stopped his conversation with another gentleman at the counter, looked at us and said, “Welcome Home, Richard!”
That impressed me! My brother then introduced me to Phil and the other gentleman, Phil asked me to show him what I know. Of course, I did the French drop, which he complimented me on. So, I asked if they would like to see it again…! Everyone gave me that “you’re not suppose to do that” look. They didn’t know I had come up with a way that looked exactly the same, but wasn’t. The coin vanished completely! I’ll never forget the look on everyone’s face. For about 10 seconds, they were fooled.
Phil and the gentleman smiled, shaking their heads approvingly. The gentleman that I didn’t know put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said…
“Kevin, I have a feeling, we will be hearing wonderful things about you, in magic one day.”
That gentleman was Milbourne Christopher.
Phil’s shop and the Yogi Magic Club had a large influence on magic and other types of entertainment in Baltimore, Md.
Remember the Comedy Club that was over Burkes Restaurant, in downtown Baltimore? Well, one thing most people don’t know is… the idea came about because after Yogi Club Meetings, when there would have been a guest lecturer… (Dave Williamson, Mike Caveny & Tina Lenert, Michael Ammar, etc.), about 15 to 20 of us, including the guest lecturer, would go to Burkes after the meetings. They would put together several tables for us and around 10:00pm we would all start performing until it closed at 1:30AM! Included were Howie Schwartzman, Cy Keller, John Ekin, Dave Roehmer, Chris Mosner, Jim Van Liew, William Gross, Paul Trattner, etc., and myself. At the end of the night, our tab was around $600! Many times, the owner would wave it, simply because everyone in the Restaurant & Bar, was spending money just to watch us all. We would get as many spectators involved as possible. The Comedy Club idea came from those “Table Sessions.”
It was 1986 and I was manager of Yogi Magic Mart at the 217 N Charles St. location in Baltimore. Phil had sold the shop to P.W. Feats. Phil then recommended me to work there and I eventually became manager by default. John Ekin and David Roehmer had left.
David Copperfield had just done a Saturday matinee show at the Lyric Opera House and came with an entourage of about 20 Children. We had a lot of antique magic, which, as you know, Copperfield collected. After being shown around by Paul Wolman (the PW of P.W. Feats), Paul brought him over and introduced me as the manager of the shop. David shook my hand and said, “Show me something!” I smiled & agreed to do so, but was freakin’ out inside.
I did a “book test”! It’s actually a “book test” that can be repeated. So, when I told David the word he had chosen and he had that, huh?" look on his face, I was ecstatic! "Do it again,” he said and I did! I was about to stop, but no, David would have none of that, so, he said, "Again!" After a third time, he gave me a smile and shook my hand, saying, “Well done, Kevin! You got me…!” That made me feel great, but what made me feel even better was when, one of the children said, “He fooled David Copperfield!” That was priceless! David and I actually talked for a while. He asked if I was coming to the show that evening. When I told him I would be with my wife, Denise and our son Damien in the third row center, he asked if Damien could come up on stage to assist him in a trick. Unfortunately, when called to do so, my son got “cold feet”. (He was around 6 years old at that time). David did call my home and conversed with my wife, which she still talks about to this day! The best part was that, many years later I posted a photo of he and I at the shop on Facebook. He actually saw this and remembered it, asking: "Has Damien gotten over his shyness?" David Copperfield is a total class act in my humble opinion, THE GREATEST!
There is no denying Copperfield’s importance to magic. You’ve met Mark Walker for lunch a few times, what do two pillars of the Baltimore magic community talk about over lunch?
We talk about the “old neighborhood”… magic… the book he’s in the process of writing about my mentor, Phil Thomas… Dantini, etc.
We actually talked for about two hours about how lucky we’ve been to have met, performed, had dinner/lunch, talked to, compared notes with, etc.… many amazing magicians over the years. It’s the stuff you read about in biographies of other magicians and think to yourself, “I wish I could do that…” We were lucky enough to have done that.
Kevin, you do a great deal of travel on your job. Other than focusing on the road, lol, how do you mostly spend your time? Do you listen to music, talk radio, mill over your life and show, etc.?
I love being with my family, I really do! I married my best friend, Denise who has been my biggest fan and critic along with my daughter Rachel and son Damien. Plus, now my granddaughter, Avery, has me wrapped around her finger.
Also, I never get tired of reading about Magic! Mostly two books at a time… I’m in my studio a lot! I Listen to music, watch TV… very basic home life. No matter where I travel to, I always make it home that night.
I get lots of ideas, just by listening to music. Back in the late 1970’s, I managed a record store in Baltimore, Md. called ‘For The Record’. So, I have a collection of over 2000 LP’s, plus many CD’s.
Magic has been very good to me. I do many charitable shows for the American Cancer Society, Ronald McDonald House, Gilda’s Club in NYC, etc…
I’ve always believed, to quote ‘The Beatles’,
“The love you take is equal to the love you make…!”
So, my motto is, “I’m just trying to make the world a better place, one magic trick at a time.”
At this point, you’ve done so many performances; from the very prestigious to modest, it must seem like a blur… can you give us an anecdote(s) about any that stand out?
Actually, a few!
I was the “House Magician” at the Tower Restaurant & Bar, in Bel Air, Md. around 2006 where Olympian and World Figure Skating Champion, Kimmie Meisner came in with her family. They requested I come to their table. I started a true story with a certain card effect about a young lady who referred to the “King of Clubs” as the “K of Doggie Paws”.
Kimmie, cracked up laughing and said, “What the...?”
She called it, “OK the Doggie Balls”!!! She was laughing so hard: she had tears running down her cheeks. To this day, when we see each other she’ll smile and say,
“OK the Doggie Balls”. Kimmie and her family are good people.
The other is, after performing a festival on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, being hit in the head by a lady with a crucifix! She hit me three different times, while yelling, “You are the Devil’s spawn!!!!”
Yes, she drew blood and the police had to arrest her! She evidently must have figured out that all magicians sacrifice small animals to the “Dark Lord.” Just to make sure, that the Bunny appears on Queue!!! Lol
Wow, a rare reaction to conjuring in this secular age, for sure. Is there a particular piece of magic that you just love to perform? Or do you love your “children” equally?
I still use the “French Drop” with the “Kirtley Principle” lol, today. I honestly don’t carry anything with me, when I’m in “home-mode” I stay impromptu, not even a TT or deck of cards. I do, however, try to reinvent things by taking an old effect and using the principle behind it to do something else.
Speaking of children, you have a rich family life. How has that come into play with your career over the years?
I grew up in an abusive environment. In five words, I was an abused child! Which is actually the driving force behind the way I feel about certain things. I lived that life and if it hadn’t been for things like welfare and a very strong-willed grandmother, who truly cared for her grandchildren… Also, my Brother Ricky, who was around only until his late 20’s before he succumbed to drugs, was not only a positive influence in my life, but also to many of today’s Baltimore musicians. One, who actually teaches at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, was actually inspired and taught by Ricky to play guitar! Only one or two people knew about my life as a child. Everyone else, thought I had a good home life, which I didn’t. It wasn’t until my grandmother got custody of me, that life became positive. I think that’s what drives me… to help others. No child should have to live in an environment like that.
I would tend to believe magicians and musicians making a living; have great jobs and a rich life regardless of what plateau is achieved. What advice do you have for someone considering taking on your profession?
There is NO FORMULA! Do what you feel is correct, but be prepared to fail, Fail, FAil & FAIL… but you must learn from each failure. Take advice from others! Use or toss whatever advice you get. Street Perform!!! It’s tough and is the greatest performance education you’ll ever get. Read!!!! Get Tarbell’s Course in Magic…. All eight! Yes, there’s an 8th one. Read up on the History of the Magical Arts.
Most importantly, be GOOD, be MANNERLY, be UNDERSTANDING, be ABLE TO ADAPT, be PROFESSIONAL & DON’T BE A JERK. Understand, your chance may only come once. When it does come, GRAB IT! Because if you blink…. It’s…. GONE!
To quote the Ancient Romans,
“Remember, you are not a God! You are only a man and fame is fleeting!” Maya Angelou once said,
“People will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel!”
This might be difficult to quantify, for the magic art is full of personal nuances, but what is your philosophy on how to routine shows and/or effects?
Start strong and finish stronger! In between, make people laugh, question and cry. It should flow, but not necessarily… intertwine.
Of importance is, what the audience thinks and not what other magicians think. One thing I have discovered is this… with all our science, logic, exposing of magic, education, etc.... a good magician will accomplish this if he or she has created magic. You want the audience to actually be thinking, “I know it was a trick, but I watched you closely and saw nothing! So, my question is… WAS THAT REAL?”
Trust me!!!! People actually believe that…. Just maybe… it was real magic. I always wink and say, “It was magic”!
It’s good to believe in magic. There are no videos of you on the internet. A man with your credentials and history has that luxury. What do you think about how the information age has affected the profession?
Great question! In all honesty, for the following reasons. During the early to mid 1980s, when I was doing magic full time plus managing two different magic Shops (Yogi Magic Mart and then Main Street Magic), video was just taking off. VCRs cost around $800 to $1000 and video cameras were much more, so recording my shows would have been expensive and probably not a great idea at that time…
Then came my “learning years!” Around 1987, I left Main Street Magic, took out a loan and sent myself to the PSI Institute (remember PSI Net Stadium?) to learn programming.
In 1989, I started working for the Maryland State Highway Administration and helped found their IT Division, with 5 other people. We were all specialists in what we did. My specialty was Hardware. From 1989 until 2002, when I left (fully vested), I only did Private Parties & Bars. This was when I started establishing myself: putting everything I learned, to use.
Then, from 2002 to the present, I debated whether to make a DVD that could let people see what I do, weighing the pros and cons with myself. I talked to several friends and they all said pretty much the same. “Why do it now? You’re already becoming established and have gotten this far without one. Keep your show and yourself a mystery.”
This was a very good point, since I’m already booking many shows: both, new clients & repeat clients.
I know that, I won’t become rich, won’t perform in Vegas, won’t be named the “Magician Of The Year”, won’t have a bio, written about me…ie, I WILL NEVER BE FAMOUS! I know this! I do know that when my day comes to meet Death, I can honestly say I not only lived my dream and made a great living doing it… however most importantly… touched the lives of others!
Magicians coming up today, once they have the show down, should record their Shows, it’s good common business sense!
Ironically, about 9 months ago, someone contacted me about doing magic at a convention in Baltimore, Md. She told me I came highly recommended by another Corporation and requested a DVD of my show, which I have never had! So she hired another Magician!
Two months ago, the same client contacted me again for another convention. When I questioned her about why she wanted me... NOW? She explained that the other magician had “bombed” and admitted she should have taken the advice recommending me.
Unfortunately, I had to decline! Simply because, I was already hired to perform, at the same convention that her Corporation wanted me for, but for a rival! This Corporation was Microsoft! I not only performed at their booth in Washington DC, but also in the Microsoft Suite, which had a certain person present.
I can’t mention that person’s name, but “Bill” enjoyed it!
Wise professionals such as yourself; play to their strengths. Could you be so candid as to reveal what your perceived strengths and limitations are as a performer?
My strength is my personality and sense of humor! I don’t take myself seriously! I am an entertainer who uses magic to entertain. It compliments my personality and humor. My limitations are… I am NOT a Master Magician, I don’t do all kinds of sleights and I am NOT famous! I use effects that compliment my personality, that simply say “this IS me!” What’s important is that the audience likes you, but you also have to “make magic happen.” I learned this from many I had the honor of meeting over the years. Phil Thomas said “Entertain them first!” I believe there’s a saying, about entertaining, “If you can’t make the audience like and want to see you perform within the first 60 seconds… then you’ve failed!
Do you have any effects you like to practice, but never or rarely perform?
What type of magic or performers do you most enjoy to watch?
I really enjoy all types of magicians and magic: past, present and future! I’ve always been a huge fan of Harry Anderson, David Copperfield, Max Maven, etc. and grew up watching Mark Wilson and Bob McCallister to name a few. Oddly enough though, I’ve always been drawn to the macabre or bizarre type of magic.
Most magicians are constantly striving in some way or another. How does a magician of your caliber and experience strive?
Well, since I’m more of a .22 caliber and not a .357, I strive by staying within my own limitations. I may see an effect that’s awesome, but it’s not me. I’ve learned that a magician has to know his limitations! Not necessarily that they CAN’T learn it, but, is it WORTH LEARNING?
Thank you again Kevin for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.
Thanx! It’s been a pleasure!!