A Local Life: Dick Christian, Navy commander and magician, was master of deception

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Dick Christian could pull rabbits out of hats and doves out of thin air. He was a deft illusionist who could saw ladies in half and put them back together. He could hand you a book and tell you to pick out a word in it — any word — and then he could tell you the word you had picked out.

He could shred a page from a newspaper and squeeze the shreds in his hands and — “Shazaam!” — it would be back together just the way it was before. He could make people float in the air. He could burn a $50 bill and then make it reappear.

As “Christian the Magician,” he was known to thousands in the Washington area from his appearances at birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, school assemblies and post-dinner corporate events.

A retired Navy officer, Cmdr. Christian also lectured to law enforcement agencies on the use of deceptive techniques and mind reading, said Bill Wells of Lexington, Va., the former president of the 13,000-member International Brotherhood of Magicians. In 2009, the organization named Christian the Magician the Washington area’s “Magician of the Year.”

On Nov. 8 at 73, he died of hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, a rare blood disorder, at the Health and Rehabilitation Center of Manassas, said his wife, Mary Ann Christian.

Cmdr. Christian was a theatrical and charismatic performer — 6-foot-4, with a deep voice and dark wavy hair that turned silver as he aged. He always wore a tuxedo to a performance.

He was also a talent broker. He was your go-to man if you were looking for a sword-swallower, a fire-eater, a fortuneteller, a face painter, a caricaturist, a juggler, a clown, a puppeteer, an acrobat, an Easter Bunny, or — especially at this time of year — a Santa Claus.

“You name it, and he had access to someone who could do it,” said Jon Enten, who runs a Bethesda marketing business.

For 20 years, Cmdr. Christian had a regular day job. He was a career Navy officer and a commander of two destroyers, the Claud Jones and the John Paul Jones. He wore an old baseball cap with the simple inscription “Jones” on it, and he is believed to have been one of the few Navy officers ever to have been skipper of two different ships named Jones. He retired from the Navy in 1979.

Richard Allen Christian was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 15, 1937. His father was a ventriloquist and part-time vaudeville performer. He had an uncle who could pull coins out of his ear. As a child, he once purchased a mail-order magician’s kit, and the concept of magic had always intrigued him.

He launched his Navy career after graduating in 1959 from Pennsylvania State University. Since 1972, he had lived in the Washington area. At his home library in Fairfax Station, he had a collection of more than 1,000 books about magic.

“Magicians, to be effective, must know the psychology of their audience,” he told The Washington Post in 1988. “When a performance succeeds, you are messing with people’s minds. You have to have a grasp of how and why people perceive things.”

Survivors include his wife of 51 years, Mary Ann Light Christian of Fairfax Station; two children, Jennifer Mallare of Roanoke and John Christian of Lewes, Del.; and two granddaughters.

In the early 1980s, Cmdr. Christian expanded the scope of his magician’s calling to include other forms of entertainment. When people who wanted magicians also wanted clowns, Christian the Magician got clowns. When they wanted fortunetellers, he lined up fortunetellers.

There was a demand and there was money to be made. A face painter could get $120 for an afternoon. A Santa Claus could get $220 an hour, but you had to be good. Real beards, please, no fake whiskers in the Dick Christian shop.

Charles Bailey of Fairfax County is one of Cmdr. Christian’s Santas. Every year, he stops shaving around the end of July. Not until after Christmas does his wife trim his beard.

For an experienced magician, one would pay about $500 — or thousands of dollars for a high-end corporate extravaganza.

Cmdr. Christian also taught classes on magic at the Smithsonian Institution. He emphasized the need to understand audience psychology. He said children should be about 8, at a second-grade reading level and capable of logical thinking before they start to perform magic. Younger kids, he added, did not always have the maturity to keep the secret behind the illusion to themselves.

And there were other issues that came up.

According to the Burke Connection newspaper, two boys at a 1989 class were especially keen on learning what they could about the magician’s craft, especially sawing someone in half.

“I’d like to practice on my sister,” said one of them.

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