When I was 16, my brother-in-law was a D.C. cop but also did a little bit of magic. I just loved the tricks he did. He took me to Al's Magic Shop in D.C. and bought me a couple tricks and books, and I've been hooked ever since. I performed for my family and pretty much anybody who could stand it. I'm sure I made myself a big pest. About a year after I started, I went back to Al's Magic Shop, and I asked Al if I should do magic full time or join the Air Force. He said, "Very few people can perform full time; it's really hard . . . you should join the Air Force." At the time, that was great advice.
I did my first public show right after basic training, in San Antonio. It was about 110 degrees in the shade, on an outdoor stage. There were all these carnivals going on, so I couldn't tell if the audience was clapping or laughing, or anything. When the show was over, I swore to myself I'd never perform again. Then a little girl came up and tugged on my vest and said, "Mr. Ralph, you were great. I loved your show." And I just melted. I realized if that ever happened again, it would be worth everything. I decided not to sell all my magic stuff.
The best experience I ever had was at the Herndon Festival. They were just the nicest people, and all the crowds loved me. The next year, they got new management, and everything changed. Where previously I'd been able to do balloon animals for tips and I got paid for the magic shows, they switched it around to the point where they didn't pay me for the magic shows, and they made me pay to be there to do the balloons for tips. It was horrible. One person there even said to me, "You're going to do this, and you're going to like it, or you'll never work in this town again." It's Herndon, for crying out loud! On Saturday it started pouring rain and everybody ran inside a building. My friend and I started doing a show; we wanted to distract everybody. Nobody asked us to -- we didn't get paid or anything. We wound up getting a half-page article in the local paper saying we saved the Herndon Festival.
-- Interview by Julia Wilkinson