Any gent in tails speaking with an English accent and performing magic tricks cuts a romantic figure in Washington these day. But street magician David Willis knows that it takes more than mere sleight of hand and gimmickry to convert strolling pedestrians on Georgetown's crowded M Street corridor into a paying audience.
Willis sees himself as a latter day jester who cheers up the troops. Which isn't all that easy. Downtown stints at noon prove to be a challenge because "people are never in a good mood." A prestidigitator must work twice as hard just to catch their attention, let alone enticing them to relax and forget their problems for a minute.
"I don't try to awe, only to amuse," claims Willis, who earns his bread and rent money through the donations of benevolent onlookers. "There's nothing like looking at an audience and seeing 30 smiling, laughing people who are enjoying themselves."
With a two-step and shuffle worthy of any 19th century travelling entertainer, Willis cajoles hecklers and dissenters out of their cynical moods with what he calls improvisational magic. Performed magic, he insists, is not special. Making the magic happen with the audience is the only way they can enjoy it.
It also means he gets requests for unusual feats. At least twice a week some drunk asks the magician to make his wife disappear. On the more romantic side, a man hired him recently to go to a hospital X-ray room and complain of cramps to the man's wife (who works there).Willis proceded to pull scarves from the afflicted side, paper streamers from a "sore" throat and then magically produced a bouquet of roses saying "happy anniversary from your husband."
Willis, who learned his trade from library books, adamantly maintains that the public really doesn't want to know how he does his tricks. "Magic can make everyone feel like a little kid. If I explain it then the mystery and wonder is destroyed."