After the first magician of the evening finishes his act, he announces that it’s time for Rich Bloch to perform.
“I’m not ready,” comes a man’s voice offstage.
When the magician blithely continues his introduction, the man’s voice is heard again. “I’m not ...”
Suddenly the curtains open to reveal a man wearing a fuzzy bathrobe and bunny slippers looking half-surprised and half-annoyed as he finishes saying, “... ready.” After pausing for comic effect, the man says, “Give me a minute.”
The curtains close. A split second later — which is to say, immediately — they part again. This time the same man is dressed in a navy blue tuxedo with a polka-dot tie, and navy and white spectator shoes. Looking every bit the 1930s dandy, Rich Bloch steps forward and begins to perform.
Bloch is one of the nation’s top labor arbitrators, a guy who decides the fate of everyone from major league athletes to major industries and their unions. He’s a renowned inventor of magic effects. And he’s the owner of Dickens Parlour Theatre, a magic venue in Millville, Del., named for Charles Dickens, a devout student of legerdemain.
But none of that matters right now, because Bloch has only one thing on his mind: entertaining the 59 moms, dads, grandparents and children sitting in the red movie seats he bought on eBay a year before. For the next 25 minutes, Bloch bumbles around the stage like a vaudeville performer, joking and mugging and playing the fool. He announces that the cards in a goblet on a tray will magically rise! (The tray collapses instead.) He dramatically presents a card to an audience member, saying it’s the same one she had chosen earlier! (It’s not.)
And yet, amid all the flubs, Bloch performs astonishing feats. He causes a vase of flowers to vanish into thin air, transports a woman’s wedding ring into a gumball dispenser (without anyone seeing him do it) and somehow sees to it that two cards selected and signed by two different audience members find their way into his sock and a closed mayonnaise jar, respectively.
Of course, the bumbling is part of the act. At 68, Bloch is a pro. He has performed all around the world: at the famed Magic Castle in Los Angeles; opening for one of the most successful comedy magicians in history, “The Amazing Johnathan,” in Las Vegas; on cruise ships; in Europe, Asia and Africa. In the past seven years, he has been nominated four times for stage magician of the year at the Magic Castle and was voted one of 2010’s “national stars of magic” by Washington’s National Theatre. And he founded and ran a respected magic effects company.
Given this, it might seem a bit incongruous for Bloch to be performing magic for sunburned tourists at this tiny theater. And yet, it’s exactly where he wants to be. In fall 2009, after 35 years on the road, he decided he wanted a theatrical home.
So Bloch bought a one-acre property a few miles west of Bethany Beach, where he and his wife, Sue Bloch, have a vacation home, and he and a builder friend turned what had been a dilapidated garage into this jewel box theater. Sure, some folks who drive up rightly wonder whether they’ve come to the right place. But if the exterior still says garage, that only enhances the thrill of stepping inside, where the deep red walls are decorated with vintage magic posters and the curtains frame a charming parlor stage.
Once or twice a week through most of the year, the Blochs shuttle back and forth between Bethany Beach and Washington, where they share a house in Wesley Heights with one dog, two cats and a hyacinth macaw that performs card tricks then eats the card. From the third floor of the house, in a sunny office lined with books such as “The Annals of Conjuring” and “The Handbook of Mental Magic,” Bloch presides over both spheres of his professional life — magic and law — doing his best to keep them separate. No, he doesn’t perform sleight of hand during arbitration. And, no, he doesn’t threaten to sue people who don’t like his act.
If you hang around magicians for any length of time, you’ll hear a familiar story. When the magician is young, he (because it’s rarely a “she”) sees a magic show and thinks, I want to do that, too. What follows is an obsession with magic catalogues and an apprenticeship as a children’s birthday party entertainer. Then, about the time when most people grow up and get real jobs, the magician keeps forcing his tricks upon anyone and everyone.
Bloch’s tale fits the archetype only to a point. One day when he was 7, he wandered down to the local magic store in East Orange, N.J., and asked for a job. He worked there until he was 13, learning everything he could. He joined the local magic club. He attended magic conventions. He assisted a magician on a Sunday morning children’s TV show. But mostly he studied the Louis Tannen Magic Catalog. “Every page had miracles you could buy,” Bloch says. “It was a dream book. My family had no money. My big tab for performing at a kid’s party was $15. I would save that up and buy a $25 trick.”
By the time Bloch attended Dartmouth College, he had stepped back from magic. In his first year of law school at the University of Michigan, he discovered labor arbitration. What Bloch loved most was that in labor dispute arbitration, both parties want to reach a resolution in a timely fashion. A case that might drag on for five years in the courts can be resolved in arbitration in two weeks, a month or a single day.
Bloch didn’t know it then, but in arbitration he had found a profession that would let him make his own hours, which meant he’d be free to perform magic for three weeks in Vegas or L.A. Or to run his own little theater in Millville, Del.
In his early 30s, Bloch began apprenticing in Detroit with the chief labor arbitrator for Alcoa and its unions. When that arbitrator died, the parties asked Bloch to stay on, and his career was launched.
In 1974, Sue Bloch, now a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, was selected to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and the Blochs moved to Washington. In 1976, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger appointed Rich Bloch to the Foreign Service Grievance Board of the State Department. In 1978, Bloch began serving as the permanent arbitrator for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and its union. He also became the chief arbitrator for the United Mine Workers of America and the associate arbitrator for General Motors and its unions. He’d go on to serve as one of several arbitrators for various major airlines and as a permanent arbitrator for major league baseball, football and hockey. “Rich has had a remarkable career. ... To be a permanent umpire is a prestigious gig,” says Theodore J. St. Antoine, a past president of the National Academy of Arbitrators and Degan professor emeritus of law at University of Michigan Law School, where he was one of Bloch’s professors.
Bloch was able to keep his magic career a secret from the arbitration world until 2005, when he umpired a dispute between the Philadelphia Eagles management and the football team’s then-wide receiver Terrell “T.O.” Owens. In the media circus surrounding the case, Bloch’s life as a magician was exposed. “I would have preferred not to have anyone have entree to that world,” Bloch says. “On the other hand, I wasn’t embarrassed. I’m delighted by the ability to do both these things I love so much.” The players’ union later fired him because it disagreed with his ruling, Bloch says.
Firings don’t ruffle him. “As an arbitrator, you are well aware that, particularly in a high-profile case, it will be the last case,” he says. “That’s actually one of the terrific things about the process of arbitration. What matters is the continuing relationship between the parties. ... If it’s better for them to start fresh with a new arbitrator, then that’s fine.”
Besides, Bloch doesn’t have to worry about finding other clients. These days he limits his client list to 30 or 40, including a county police department, a mining company and an airline. “He’s one of the highest-paid arbitrators in the country,” St. Antoine says. “I won’t try to tell you what his daily fee is, but I can tell you his colleagues stand in awe.
For years, Bloch was so busy building his arbitration practice that the only performing he did was at birthday parties for his children, who are now both public defenders in their 30s. (“Why can’t we just have a pony?” they asked after the fourth or fifth party.) But soon he began to find time to sit at the dining room table and tinker. In 1979, after two or three months — and dozens of broken clocks — he created his first effect, “Stull Watch Outdone,” which allows a performer to magically predict the time randomly set by an audience member on a digital travel clock.
Bloch sent “Stull Watch Outdone” to the Tannen catalogue, and after it agreed to carry the trick, he invented more clock effects — “it was my clock phase,” he says. When he couldn’t keep up with demand, he joined forces with his friend Nick Ruggiero, an experienced effects creator. In 1983, they started Collectors’ Workshop.
“From the start, we decided it would be a different kind of magic shop. We would only work with very high-quality materials,” Bloch says. “We’d build collectible stuff in limited quantities. But we’d also build stuff for the actual performer.”
Soon after starting the workshop, Bloch was fooling around with a wristwatch one day and ended up creating “Perfect Time,” an effect that he says “changed everything.” In the bit, the performer takes off the “Perfect Time” watch (bought from Collectors’ Workshop for about $400), sets it to a time, shows it to the audience and places the watch on a table onstage. Then he asks someone from the audience to name an hour and minute that is important to her — the time of her birth, for example. “Pick up the watch,” the performer then says. The watch, the audience member discovers, is set to exactly the time she just named.
Bloch is typically self-effacing, but, decades later, he is still proud of “Perfect Time.” “It was a killer trick,” he says. Collectors’ Workshop sold several thousand “Perfect Time” watches — a huge volume in the high-end effects world — and Bloch and Ruggiero used the proceeds to help buy a farm in Middleburg, Va. There they expanded Collectors’ Workshop into a factory employing 13 craftspeople who fabricated such effects as “The Khyber Kobra” (“the unquestioned leader in the snake basket domain”) and “Any Card to Wallet,” which is Bloch’s best-selling effect ever. It’s a trick that magically transports a card the audience member chooses into the wallet of the performer.
“Lots of other magic companies sold classic effects that were made with care,” says Jon Racherbaumer, the author of more than 50 books about magic. “Collectors’ Workshop was creating new kinds of tricks. They were selling originality.”
In 2000, Bloch sold the Collectors’ Workshop line to another magic manufacturer, and these days the only new effects he creates are for his own act.
When Bloch says “Perfect Time” changed everything, he doesn’t just mean financially. One day in 1983, Bloch’s secretary told him a man was on the phone claiming to be Orson Welles. Turns out it was Orson Welles. He had seen an ad for “Perfect Time” in a magazine, bought it and wanted to perform it the following night on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Bloch gave him a couple of pointers, then watched from home as Welles performed the effect on TV. “Welles called me back the next day and said, ‘Do you have more?’ ” Bloch says. Later Welles would dub Bloch an “Edison of magic.”
For the next two years, Bloch flew to L.A. about once a month to dine with Welles (and Welles’s dog). He’d offer ideas for Welles’s mentalism (or mind reading) act, show him new effects and eventually wrote a script for a TV special called “Time and Chance” that would star Welles as a mentalist. It was, Welles told him, set to go into production in 1985. But then Welles died.
Bloch so idolized Welles as a performer that after he died, Bloch was inspired to start performing again. In the late 1980s, he got his first chance to perform at the Magic Castle. He also began to do corporate gigs, which is, he says, “where the money is.” “I did good tricks,” Bloch says. “But I was dreadful, because I was trying to be a mentalist like Orson Welles. I had no idea who I was as a performer.”
So Bloch created a new act with the help of Davey Marlin-Jones, a longtime D.C. theater critic and director (and amateur magician). Marlin-Jones, who died in 2004, convinced Bloch that he had been idolizing his props and focusing too much on magic at the expense of entertainment. With Marlin-Jones’s help, Bloch moved into the genre known as comedy magic and began developing the character he plays onstage today. The feigned ineptitude is “the important thing about my onstage persona,” Bloch says. “Whether the audience thinks I’m making mistakes as part of the act or whether they think it’s by accident, it works.” (Bloch’s clumsiness only heightens the astonishment when he does amazing things. Really, how did he get that lady’s ring into the gumball machine?)
Once his act was polished, Bloch got invitations to perform at magic conventions and shows all around the country and the world, and to open for “The Amazing Johnathan” in Las Vegas, where he plays a sort of straight man to Johnathan’s wild and crazy guy. Sue Bloch, no stranger herself to show business — she is an investor in Broadway productions and often appears as a legal commentator on network TV — began assisting onstage in the role of “Miss Direction.” (Like many assistants throughout history, she continues to hope for a speaking part.)
For years, the Blochs loved the travel. But hauling four huge trunks of props through airport security began to get onerous. And after Bloch wrote and performed a one-man show, “Best Kept Secrets,” which had its first run at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in 2009, he decided he needed a little theater of his own.
“Dickens Theatre, may we help you?”
On a July afternoon, calls to Dickens Parlour Theatre are being forwarded to Bloch’s home office in Washington because the theater manager is out with a family emergency.
A woman is calling, and she wants seven tickets for that evening’s show.
“I’m afraid we’re sold out,” Bloch tells her. She’s disappointed, but after a few minutes Bloch persuades her to come to the show the next night. Sold, seven tickets for a grand total of $126.
It’s peanuts compared with the multimillion-dollar salary packages and settlements Bloch arbitrates for major league athletes and huge companies. And it’s peanuts compared with the value of the six original clocks created by Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin — the French inventor after whom Houdini named himself — that Bloch displays in his third-floor office along with a 1665 volume of “The Discovery of Witchcraft,” the first English-language book to describe magic tricks.
Everything about Dickens Parlour Theatre is small-scale, and yet Bloch is unabashedly delighted by it. He so enjoyed renovating the theater that it seems he’d tear it down just to have the chance to create it all over again. Then he’d get to relive opening night on June 17, 2010, when the curtain went up on his most beloved invention yet.
Shows sold out the previous summer, as they did last summer, and Bloch has plans to expand — he has added a cafe where patrons can wine and dine while magicians perform at their table, and he’s thinking of adding a second nightly show — and he has an idea for another one-man show. But he has no intention of giving up his arbitration career. “Magic provides an escape hatch from law, and law provides an escape from magic,” he says.
“Besides,” he adds, with his tongue firmly in cheek, “in case my arbitration practice goes bad, it’s nice to have something steady like show business as a backup.”
Laura Wexler is a writer living in Baltimore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.