The Washington area has many fine attractions: venerable historic sites, world-class museums, great natural beauty. What it did not have until recently was a small theater on the top level of Arlington’s Ballston Common Mall where you can watch a magician recline on a bed of nails as another man uses a sledgehammer to shatter a cinder block on his midsection.
What the D.C. area did not have was Willard’s Parlour of Mystery.
This intimate theater is the brainchild of an Arlington man who by day works on the Hill. His nom d’illusion is Willard Royal, and he thinks the D.C. area needs a place where the audience can see magic up close, every weekend.
“You watch a movie, it’s going to end the same way every single time,” Willard said. “But magic is going to end differently, depending on the interaction between the performer and the audience.”
Many other cities have magic theaters or magicians ensconced in hotels. Pros and amateurs alike gather at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. Society magician Steve Cohen performs at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Even the Denver suburb Castle Rock, Colo., has a theater that hosts magicians regularly.
Willard has no background in running a theater. He doesn’t even have much experience performing magic in front of a crowd. Most of his conjuring has been for family and friends. A few years ago, he performed at a friend’s 40th birthday party, an experience that made him hungry to do more.
“I got to see the amazement on their faces, just like I experienced as a kid,” said Willard, 40. “I started to think: ‘Where can I experience this in D.C.?’ ”
Willard grew up outside Branson, Mo., and was given his first magic kit at 15. Being so close to the Las Vegas of the Ozarks, Willard could see plenty of magicians at work. He fell in with Kirby VanBurch, one of those big-budget, make-a-tiger-appear illusionists. But Willard said VanBurch could also hold a crowd’s attention with something as simple as tearing up a newspaper and making it whole again.
“I had an opportunity to learn in the old-fashioned way,” Willard said, “not through DVDs, not on the Internet — through people who knew what they were doing, who were able to teach me the secret, not just of the trick but of entertaining people. That’s what it’s supposed to be about.”
Willard spent the past two years looking for the right location. He found it when an improv group called the Comedy Spot moved out of its space in Ballston Common. He reworked a small, 50-seat, space. (A church took the larger space next door.) Performances started in April.
Magic is arguably bigger than ever, or at least more accessible. But it’s not the sort of magic Willard prefers. Watch magic on TV, and you can’t be sure whether special effects have been employed. Illusions in a big theater are nice — ladies sawed in half; helicopters produced from thin air — but close-up magic is more personal.
We’re living in an age of “impersonal entertainment,” Willard said, “where everything is so fast-paced and so people become jaded. They think you can Google everything. There’s no mystery left in the world. But whenever you come in here and it’s just you and three or four dozen people, and you’re sitting there and the entertainer comes out and does something impossible right in front of you . . .”
His voice trailed off.
“I love watching that.”
I think Willard Royal — wonk by day, magician by night — opened the Parlour of Mystery as much for himself as for the audience.
Tickets range from $35 to $55. Coming attractions include Eric Henning this Saturday. For the month of July, Willard will be performing alongside local fixture Barry Taylor . On July 18, a famed children’s entertainer, the Great Zucchini, will give a family show.
The night I went, there was the farewell performance of Shreeyash Palshikar , the magician who invited an audience member to sledgehammer a cinder block on his midsection. Shreeyash began his set with a barefoot Indian dancer moving her hips to Bollywood music. He was dressed in a turban and pointy slippers that curled up at the ends, and his act was full of references to the subcontinent.
Shreeyash is about to move from Washington to Pennsylvania to teach world history at a college. His job before that? He worked in the intelligence community.
All sorts of magic happens in Washington.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.