Harry Houdini, Harry Blackstone, David Copperfield — all great magicians, and all members of the Society of American Magicians, one of the oldest and most prestigious magical societies in the world.
Last month, the society made history when it inaugurated its first African-American president, Kenrick McDonald — known in the magical world as "ICE."
McDonald says magic has a long and little-known history in the African-American community. Even so, he says, he still had many obstacles to overcome as a young magician, including reconciling his love for magic with his Christian faith.
McDonald grew up in a religious family. His father bought him his first magic kit, but McDonald's enthusiasm for tricks soon became a source of family tension. For many years, he says, he was forced to practice in secret — but he was determined to show his family that there was nothing evil about magic.
"I personally knew this was not a dark art. I just liked the way it made people feel," McDonald says. "It's that feeling of bringing people back to their childhood."
On the history of African-American magicians
We have a rich history that a lot of people don't know about. We have Richard Potter, the first American-born magician, and he happened to be black. We have Henry Box Brown, who was born into slavery, and he actually mailed himself out of slavery in a box. He mailed himself to Philadelphia, and then from that point on he started lecturing and performing magic on tour.
On reconciling his magic with his faith
I had to, a lot of times, do [my magic] in secrecy, when the doors were closed, to develop the skills. ...
Most people feel that magic is on the dark side. I'm of the belief that our God is bigger, and he has some light in all the dark places. And so I consider myself, as far as in magic, and being in the church and being a Christian — I believe that I'm that light, to those who feel that is dark. So I was able to illustrate that as I performed down the years.
On his goals for his tenure as president of the society
I want to change some of the ways that the young artist looks at the organization. Social media — that is where our young folks live now. I want to figure out a way to meet them where they live, and show them the advantages of the Society of American Magicians.
On whether or not the Internet is killing magic
For a moment, I would say, it put us on life support. But now we're figuring out how to coexist with the Internet. ...
The brick-and-mortar magic shops are suffering. You used to, back in the day, go to the magic shop and you'd have the guy behind a counter, and what he would do is actually demonstrate the magic effect and then sell it to you.
But now, with the Internet, you can press a button and see the demonstration and then order that effect online.
But there is nothing like a live performance. When you're watching it live, you cannot have any smoke and mirrors on that.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next, we have a story of the first black president - no, not that one. He's the first black president of the Society of American Magicians. That group has existed for 112 years and has claimed members ranging from Harry Houdini to David Copperfield. Now it has elected a new leader - Kenrick "ICE" McDonald.
KENRICK MCDONALD: My passion for this art is so strong that if you cut me, I would bleed magic. This has become part of my DNA.
INSKEEP: Kenrick "ICE" McDonald has been practicing magic for more than 30 years. Now he takes a leadership role at a moment, when the business of magic is suffering. Though, President McDonald spends half the year touring. Sometimes, he's performing magic. Sometimes, he's talking at corporate events, teaching executives how to hold the attention of an audience. So give us an idea, what are some of your classic tricks, for those who have not seen your show?
MCDONALD: I perform a dove routine. I start out by producing a dove out of a glass of orange juice. I would drink the orange juice. I would blow it into my hand and produce a orange-juice-colored bird.
MCDONALD: And then take that bird and split it in two.
INSKEEP: I guess we should mention for animal-rights activists in the audience, when you say you take the bird and split it in two, you mean it becomes two birds, not that you split it in two.
MCDONALD: (Laughing) That's right. Yes, let's clarify that. This magically goes from one bird to two birds.
INSKEEP: Now, because you're the first African-American head of this organization, I'd like to ask. If I thought about a lot of different areas of American life - music, for example, or even baseball - there is a special black tradition in that area that is part of the wider American fabric, but is also its own thing. Is there a particular black tradition of magic?
MCDONALD: We have a rich history that a lot of people don't know about. We have Richard Potter, the first American-born magician, and he happens to be black. We have Henry "Box" Brown, who was born into slavery and he actually mailed himself out of slavery in a box.
MCDONALD: Yes, sir. And he mailed himself to Philadelphia. And then from that point on, he started lecturing and performing magic on tour.
INSKEEP: So he put himself in a box and had himself shipped to a free state?
INSKEEP: And went on to a career magic. That's quite a magic trick to begin with.
INSKEEP: So now, how did you get into magic?
MCDONALD: When I was about 10 years old, I remember my father and I going out shopping and we didn't have a lot of money. So, you know, I call it being born with a rusty spoon in my mouth. He picked up a magic kit from a secondhand store and all the pieces were not there. Some of them were missing. But I was still able to figure out how the magic effect worked. And I started from there.
INSKEEP: Do you remember a trick that you did out of that kit?
MCDONALD: I actually do. It was a vase - a little vase with the ball in it and you were supposed to cover the ball. And when you uncover, the ball's gone. Now, I do remember the ball was already gone. So I played around with it and I realized that maybe a ball sits there. And I'm supposed to make it vanish.
INSKEEP: Would it be too much of a downer to ask how it was that the ball was made to vanish?
MCDONALD: That is an answer you will not get for me.
MCDONALD: You should know better, Steve. What's up with that?
INSKEEP: Well, it's when you were 10 and a secondhand magic kit. I just thought maybe you could do that.
MCDONALD: Oh, no. The secrets of magic will not get answered by me today.
INSKEEP: Now, your dad bought you this kit. When you began to get more and more enthused with magic, did it cause any tension in your family?
MCDONALD: Oh, my father was a preacher. So that was like, oh, no. You can't do magic. Most people feel that, you know, magic is on the dark side. I'm of the belief that our God is bigger and he has some light in all the dark places. And so I consider myself, as far as in magic and being in the church and being a Christian - I believe that I'm that light to those who feel that it's dark. So I was able to illustrate that as I performed down the years.
INSKEEP: That's quite eloquently stated. As an adult, I'm curious when you were a kid and your father said this is an evil thing you're getting involved with, what did you say to him then?
MCDONALD: What can you say? I had to, a lot of times, do this in secrecy, when the door was closed, to develop the skills.
INSKEEP: Did your father's disapproval make you more determined to become a magician?
MCDONALD: Oh, yes. I, personally, knew this was not a dark art. I dislike the way it made people feel, when I would do something. It's that feeling of bringing people back to their childhood. And I thought the way you make people feel, that possibly couldn't be a bad thing.
INSKEEP: So do you have an agenda that you want to accomplish as head of the Society of American magicians?
MCDONALD: Oh, an agenda - (Laughing) basically, not mess up, actually.
INSKEEP: Don't cause the dove to tumble out of your shirt pocket.
MCDONALD: What shirt pocket? I don't understand what you're talking about.
INSKEEP: Anyway, go on. Don't mess up - that's one agenda item.
MCDONALD: That's pretty big. Actually, I want to change some of the ways that the young artists look at the organization - social media. That is where our young folks live now. I want to figure out a way to meet them where they live and show them the advantages of the Society of American Magicians.
INSKEEP: Is the Internet killing magic?
MCDONALD: For a moment, I would say put us on life support. But now we're figuring out how to coexist with the Internet.
INSKEEP: And I'm thinking, the reason it would be a threat is because magic just has to be a live performance, doesn't it? And the Internet pulls people out of live venues or magic stores or any number of things like that and puts them on a phone or in front of a screen.
MCDONALD: Absolutely, the brick-and-mortar magic shops are suffering. You used to, back in the day, go to the magic shop and you have the guy behind the counter. And what he would do is, actually, demonstrate the magic effect. But now with the Internet, you can press a button and see the demonstration. And then order that effect online. But there's nothing like a live performance. When you're watching it live, you cannot have any smoke and mirrors on that.
INSKEEP: Well, you can have some smoke. I think you're allowed to have smoke.
MCDONALD: Maybe a little bit.
INSKEEP: Mirrors, even - you're allowed to have mirrors.
MCDONALD: (Laughing) What mirrors, as I said earlier.
INSKEEP: Kenrick "ICE" McDonald is the first black president of the Society of American Magicians. Congratulations and thanks very much.
MCDONALD: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.