James Ember pulls out a deck of cards and asks me, “Do you play cards often?”

I shake my head no.

“Perfect, reach in,” he says, and the curves of his mouth arch toward his cheek as he extends the deck towards me.

“Take any one you’d like… but oh, before you do —”

He pulls back the deck of cards suddenly. “I would love for you to take one that speaks to you. One that may or may not represent you.”

I focus hard on the hidden card faces, close my eyes, and choose a card about a third of the way through the deck.

“Excellent. Do you have it memorized?”

I panic because I thought I had forgotten the black seven of spades I had just chosen, but then remember. “Yes.”

“Excellent, Jordan. This is a very special card. Do you know why? Because you picked it. And it’s unique. Just like you. In a world full of distractions —”

He shuffles the cards too quickly for my eyes to focus on the card I have just returned to the deck.

“— you will always stand out in a crowd. Even if at times you feel engulfed by everything going on around you —”

He continues shuffling the cards, splitting the deck once, twice, three times.

“— you can sometimes feel lost in the daily shuffle.”

The routine goes on for a while, his chatter encompassing the internet, 24-hour media cycles, each punch line accompanied by the turning up of an appropriate card.

More shuffling.

“But I’m gonna teach you the secret. Just slow it all down. Unplug for just a minute and take a deep breath. Take one with me.”

We both take a deep breath. “And just choose. To experience all the magic around you because if you do it will sort out all those distractions. But, Jordan, you will always stand out in a crowd. Do you know why?”

“Why?”

“Because you are unique,” He places the seven of spades in front of me. It’s my card.

Five years ago, James Ember whipped together a script not unlike this one he used with me to cheer up a friend. His sleight of hand trick was rocky, but the main message was similar: “No matter how tough life gets or how insecure you may feel; you’re unique and it will be all right.”

This simple card trick ended up winning Ember two magic competitions — not because it’s showy, but due to the strength of its central theme: resiliency in uniqueness. This is a common thread in magic: the more original your tricks, the stronger your show will be.

Ember, more commonly known as James the Magician, quit his job in 2016 to pursue magic full time. Magic isn’t just his passion, it’s his therapy. His style is based on 1920s vaudeville magic (a combination of comedy, song and magic arts). Most magicians operate part time, with a more steady day job that pays the bills when gigs are in short supply. According to Zippia, a career tracking website, in 2019 there were fewer than 500 full-time magicians documented in the world.

There are about 15-20 magicians in Dane County, Ember says, with more in Milwaukee and Appleton. They know one another and occasionally meet and network.

Ember, now 40, started doing magic publicly at age 6, when he tied for first place in his school’s talent show. In high school, he performed Harry Houdini’s famous “Metamorphosis” illusion — again tying for first place.

When he was in elementary school, Ember and his parents would drive the almost 50 minutes from his home in DeKalb, Illinois, to Rockford, so he could take magic classes at the magic shop Magic Manor, now closed. He still keeps in touch with Richard Gough, the owner of the shop.

At the same time, his parents encouraged him to follow up on his high test scores in math and to pursue an education in engineering. “I have come up with some material that if I didn’t have a good eye for numbers, math, and simple engineering, I would not have developed,” Ember says. When he left high school he ended up working in the restaurant industry, which brought him to Madison as a line cook in 2003.

But magic kept pulling him back. He left his restaurant jobs behind to make a living through magic. He performs at birthday parties, corporate events, weddings, festivals and schools.

“It’s not like a normal job,” Ember says. “I apply for hundreds of jobs every year, and work about 200 — and every one is unique.”

In 2019, Ember attended Jeff McBride’s Magic & Mystery School in Las Vegas, where he improved and developed his skills.

“It opened up a lot of doors, including getting my magic in front of Penn and Teller,” Ember explains. “Jeff also got me in front of David Copperfield.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the entertainment industry took a blow that left many entertainers without jobs or steady streams of income. Magicians could no longer perform physical shows, attend lectures, or participate in conferences that are essential for professional development.

Ember was no exception. “When COVID hit, the calendar was wiped clean,” he says.

But he was determined to continue performing magic, even if it had to be done virtually. Ember turned, as many did, to Zoom, where he offered online shows and taught other magicians how to do magic over Zoom. He did a Monona Terrace “Lakeside Kids” performance virtually that first pandemic summer.

Ember built a studio in his basement that looks like a comedy club, featuring a series of cameras for overhead, close-up and far-away shots. He used the time to work on his skills and promote his name, performing online shows and giving lectures for magic organizations all over the world.

One of his goals is working toward improving inclusivity in magic. An online lecture he produced focuses on how to reject common terminology in magic that is racist, sexist or distasteful. Ember is working on scripts that avoid pronouns, instead using the names of volunteers. Pantomime alternatives to speaking help include audience members who have difficulty hearing or who do not speak English.

“As soon as you make assumptions you potentially alienate your audiences,” Ember says. “Magic, first and foremost, has to be entertaining. It has to be available to everyone.” 

James the Magician will be performing July 4 at Monona’s Independence Day celebration, at Waunakee’s National Night Out on Aug. 9, The Pursuit of Happiness Festival at McPike Park on Aug. 14 and the Verona Fall Festival on Sept. 30. See JamestheMagician.com for updates.





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