Master magician Lance Burton, who retired after 30 years of wowing audiences with his incredible wizardry, will be honored Tuesday evening at the 14th Annual College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame celebration at UNLV.
Also being recognized with The Koep Deans Medal are entertainers Carol Channing, the late Debbie Reynolds, actor-director Matthew Gray Gubler and legendary stuntman Willie Harris. George Grove of The Kingston Trio will be recognized as Alumnus of the Year.
The Hall of Fame was founded in 2003 to honor past and present Southern Nevada residents who have made a significant impact in visual and performing arts and have included The Killers, Penn & Teller, Siegfried & Roy and the late Tony Curtis and Liberace.
Lance is widely considered this century’s “greatest stage magician.” Magic historian Mike Caveney stated: “Take every magician in the world, line them up, and give them each 12 minutes. Lance wins!”
Now retired after headlining for more than a decade at Monte Carlo, Lance rolled up his sleeves to prove that he had nothing hidden for our Q+A:
How does it feel to be named into The Hall of Fame?
Wow, unbelievable! That was very, very sweet of them to think of me.
When you left the farm in Kentucky, did you ever think that you would wind up in a Hall of Fame?
No. I left Kentucky in 1981 and drove to Los Angeles, and I was in Los Angeles for about nine months and did my first “Tonight Show,” with Johnny Carson, then I got booked into Las Vegas for “Folies Bergere.” I drove over to Las Vegas. The car that I had at the time was a 1970 yellow Duster — Kentucky to L.A. to Las Vegas. By the time I got to Las Vegas, the radiator was leaking.
I had to carry gallon jugs of water. I got milk jugs and filled them up. When I finished my show at “Folies,” when I left The Tropicana at night, I would go out and I would open the hood of my car, and I would have to pour water into the radiator to make it home to my apartment. Then the next day, I would have to fill it up again to drive it back to The Tropicana.
How long did it take before you were able to afford a new radiator or get it fixed?
That car was on its last leg. I drove that car here in Las Vegas probably for the first year, then I bought a new car.
If Johnny Carson hadn’t put you on “The Tonight Show,” would your life have taken a different course?
Oh, absolutely, I would probably be back in Kentucky driving a tractor right now.
Do you ever get the urge to do that in retirement?
Yeah, I will — I will actually be moving back to Kentucky eventually. Within the next couple of years, I plan on moving back to the farm. I have my sister, and I have a farm there in Kentucky that was my grandfather’s farm.
I built a house there for my parents about 20 years ago. My mom and dad are gone now, but that was always my plan, to move back to the farm and retire, to move into the house there and become a gentleman farmer.
You once told me that even though you stopped performing at Monte Carlo, you were not hanging up the “gone fishing” sign.
Yeah, but now I’ve pretty much got around to almost hanging up the “gone fishing” sign. When I finished at Monte Carlo, there were a couple things I wanted to finish up. One was to finish the movie “Billy Topit: Master Magician.” We finished that, as you know, because you were in it. We premiered it at film festivals and won awards. Now I’m working on getting the movie out so that everybody can see it, and that will be happening this summer.
People will be able to see it and enjoy the film. We’re having another screening this spring. I’ve reached the age now where they want to give me awards! This July, the International Brotherhood of Magicians and Society of American Magicians are having a combined convention in Louisville, and they’re honoring Mac King and me.
We’re both going back home as Kentucky heroes to attend the convention, and we’re having a screening of “Billy Topit” there at The Kentucky Center for the Arts. It’s a beautiful building, a 2,500-seat theater. We’re going to show the film there. I think that I’m going to use that opportunity to launch the film on DVD and digital downloads.
Lance, do you have any inkling to resume magic performances? Do you miss it?
Surprisingly, no! You’d think that you’d miss it after all these years, you know? I did 15,000 shows and 30 years onstage. It was fantastic, I had a great time, but now I enjoy doing other things.
What do you fill your day with if you — do you still take a deck of cards in front of a mirror just to make sure that your fingers are still nimble?
Very seldom. Every now and then, I do a little something for charity. I support Nevada SPCA, Variety Children’s Charity and Shriner’s. That’s enough to keep me busy. Just a few months ago, I appeared at the 50th anniversary gala of St. Jude’s Ranch for Children. I was at the 18th annual gala back when I first moved to Las Vegas and almost every year since. I think that they were looking for people who appeared in their gala in the old days. I was the only one still alive!
You look back on those 15,000 shows over 30 years of business, on the stage, you miss none of it, but can you recall highlights, things that made you feel very proud?
I don’t know if it’s fair to say that you don’t miss it completely. Of course, that was part of my life for all those years, so I look back on it with a lot of pride. The shows and moments that usually stick in your mind are the shows that either went incredibly well and special or the ones that crashed and burned. I do look back, of course.
The highlights were performing for the president of the United States, performing at The Royal Variety Command Performance in London for Queen Elizabeth II and the Johnny Carson “Tonight” shows. I performed at The Ford Theater in Washington, D.C., for President and Mrs. Reagan.
That’s where I met Louie Anderson. Louie was on the show, too. Louie and I were the only two who brought cameras to the reception. Everybody else was very, very cool, but Louie and I were the only two with cameras. We were still country boys at heart.
On the show, I did the sword fight, and after the show the president and first lady came up onstage, and the president made a few remarks. Then they both walked around and shook everybody’s hand, but before leaving when he came up to me, Mr. Reagan shook my hand and said, “Well, now I’m going to be up all night long trying to figure out how you did that!”
Is that sword-fight trickery still your favorite illusion?
I think that’s one of my favorites — if not the favorite, one of them.
Has magic changed since you first arrived at The Tropicana?
That’s a difficult question. I don’t know that magic has changed. The performers have changed, the guys who were working when I first got here all pretty much retired. New performers come along with new personalities. Criss Angel, of course, is doing gangbusters and, in fact, the sword fight is still being performed.
I gave Criss permission to do my sword fight. He’s really added a lot of production value to that trick and made it a feature of the show. I’m very proud of him. He worked really hard on that, too. He worked for months to get that trick right. I had forgotten what a difficult trick it was to do because you do it every night. You just do it.
You forget all the months and years of experimentation that went on before it reached the stage. The gist of the trick is that the evil sword-fighting guy jumps out onstage and challenges me to a duel, and we have a sword fight. Then I hide underneath a tablecloth on top of the table, and the sword-fighting guy stabs me. He pulls the tablecloth away, and I’ve disappeared. The evil guy walks forward and takes off his mask, and it’s me inside the costume. I was dueling with myself.
That subtext provokes the question, “Is that the story of your life?”
Yeah, yeah, it is, exactly. I think that’s the truth. One of the things you can say about great art or magic, you can look at it in many different ways. One guy sitting in the audience goes, “Holy hell, where’d he go? Oh, there he is!” And the guy sitting next to him could say, “Oh, isn’t that interesting, he was having this feud, this fight, but it turns out that he was just fighting with himself. What does that say about human nature?”
I think it also says something about you, which is going back to The Hall of Fame, do you retire, yes, no, when should I retire, yes, no? Should I go back to the farm in Kentucky, yes, no? All of those are questions that you deal with yourself, and you’ve answered them.
Exactly. I love Las Vegas, and if I go back to the farm, it doesn’t mean that I can’t come back to Las Vegas to visit. We have cars and airports in Kentucky. It’s not all horse and buggies. I was the first to have a flying car onstage, remember?
It’s been a good life?
It has. If I hadn’t been a magician, I don’t know, I ask myself that question every day. Where would I have wound up? I honestly believe that I would have been driving a tractor back in Kentucky if I hadn’t found magic. Kentucky is a beautiful state, it’s relaxing there, the farm’s beautiful, and it’s quiet, it’s green, but there isn’t much opportunity as an entertainer there.
At that time, especially if you wanted to be a magician or actor or standup comic, you had to go east or west. You had to go to New York or Los Angeles. I was 5 years old the first time I saw a magic show, and I wanted to be a magician. When I was about 10 or 12, I discovered Las Vegas on television through Merv Griffin, and he would come to Las Vegas for a week every year.
He would tape his shows at one of the big hotels, and he would always have the acts on his show who were appearing in town. He would have singers and comedians and jugglers and magicians. When I was a kid, I saw The Great Tomsoni, our mutual friend Johnny Thompson, and Siegfried & Roy on Merv’s show.
I saw all these magicians who were appearing in this place called Las Vegas. That’s how I became aware of Las Vegas. I didn’t know where Las Vegas was. I was just a kid, I didn’t know it was in Nevada. I didn’t know anything about gambling or hotels, but I knew that there was a city called Las Vegas where all the professional magicians worked.
I said that when I grow up, I want to go to Las Vegas because that’s where all the real magicians live and work. And I became one of them. Now The Hall of Fame, can you believe it? And I’m joining Siegfried & Roy and Johnny Thompson in The Nevada Artist Hall of Fame. I feel really honored. It will be a very special night on Tuesday.
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In addition to Lance, Matthew Gray Gubler is being feted. The actor-director is on one of Lance’s favorite TV shows, CBS’ “Criminal Minds,” as an actor and occasional helmer. Born and raised in Las Vegas, Matthew graduated from Las Vegas Academy.
Other honorees include stuntman Willie Harris, who was in many movies, including Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” series, and accomplished musician George Grove of The Kingston Trio, who returned to school at UNLV to earn a master’s in arts.
Lance had the last word: “It’s a very eclectic lineup. It’ll be a fun night — and from entering The Hall of Fame, the next stop will be back on the farm in Kentucky.”