Studying Las Vegas magicians pays off for Mat Franco

“Magic is all about dreams. But sometimes, dreams turn into nightmares.”

Melinda, the First Lady of Magic, said that in 1995, on “The World’s Greatest Magic 2” TV special.

Mat Franco knows she did.

“She was one of the last two acts before Penn & Teller’s bullet catch, and she did the ‘Drill of Death.’ “

“It’s sad, I can quote all of them like people quote their favorite movies,” he says. “I can quote all the magic specials I grew up watching to this very day.

“It’s very sad, don’t laugh at me.”

Laugh, no. Make him remember more magicians? Yes.

Nathan Burton?

” ‘World’s Greatest Magic 4.’ He did a short thing where he dumps a guy into a toilet. I remember wondering if he was related to Lance.”

Bret Daniels? Franco starts laughing at how ridiculous this is.

“He was one of the few magicians that was on several. He was on ‘World’s Greatest 1’ and also ‘2.’ He appeared twice on ‘World’s Greatest Magic 3’ and then came back and closed ‘World’s Greatest Magic 5.’ He ended it off on ‘5’ by beaming a woman across the Grand Canyon.”

This exercise helps explain how a 27-year-old fueled his magic obsession in the pre-YouTube era. And how the only magician to win “America’s Got Talent” ends up with his own show on the Strip.

“Magic Reinvented Nightly” was set to open Wednesday at The Linq, where the old Imperial Palace showroom you may remember from decades of “Legends in Concert” has been spruced up and heavily remodeled to fit the specific needs of Franco’s new show.

National prime-time exposure will reinforce the launch Sept. 17, with the two-hour NBC special “Mat Franco’s Got Magic.” Guest stars, including Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Mraz and Penn & Teller, help refresh America’s memory of Franco winning “Talent” last September.

Filming one segment on the High Roller Ferris wheel will help fans locate his new home on the Strip.

“We haven’t had a major-network, prime-time magic special since David Blaine,” he says (and, based on the above, we’re going to take his word for that). “I’m thrilled to be the guy to bring it back.”

Cable magic has shifted more to the on-location practical jokes of “The Carbonaro Effect” and the competition-themed “Wizard Wars.” Stage magic’s best friend has been “Talent,” and the years have seen Las Vegas magicians from Nathan Burton to Murray SawChuck get a boost from repeated prime-time exposure.

But Franco was the first magician to actually win the TV competition, after spending his first four years out of the University of Rhode Island working mostly on college campuses.

The TV special takes the form of a road trip, from Franco’s native Rhode Island to his new home in Las Vegas, where he says he will live no matter how the new venture fares at The Linq.

“It’s pretty awesome to be able to set up shop in a place that I love,” he says. “It’s cool to have your own theater. Isn’t that the dream?”

There’s been no other for Franco, who at age 12 talked his parents into letting him attend Las Vegas magician Jeff McBride’s Magic and Mystery School. They knew he was serious about it, because he’d been constantly practicing magic since a kindergarten show-and-tell performance.

“I would tape Lance (Burton’s TV specials and guest appearances) and I would watch it over and over. The day I found the slow-motion button was like a dream come true. That’s how I learned magic.”

Franco auditioned for the first season of “Talent” at age 15, but “didn’t even make it past the preliminary round. I’m a perfectionist, I thought, ‘I’m not going back until I’m ready.’ “

In the meantime, he discovered something beyond technique.

“I started realizing pop culture. And I started realizing what I was doing, magic, was framed much differently from everything that was popular around me. Like music. Why weren’t musicians wearing this (tuxedo) on the Video Music Awards? … Why is this so outdated?

“It was about that time I threw the tails out and tried to figure out who I was.”

By the time he returned for his winning season, Franco had honed himself into the guy you will see in the new show, the supernice dude who puts the focus on banter and crowd work more than big contraptions (That was another thing he laughed at growing up, magicians who had “minions running around doing all the work” while the magician “just stood there.”)

Sure, you can say he won “Talent” because the singers all canceled each other out in the voting. Or, you could say no previous magician had created such a direct rapport with the judges.

The magic is “not the focus of what I’m doing. It just can’t be,” he says.

“If you focus on just the tricks, people will remember the tricks and forget you. They will remember the motorcycle that appeared but forget who made it appear.”

Franco says the lighting for his show will put the audience almost in equal balance with the stage. “It’s like there’s no boundary … There’s a runway so that people have easy access to the stage. And when I go out into the audience, you don’t get taken out of the moment (by having) the house lights come on.”

Maybe a few years from now, the next generation of magic star will claim he learned some secrets by watching Franco in slow-motion on YouTube. “If you want to spend your hours doing that, more power to you,” he says with a laugh.

By then, though, he hopes something else will have changed.

“I would love for a little kid to think of the word ‘magician’ and not think of an old creepy man in a tuxedo and a top hat that looks too small for his head. I just want that to actually be gone, and I think it’s on its way.”

Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com or bestoflasvegas.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com.

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