"There is no charade here, magic can be motivator"
By Pat Broderick
The consultant stands in a company conference room and grins at a couple of executives. "Would you like me to show you a way to motivate your employees?" They nod eagerly. He then produces a heavy set of shackles and padlocks, inviting them to chain his hands behind his back, Houdini-like. No water are involved, but the consultant does manage to chain himself to a chair. Then, through sleight of wrist, he liberates himself, Ta da! Introducing Michael E. Johnson, corporate Magician and a fellow who believes that, if the medium is the message, magic is the way to go. "Magic has never been more popular than it is today," said Johnson, dressed in his usual uniform of black tuxedo and crisp white shirt. "When you're dealing with dry subjects, the goal is to get people to pay attention. You have to make excitement, make it memorable. "If I go into a room filled with employees who don't want to be there, they start paying attention when they see that I'm there to have fun." Corporations, Johnson observed, are increasingly using entertainment to get their messages across; whether to motivate and educate their own employees, or as a way to generate more business by amusing clients. "I try to see what's happening in a company and tailor my act accordingly," he said. Dennis Gwiazdon, general manager of MAGIC 95.7, recently signed Johnson up as the radio station's official "magician." "He's a tremendous ambassador for the station," Gwiazdon said. "He's a creative guy. We've used him to apply his magic tricks to advertising and marketing. He can underscore a point about the radio station and use magic tricks to visibly demonstrate it.
Entertaining And Unique
"I've found it to be an entertaining way to present an idea," Gwiazdon added. "In business, you're always looking for new ways to stand out and be unique." Since Johnson decided to devote his full attention to his magic business in 1993, his roster of clients has grown steadily. Among them are Agouron Pharmaceuticals, the American Heat Association, Hewlett-Packard Co., the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the California National Guard, Children's Hospital, the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, the San Diego Unified Port District, Price Costco, the San Diego city schools, the San Diego Marriott Hotel and Marina, and the U.S. Marines. While some of these companies hire him for parties, others make use of his talents in less traditional ways. For instance, another client, the Padre Dam Municipal Water District, asked him to demonstrate the cleanliness of water used for irrigation. His bit involved an array of tea cups and water that magically changed colors. Safety training is another of his specialties. "How many people want to hear, 'Don't slip on spills'"? said Johnson, who came up with a creative concept for the port's annual safety meeting, attended by about 250 people. "I asked an employee to shoot a card out of a deck," he recalled. "Of course, it was a cap gun and I had them wear goggles and ear phones. "Just when the employee started to shoot, various things started falling apart and flying around." His safety training bits also may feature the very popular sawing-someone-in half trick, involving a purple scarf and a plastic hatchet.
'Has To Be Fun'
"It has to be fun," Johnson said. "It's a good way to motivate people in how to be better in customer relations, how to improve sale strategies. Businesses are looking for ways to motivate their people and they're tired of 'talking head.'" But don't call Johnson an illusionist. "I don't do illusions and I'm not heavily prop-oriented. I perform magic, not to trick the mind, but to excite the imagination. For those who believe in magic, anything is possible." In fact, Johnson said, his audience is an important part of his act. "I do 'interactive' magic. I get people to make magic, because there is magic in everybody. I want people to feel good about themselves." Humor, he said, is a big part of what he does. "I call what I do 'stand-up magic.' I try to weave in a lot of humor."
An Escondido native, Johnson first fell in love with magic as a boy after a magic show at his church. "I went to the library and ready everything I could about magic," said the self-taught magician. "When we went to Disneyland, I'd spend an hour in the magic store, when the rest of the family would do other things." After his grandparents gave him a few magician's props, Johnson started giving magic shows to his friends. "I found that if I sold popcorn and Kool-Aid, it doubled my revenues," he said. At the age of 14, he began teaching magic for the City of San Marcos. He was the youngest magic teacher in the country. After Johnson graduated from SDSU in 1981, he pursued more conventional day jobs, incorporating magic whenever he could. He had a stint with Caltrans in San Diego promoting mass transit and held a similar position in Monterey. While in Monterey, he weaved some magic into his work by creating public service commercials on mass transit for the Fox television affiliate there. In 1991 Johnson decided to return to San Diego to be close to his family. After a year as a public information officer with the county's Air Pollution Control District, Johnson was caught in a wave of layoffs. "I decided the time was right to go into business for myself," he said. "Last year was my breakthrough year, with over 100 shows." His fees range from about $125 for a half-hour show to $1,000, depending on the scope of the event.
His overhead is high, including about $10,000 invested in sound and lighting equipment, not to mention his wardrobe. "I go through two pairs of tuxedo shoes in a year," he said, sticking out a dapperly shodded foot. "Shirts, too. But the jacket seems to be holding up rather well." When Johnson isn't performing magic, he's teaching it through private workshops. "I once did a six-hour session for kids," he said, shuddering at the memory. "That was a big long." For the past five years, Johnson has been a magic instructor at Palomar College. He is a member of the Society of American Magicians, which once boasted Houdini as president. Johnson is listed in the Society of American Magicians Hall of Fame and in the Harvard University Theatre Collection. While Johnson performs his act alone, he hones his skills by occasionally hanging out with fellow magicians. "Ever so often, they get together for a card game," Johnson said. "Sometimes they invite the clowns, since there in are in a related profession." He paused and grinned. "But I think the clown wonder what's really going on when they lose."