Why the Dells is Still Magical …
Rick & Suzan Wilcox show why the Dells is still a magical place to visit
June 10, 2011
By CRAIG SPYCHALLA, Capital Newspapers (story originally appearing in the Portage Daily Register)
Wisconsin Dells – The message on the side of the playing cards started to come into focus. “Unshuffled,” it read in black ink. As Rick Wilcox cut the deck again, he talked about how secret messages were written on the sides of cards by prisoners during World War I.
“You could never tell what it said (unless) you knew the order of the cards,” he said, cutting the deck one more time. The message “unshuffled” meant little to me. I had picked a card from the deck earlier and was waiting to see him find it. But with one more cut, he held up the side of the deck and it read “EIGHT OF HEARTS,” the card I had picked.
At that magical moment he made me realize something – never get into a card game with a guy who can shuffle that well. Magic, when it’s done a foot in front of your eyes, makes a trick seem a little more spectacular. There’s no smoke, no boxes that may have escape hatches, just a trick that makes you still feel like a kid inside, wondering how that just happened.
“This is a special shuffle I do,” Wilcox said. “Most magicians won’t even bother with it because it’s so difficult to learn.” It took him about 10,000 shuffles to get the trick down, practicing before the show, after, and anywhere – even waiting for a movie to begin. “I almost gave up on it because it was so difficult,” he said, “but now I can do it pretty smooth.”
For the past 13 years, Wilcox has been performing an illusion show with his wife Suzan at their theater in Wisconsin Dells, where he still gets to do sleight-of-hand tricks with cards and coins. But this year, Wilcox has much more than a dove up a sleeve. He is finalizing a 15-theater tour in China that will take place next year. It will be the largest show the couple has put on in a foreign country, and the tour will last about six weeks.
And with the summer season having just kicked off in the Dells this year, Wilcox has unveiled a new illusion where he makes a real, 1,300-pound Robinson helicopter appear on an empty stage that will no doubt be a jaw-dropping crowd-pleaser. But the true magic that has kept Rick and Suzan’s show successful in a water park town is their chemistry — a couple that levitates together, stays together.
A New Trick
When Lake Delton washed away in 2008, it was almost a symbol for changing times in the economy and fewer people being able to afford entertainment. “(Crowds) have definitely been less than 2006, 2007 … those were great years. But I think they’ve dropped off for everybody,” Wilcox said.
But audiences are still coming in numbers to see Wilcox dazzle on stage with illusions and humor. The quest to keep things fresh keeps the couple trying out new tricks each season – some of which take years to develop. Adding new tricks to a show is about much more than the illusion itself. A script has to be written, lights have to be set and the trick has to be perfect. There’s also concessions, tickets and everything else that goes into running a business.
“If we could just come in and just do the magic, it would be really easy, but there’s so much more that goes into it,” said Wilcox, who even controls his own music using switches on his ankles during a show. “We run a small business, but in addition to that, we’re the product. Our show is the product,” Suzan said. A magician owning his own theater is rare, Wilcox said. Given the size of the shows he and Suzan are putting on, to find something similar would require a trip to Las Vegas.
When creating a new trick for the stage, the couple looks at what the show needs – perhaps another trick that’s dangerous and requires a quick escape. “That’s what he thinks about,” Suzan said of the danger element. “And then I think, how do we get the audience to care? It can’t be entertaining unless they are feeling something about it.” Pulling the audience into an illusion is the trick. Collaborating on such challenges is what makes Suzan and Rick a great team.
After shows, Rick and Suzan sign autographs in the lobby: It’s a time they can interact with children and parents who come to the show. “They are just so friendly with the families. And in this day and age, that means a lot,” said Don Lamb, a retired teacher from Waukesha who tries to make it to a performance each year. “They are so humble and down to earth … they are so approachable.”
Just show the audience the card
One of Wilcox’s specialties is his sleight-of-hand routines, which earned him international recognition in 2002 as one of the top two sleight-of-hand magicians in the world at MacMillan’s International Magic Convention in London.
But not every trick works – at least not all the ones that require an audience member to come on stage. One woman pulled up on stage for a trick didn’t want to pick a card. And she didn’t want to show the audience the card. And in the end, she didn’t want to tell Wilcox what the card was. “In the long run, it changed the whole structure how I do the trick,” he said. “So now, I don’t have them name the card, I just have them show the audience.”
While his show has both big illusions and sleight of hand, Wilcox said the two are very different to pull off. “This requires all hand dexterity. Sleight of hand takes a long time to rehearse, and I love doing it because I love the reaction I get from people. “But the helicopter is just a different thing. It’s just exciting. Sometimes my heart goes pretty fast when I do that one.”
Wilcox said he has always wanted to do the helicopter illusion, to do something of that magnitude inside their 550-seat theater. The illusion, however, took more time than Wilcox thought to get it just right. He acquired the helicopter from an illusion builder in California. It flies, but it’s been retired. And when it magically appears, it takes up much of the stage. “We’ve been doing the car (appearing) for the last couple of years and I thought toward the end of the show, let’s hit them with the helicopter, and they’re going to be like, ‘What? First he makes a car appear then a helicopter? Come on.’”
Sitting in the theater with the lights turned up, it was easy to see how much Wilcox loves magic. He started with a magic kit from his sister at age 10 – and a dove from an aunt two years later. And he has never lost that love of the illusion. Suzan said Rick is always working on something new and can’t wait to put it in a show. “He would probably change something every show if he could, because he likes to develop,” she said.
There are tricks back stage that have been rehearsed that will not make a show. Sometimes it looks good on paper and just doesn’t translate. “Or we keep working on it until it does get good,” Wilcox said. “We do a really cool costume change now, and at first I was ready to give up on it. We kept it in and now it’s really good.” Making themselves levitate on stage at the same time also took a lot of practice, but now it’s a staple in the show.
While it’s the illusion that draws people, it’s often the interaction between Suzan and Rick they remember. “He’s fun to be around. Anybody who’s fun to live with, loves what they are doing,” said Suzan, whose sense of humor plays a big part of the show. The couple also have been working on a role-reversal performance, where Rick would be in the audience while Suzan completes the trick on stage. “We’ve been talking about it for years, and she’s really close,” he said.
The magical couple take in other illusion shows when they can, with Rick looking at everything from the production and costumes to the lighting used. He’s not fooled much these days like when he first started, he said. Even when David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear. “Yeah, that was a fun trick to figure out,” he said. “No, there’s not a whole lot that fools me, but it’s still fun to watch.”
Click here for the original posting of the Portage Daily Register story.