Las Vegas Sun

July 28, 2014

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New hat, new rabbits

It's just past 2 in the afternoon and Lance Burton, between calls on his cellular and pulls on a Marlboro, is making a plate of eggs Benedict disappear.

It's an apt breakfast, for these are eggciting times for the spiky-haired magician. Next to the restaurant he's sitting in is his new home, the Monte Carlo hotel-casino, where he'll spend the next 13 years.

"I'll be 49 years old by the time it's over," Burton says of his contract.

Despite the implication of dread in the statement, he in fact welcomes that moment.

"That's the great thing about magic," Burton says. "The great magicians, they all came into their prime in their 50s. I think magic is an art form that, the more experience you have, the better you are."

Apparently, he's good enough now, at age 36, to warrant his own showplace -- the $27 million Lance Burton Theatre -- and get his face on the sign outside.

"I have to keep an eye on the Strip," he says. "Work on the traffic problem."

Burton has been performing in Las Vegas since 1982, and starring in his own show (at the Hacienda) for the last five years. But this -- this is more than a Kentucky boy could hope for.

"That's something I never dreamed would happen," he says. "That's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Maybe not even that."

When he left home in 1981, Burton's goals weren't exactly modest: appear on "The Tonight Show" and work as an act in a Las Vegas production show.

The former occurred that year, the week he moved to Los Angeles to appear in the Larsen brothers' annual "It's Magic" show.

"I met with Milt (Larsen) and he said, 'Oh, by the way, we have you booked on the Carson show.' I said, 'the Johnny Carson show?' And he said, 'That's the one.'"

That appearance, and Carson's ensuing endorsement ("He's the best I've ever seen"), later gave the Hacienda years of advertising fodder, but it initially led to a trial run with "Folies Bergere" at the Tropicana.

"It was an eight-week contract," Burton says, "and I ended up staying nine years."

He had a nine-minute bird act for the duration of the run, but during the day he was working at his craft and developing his act. By the end, he had enough material for a 90-minute show, and he signed with the Hacienda as a solo act in 1991.

Despite its limitations, the Tropicana job did afford Burton as much time off as he liked, and he made the most of it, traveling to London several times and taking in the West End productions.

Burton was as captivated by the theaters as by the presentations, and when he signed the contract to perform at Monte Carlo two years ago, his signature came with a vision.

"When they said they'd build any kind of theater, I said, 'OK, this is what I want.'"

Since the Monte Carlo secret police have forbidden the taking of photos inside the ornate holy temple until the opening, you'll just have to believe: The place has more amenities than you can shake a wand at.

Chandeliers. Elevated boxes. A proscenium arch framing the stage. A balcony. Red and gold decor. One thousand two-hundred sixty-four seats in all. A self-contained bar and restroom facilities, which means you needn't leave the theater complex when indulgence at the former ultimately leads to necessity at the latter.

And befitting the new digs is an updated act.

"Every illusion that I'm bringing with me has been upgraded," says Burton, adding that the show will also have 10 new illusions.

Burton once was advised to never change more than 30 percent of his act ("the fans will be disappointed"), and when he did the figuring, the upgrades and the new acts amounted to exactly that.

The good news is Burton fans will get all the new extravagance for basically the same old price ($34.95, tax and free souvenir book included). General admission to his show at the Hacienda was $29.95, and booths went for $34.95. A souvenir book cost $5.

"We want to keep it a family-friendly price," he says.

What's more, the audience participation that became a staple at his previous venue will remain intact.

"To me, those moments are more important than anything else."

In addition to his own tricks and illusions, Burton borrows from other magicians, including Johnny Thompson ("one of my mentors"), Max Maven, Nat King and illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer, who concocted the vanishing elephants illusion for Burton's recent NBC special.

"Siegfried gave me a bit I'm using in the show. Siegfried & Roy, I mean. I don't think you're supposed to mention one without the other," he says with a laugh.

Burton says he can trade tricks with a clear conscience because, "for me, it's not about competition but the advocacy of the art of magic. It's a very old art form and, up until recently, a very maligned one. So the more good magic out there the better it is for all of us. So far, I've seen seven or eight magic specials this year, and I'm always rooting for everybody."

When Steinmeyer designs an illusion for Burton, he tries to create something that complements the magician's amiable personality.

"You can have fun with him on stage," he says. "I try to find something that lets him relax with an audience and build up rapport with them."

The Monte Carlo stage (400 by 1,200 feet) is larger than the Hacienda's, to accommodate the new scenery and props.

"I want to do more spectacular things," Burton says. "The thing I'm most excited about about is the car illusion."

In fact, he's referring to three illusions: the appearing car, the vanishing car and the flying car.

"It looks pretty neat."

The car in question is a white '74 Corvette. "What Bill Bixby drove in 'The Magician.' I was 14. It was my favorite show."

Burton says his illusions can take from two weeks to two years to perfect, but the car illusion was a different animal.

"It has been a 10-year process, like literally 10 years of research and development, starting with an idea and figuring out how to do it."

Burton just accepts the fact that audiences will attempt to figure out his tricks.

"When people go to see a magic show, they know they're seeing tricks and illusions," Burton says. "A lot of them try to figure out how it's done. The magician's job is to get them over that. I'm trying to get them over that, so they can enjoy it on a higher level. If all you're doing is deceiving, then you're nothing better than a con man. If you can get past all that and have them experience it emotionally, then magic becomes an art form."

One way is to throw the ol' curve when they're expecting a heater down the pike.

"They're all going, 'I know what's coming,' then 'Whammo!' It's a totally different trick from what they thought it was gonna be. I have literally seen people scream and throw their drinks in the air and fall out of their seats and snort drinks out of their nose. I've seen so many wonderful things. That's something they'll remember the rest of their lives."

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