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Illusion builder stands behind Las Vegas’ top magic acts

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Leila Navidi

Bill Smith of Bill Smith’s Magic Ventures at his workshop in Las Vegas on Wednesday, November 7, 2012.

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Bill Smith's Magic Ventures in Las Vegas on Wednesday, November 7, 2012.

Bill Smith works in a building surrounded by secrets only he can understand.

They’re on his cluttered desk, pieces of graph paper with schematics of boxes and torturous-looking contraptions bursting out of a rack of manila folders. Some are recorded on VHS tapes stacked 10-high on his television to be copied to DVD, for his eyes and his customers’ eyes only.

There are secrets in the warehouse connected to his office, too, concealed inside trunks, and parts being assembled by his four-man crew.

“Most of the time, my workers don’t even know what they’re building,” Smith said.

Through his company, Bill Smith’s Magic Ventures, he builds boxes that can compress a person to just 18 inches tall and giant spinning fans that allow magicians to walk through unharmed. Since he moved to Las Vegas, Smith has built props for magicians from David Copperfield and Penn and Teller to Lance Burton and John “The Great Tomsoni” Thompson.

Smith’s building holds the key to unlocking some of the greatest magical mysteries on the Strip, and his job is to build objects that mask the magician’s secrets. Smith is the man behind the illusions.

“There are only a few (illusion) builders in our profession,” said Thompson, a former magician and now a magician consultant. “You can count the major builders on both hands. Maybe 10 total, and Bill is one of the top builders.”

Smith operates his business at a nondescript concrete office and warehouse building marked only by his printed sign on the glass above the front door.

His illusions start at $8,000 and are built out of sturdy aluminum and fiberglass. A good illusion, Smith explained, is a work of art. It must look like a box or a dangerous device, but it does a completely different job. It also must be durable enough to withstand travel and thousands of shows.

While Smith is knowledgeable in building illusions, it’s his experience as a performer that makes him one of the top builders, Thompson said.

“I can sit down and discuss something that's never been built before, and it’s kind of a sharing thing,” said Thompson, who bought Smith’s first prop in 1975 and has remained friends with him ever since. “… He brings it to life.”

•••

Smith considers his career a combination of his two hobbies: woodworking and magic. Growing up in Long Beach, Calif., he was first drawn to woodworking. His father owned a fully outfitted garage workshop, and Smith loved his school workshop classes.

His passion for magic didn’t take root until a junior high talent show. He was backstage with a friend when they stumbled upon a student’s magic chest. Their curiosity got the best of them, and they began rifling through the chest.

“I saw these gimmicks and gizmos and how they worked, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really neat. I could get into magic,’” Smith said.

Smith was gripped. He became president of the Long Beach Mystics club, worked backstage for various magicians and performed his own show. He built all the props for his act.

“He was really a wonderful, charming performer,” Thompson said. “I said to him not long ago, ‘I’m still surprised you’re not performing.’ He was a really fine act and a great magician.”

It wasn’t until he built a prop for magician Harry Blackstone Jr., for an act on “The Mike Douglas Show,” that Smith realized he wanted to go into a career of building illusions. Smith assisted in the act, as well, but when he saw the episode air, he focused on his prop.

“It was almost an epiphany,” Smith said. “I was like, ‘Wow, something I built was on TV.’ I could care less that I was on there.”

In 1980, Bill Smith’s Magic Ventures was born in Long Beach.

•••

Smith moved his shop to Las Vegas in 1993, just as large-scale magic acts became popular in the city.

He has built illusions for nearly every magician who has passed through Las Vegas in the past 20 years, but he is particularly proud of his work for Burton. Smith built every illusion in Burton’s headlining “Master Magician” show in the 1990s at the Monte Carlo.

Burton said Smith became the perfect collaborator for his show. Smith built sturdy props that could withstand multiple shows and knew how to make an illusion concept a reality.

“A lot of times if you want a prop built, you may have broad strokes in mind, but not all the details,” Burton said. “Bill is knowledgeable in the design of the illusion, but he’s also a performer. I think that’s one of the keys to his success.”

While magicians like David Copperfield, Penn and Teller receive all the attention and billboard space, Smith has quietly produced illusions for each of their acts.

“He’s one of the unsung heroes,” Burton said.

Smith said he recently counted at least five of his illusions in Copperfield’s show. Those include making a motorcycle appear out of thin air and making 13 audience members disappear.

The secret to those tricks are probably somewhere in his office, but he won’t tell. He’s just the man behind the illusion.

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