With one look at Walter King Jr. you immediately get the distinctest of distinct impressions that there’s something extra to him other than an apparent visage of a working man with a 9-to-5 gig.And while it’s challenging to firmly put a finger on what that “something” is, spending only a few minutes with King makes it clearer than glass that to only call him the electrifying magician that he is, is as accurate as trying to exclusively define Michael Jordan as a tall bald man.If you’ve seen King’s magical performance as the ice cool and red hot illusionist better known as “The Spellbinder,” you know better how to utter “Oooh” and “Ahhh.” You know just how prestidigitation, trickery, sleight-of-hand – or what ever you want to call it – captivates people young and old, and open-minded and cynical alike. You now know about the pizzazz and showmanship and talent of his act.
But whether or not you’ve experienced the Magic of The Spellbinder, read on.
THEATER AND MAGIC COMBINED
Of the estimated 500 professional and 70,000 amateur magicians who perform in the United States, King is what you get when you merge the related talents of an accomplished theatre performer and producer and former pop lock dancer with the mind-boggling world of illusions and magic. Whether it’s transforming a woman into a leopard or making her float in thin air, King’s love for theater is omnipresent and heartfelt, in the estimated 150 shows he presents each year captures audiences’ imaginations from glitzy Las Vegas and Atlantic City to sundrenched Jamaica and at industrial shows, company meetings, conventions, corporate shows and seminars. Depending on the size of a particular performance, King’s team can comprise up to nearly two dozen partners and performers, including talented flame dancer Dyone Taylor, choreographer Jacques Anthony Scott, production manager Regina Walton and Sam Pope.
“I was always interested in magic (dating back) to when I was a child, but I didn’t think I would do something serious with it,” recalls King, a Farragut high school grad.” I never wanted to be a ‘magician‘; I never planned on it.”
Nevertheless, King’s mystical ascension toward the world of chicanery let him to a member of the Black Arts Celebration Theater Group headed up by Pemon Rami, King’s character in that group of singers and actors was, Indeed, a magical one. “That’s when I started putting special effects to the theater I was doing at that time.” Still, before engaging in his own personal and professional sleight-of-hand and segueing to the world of illusions, he had roles in a number of productions and movies, including One In A Million: the Ron Leflore Story and Running With The Eight Ball. He has also served as writer, director and producer of the play War of The Spirits.
King’s professional foray into the world of magic and illusions came with his debut performance at a private party in the Lake Point Tower condominiums. “I only had five minutes worth of a routine at the time, but when they hired me they wanted me to do 10 (minutes), so I ran to the magic shop.”
“I was a street dancer, a pop locker doing the Electric Boogie,” says King, remembering his nascent tricks of turning gloves into flowers and making a cane appear from nowhere – all to the beats of music.
“it had to be something that worked well with dancing everything stems from theater for me. That’s my background. Theatre is where I live,” he explains, emphatically. ”It’s canvas, my roots.”
INTRODUCING “THE SPELLBINDER”
A transitional change, so to say, from theater to magic climaxed that day and opened the door for The Spellbinder to come strutting through.
“the name ‘SPELLBINDER’ came from trying to find a name that really worked with what I did,” says King. “The first name I had came from being a dancer. They used to call me the “Electrifying Baby Ba-Ba.’ Of course, that did not work. ‘SPELLBINDER’ seemed to have a ring to it and fit with what I do.”This character is going to express himself through magic. One thing has to flow into another, which gives people something to relate to. It’s not just that you’re coming to see a magician do tricks. Your coming to see a performance. That’s where illusions come in: a way to make a finale to everything I had been doing.”
So in the same year King added illusions to his act – “The Spellbinder” was born, which allowed King “to make a full show” reminiscent of the legendary illusionist David Copperfield, who “really puts a theatrical flavor to what he does,” says King.
In addition to mesmerizing audiences, King also designs his own costumes and makes his own jewelry for use in shows that include special, special effects and the latest music – all designed to give a paying audience an experience above just a series of card tricks, rabbits in hats and white doves appearing from nowhere. As a matter of fact, that flair for the different and dramatic once included a “deathly” element. “Back in the day when I started out I used to drive a hearse from venue to venue and that added to (my) persona,” recalls King, who stopped using the hearse because “I didn’t need the calling card anymore.”
ILLUSIONIST, MAGICIAN: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
“A MAGICIAN really encompasses things that are smaller. An ILLUSIONIST makes larger-scale things disappear and grand thing’s happen; things that cannot be held in your pocket,” explains King. “A “magician” makes small objects disappear, but once the (tricks) start getting bigger, you’re considered an “illusionist.”
“I incorporate elements of both because I tell a story with the character of “The Spellbinder,” which is a personality that is extended from my art. My Bachelor’s Degree is in fine arts (from Columbia College). Art and theater coming together is what I do on stage and is really what has made me successful on stage.
“When I started out I found there was a real negative vibe that people had about magic, especially in the Black community. I remember going into certain places and hearing people say, ‘I don’t want to see no Magician! What is this!?” But as soon as I hit the stage, in the first 30 seconds, I had changed their minds.
“It let me know that what I was doing worked, and I did have a market for it. There were so many bad magicians out there. When you come before an audience, they come to be entertained and they want to see theater.
“But most magicians are people who like the art of magic. They have no background in theater. All they know is they have a skill and they go about their skills, but it’s very boring watching a person be into themselves,” relates an illusionist who is obviously disdainful of those in his business who are not serious about the craft.
“I tell a story with the music, with the beat, with how I interact with my dancers onstage and that’s what makes a difference with The Magic of The Spellbinder,” he continues. “I have peers, but I don’t really have competition because I operate on a level that I don’t see other’s working at.
“That’s another problem with professional magicians, especially Blacks. Not only do you have the negative vibe about being an African American magician – which a lot of people have neither seen nor heard of – but you have to know how to package yourself. It’s hard being an African American businessman as it is, so when you come with something that nobody has seen, it’s hard to prove.”
While King recognizes “other magicians who are very professional,” he says, “They don’t work full time at it. If they had the backing or management to do what they wanted to do in life, they would be full-time professionals. Every time I finish a show, I get so many comments like, ‘I’ve never seen an African American magician before.’ A lot of magicians go to the magic shop and get (a trick) they want to do and they don’t practice well, and that causes problems for other magicians.”
To keep his own performances fresh and full of flair, KING – who is noted for his levitation act – studies and critiques other magicians’ acts, including those performers who work in such foreign locations as Japan, China and Germany. His findings: “A lot of them are kind of dry.
“Even though I still consider myself ‘a well-known, unknown,’” continues King, “God has blessed me to be able to go to a lot of places and meet a lot of people.”
People such as Sinbad, Della Reese, War, SOS Band, Najee, Whitney Houston, The Gap Band and R. Kelly. They are entertainers whom King has shared billing with, or opened for at venues across the country.
THE FUTURE OF MAGIC
“You have to be a diligent seeker of the knowledge about history and tradition of illusions and magic,” explains King. And since he believes many up-and-coming magicians are not, he reasons that “the business is going to be more closed-door because (current practitioners) see there’s a disrespect for the art form. Magicians are going to want to know, ‘Are you serious about we’re doing?’”
But while The Spellbinder’s audiences “have paid the bills,” King’s love remains for gospel theater and film, in particular.
“I don’t see myself doing The Magic of “The Spellbinder” for the rest of my life. I want to write and direct film and plays of all types and still use the art of magic and special effects. I have more to do than just this. Nevertheless, I kind of like where I’m at right now.)
But don’t blink, ladies and gentlemen, Because The Spellbinder might just create another illusion and disappear from the stage before your very eyes, only to reappear onstage on Broadway and on the silver screen. Either way, expect vibrancy, electricity and the little something extra. – story by Derrick K Baker