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Apprentice sorcerers do tricky homework;
Neil Foster turns students into showmen
Feature article by John Sherwood, staff writer
Battle Creek Enqurier, Battle Creek, Michigan, August 9, 1981
COLON – "Flash."
"Boy, you really flashed that time!"
It was humiliating. No matter how much I taxed my magic power, the silver coin that should have dissipated like vapor into rarefied air was peeking from its hiding place like a bad little kid.
"Flash!" cried a fellow magic student. And it was true.
Neil Foster stood, smiled patiently (did his eyes roll heavenward just then?) and repeated the moves for me. He demonstrated that, indeed, the coin not only could be concealed, but hidden so completely that no one ‚ no matter how close they might stand ‚ would see it.
I watched from a foot away. The dollar-sized coin vanished from Foster's hands. Both seemed empty ... but the coin reappeared at his fingertips as if by magic.
As it should be. Magic is Foster's fascination, his livelihood and his art. The collective brotherhood of magicians worldwide, in judging pure manipulative skill and inventiveness, acknowledges Foster as one of its finest.
In April, when the Battle Creek Magic Club reactivated the long-defunct affiliate of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, it changed its name to the IBM's Neil Foster Ring 89 in his honor. Foster's mailbox hasn't been the same since, having been stuffed with congratulatory notes from around the world and even the White House.
Foster's love for his craft will be on public view when he appears Wednesday night in Colon's high school gymnasium for the opening show fo the four-day Abbott Magic Get-Together.
From Foster's hands appear and vanish the trademarks of the manipulator's craft: colorful playing cards, mirror-bright coins, multi-colored balls and thimbles that multiply as if by instant cloning, lighted cigarettes seemingly by the score, and fluttering, cream-white doves. It's an art form unlike any other, a theatrical craft that spellbinds, and one to which Foster has devoted years of painstaking dedication.
Now, like the arcane sorcerer of ancient lore, Foster is passing his secrets and privately imparting his skill to a select group of apprentices who aspire to entertain and mystify future generations. These students often travel thousands of miles to learn from a master wizard.
Of course, Colon already is the magician's Mecca as the home of Abbott Magic Co., the world's largest manufacturer of magic equipment and the influence which brought Foster to the village 22 years ago.
Now Colon also has the Neil Foster Branch Studio of the Chavez College of Magic, which offers instruction six hours a week for 15 weeks, followed by another five weeks of individual instuction.
"When I first taught the course (in the late 1940s), it sharpened my own skills," Foster said, "because when you teach magic you have to know why you do what you do. Now that I've gone into semi-retirement, I take pride in giving back to magic some sort of contribution -- because magic was very good to me and my career.
"It's also very satisfying to see a student, after practicing for several months, stand up and perform difficult magic very well. It's satisfaction, that's all."
While specific magic effects are taught, students don't just learn how to do "tricks," Foster says. Those, after all, can be learned from books.
"I try to make a *showman* out of each student, so he can walk out in front of any audience anywhere, take command of the situation and entertain the people," Foster said.
"You can try to please the eye and you can try to please the ear, but you also have to try to win the audience's heart," he said. "Showmanship and salesmanship go hand in hand."
A good magician has to have what other fine variety artists must have, Foster said: The will to want to do well, confidence and good stage appearance. As a magician, he must also be a good actor, for he must *believe* in the miracles he makes to happen.
"When I do the floating silver sphere," Foster said, "to me that ball is actually floating. That's the only way I can communicate to the audience that something is really happening. Everyone knows there's a trick to it, but you have to create wonderment, an escape from the world of reality."
Since launching his tutorship, Foster has tried to instill these skills in some 30 performers from around the country. They have come from as far as New Mexico and Maine, ranging in age from the late teens to the late 40s. While magic seems to have remained a man's field, many women have taken the course over the years; the most recent was Judith Helms of Montgomery, Ala.
Most who take the course, though, are young men who foresee a career in magical entertainment. Others already have established themselves as professional magicians and seek to expand their abilities. Still others are amateurs or semi-professionals with a strong dedication to magic.
Chris Jakway, 19, of 207 Parkshore Drive, is a Battle Creek magician who studied under Foster during an earlier session. Jakway, a member of the IBM Neil Foster Ring, also received special instruction from Foster in the presentation of the floating silver ball. He'll be a featured entertainer during the Abbott Get-Together's public show Friday evening.
Among those enrolled in the course earlier this year was Scott Heffel, 19, of 61 Massachusetts Ave. He is a member of the local IBM ring, and has been interested in magic ever since he received a magic kit for Christmas seven years ago. He'd like to pursue magic as a part-time career in the future.
Among Jeffel's classmates were:
– Brian L. Cline, 20, of Towson, Md., who has loved magic since he was 10. He learned of the Chavez school from antoher magician who took the home-study course. "I decided to do it the right way," he said, and study directly under Foster. Cline plans to use magic to work his way through college. "My expectations have tripled. It's just been great."
– Daniel Hoehne, 19, of Peoria, Ill., and Mitch Williams, 22 of Farmington, Ill, both of whom aspire to full-time careers in magic and who felt the Chavez school would be the best possible preparation.
"It's the best magic, the cleanest magic in the world," Hoehne said. "It's magic with art."
Williams, who has been a professional performer for three years, recently ended weekly performances at the Attic Lounge in Battle Creek and could be seen in recent months performing magic table-to-table at Carlos Murphy's restaurant in Kalamazoo.
– And myself, John C. Sherwood, 31, of 53 N. Broad St., Battle Creek, an Enquirer and News staff writer who has been performing magic semi-professionally for 20 years but who, out of feelings of unworthiness, never dabbled in the Foster style until this year. (Reminder: This was written in 1981.)
A month ago, Foster began his second "semester" of the year as Heffel, Hoehne, Williams, Cline and Sherwood graduated and six more magicians moved into temporary digs in Colon to take the course through November. The new students are Rex Getz, 39, of Hoxie, Kan.; William Penn Russell Jr., 19, of Newport News, Va.; Frank Fisher, 39, of Memphis, Tenn.; Bart Pearce, 18, of Terre Haute, Ind.; Bruce Johnson, 17, of Bangor, Maine; and John Johnson, 19, of Dorsey, Ill.
MysteryVisits.com's magic pages
OTHER PHOTOS of Neil Foster
ARTICLES ABOUT NEIL FOSTER:
Neil Foster recalls Queen Elizabeth (1977)
Jeanne Foster's obituary (1979)
Surgery restores Foster's ability (1979)
Background on Neil Foster (1981)
Neil Foster press release (1981)
Magic museum honors Foster (1987)
Neil Foster's obituary (1988)
Recollections of Neil Foster (1988)
Search on AltaVista for links to Neil Foster
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