You are about to enter a mysterious realm.
A staircase rises from street level to a dark and atmospheric art deco space with a marble bar and vaudeville accents. A wand fashioned from Harry Houdini's old house sits in a plexiglass case next to Harry Blackstone Sr.'s floating light bulb. The old floors still have burn marks from Civil War fires.
Vintage magic show posters are plastered along the walls, and a painted-on library shelf behind the raised stage draws the eye past maroon curtains and clamshell footlights. The central logo is a crescent moon surrounding a spade, with an outline of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge embedded within.
This is Holy City Magic, Charleston's latest entertainment venue, housed in a 200-year-old building on John Street. It belongs to local enchanter and entrepreneur Howard Blackwell, who will open its doors to the public on Friday.
He's scheduled shows each Friday and Saturday night for those at least 18 years old, as well as kid-friendly matinees during the day on Saturdays and Sundays. Blackwell will perform every other week, sharing the stage with regional and touring magicians.
"I don't want to perform every weekend because I'd really like my wife not to leave me," Blackwell jokes.
For the evening adult shows at Holy City Magic, Blackwell is selling an experience, he says. Drinks will be served beforehand at the bar, while a strolling magician works the crowd with card tricks and sleight-of-hand wiles. (Watch your watches.)
Military to magic
Blackwell has performed magic around the world at venues like the Magic Castle in Los Angeles and House of Cards in Nashville, Tenn. He's performed at corporate events and on theater stages and is a four-time Piccolo Spoleto Festival alumnus along with a former host of the monthly show "The Magic Parlor" at Henry's.
He has met David Copperfield, who is the focus of an entire room at Holy City Magic. Playing card pillows on a window seat beneath Copperfield's portrait are an added touch.
Blackwell, 44, hasn't been a magician his entire life. He visited maybe one too many magic shops as a curious child, found a magician mentor through a friend and got his first paid show by 14. Then he put down his deck of cards, stuffed the rabbit back in the hat and joined the military.
Then, about a decade ago, he thought about giving it a go professionally again. He's since performed on cruise ships, for the troops alongside fellow military man-turned-magician Dave Chandler and at Google's company Christmas party.
"It's such a blur," Blackwell says. "I literally perform all the time."
Chandler, a Boston-based magician, returned to magic after coming back from combat zones in the Special Forces.
"The military doesn’t do a good job of reprogramming you for civilian life," Chandler says. "You’re a lethal weapon, literally. I searched within after I came back and thought, 'I’m going insane, I’ve got to have a hobby.' "
Blackwell and Chandler agree that the best part about magic is putting smiles on peoples' faces while simultaneously making them gasp.
"I want the audience to laugh along the way and have fun," Chandler says. "And at the end, I want to kick 'em in the teeth, so to speak, so they go, 'Holy smokes! What just happened?' "
Magic goes mainstream
Mat Franco of Rhode Island and Shin Lim of Vancouver demonstrated the popularity of magic when they won the NBC talent competition "America's Got Talent" in 2014 and 2018, respectively, rising above thousands of competing acts to each secure the $1 million grand prize.
Both performers' personality-driven, sleight-of-hand acts fooled millions of viewers, and some tricks even stumped Chandler.
Blackwell has also noted the rise in popularity of TV and online magic that caters to adults.
Magic and comedy duo Penn & Teller emerged in 1975, blending gags and pranks with satire and political commentary. They've since been featured in multiple stage and TV shows, including their own program. They even got their own Scooby-Doo episode. (Now that's true fame.)
Illusionist Criss Angel began astounding audiences in the '90s, starring in a live-performance illusion show in collaboration with Cirque du Soleil, as well as his own television shows, including "Mind Freak" and "Criss Angel Believe." He levitated between buildings, made a chain tied around his neck pass through his body and walked on water. He's appeared on prime-time television for more hours than any other magician in history.
Extreme performer David Blaine, who had a street magic television special, also has performed live endurance stunts in New York City, like when he was buried alive in a plastic box under a three-ton water tank for a week or when he was electrocuted by Tesla Coils for 72 hours.
The prominence of these performers, and their appearances on TV, has helped advance the discipline.
"It's taken away some of the stereotype that magicians just perform at kids' birthday parties," Blackwell says. "Now, we're seeing really good performers on a national stage."
Chandler, who has toured with Blackwell and will be a guest performer during Holy City Magic's opening weekend, says that although the internet has revealed hundreds of magic tricks to the masses via YouTube tutorials and secret-revealing articles, magic has adapted, and every truly talented magician still has a few unsolved mysteries up his sleeve. Take Lim from "America's Got Talent."
As Chandler watched the show last season with his wife, she would ask him to reveal Lim's process, but often he was left in the dark.
Lim has said he has learned most of his magic from YouTube videos.
Touring magic acts are also prominent, like Reza, who is bringing his rock concert-style "Edge of Illusion" tour to the Charleston Music Hall at 7:30 p.m. this Friday.
Magic is no longer just pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It's stand-up segments, mind-boggling mysteries even the internet can't explain and grand-scale illusions.
Keeping the magic alive
Holy City Magic has the potential to be for magic what Charleston's Theatre 99 is for comedy, but with an added splash of wonder.
Already it's become the hub for the Charleston chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. The organization, which has been around since the 1920s, has a variety of "rings" around the world, including one here.
Local president Doug Ferguson says the club, which includes teenagers wanting to learn tricks and seasoned professionals, didn't meet much last year, but Blackwell's venture already has started to change that. Their first meeting of 2019 was Tuesday at the venue.
"Anyone can attend," Ferguson says. "But usually people bring a trick or two, and maybe teach a trick or two. Even someone who’s not terribly skilled can learn secrets that will allow them to mystify others."
Ferguson says meetings scheduled for the second Tuesday of each month now are locked in at Holy City Magic.
Blackwell also hopes to host variety shows, open mic nights and magic classes, in addition to magic performances.
"I think we can fill seats because it's small," Howard says of the 50-person capacity venue. "I'm not trying to fill the Music Hall here, but there's a huge tourist base and a lot of locals. Between those two, I think this is something we can keep going."
Charleston also ranked twelfth on the magazine's list of the 15 best cities in the world, making it one of only two U.S. cities to make the cut.