Photography by Kyle Norton
After nearly fifty years in the spotlight, BILL HERZ still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve
Ask Bill Herz what’s on his mind and chances are he’ll say magic.
“I’m always thinking about it,” he says. “My family calls it ‘going into Billy’s world.’” Herz shrugs his shoulders and laughs. “I’m passionate about magic. Always have been.”
That passion has led to a career spanning almost five decades, counting his performances at kids’ birthday parties when he was ten and eleven—for a fee of fifty cents per child. Back then, Herz would take the train into New York City from his home in Larchmont where he’d hang out at Tannen’s Magic Shop with other young magicians, including his longtime pal, David Copperfield. “It was the place to learn magic,” recalls Herz. “There was always someone willing to mentor us.”
Today, as one among a small circle of renowned magicians, the Riverside resident continues to practice the craft he loves while running Magicorp Productions, which he and his wife, Gwenn, founded in 1988. The company is a full-service corporate event facilitator that offers everything from stand-up shows and close-up magic to awards banquets and keynote presentations. Herz and his wife book about 400 corporate events a year, becoming the largest supplier of magicians, illusionist, mind readers and variety artists in the world. It also represents an exclusive roster of twenty top magicians, including Copperfield, Mac King (whose show at Harrah’s is the longest-running magic show in Las Vegas), and Michael Carbonaro (currently on Netflix).
As if all that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, these days Herz is consumed by his latest passion project, a late afternoon magic series that alternates on Sundays at the Delamar hotels in Southport and Greenwich (delamarmagic.com).
He may be at the top of his field but Herz didn’t always plan on a career in magic. After high school, he attended Amherst College where he majored in political science and English, then spent nearly two years as an assistant entertainment director and a magician at Club Med. “The pay was lousy, but the perks were great,” he recalls. At twenty-four, he decided to pursue an MBA. He landed at Cornell, where he also got a degree in hotel and restaurant administration, with the idea that he would eventually open a magic-themed restaurant. After graduation, he went to work for a small marketing firm on Long Island. He lasted five months. “That was when I realized magic was it for me,” Herz says.
He and a juggler friend hightailed it to India where they traveled around the country performing for community organizations. “It was a great experience. But we weren’t making any money and after about three months it was time to go home.” Back in the States, Herz set out to forge a full-time career as a magician. He had grown up in the corporate world—his father and his father’s friends all worked for big companies.
“I was very comfortable in that world,” he says. “I knew I wanted to perform for corporate events, so I started knocking on doors.”
The response was lukewarm at first, but eventually his client list grew. Companies such as 3M, American Express and IBM hired him to do shows at sales meetings, conferences, seminars and incentive gatherings. At a London event, the CEO of Liberty Life Insurance asked Herz to teach him a trick to perform in front of his employees to help communicate key points. “It went over like gangbusters,” Herz recalls.
A few weeks later, while doing a trade show for Fuji, Herz mentioned the London experience to a couple of the sales managers. “They said, ‘We have a meeting soon. Can you teach us a trick?’” Two weeks after that, he got the same response while doing a trade show for General Motors. “I called my wife and said there is a business here.” And Magicorp was born.
From their Riverside home, Gwenn oversees the financing and marketing, while Herz handles the performing and teaching side of the business. “Teaching the executives how to do a trick is the easy part,” says Herz. “One of the most popular is turning product into a bowl of cash, the idea being to show how profitable it’s going to be.” He recalls a recent event involving a large pharmaceutical company with 1,800 attendees. “Everyone got a deck of cards. The CEO said, ‘I want to prove we are on the same page.’ He had everyone cut their cards. All the top cards were different. He then said, ‘If we work in unison, that’s when the magic occurs.’ The audience cut the cards again. This time every top card was the same. That blew everyone away.”
Although he’s always amenable to teaching friends a party trick or two, he doesn’t make a practice of offering lessons. “I don’t have time,” he says. If someone is really serious about learning the trade, he recommends they start by going to a magic shop and then joining a local magic club. Alternatively, they can go to Herz’s website billherz.com, where he has a whole section on tricks anybody can do.
As a corporate magician, Herz’s work has taken him from every major city in the U.S. to such far-flung spots as Dubai, Shanghai, Mumbai and Moscow. He has performed on trains (think Orient Express), planes (Virgin Atlantic), cruise ships (the QE2), and private yachts (Malcolm Forbes’s Highlander, for instance). He has performed for royalty (Prince Albert of Monaco) and heads of state (including U.S. presidents Obama, Clinton, both Bushes and Ronald Reagan). He has even done magic for Donald Trump, “before he was president,” says Herz, “but that’s another story.”
As for movie stars, he’s rubbed elbows with the who’s who of Hollywood. When he was still a student at Amherst, Herz was good friends with Gregory Peck’s son, Tony, and he frequently did magic tricks for Peck and his wife, Veronique, when they came to visit. When they
invited him to L.A. to perform during a dinner party, he figured it would be a small family gathering. “It wasn’t until I was seated with Cary Grant on one side of me and Fred Astaire on the other that I realized this wasn’t just any old dinner party.”
He has even done magic for the U.S. Supreme Court justices. “The ones you think don’t have a great sense of humor do and vice versa,” he says. “I had a great time with [Antonin] Scalia on stage. He was charming.” He also used to do shows for conservative congressman Jack Kemp. “He hired me to follow him around at fundraisers,” says Herz. “I’d walk up to a group behind Jack, and after a few minutes he’d turn around and say, have you seen the magician? I’d do a few tricks, which allowed him to move on. He really knew how to work a room.”
Herz still performs about seventy-five shows a year—ranging from intimate groups of twenty to large groups of 5,000 or more. “Magic is the only thing that lets you be a kid again,” he says. “If I can take you on a mini vacation for an hour, if I can take your mind off things, I’ve done my job.”
But he has gotten pickier with age. “I’m tired of the pretentious black-tie fundraisers where people are so busy talking and showing off,” he says. “Going into a children’s hospital or a senior center, that’s really cool. One of my most memorable magic moments was performing in the streets of India for the kids in the slums.”
Herz spends a good chunk of every year scouting new talent at places like the Edinburgh Magic Festival and the nightclubs of Las Vegas. “I can tell you the names of every fifteen-year-old throughout the country who will be hot in five years,” he says. One of those, coincidentally, is Ben Zabin (a greenwich magazine 2017 Teen to Watch), who Herz has mentored since he was a young boy. “On his twenty-first birthday, Ben would rather sit there and practice tricks. And that’s how I know he’s the real deal.”
CONNECTICUT TO CUBA
Being more selective has given him time to pursue projects that he’s most passionate about. Last year, for instance, he coproduced Cuba’s first magic festival. Why Cuba? “I’d always wanted to go,” he says. “I have a friend who had lived there, and he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It was a losing proposition for us financially—no one got paid—but every magician I called immediately said, ‘I’m in.’”
The event organizers faced a slew of logistical challenges, starting with the language barrier. “It’s the only place I’ve been in the world where no one speaks English,” says Herz. Then there was the sketchy infrastructure. On the first of four scouting trips, Herz met with Cuba’s Minister of Culture, who brought him to Havana’s best theater. “It wouldn’t even have been considered a good high school theater in the U.S.,” says Herz. “We had to bring in every bit of sound and lighting equipment that we needed.”
Despite the many obstacles—limited access to technology, a cash-only economy and a local population that was hard-pressed to afford even the smallest forty-cent ticket fee—the festival was a huge success. “It really showed the way magic can bring people together,” says Herz. “I remember the day a bunch of us were in a town square and there was a class of schoolchildren walking through. One of the magicians started doing some tricks and the whole class sat down. When he finished he pointed to someone else and they did tricks, and it went like that for some time. By the time it was over, about 200 people had gathered. It was really fun.”
Most important, it gave the country’s small community of magicians the chance to have their moment in the spotlight. “Some of the best magicians in the world come from countries where they don’t have the opportunity to see magic,” says Herz. “Out of necessity, they have to make up their own stuff. I go through five decks of cards a night; they use one deck for a whole year. They don’t have the materials to make props for the big illusions. And even then they might have to wait a year to get a wheel to roll the prop onto the stage.”
As for the Sunday magic series at the Delamar, the intimate gatherings—fifty people max—showcase magicians in an up-close and personal way. “There is so much mediocre magic out there. I want people to walk away, awed,” says Herz. “I get high when I turn people on to great magic. It’s exciting for me when I can bring in these great performers.”
He attributes the trend toward more intimate venues to changing tastes and changing times. “There’s a focus now from big shows to experiential shows—where the audience is part of the show, rather than just watching it.” Another factor in the rising popularity of magic? Outlets such as YouTube and Netflix and TV shows such as America’s Got Talent, with which he has a love/hate relationship. “It’s both good and bad,” he says. “It exposes more people to magic, which is good. But bad in that I get calls once a week from someone who says, ‘I saw that person on AGT. Can you get me that person?’ I can get that person. I know that person. But what are you going to do with the other fifty-seven minutes? Meaning you just saw their best three minutes. There’s a difference between a cool trick and a show.”
Herz devotes a lot of time and energy finding the perfect magician or group of magicians for each request. “What might be right for one group is not right for another. There are all kinds of specialties and so many really cool aspects and areas of magic. Yesterday, I got a call from a fragrance company and guess what? I know someone who does tricks with fragrances,” he says.
WHAT’S IN THE CARDS?
For Herz, figuring out the method of a trick is part of the fun. He says he and his magician buddies frequently go out after a show and sit around for hours talking through possibilities. “We sit there and say, ‘Wouldn’t this be a great trick?’, and then figure out how to do it.” Of course, even the best magician has experienced a trick gone awry. “If you don’t have war stories, you haven’t performed enough,” he says. “Especially with sleight of hand tricks, it happens a lot. If you’re not taking risks, you’re doing something wrong. The key is being able to switch gears immediately.”
The changing corporate landscape is helping to ensure that Herz and his friends will have plenty to talk about for years to come. He explains that the uptick in the proliferation of magic shows can be traced to the financial meltdown. “Everything changed in 2008,” Herz says. “Until then, when a company put on big meetings, they would use big beautiful sets that would cost more than $100,000. But after 2008, it was difficult for companies to justify that kind of money. With a magician, no one ever says how much did you spend on that guy?” In part, that’s because the sets aren’t as elaborate. And because the fee for a magician can start as low as $1,500. “For someone like Copperfield you’re talking a million plus,” says Herz. And even then you might not get him. Herz recently turned down a request for Copperfield to perform in Saudi Arabia for $3 million. “It wasn’t worth it,” he says. “He would have had to shut his Vegas show down for the week and lose millions,” he says.
Magic has evolved in other ways too. “I used to have bits I’d do with sports coats, ties and watches,” Herz says. I can’t do those tricks anymore because no one wears those things.” He also designs tricks for people’s shorter attention spans. “It used to be an eight-minute trick that was the norm; now they average about two.”
Perhaps the biggest change occurred about ten years ago with the advent of tech magic, a specialty of Digital Deception, the duo of Ryan Oakes and Doug McKenzie that Herz represents. “They’re the guys that Google wants for its events,” says Herz. “They want magicians that look like Google guys. They don’t want me. I’m the funny magic guy who looks like Lou from accounting. I can’t tell you the number of times people have said to me, ‘You know, you should leave the company and do this full time.’”
5 MAGIC MYTHS DEBUNKED
IT’S HARDER TO MAKE AN ELEPHANT DISAPPEAR THAN IT IS A RABBIT.
“The weird thing about magic—the bigger the prop the easier it is,”
says Herz. “We are working on something in Turkey right now. They are building a new airport and they want us to make a jetliner appear. It’s easy. Whether a plane, car or elephant, there are ten different ways it can happen. You just need to know the venue.”
THE BRIGHTER THE GROUP, THE HARDER IT IS TO FOOL.
“It’s just the opposite,” says Herz. “Smart people think in a very logical way, from A to B to C to D. Magicians seem to go from A to D, bypassing B and C. We don’t skip the steps, you just didn’t see them.”
MAGICIANS HATE IT WHEN YOU ASK THEM HOW THEY DID SOMETHING COOL.
“Not at all,” says Herz. “It means we were successful.”
THE HAND IS QUICKER THAN THE EYE.
“Not true,” says Herz. “It just appears that way. We can divert you, but the hand is not quicker than the eye.”
SO THEY WILL GLADLY SHARE THEIR TRADE SECRETS?
“Not a chance,” Herz promises.
“Magic is the only thing that lets you be a kid again. If I can take you on a mini vacation for an hour, if I can take your mind off things, I’ve done my job.”
MAGIC AT THE DELAMAR
Afternoon magic shows alternate between the Delamar’s properties in Southport and Greenwich.
Includes a glass of wine or soft drink
Because of the intimate setting, members of the audience are encouraged to speak to performers after the show. “The schedule is flexible, as we grab incredible performers when we know they will be in the area,” says Herz. “We have the who’s who of magic.”
Seating is strictly limited to those twelve and older. Schedules and ticket information are posted online, visit delamarmagic.com.