For two weeks after he attended the Frito-Lay company Christmas party in Louisville, Kentucky, 5-year-old Lance Burton incessantly checked his hair and ears for silver dollars. Maybe we need a backstory here.
Burton’s mother made potato chips at the plant in the family’s hometown. During this particular Christmas party, a guy named Harry Collins got up to entertain the employees and their guests. Collins was sales manager at the plant, but on this night he was a headlining magician. “He was an excellent magician,” says Burton, who for decades in Las Vegas has been aptly known as “Master Magician.”
Collins asked for a volunteer, and little Lance hustled to the stage. Collins then reached behind the child’s ear and produced a silver dollar. Then another, from the opposite ear. Then from his arms and elbows. The kid who would one day star on the Las Vegas Strip had become a little slot machine.
“I didn’t understand what I was experiencing and didn’t know that he was an illusionist,” Burton says today. “I thought I had money hidden in my hair, behind my ears … I figured if you were born with magic powers, you had magic powers. If you were normal, you were screwed.”
Burton soon understood that the art of illusion was a skill to be learned. A neighbor gave him a book, Magic Made Easy, and he made his own coins appear. Burton’s interest was further piqued by the TV show The Magician, a one-year-and-done series starring a pre-Hulk Bill Bixby in which a magician used his powers to solve crimes.
Burton played birthday parties, growing in stature to the point where in 1981 he joined Folies Bergere at the Trop. His classic style was a fine fit at the Monte Carlo when that hotel opened in 1996, and Burton spent 16 years as the resort’s headliner under the Master Magician moniker.
In April 2010 at age 50 and still at the top of his game, Burton abruptly announced he was leaving the room, amid unconfirmed reports the hotel had planned to cut back its investment in his show. Despite potential opportunities in showrooms up and down the Strip (including a possible return to the Trop), Burton effectively retired after his final show in September 2010. He played to 5 million fans at the Monte Carlo, and seemed to have a lot left in the tank and on paper, having signed a contract that ran through this year.
Now, Burton is producer, director and star of Billy Topit Master Magician. The indie film is a fundraiser for local charities, especially Variety the Children’s Charity of Southern Nevada, the Las Vegas Shriners and Nevada SPCA. The film’s world premiere is September 24 at the Palms’ Brenden Theatres.
It took Burton six years to draft the script with writing partner Michael Goudeau (a former clown/juggler with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus), who had been nominated for an Emmy for his writing on Penn & Teller’s Showtime series, Bullsh*t!
“It’s about a magician who plays children’s birthday parties, and we all started at that level,” Burton says. “His friends are a juggler and a mime who is a clown. It’s exactly like The Avengers, except we don’t have Robert Downey Jr. and no one has superpowers. But they have skills.”
They work to rescue a kidnapped girl using illusion, juggling and even clowning and pantomime. Those forms of performance art are incorporated into the plot, says Burton. “It’s not like we stop the movie and say, ‘Here is some magic!’ It’s all part of the story.”
Remarkably well-liked and respected in the oft-cutthroat culture of magicians, Burton has persuaded a stout collection of performers to appear in the film. Magicians Johnny “The Great Tomsoni” Thompson, Mac King, Criss Angel, Russ Merlin, Fielding West and Michael Holly are featured at least in cameos. Louie Anderson, Frankie Scinta and Gabriella Versace (the singer in Sexxy at Westgate Las Vegas) are also in the mix. The movie’s charity focus meant that they all worked free of charge.
“I said, ‘We’re shooting this movie, and we’ve written a part for you!’” Burton says, grinning. “‘We’re shooting on Sundays, it’s going to be great and a lot of fun, and the best part is … you don’t get paid!’”
And still, he filled the cast. When you’re Lance Burton, you can work that kind of magic.