Robin Leach

Lance Burton: ‘I’ve worked nonstop for 31 years. … I’m a free man!’

Lance Burton with children of the Sunshine Foundation on April 7, 2010.
Photo: Wayne Bernath

When the curtain comes down tomorrow night on Lance Burton’s nearly 15-year-long run, he has absolutely no firm ideas as to what he’s going to do next. In fact, he’s really not going to even think about it until after football season ends with the Super Bowl next February.

“This is the end. I have no idea what’s next. I simply don’t have a clue,” he told me candidly.

But the master magician knew his mind-boggling statistics instantly when I asked him for them: He performed more than 5,000 shows at the Monte Carlo for more than 5 million people, and the show grossed more than $200 million during the incredible run. Before the lengthy and unprecedented Monte Carlo engagement, he appeared at the old Hacienda. So during his entire career to date in Las Vegas, he’s amassed an incredible 15,000 shows.

Lance Burton

“I’ve worked nonstop for 31 years. I’ve counted down myself hundreds of cues for everything in each 90-minute show. I’ve never really taken an extended break, so I’d like to see what a vacation is really like,” he laughed. “Saturday night when the curtain comes down, we’ll load it all out, put it in a warehouse -- and then I’m a free man!”

I asked Lance to reflect back over the decade and a half: “Robin, you remember walking with me over the ground before they even started building the hotel and my theater. It was a great opportunity that I had to take -- my very own theater. That comes along once in a lifetime. It doesn’t even seem like 15 years ago -- time sure flies by. I’ve really had a lot of fun with it.”

Lance opened back on June 21, 1996, and over the 14 years and 2 months of shows says there are three moments he will always remember:

1. His 10th anniversary show when both the late Robert Goulet and I were dragged onstage for a magical comedy sketch that went hopelessly awry.

2. The night boxing legend -- and amateur magician -- Muhammad Ali showed up in the audience a year ago, and the crowd went crazy when he was introduced.

3. The 7-year-old boy who won a standing ovation as his assistant.

“I always like to do an illusion with a child from the audience,” Lance continued. “One night there was this little boy in the front row beaming like no other kid I’d seen. I just had to pick him. He took my hand but fell forward immediately. I had to grab for him. I never realized he had Cerebral Palsy and couldn’t stand on his own. He wanted to walk. He was crawling and fighting to get on the stage.

“My brain was working overtime. If he couldn’t stand on his own, how could I do the illusions? He wanted so badly to be my assistant. He was there with his mom and sister, so I asked the 12-year-old girl to ‘come with us and help.’

“The two of us brought him up onstage, and the audience was the quietest I’ve ever had. I had her stand behind him to steady him under his armpits. I went right into the routine -- he stole the show, and the audience fell in love with him. I produced coins from his ears, and it was the biggest moment ever in his life. He was fantastic.

Kentucky native Lance Burton and Miss Kentucky Mallory Ervin at Pole Position Raceway on Jan. 24, 2010.

Kentucky native Lance Burton and Miss Kentucky Mallory Ervin at Pole Position Raceway on Jan. 24, 2010.

Mac King and longtime friend Lance Burton.

Mac King and longtime friend Lance Burton.

“I put the brother and sister into the car and had them wave to the audience as I vanished them. I came down from the chandelier and grabbed him so we would both reappear in the sound booth. I put him on my shoulders and ran down the aisle. It was the biggest reaction I’ve had from an audience in my entire 31 years! An amazing moment. I was taken completely by surprise, but it turned out to be the highlight of the entire run of shows.

“I look back at that moment, and it’s then that I remember it’s more than a show. It is an experience that touches people’s lives, and that little boy, my cast and I will remember it for the rest of our lives.

“It’s been a great run, and I’ve had a great relationship with the Monte Carlo. There will always be a warm place in my heart for them, even though I would never compromise my own integrity with the show.”

I pushed Lance on the retirement issue. He said: “Yes, of course there are new things going on in my head. There are thoughts about a new TV project going on in my head. In fact, there are so many things already happening in my head, I may have to see a doctor about it. I honestly don’t know yet if I’d return to The Strip.

“It simply remains to be seen what will happen. I’ll be happy no matter whatever happens. I’m comfortable and confident about the future. There will be no Monday morning quarterbacking regretting my decision to bring the run to an end now.

“I’ve never not worked for 31 years. My entire life has revolved around going out onstage. From the time I got up in the morning, I’d be preparing and performing until the moment I walked off a stage. It will be interesting to see how I’ll be.

“Even when I was off stage for two months last year when I broke my foot and couldn’t do anything, I didn’t get a vacation. I couldn’t walk -- the most I could do was roll myself in a wheelchair from the bedroom to the living room. Robin, I’ll be fine. Brett Favre is coming back and football season is here, so I’ll be good for the next few months.”

In a salute to Lance, this month’s Magic Magazine features him on the cover. Publisher Stan Allen said: “Lance’s decision was made by him because his basic style of running the show didn’t mesh with the decision made by changing corporate management. … The closing of one of the great magic shows of our time is a loss to the magic world and to the Las Vegas entertainment scene.”

Writer Rory Johnston shadowed Lance for a full day for the article so there’d be a permanent record of backstage before, during and after a performance to illustrate what it took to run such a successful show. He marveled at the backstage theatrics, describing it in places as looking like the shifting staircases at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies.

Rory revealed that Lance and his pal, show juggler Michael Goudeau, have been filming scenes for a proposed movie. Said Rory: “It’s clear that even with the closing, they are not going to be just sitting around watching all the TV sets he has at home. If you ask most of the cast and crew, though, they say they have their fingers crossed that the show will open again soon in another venue.”

Lance also has written the first part of a four-part advice series for up-and-coming magicians in Magic. He recalls back in 1979 when he and Harrah’s magician Mac King were both 19-year-olds on summer jobs in Louisville and as part-time magicians went to work at a small theme park -- Tombstone Junction -- in Cumberland Falls, Ky.

It meant three shows a day seven days a week. It’s where he learned that to be a success, you create great ideas, test them and keep them in the act only when the audience reacts to them with strong applause. He teaches the lesson of hypothesis, experiment and evaluation to all budding magicians stressing the need to craft the act for as long as necessary until ready for the big time -- however long that takes.

Lance proved that time and time again over 31 years, and I refuse to believe that it’s coming to an end. I pushed him one more time as our one-on-one conversation ended:

“What am I going to do then? I honestly don’t know yet. I’m a magician, not a psychic,” he said. “It’s going to be an extended vacation. Alright, Robin, I won’t call it retirement, but you know I may well go back to the farm in Kentucky, get on the tractor and be very happy just doing that.”

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