Out in the Windy City, there’s a flamboyant African American magician who calls himself “The Spellbinder.”
His real name is Walter King, and he’s been a professional illusionist since the 1980s. In one of his videos on YouTube, he performs while dressed in a blood-red costume and wide-brimmed hat. King also waves a cane instead of a magic wand. It’s an outfit that may be more designed for a Chicago hustler, not your prototypical magician. But that’s King’s usual get up—vibrant colors, flashy costumes and he combines it with distinctive, choreographed dance routines.
In the video, as music rumbles through two large speakers—a blend of Hip Hop, Jazz, and 80’s Funk—King starts popping and locking: a form of dance popular in the 1970s. Next, he opens his hand and three doves appear out of thin air. The audience, naturally, cheers for more. The birds fly in circles above King’s head forming a halo of flapping wings. It’s the type of performance that can’t be duplicated by just any magician; it has to be done by someone with that extra something James Brown once called “soul.”
“I call it magic swagger,” says Kendrick “Ice” McDonald, the newly appointed national president of the Society of American Magicians. “We put our own personality in our routines,” he explains adding, “I occasionally use Gospel music when I perform. I’ve seen Black magicians who use Jazz. I know of a young man who uses Hip Hop during his performances. Being on the international stage, I use music and incorporate elements from whatever country I’m in. I try to relate to the culture of my audience.”
Fusing entertainment and magic began in the early 1800s. The Civil War brought the end of slavery and resulted in amendments to the United States Constitution that were intended to guarantee equal rights to Blacks. As a result, African Americans were able to participate in popular tours and performing shows, according to the book “Conjure Times (2001).”
The book also said one of these forms of entertainment was minstrelsy. This American contribution to the history of entertainment was patterned after slave performances on Southern plantations. Every plantation of any size had its talented slave dancers, and comedians, who performed for visitors and during festivals.
A minstrel show consisted of three acts. The first was typically a comedy routine. The second, called the “olio,” offered a variety of performances from songs and dances to magic and ventriloquism. The third act, called the “after piece” usually featured several reenactments of popular plays and operas. More often than not, Blacks who participated in these minstrel shows learned their skills by serving as assistants to White magicians, notes “Conjure Times.” It was also common for Negro performers to wear blackface makeup just as the White minstrels did.
History reveals that Blacks have demonstrated the highest quality of showmanship in most facets of entertainment. However, King says he was once criticized for being “too flamboyant” on stage. He agrees with the idea that Black magicians have a unique presence; but he explained that many promoters are looking for White acts.