Cover story interview with leading children’s entertainer Magician Jeff Jones . . . -By Skip Way
KJ: I’m on the road with Jeff Jones returning from another exciting year at “KIDabra”
(International children entertainer convention)
JJ: We’ve had less than three hours of sleep and still have performances scheduled for today! This is insane, but that’s the energy of KIDabra! Hello to all my friends in America and other parts of the world; I will hopefully one day travel too!
KJ: Well, Jeff, we only have a six-hour drive, so we’ll have to cut this short.
JJ: We’ve talked before, eh?
KJ: How did you get started in magic?
JJ: Well, like most magicians, I started at a very young age. It was a hobby and I learned early on that it beat mowing lawns for spending cash. I first fell into magic at the age of seven and I started performing for money at thirteen. It’s always been a strong passion. I would go out and mow lawns for the latest magic prop on my list. I swear it was almost slave labor. I was mowing four-acre lawns for maybe five bucks an hour.
KJ: What got you started: seeing a magician, magic kit, magic book?
JJ: It was a magic kit. I received a Blackstone Magic Kit when I was seven. My parents quickly discovered that a new magic kit was their cheapest babysitting option. I’d take each new kit to my room and spend hours learning the tricks. They didn’t even have to check in on me.
KJ: Did that ever backfire on them?
JJ: Well, once. I was once given a set of handcuffs. I thought I was pretty good at picking the lock on these cuffs while they were in my hand. Naturally, I figured it would be just as easy with them on my wrists. I knew that Houdini did some of his greatest escapes while under water. So, I got undressed and filled the tub.
KJ: And you escaped!
JJ: Well, no. It’s one of those embarrassing moments in life when I had to ask my mother for help.
KJ: Your parents gave you regulation handcuffs?
JJ: Well, I thought I could pick the locks. I mean, I could kinda pick the lock with them laid out in front of me. You slip a toothpick up in there and flick it and there you go. Oddly, it didn’t work so well with them locked around my wrists in a tub full of water.
KJ: When did you know that magic was your future?
JJ: I would say around thirteen. By high school, I was making so much money performing that I realized that this could be a career. If I had not had such strong financial success at that early age, I probably wouldn’t have had the guts to try it as a career; it’s so outside the norm. It isn’t a desk job. The security just isn’t there.
KJ: You were doing full-size illusion shows with an assistant through your high school years.
JJ: Oh, yeah, that was my passion. My true start in magic as a business came when my father hired a magician for an annual town festival he was planning. This magician backed out at the last minute. The committee had already advertised the magic show, so my father recommended me to fill the void. I did the show and other festival planners saw me. They apparently thought the idea of this young kid doing a magic show was cute, so they hired me and my reputation began to grow.
KJ: You were how old?
JJ: By that point, I was thirteen. Right after this festival, I sold my act to the local Elks club. My business cards were neon cardboard that I cut into little rectangles and hand wrote my information on.KJ: And your parents during all of this . . .?
KJ: And your parents during all of this . . .?
JJ: Were in the other room playing cards while I was cold calling my first client. They had no idea I was doing this. When I landed that show for $75, I was so excited I began running around the house. I think that was probably their first clue that I was up to something. Actually, they were very supportive right from the beginning.
JJ: In fact, I had a very simple pipe and drape backdrop and curtain layout, and my parents were on either side opening and closing the curtain for me. A funny thing, we didn’t realize it at the time, but as we watched the video tape later, you could clearly see the outlines of my parents through the cloth as they opened and closed the curtains.
JJ: Talent committee people from other fairs and clubs saw me, liked my show, and started hiring me for their events. It wasn’t long before I was going to conventions and meeting other magicians.
KJ: So, you’re <Unexplained Audio Gap> years old… and you’ve never done anything except magic?
JJ: That’s true with one small exception. I did work for Applebee’s for six months right after high school. All of my high school friends had taken off for college and for other reasons, so I took the job at Applebee’s mainly to meet new friends.
KJ: Would you say that was an instructional six months?
JJ: Oh, definitely. I came away absolutely certain that I never wanted to work for someone else ever again.
KJ: When did you leave Ohio?
JJ: I left home immediately after high school and moved into my uncle’s home in Denver, Colorado. He rented his basement to me at a very reasonable rate. I couldn’t paint it, so I covered all of the walls with fabric to give it a more personal touch.
JJ: My lead assistant moved with me and stayed for six years. She was wonderful. We began working the festival and convention market and that was an amazing source of income. This allowed me to invest in larger and flashier illusions and helped me grow as a performer.
KJ: So you leapt right over the birthday party market.
JJ: I did. I had much larger dreams. At the time, I felt the fairly common indifference towards birthday party magicians shared by many large show performers. They were, we thought, a different breed and weren’t very widely respected. Of course, that has changed drastically across the industry thanks largely to people like Mark 41 Daniel and the Who’s Who of KIDabra. My own opinion, of course, has changed tremendously and I now recognize the family and kidshow performers as some of the best in the business.
KJ: How did you find your way to Las Vegas?
JJ: I was totally mesmerized by Vegas while living in Denver. I was also frequently flying back home to Ohio during the festival season to perform.
KJ: So, you had multiple shows set up in Las Vegas, Denver, and Lima, Ohio?
JJ: My parents, God bless them, they had so much of my stuff stacked up in their garage that they eventually gave up trying to park their car in there. They actually wound
up extending the garage so that I could have my work and storage space and they could still park the car inside.
KJ: And how did you start working in Vegas?
JJ: I started flying out to Vegas because of a relationship I was in with someone there who became part of Siegfried and Roy’s show team. I learned so much from being around them and that entire experience. They were these remarkable personalities. Like a kid, I envisioned the potential of becoming the next Siegfried and Roy. In my mind and at that time, that was a dream I wanted.
JJ: Roy was a bit shy and more private, while Siegfried was full of jokes, outgoing in the public eye and always amazing. He was easy to talk to and hang out with. I began to notice that people treated them so differently. I always wondered if they ever really knew who their friends were. It seemed that everyone who approached them wanted something from them. I instantly considered Siegfried a good person and friend to myself and to anyone whom has ever had the pleasure in knowing him.
KJ: It’s tough being a celebrity; there’s a real loss in not being able to blend into a crowd.
JJ: Exactly. Anywhere you would go someone would recognize him and our entire outing would be caught up with Siegfried politely signing autographs. I once tried to get Siegfried to ditch his flashy clothes and go incognito. When I showed up, he comes down the staircase wearing a pair of denim jeans and a ball cap for probably the first time in his life. In his thick German accent he asked, “Jeff, is this alright?” I said, “Sure, let’s go.” He backs up and says, “No, no, no. I can’t go out looking like this.”
JJ: One time we went to the Cheesecake Factory and I actually made him wait in line. Siegfried is one of the true princes of Vegas; he probably never waits in line for anything. I got a pager and we walked around for an hour waiting for a free table and I had to explain to him why we were waiting like “normal” people.
JJ: I was very fortunate to have these experiences to see and understand that I would rather be “normal.” Even though at the time, I was totally unsure of what that meant for me. I just knew that I didn’t want a career that overshadowed everything else in life to being irrelevant.KJ: So, you left the lights of Vegas behind you.
JJ: When you close one door, another one opens, so I am told. As you may have noticed, I’m fairly quick at recognizing opportunities and I ended up meeting Mark Brown in Chicago, but I didn’t really want a long distance relationship. We discussed moving closer to one another, but he had no interest in moving to Denver and I had no interest whatsoever in Chicago. It wasn’t till we visited family in North Carolina that we chose to make Raleigh, North Carolina our home together. Mark later received the opportunity to earn his MBA through Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
KJ: You, Mark, and your assistant?
JJ: Shae, my assistant, once said she would follow me to the ends of the earth, but she simply couldn’t follow me to North Carolina. It was just too different from Denver.
KJ: From performing stage illusions in Las Vegas, Denver, and Chicago to doing birthday parties in the Raleigh-Durham area must have been a massive change for you, financially and artistically.
JJ: It was a completely different beast. Booking agents in the larger cities were true agents. They earned their living by finding high-paying jobs for people like me. In North Carolina, so-called booking agents were generally more concerned with booking themselves and handing the rest of us their overflow bookings. In fact, in order to pay rent, I started busking for tips at a new local mall.
KJ: I remember that. You ran the only full-illusion, sidewalk busker show, complete with music, lighting, assistant, and cabinets that I have ever seen.
JJ: I did that as much for the exposure as for the tips. I needed to get my name out into this new, strange market. I needed a billboard, but I couldn’t afford a billboard. So, I carried my full illusion show to the mall’s outdoor village to busk for change. It was crazy.
JJ: One day, one of the mall cops wrote me a ticket for parking my trailer in a less than legal spot. I was livid. I was providing this mall with an entertainment benefit for literally pocket change and here’s this mall cop writing me a parking ticket. Oh my gosh! I tore it up right in front of him. This was probably not the best thing to do in front of a cop, even a minimum wage mall cop. To make matters worse, his partner was standing back laughing at him. He went ballistic! All I can say is it’s a good thing these guys didn’t carry guns. He stormed off, I think, to find a fire axe to attack me with. So, I quickly packed my show and got out of there fast. I went back later and discussed the situation with the mall manager and it was all taken care of quietly.
JJ: I was so grateful to anyone who hired me for even a simple birthday party that I hugged them to tears. It was a tough transition. I had to sell off a lot of my illusions and props just to pay the rent. These were my dreams, but they had to go because I wanted something greater in my life and that was my relationship with Mark. Dreams change.
KJ: You actually had a couple of the high-end restaurant mangers come out and try to shut your street show down because the huge crowds you were drawing were destroying their ambiance.
JJ: That was crazy. It was Firebirds and Maggiano’s, really nice restaurants. They asked me to tone down the reactions from the crowds. How do you tone down a crowd? So, they asked me to cut the parts of my show that created these reactions. How do you cut the segments of your show that make it entertaining? Naturally, I refused to do that. Both restaurants round up installing a set of internal doors as a noise buffer. On the other hand, the best spot on the mall sidewalk for my show was right in front of Firebirds. So, Maggiano’s sponsored and paid good money for me to do my illusion show and promote their restaurant during my act, possibly so that the patrons at Firebirds would hear. The managers at Firebirds probably hated me. Then I discovered that I could earn more money twisting balloons than by performing. Every time you give something tangible away, you tend to get something tangible back.
KJ: I watched you spend five or more minutes creating these insanely complex balloon sculptures and giving them away for a couple of bucks.
JJ: It was never really about the money. If you want to make money as a balloon busker, you made quick one- and two-balloon things like dogs for a buck, buck, buck, buck. You can work through a line quicker and pull in more bucks. But that’s not the kind of person I am. I’m there representing my art. The kind of shows I’ll get by making a dog is probably very low end. I’m better than that! But, if I stage a show on creating these elaborate balloons then I’m exhibiting my skills as a twister and an entertainer. The media would come out and covered my act; something the average dog twister may never see. It’s the elaborate creations, and the entertainment behind them, that attract the higher paying clients.
KJ: You carried this philosophy over into your birthday parties. You literally bring Las Vegas into your client’s living rooms.
JJ: At this time, I deeply resented walking into a home and doing a birthday party. I did it graciously to pay the rent, but this was never my dream. This was not who I wanted to be. It was depressing, and at the time degrading, for me to take these jobs in order to pay the rent. There were many moments when I wondered how I had gone from making thousands of dollars a show on grand stages to scraping by in living rooms.
KJ: Once Mark earned his MBA, had you ever considered moving back to a larger market?
JJ: Oh, absolutely, but as our relationship grew we became more attached to the family environment of a smaller city like Raleigh. We crafted our lifestyle as a monogamous couple around this family environment. We no longer wanted the hustle and bustle of the larger cities. We also love the feel of Raleigh. It feels like home. Raleigh has that hometown comfort with the excitement of a growing city. It is also a large enough city that I know I won’t saturate the market with my show, so I wouldn’t need to travel as much. The long and the short of it is that we’ve placed family over career.
JJ: It was around this time that I began to see the full potential behind the family and kidshow market. I began blending my passion for choreographed illusions shows with the birthday shows. This gave me new goals and reignited my passion for magic. I found myself looking at my magic through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old again.
KJ: I understand that excitement, but you are one of the most extreme in-home performers that I know. Your set up for a birthday party is incredibly complex and elaborate.
JJ: It looks elaborate but, like my backdrop, it’s all relatively easy and quick to carry in and set up. By doing this, I transform their living room into a real stage. I’m back where I want to be. I’m creating something that I can share as a real artist. For me, it isn’t about the performing and the money; it’s all about the art. Art needs to be shared to be appreciated.
JJ: Every birthday party or event we perform at is a potential showcase, an opportunity to share our art. They are also auditions for future and potentially larger events. You never know who is in your audience. By giving that extra wow factor in my stage set, my performance, and my give-aways, I ensure future opportunities to share my passion with others.
JJ: These opportunities keep me moving forward; continually reinventing myself. I’m always looking for new ways to thrill my audience and keep my shows fresh. This keeps me from burning out and keeps this driving passion of mine alive. Take care of yourself and constantly reinvent your shows and promotions from the bottom up.
KJ: I’m glad you mentioned give-aways. You have a very interesting and unique outlook on party goodie bags and give-away items.
JJ: Sure. Many magicians look at goodie bags as an up-sell item, a way to bring in extra cash. I look at it as an opportunity to give everyone a valued promotional keepsake that actually sells my show. Everything I give away at my parties has my name and contact information professionally attached to it. It’s something children and adults keep and play with. I believe in sparing no expense to make people notice and remember me and have lots of fun along the way.
KJ: You’ve recently begun a charitable program based on magic.
JJ: I’ve recently started this project called The Gift of Magic. I convert a portion of the backdrop profits into bulk simple magic effects that I donate to schools and hospitals for their physical therapy and children’s programs. Even a severe burn victim can make the color changing handkerchief work. As David Copperfield discovered, learning and perfecting simple magic effects encourages even severely disabled patients to move and strengthen muscles.
KJ: This is not a profit source for you.
JJ: Not at all. It comes back to us through our hearts rather than our wallets. It’s something I do to give back. It’s very rewarding to watch the pride and excitement on a patient’s face when they successfully perform the magic for their family. The tears in their eyes quickly find their way into your own.
KJ: That has to be expensive, though.
JJ: Well, I hope that eventually someone will notice the success and value of the program and sign on as a sponsor. I am, after all, only one person. With a strong sponsor, I can spread the program out among magicians worldwide and really begin to make a difference.
KJ: Well, Jeff, Tami is signaling us that we’re running into advertising space. What thought would you like to leave with our KIDabra readers?
JJ: I love my magic family – especially my KIDabra friends. I sincerely hope that my experiences inspire
you; that my failures and, hopefully, my successes will serve you. You can certainly learn more from failures than from my successes. I hope that everyone facing tough choices like mine over the years will look for the light at the end of their tunnel. I especially want to thank Mark, my family, and all of my wonderful friends in magic for helping me to achieve this life filled with dreams. Remember that as you let your light shine, it gives others permission to do the same.
Notes from the Front Line -by Mark Daniel
Jeff Jones is amazing! Get Jeff talking and it will dawn on you shortly into the conversation that you may just be in the presence of a genius. His mind works in ways reminiscent of geniuses and friends like Warren Stephens and Jim Holbert. His sense of detail, design, and impish glee shines in all that he does, whether it’s kid’s performance, his backdrop designs, or whatever he has set his sights on.