Magic Maker

Written by: 
Brooke Nottingham (ʼ11)
Photography by: 
Jonathan Reynolds

Illusionist and designer Paul Osborne (’70) works from a Dallas warehouse crammed with decades-old tricks and sparkling marionettes. It looks like a museum of magic, but that’s just an illusion. Behind a secret door Osborne designs sets, tests tricks and makes magic for everything from corporate unveilings to theme park shows to rock concerts.

He created the giant glass marionettes for David Bowie’s Glass Spider tour and worked with long-time friend David Copperfield on nearly every live TV special he’s done. In between, he’s worked with Siegfried and Roy and Doug Henning. He made the Raptor Copter appear in a puff of smoke for Lockheed Martin and designed stages for Mary Kay. He worked on the magic for Britney Spears’ Circus tour and Gloria Estefan’s Evolution tour, updated Alice Cooper’s Nightmare guillotine and brought to life the glittering geysers for the Black Eyed Peas’ Super Bowl XLV performance in Dallas. The rest of his time is spent inventing illusions for Broadway and the Vegas Strip.

But in 1956, he was just a slightly disappointed kid celebrating his eighth birthday.

“My parents hired magician Mark Wilson to perform at the party,” Osborne recalls. “I was hoping for Abbott and Costello or the Lone Ranger, but Mark was local, so he got the gig.”

At the end of his performance, Wilson gave Osborne a magic kit.

“I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, so I vanished with the kit,” says Osborne. “It became a quick passion.”

The kit was the catalyst for Osborne. The son of a geologist, he spent hours at his dad’s drafting table inventing new tricks. His earliest design was a lady who could float above water. By the time he was 9, Osborne was putting on magic shows for other kids’ birthdays.

He was a hit.

“Everyone loved it,” Osborne says. “I think I made about five bucks.”

Package deals

He kept up a similar routine throughout childhood and college, performing at parties and events for extra cash. By Osborne’s senior year at North Texas, professor and friend Bill Mercer had helped the radio/television/film major get a job as ringmaster for Bozo the Clown. Osborne spent five years performing live shows (and other odd jobs, like distracting crying kids, wrangling wild monkeys and diffusing even wilder parents) in a sequined tailcoat for Dallas and New York audiences before moving on to produce theme park shows.

In the mid-1970s, family-owned theme parks like Sandy Lake in Dallas didn’t have much in the way of entertainment. So Osborne offered package deals.

“I’d say, ‘Pay me X amount of dollars and I’ll do the whole thing — I’ll get your scenery, provide the props and get the music. I’ll pay the performers.’”

Halloween was his favorite time of the year. The holiday’s irreverence allowed Osborne and his team to have fun with the whole park — they’d put food dye in water so fountains would gush “blood” and measure park guests for coffins.

Times have changed and Osborne can’t go to such extremes (“You don’t want to touch guests nowadays,” he says), but he’s still able to make some gruesome fun.

“Most tricks have several safety measures,” he explains. Ask him what they are, and the chatty illusionist becomes playfully elusive.

“I’ve never had it happen, but guys have been killed doing magic. Safety regulations depend on the venue,” he says.  A reference to Houdini’s failed escape hangs in the air.

Commitment to secrecy

What seems like it should be Osborne’s most dangerous trick also is what’s made him most famous. He spent a year collaborating with David Copperfield to create the Death Saw.

“Sawing a woman in half has always been a trick,” says Osborne. “But David wanted to saw himself in half.”

In the trick, a spinning saw malfunctions and cleanly slices Copperfield into warm, wiggling halves. Then Copperfield reverses time and stitches himself back together.

Osborne smiles but refuses to divulge the secret. He only says, “For every big trick like that, it takes three or four versions. You’ll never see the first version.”

Despite his commitment to secrecy, Osborne isn’t bothered by magicians who show how it’s done.

“A lot of times, it’s really not how it’s done. But I like that it fosters people getting into magic.”

Osborne is getting people into magic early. Each summer, he conducts week-long magic camps for kids ages 8 to 12. They hear about the history of magic, and spend the rest of the time learning to design and perform tricks.

“It’s really worthwhile,” says Osborne. “It teaches kids history and hand-eye coordination, plus public speaking and acting.”

Osborne usually conducts the day camps at SMU, but once the idea takes off, he plans to hire more magicians as instructors and expand all over the North Texas region.

Mystery and magic

That’s what he’s interested in – entertaining and getting people to love magic — not deceiving them.

“Nobody really likes to be fooled,” Osborne admits. “There are guys out there who want to laugh at people, and those guys would be called jerks. It’s got to be 80 percent entertainment and 20 percent mystery and magic. We want to entertain you, make you laugh and make you wonder.”

He pauses and picks up part of an old trick. It’s an ornately painted spool that he acquired at an auction. It’s a sought-after piece that supposedly belonged to an ancient Chinese performer, but he knows it belonged to a magician named Okito from Peoria, Ill.

“If it’s entertaining, then that’s what you want. You have to believe in what you’re doing.”