Q & A / Dec/Jan 2013
He practices a form of magic called “mentalism” which relies on a keen understanding of human behavior. He grew up in poverty in Salinas in a household filled with drugs and violence. His mother was murdered when he was four-years-old and his father is in prison serving multiple life sentences. His up-from-the-bootstraps story inspired a documentary film, which went on to win a Telly Award. He recently appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno which followed up his guest appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show last year. With a compelling mixture of magic and personal history, the San Luis Obispo-based entertainer has been able to break through and form unique bonds with at-risk youth where he devotes a good portion of his time. We catch up with him before he heads off to Japan, where he has been invited to perform on one of their major networks…
Tell us about your recent Halloween prank, the video that went viral.
I made it with the sole intention of driving traffic to my YouTube site. I released it a couple of weeks before Halloween knowing that would be good timing. I knew it would be popular, but I had no idea that it would go uber viral. You never know, you hope, but you never know. So, it was a plan that I executed, it just so happened that it was done perfectly and the timing was perfect. You can watch the video by clicking here.
What gave you the idea for the head drop?
There is a fellow in Japan who is my all-time favorite magician, his name is Cyril Takayama. He is phenomenal, just an amazing magician, extremely famous in the Orient. He did a version of the head drop illusion on a TV show. I saw that clip and it was exactly as I’ve always envisioned except without the black art—it was done live without all the lighting and all the trickery. And for me being a mechanical engineer major in college and my interest in magic, everything just kind of lined up. I hit the drawing board in my shop and figured out a couple of different methods and came up with three different prototypes. And the one I went with was really complex, a lot of moving parts. And it completely takes care of the whole waist and leg issue, which involves a couple of other tricks to it which I am not going to talk about, of course. [laughter]
What happened next?
The video got popular and I got a lot of calls for random appearances.The Today Show invited me to do a full Halloween segment. We had this whole deal worked out where I was going to scare Matt Lauer because evidently he loved it, he was just mind-blown by it. So we were going to have me standing there posing as an animal expert and say, “Oh, hey, Matt, check this out, I have this really rare spider,” and then hand it to him while my head dropped. Then they were going to sit me down to talk about the viral video, you know, how I came up with the idea and those sorts of things, just like you and I are doing right now. But, Hurricane Sandy arrived and it got canceled. So, I got a call from the producers at Jay Leno who invited me to come on.
What was it like being on the Jay Leno Show?
Coincidently I had worked with Jay before; I had opened for him at various casinos in the past. He actually knew who I was when I came in with Traci, my wife, who got to go backstage with me and hang out in the greenroom. So Jay came by and said, “Hey Rich, how are you? You still playing casinos?” It was kind of cool to see him just chilling out backstage and him somehow kind of remembering who I was even though he’s not a huge magic fan. Leno is just awesome; he’s just such a cool down-to-earth-kind-of-guy.
Your brand of magic is improvisational and depends on reading people quickly…
I just have a knack for observing stuff and retaining it and strategizing with it. I think it probably stems from the fact that I didn’t learn to read until I was 11 or 12 years old. It just wired me in a certain way. I had a weird childhood, living on the streets, druglords as a family, not going to school. It made me have to be sharp, on my toes, watch people, make sure I’m safe. And not knowing how to read, I was left with one thing, and that was observation, which I’m pretty good at. I think that’s what got me through high school and college. I never took notes. I just sat in class and watched. If I watched and could see it happen, I remembered it.
You are a spokesperson and mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters. Tell us about that.
Because of my background I have a real interest in helping at-risk youth. Ten years ago a film production company approached me and asked me if I would talk a little bit about my background and they turned it into a documentary. It was always kind of my own little secret; not that I was embarrassed by it or ashamed by it, but I just didn’t think there was any reason to talk about it. I mean I had close friends that didn’t know I had this type of upbringing. So we made this little documentary and then I came out and performed and spoke at a nonprofit event. I was 32 and it was the first time I had ever even talked about it, because I had no need to. It was actually a very moving experience, because it brought up stuff I had just kind of shoved away, and I thought to myself, “Wow, I can actually use my story to reach these kids in a big way.” It’s just kind of cool because I went through some rough stuff and I know these kids just need some mentoring, and need to hear from someone that has gotten out of it and now is doing something great—at least in their eyes. So with magic, I can get their attention quickly. And with my history, I can really connect with them. It just kind of fits together really well.