In the Woods, A Camp for Young Magicians

Aug 28, 2015

Students learn magic tricks at the American Museum of Magic's Camp Abracadabra
Credit Robbie Feinberg

When you hear "magic," what image goes through your head? Probably a big theatre, with a man standing center stage. Tux, white gloves, top hat, you know the deal. What you likely wouldn’t imagine is a little camp in the middle of the woods. Yet, drive down a short, gravel road in Marshall, and you'll be in for a surprise.

Walk inside, and you'll see kids playing with cups and balls, darting around and showing off all kinds of card tricks. This is Camp Abracadabra. It’s an annual summer camp from the American Museum of Magic, held at the Wilder Creek Conservation Club in Marshall. 

Today, instructor and professional magician Jon Dudley is teaching them a classic card trick: shuffling a deck, splitting it in four, and making it come up all aces. 

"One ace, two ace, three ace, four ace!" Dudley says he lifts the top card in each deck. He celebrates with a little girl, who tells him her magic word: "Pigs Fly!" Dudley laughs.

So how did this camp end up here? Abbie Albright, a member of the American Museum of Magic's board of directors, explains.

About five years ago, the museum had a problem: even in Marshall, nobody really knew it existed. So Albright was given the task of creating a magic camp as a kind of outreach effort. She searched all over the world to find the best program to base her camp on.

What she found was a place called Sorcerors’ Safari, in the middle of a park in Ontario, Canada. The setting was perfect.

"So I looked at all of this, it’s very rustic," she says. "Kids could play capture the flag, and they ran around, but then they had so much energy and broke off to do card tricks, mentalism. I was so impressed! And in my own mind I said, ‘Well, you want something fun, but educational and still camp."

Marshall eighth-grader Jacob Maples arrived at the camp eight years ago, and he looks like a seasoned professional.

"Just take a deck of cards right here," he says, as he knocks a deck against a wooden table. "I've been practicing at home!"

When Maples first got here, though, he says he was a little scared.

Camp Abracadabra
Credit Robbie Feinberg

  "I was kinda shy!" Maples says. "I was always the one, I would be sitting in the back row. They’d be like, 'Jacob, do you wanna answer the question?' And I’d just sit there, quiet."

But when you watch Jacob, three years later, he’s transformed. He laughs, plays, helps other kids out. And he brags to me about all his magic tricks, including a fancy one where he makes a ball seemingly appear underneath an audience member. He says all these performances have changed him.

"My friends are always the shy ones and I just talk away, do funny things in the stage," he says.

The camp’s teachers say that’s the big goal – getting kids to open up. On the last day of camp, all the students give a big magic performance in front of everybody. The kids dress up and give themselves a brand new magician stage name.

They already gave me a sneak peek at a few potential names, and they’re great: Bailey the Bamboozler. The Great Davidini. And my favorite: The Apple Turnover.

Magician Jon Dudley says it’s all little stuff. But by the end of the week, it adds up.

"It's kind of like learning algebra," he says. "You get this stuff pounded in your brain. Algebra, algebra. You can’t get it. Then during the summer, you say, 'Oh hey, I get it!' It’s the same thing with the magic. I practice, I practice, I can’t get it, and then, somehow, within a week, these children just clicks and they go, 'Oh, I get it!'"

"Now, because they understand the magic trick, their personality comes out," he continues. "They have this little boost in their ego and their abilities and they’re ready to let go."

And of course, because this is a camp run by a museum, you’ve got to teach a little magic history, too. About magicians like Carter the Great and Chung Ling Soo.

"You can learn the magic tricks, but once you appreciate where you came from, where the magic came from, and the magicians before you, it solidifies everything you’ve been practicing and learning," Dudley says.

The lessons seem to be sinking in. Though most of these students have barely made it through middle school, every single one I talk to says they want to be a magician. Well, mostly.

"It’s either that or a video game designer," says Maples. "I mean, I love video games. But I think the magician would be really cool, because I can make more money. And I have some good jokes! Not a lot of them, but some pretty good ones."