This article has been posted here with permission, copyright MAGIC Magazine, 2005.”
Rory Johnston: the ride of his life
by Stan Allen
Paris, Venice, Istanbul, Beijing, St. Petersburg, Bombay, London, Tokyo, Zanzibar – been there. Birthday parties, circus, trade shows, television, cruise ships, Vegas shows – done that. Acting, directing, producing – that, too. Then there’s writing: novels, films, screenplays, magazine articles, children’s books – been there, done that. And magic has been the vehicle for this eclectic, and often wild, ride.
Rory Johnston first strapped himself into the thrill-ride called show-biz at the age of 15, living in the small New England college town of Amherst, Massachusetts. As a child his favorite show was The Magic Land of Allakazam , but what caught his eye as a teen was The Avengers : more specifically, the closing credits that rolled over a close-up of someone executing perfect card fans. “I thought that was so cool,” Rory says. “I wanted to be able to do it, so I searched for a way to learn. There were no magicians in our town, but I found out about a book called Basic Card Technique by Anthony Norman, and sent away for it.” Within days of receiving the book, Rory had the technique nailed. Now what? “Well, there was a whole lot more stuff in that book to learn, so I set out to perfect it all.”
The cart bumps against the wooden doors of the old funhouse, and the young man enters a whole new world.
Rory was very interested in theater. His mother, a theater teacher at a prestigious woman’s school, encouraged his interest in the arts. His first film appearance was in 1962 when he was seven years old: a small role in a John Wayne film, McClintock . Starting in ninth grade, however, he began a serious pursuit of the craft, acting in and building sets — which his mother designed — for the school play. From age 15 to 17, he spent summers as an apprentice and journeyman in a summer-stock theater company, working from nine in the morning until eleven at night, six days a week… having the time of his life.
During the final two weeks of each semester of high school, regular classes switched over to what were known as “mini-courses.” The teachers were allowed to instruct on any subject they chose: cake-decorating by the shop teacher, judo by the English teacher, etc. One teacher, a circus hobbyist, chose clowning as her subject. After taking the class, Rory and two of his friends, Pete Taylor and Ken Paulin, formed their own performing group, Joeys 3. “I can’t tell you how many times we had to explain that none of us was Joey, but that we all were joeys.” Joey being a traditional European name for a clown.
The trio eventually shifted their performances away from clowning: Rory became a magician, Pete an escape-artist, and Ken “The Professor,” a strange character who wore swim fins on his feet and spoke with a bird warbler. A fourth teenager, Paul Lambert, joined the group, which was now performing at children’s birthday parties and senior centers, marching in local parades, and even producing two of their own full-evening shows at a local school.
When Rory was 17, the Emmett Kelly Jr. All-Star Circus came to town. In the tradition of many classic stories, Rory arrived as they were setting up and slipped into the back. Stepping over ring curbs and lighting cables, he saw an old man in a corner assembling an illusion. Fred “Marco” Foshey was appearing in the show as Merlin the Magnificent. When Rory introduced himself and explained that he was a clown with an interest in magic, they instantly hit it off. Fred introduced him to the head clown and, two weeks later, Rory “ran away” with the circus.
The track rises upward: clickity, clickity, clickity…
The old man had a profound effect on the young clown’s life. “Fred became my mentor,” Rory explains. “There were doors in his tiny apartment that, for a young magician, opened up to huge worlds of magic — closets of classic props, each one with a story. He had once been an onstage assistant to Blackstone Sr., so he introduced me to the history of the art. He patiently showed me moves and explained theory, and taught me the difference between doing tricks and performing magic.”
Rory still stays in touch with Fred, who is now 81. “However,” Rory adds with a laugh, “I recently did the math and realized that when I met him that ‘old man’ was the same age I am now!”
The cart suddenly drops out from under him, but quickly swings upward again.
Two months after Rory joined, the circus ran into financial difficulty. Since the troupe had Emmett as their star, the management decided additional clowns were superfluous, and Rory was suddenly out of a job. However, Fred had introduced him to a magician who worked small theaters and schools under the name Richard Vol-cane & Company, so Rory joined his show and became the “company.”
“It was a bad show and Volcane was a terrible magician. I slept on floors. I was never paid. But I learned a great deal from that ordeal: lessons about broken props and broken promises.” Rory also learned how not to do magic, how not to treat people. “Sometimes you can learn more from a bad experience than a good one.”
In 1974, 18-year-old Rory moved to Florida where he worked for the next four years at the House of Magic in Walt Disney World. He and fellow magicians Dan Stapleton, Luciano DePazos, and Ben Mason ate, slept, and breathed magic, spending eight hours a day behind the counter demonstrating and doing shows. He learned every trick in the shop, developing a routine for each one. “When a new trick would come in, I’d open the package and work out a routine with the prop before reading the instructions. I would often end up with two different routines or methods for the same trick.” Rory even dabbled with marketing a few of his own effects. The most popular was Godzilla’s Revenge, where a walking, sparking miniature monster finds the selected card and burns the faces of all the others.
At night, the magic shop boys went to club meetings or helped each other build their acts. “Working together and sharing thoughts was invaluable.” And, realizing that stroking each other’s egos accomplished less than precise criticism and suggestions, the team became unfailingly honest with each other. “Honest feedback,” Rory still contends, “can be painful, but it never hurts!”
The result of this camaraderie was his first act, “Magic in Black and White,” a dove act that won Rory first prize at the 1975 Florida State Magicians Convention. The following year he was booked for the IBM Convention in Evansville, Indiana, and worked stage, close-up, and lectured at the SAM Convention in Philadelphia. He was 21 years old.
Acting had always been Rory’s first love, so he left Orlando in 1978 and headed to Hollywood. He hedged his bet on stardom a little by arranging a position at Disneyland in Anaheim, but upon arrival he found the promised job didn’t exist. Instead, Rory hired on at Hollywood Magic, alongside Ray Pierce and Jonathan Neal Brown, another creative magic team. One of their “games” would be to take some trick, mask, or costume that had been sitting on the shelf for some time and challenge each other to sell it by the end of the day. “To do that, you had to get imaginative and clever. We’d combine an old werewolf mask with a World War II flyer’s helmet to make Amelia Werehart or sell a blonde wig with a Darth Vader mask to create his wife, Ella Vader.”
Having seen Rory perform at the SAM Convention, Bill Larsen invited him to work a week at the Magic Castle. Over the next decade, Rory became a regular at the private club, emceeing and doing a variety of acts. Like so many others, the Castle gave him a place to perform 23 times in a week. “I took advantage of that whenever I was developing a new routine. It was hard work, it was almost no money, but God bless the Castle for being there.”
Early on, “Magic in Black and White” was still his main act, however, it was a lot of prep work. “I’d spend the entire time between the three shows frantically resetting. Martin Lewis, on the other hand, did his set then walked off stage directly to the bar!” Rory decided that was the way to go. Soon after, he was booked for a show in Reno, but when he arrived he found that the stage was too small for all his props. The manager told him to do something else, and that night, in a hotel room, he developed the idea for a money act: walk on stage with nothing, borrow a bill, do 15 minutes with it, return it, and walk away clean. A new mentor helped: “Peter Pit had developed a trick where a signed card vanished, then reappeared safety-pinned to the back of his coat. And he gave it to me. I changed the card to a bill, reworked the method, created a routine, and it became my signature trick in the money act.”
With only a borrowed bill, Rory starred in the Lake Tahoe lounge show Bedazzled , appeared on The John Davidson Show , worked countless comedy clubs, popped up on the cover of The New Tops magazine, and was nominated for Stage Magician of the Year by the Academy of Magical Arts. Married at the time and soon to be a father, Rory decided that he needed something that could play in larger venues.
The ride suddenly stops at a fork in the track: keep going in the same direction, or pay a toll and take a new path?
At the time, the original Star Wars saga was big, so Rory deduced that an act with a robot would be a hot commodity. He invested a hefty amount of money developing the idea of partnering a magician and a robot assistant, but it just didn’t play. He performed it several times at the Castle and even at the Academy of Magical Arts Awards Banquet, but was never happy with the finished product. “Sometimes, no matter how well you think you’ve thought out something, no matter how good an idea seems, it just doesn’t work in front of an audience. You can beat it with a stick, tweak it, mess with it, but eventually, you have to let it go and move on.”
So Rory ended up with a $5,000 robot nightstand for his kid’s room and a practical joke ten years later. “That robot sat in my boys’ room their entire lives, and they never knew it actually worked. When they were six and nine years old, I decided that it would be funny if just after they went to bed, the robot came to life, red eyes blinking as it crossed the room toward them. I was warned not to do it, but come on, it was a nine-year set-up for a joke. I had to do it.” Rory shakes his head, chuckling. “Screams, tears, hysterics… It was hilarious!”
Although he scrapped the robot act, Rory still felt he needed an act that would play bigger than the dollar-bill routine. One night he went to see the play Peter Pan at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. He left with a program and a whole new idea.
“The first character that entered in Peter Pan was Nana, the children’s sheepdog, and 5,000 people simultaneously sighed, ‘Awwww.’ The reaction to even the smallest thing the dog did was huge.” Every time the audience laughed or clapped for that character, Rory heard a cash register ringing in his head. “If that overgrown mop could get applause for eating from a bowl, what kind of reaction would it get if it did magic?”
The next day he tracked down the Broadway show’s costume designer, who graciously steered him toward a costume house that might be able to help. Rory wanted his dog to be more realistic than the stylized costume that had inspired him, but found the cost to be prohibitive. One day he ran into Terry Giles and his wife on a cruise ship Rory was working. Terry, who became the owner of Magic Island and, later, Wizardz, had often used Rory for private parties. Unable to resist a comedy mindreading sheepdog, Giles agreed to finance the act, and it wasn’t long before “Murphy, the Wonder Dog” made it’s debut.
Over the next eight years, a dozen different people played Murphy, but everything changed when Rory, now single, teamed up with Catherine Chilton. “The act worked fairly well before, but when she got into the suit the character really came alive. Murphy became the star of the show.”
In 1991, Rory and Cat, who ironically plays the dog, were married and have been together ever since. Rory laughs, “I said, ‘Marry me! I’ll take you on cruises and dress you in fur!’ She bought it.”
The cart somehow jumps the tracks of time, warping backwards so as not to miss any of the ride.
In 1985 the hottest nightspot in Hollywood was a “ladies only” club called Chippendales, which featured male strippers. Rory thought the idea of a stripping magician who produced roses and gave them to the women might sell. “As you keep taking off more and more clothing, and the roses keep appearing, it gets increasingly intriguing. Where do they come from?”
The act was featured on a nationally syndicated television show, PM Magazine, which led to a call from Playboy , who wanted to produce a short film based on the act. Remembering, Rory shakes his head: “I thought that was a very bad idea. I mean, don’t they know their audience? Men do not want to see some guy stripping. Making the clothes vanish off of a woman, on the other hand…” As a result he wrote and played the lead in A Magical Seduction for Playboy Studios.
The plot was simple, a performing magician spots a beautiful woman watching the show, vanishes the rest of the audience, then seduces the woman by making her clothing disappear one piece at a time. After his clothes also dematerialize, the two fade into a puff of smoke to “lust happily ever after.”
A Magical Seduction was not Rory’s first attempt at writing. This lifetime interest started in 1976 with a horror screenplay called Nightmares . “One late night I watched a movie on TV called They Saved Hitler’s Brain , and decided I could certainly write a better movie, so I set out to do so.” While Rory says the result was better than Hitler’s Brain , he admits, “not by much.”
A few scripts later, he decided to follow the old axiom, “write what you know,” and created a comedy-mystery set at an international magic convention. It was a clash of generations, the older established magician versus the young hotshot, revolving around a jewelry heist. Many real-life magic characters were incorporated, along with legendary convention hijinks. Unfortunately, the few contacts Rory had in the industry were unanimous in the belief that the general pub-lic had no interest in magic. Undeterred, he began a new script. And now he had plenty of time to write because he was beginning to perform at sea. While cruise ships would turn out to be his “job” for the next 25 years, at the time, he considered them more vacation than vocation.
“I was trying to be an actor and the old saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is very true in Hollywood.” So Rory never accepted an out-of-town contract for more than a few weeks at a time, filling the rest of his calendar with acting classes, auditions, and writing. In everything he wrote, there was always at least one character he envisioned himself playing. If you can’t get in the front door, go around back! To pay the bills, he worked comedy clubs, restaurants, and private parties. He also took in contract writing, with a number of his scripts making it to trade shows and theme parks. But, by 1990, it was time for a change.
The ride, while fun, has been going ’round and ’round, and getting nowhere. It’s time to take a risk. With a drastic U-turn, the cart hits the water with a splash.
“I was 35 years old and had been pursuing my acting/writing career for 13 years. Not the luckiest 13, either. I’d spent tens of thousands of dollars on classes, showcases, and Xeroxing, and had no savings whatsoever. I had two young boys and was living in a one bedroom apartment.” Like so many other stories, every break Rory did get seemed to go wrong. Assured an acting spot while doing the warm-ups on Laverne & Shirley , the number one show at the time; the next day that producer was fired. Promised a part in the new Michael Landon series; Landon passed away just after the pilot was shot. Worst of all, Rory was actually cast in a recurring role on General Hospital ; he missed out because he was in Alaska on a ship. “I was fed up and needed a little success in my life. No, I needed some major success in my life.”
Rory had been offered an eight-week contract on a new, top-of-the-line ship, the Crystal Harmony. The deal was if they liked the act, they might extend the booking. Totally confident, Rory and Cat moved out of their apartment and put everything in storage, including Rory’s dreams of acting. They designed an act especially for the high-end ship, producing doves and roses, and an original illusion in which a person from the audience is put in a cabinet, penetrated with light-up tubes, and emerges as Cat in a spectacular butterfly costume. The balance of the required 90 minutes per cruise was filled with the bill act, ship comedy, a séance routine with an unusual version of Out Of This World using yin-and-yang tiles, linking borrowed bracelets and, of course, Murphy the Wonder Dog. They stayed on board for 14 months straight, then bought a house in Las Vegas.
Over the next ten years, the couple pretty much cruised along happily, with eight to nine months spent each year at sea. Rory’s boys, Jeremy and Chase, lived on the east coast during the school year, but would spend summers with him and Cat in Vegas.
The first of these adventures came within five months of moving to town. Rory landed the starring role of magical ringmaster in Cabaret Circus , a full-scale production show at the Lady Luck in downtown Las Vegas. He did Murphy, the bill act, and emceed the balance of the show. But the short-lived run, four months, was not all Rory had hoped it would be. “For me, doing a Vegas show quickly became another job. Instead of nine to five, it’s seven to midnight. You’re stuck doing the exact same routine, and it better not run a minute over or under. You never meet your audience and rarely get feedback.”
Another side trip from cruising came in 1994 when Rory sold two of his scripts to a film producer he had met on a cruise. While The Secret Agent Club and Prey of the Jaguar had each been optioned before, this time they got made. “Both were terrific kick-butt action scripts that got made into terrible movies. I was furious.” As usual, Rory had written a part for himself into each, neither of which did he get to play. He did portray a double-crossing agent in Jaguar , even doing his own fight stunts. It was the producers, however, that he really would have liked to “take out.”
During negotiations, Rory announced that in addition to his agreed upon salary there were a few other things he wanted. The executive across the table rolled his eyes, wondering what kind of “star” perks were going to be demanded. Rory said, “I want to wear the Batsuit sometime, and I want to sit in the Batmobile.” The guy laughed, “Hey, I’ll let you drive it!” And Rory did just that… often! Shortly after his bout with Hollywood, Rory received a call from another studio. Warner Bros. had an illusion show based on their Maverick movie property slated to open in a few months at Warner Bros. Movie World in Germany. They needed a director and a better script. “I had a great time in Germany. Fortunately, the cast all spoke English to one degree or another.” The Maverick Illusion Show was an $8-million production with a full-scale Western town set for the first act, which revolved into a massive underground cave for act two.
Through all of these “diversions,” Rory continued writing regularly. He became a Contributing Editor to MAGIC in issue number two. With over 40 feature articles to his name — and a number of “fixes” not credited to his name — he has written more stories than any other author (with the exception of the editor and the publisher).
In the spring and summer of 2001, he again took a short leave from cruising, this time to be instrumental in producing the first MAGIC Live ! unconventional convention. Little did he know that a few weeks later his career would once again be shaken.
When 9/11 happened, the cruise industry took a heavy hit. Schedules were changed and contracts cancelled; there was a general cutback in acts. While cruising had offered stability for a decade, surprisingly, it was now acting that resurfaced. Rory joined the three-man cast of the play Triple Espresso in the role of magician Buzz Maxwell. The character was created by Bill Arnold and is portrayed by almost a dozen different actor/magicians, including Christopher Hart, Scott Cervine, Patrick Albanese, Derek Hughes, and George Tovar. The successful comedy has been playing in Minneapolis for nine years, in San Diego for eight, and currently is open in Cleveland, Denver, and Tulsa.
“The hardest thing about doing the show is not the acting — that’s easy; it was learning Bill’s magic routine. The director wants every actor to match the original performance word for word, move for move. After 30 years of developing your own magic style and rhythm, it’s incredibly challenging to mold to someone else’s.”
Triple Espresso is very flexible with scheduling, which has allowed Rory to return to sea more and more as the cruise industry continues to recover. He can also work on other projects, such as co-producing MAGIC Live! this past summer. One of the specific areas he focused on was creating “The Close-up Experience.”
“At the first MAGIC Live! we felt the close-up show was the weakest part of the convention — not the performers, they were terrific — but the production fell short.” He took it on himself to produce what many have called the finest convention close-up show ever. No expense was spared, and hundreds of hours of work went into creating detailed replicas of a unique bar, an upscale restaurant, a colorful trade show, and a classic Greek theater as settings for the best performers in the business. “The response was overwhelmingly positive. I was very pleased.”
If you added up all of the books, screenplays, live shows, and magazine articles Rory has written, they wouldn’t come close to the number of Christian dramas he has created over the last seven years. As Creative Director of Canyon Ridge, the second largest church in Nevada, Rory writes, directs, and acts in short plays which are featured in almost every service.
“My job is to reach that person who steps into the back of the church without an established relationship with God. Perhaps they’re searching for something in their lives, answers to hard questions.” Rory tries not to be preachy, not to get in their face. “That’s very important to me, because it turns me off.” His novel, Apocalypse 666 , is based on the Book of Revelation , but does not shove religion down the reader’s throat. “My goal in both that novel and my on-stage dramas is simply to touch the audience on an emotional level, presenting a situation that they can relate to, and perhaps provide an answer they may not have considered.” Today, he considers this part of his life more meaningful than all the others combined.
“I always wanted to be a movie star. I always wanted to be a best-selling author. I always wanted to make it ‘big time,'” reflects the soon-to-be 50-year-old. “Now, my little scripts and eight minutes of acting on stage touch people in a deeply personal way. I’ve had people come up to me in tears and say, ‘That was my life you were portraying up there.’ I’ve seen lives change through my dramas, people brought closer to God.” He smiles. “That is the big time.”
And with that surprising spin, the funhouse cart speeds on. Ahead surely lies more thrills, more wonders.