Beyond Magic: Award-Winning Magician Phil Ackerly
Story and photos by Diane Andrews
Phil Ackerly has a five-year-old Netherlands Dwarf bunny named Buster and a white dove. He has four black magician hats, including a $300 silk one made in Germany, and four wands. He orders decks of playing cards by the gross. He has balloons, dozens of colorful scarves and more piles of magic money than Scrooge. He has countless books on magic and comedy in his professional library and plans to write his own book of magic for magicians.
Ackerly, a long-time Santa Clara resident, has been a professional magician for more than two decades, ever since he was laid off from his marketing job in the high-tech world in 1992. A shy boy who was born and raised in Palo Alto, his nana–his grandmother–encouraged him to be bold in experiencing life.
"Life is too short. You can't let things keep you from living it," Ackerly recalls his nana telling him when he was afraid to try out for an elementary school play. "Don't quit. Being scared and afraid is all part of life. You have to accept it."
"It was at that moment at my nana's house that I saw real magic," says Ackerly, who many years later is fond of incorporating the wisdom of his nana, who, as typical of her age, sewed for the family, into his repertoire of magic.
Ackerly slowly breaks a long piece of strong sewing thread into five or six short lengths, then wads them together in one hand.
"You break a thread, and then you restore it," he says, pulling the thread out of his hand, miraculously whole again. He once used the analogy to work his magic with a group of physicians from Kaiser Permanente.
"Every day, you see disease, and you care for your patients with confidence and compassion. You give them hope when you combine your knowledge and skills as healers. And something magical happens. That broken life becomes happy, whole, and is ready to thrive again," he told the physicians as, before their keenly observant eyes, he made a broken thread whole again.
Ackerly says that giving magic a back story, a context, has added an emotional dimension to his shows that sometimes brings tears to his audience as well as laughter. He does between 300 and 400 corporate and private shows a year and loves the challenge of customizing and personalizing the magic for each audience. He sometimes builds acts around themes, for example, the environment, and performed for 19 years in a row at Santa Clara's annual Arbor Day celebration.
One Saturday last November, he performed at a library and two kids' birthday parties. Another day he performed at a preschool in the morning and did a corporate show at night, going from, as he says, "silly in the morning to sophisticated at night."
"It's all about learning to communicate with the audience," he says. "They're thinking, 'Make me care that I'm watching. Don't just do a trick.'"
Ackerly points out that some people don't like magic because they don't like being made to feel the fool. But others enjoy magic for what it is–an escape, an opportunity to rekindle the sense of wonder and astonishment about life that young children have.
"Magic brings back a sense of 'Wow!' It's a reminder that things are possible, amazing things can happen," says Ackerly. "It's not just tricks in a hat. It's sharing stories. It's mystery and astonishment. So believe in magic. It is all around us. Take a moment to sit back and relax and enjoy the wonder of it."
Ackerly advises would-be-magicians to start off as he did- as a kid-, by going to the library for books on magic, theatrics and comedy. Then practice with family and friends.
"Yes, you can learn to be funny," says Ackerly, who points out that professional magicians don't stop learning. Ackerly is a member of the Cupertino Chapter of the Society of American Magicians (www.magicSAM.com).
"The real magic is you–the magician, not the tricks," says the award-winning magician. "It's all about you."
Visit Ackerly's website to view his impressive listing of awards and places he has performed–from New York to Hollywood to Las Vegas: www.MakePhilAppear.com.
Catch Ackerly's latest family magic act at the Fog City Magic Fest Jan. 28, 2 p.m., in San Francisco at Exit Theater, 156 Eddy St. Tickets are available at www.fogcitymagicfest.com.