One evening not long ago, I received a text message: “Hi Chris. This is illusionist Leon Etienne.” Which is an adorable way to start a text message to somebody you’ve never met – like an overeager puppy whose ego can’t be broken. I’d seen Leon perform twice before, and I’d been impressed – I don’t like magic shows in general, but he’d touched something in me that wasn’t jaded. Leon wanted me to work his upcoming show at the Turning Stone Casino. I’d never worked at the Casino, on principle: they’ve done a great job at stealing ticket buyers who might otherwise have attended shows in Utica, perhaps at my beloved Stanley Theatre. Still, I said yes, for two reasons: 1) Because he asked; 2) Because it seemed like it might be fun. I also suggested he might hire my daughter Sarah.
If for no other reason, I will remain in Leon’s corner because he didn’t hesitate for a second when I mentioned Sarah: “That’s fantastic. See you then.” It occurred to me later I probably should have mentioned that Sarah is 14, but I’ve used her on several shows and she’s a good stagehand. She likes backstage work in a way I never have. As Leon’s show approached, Sarah watched YouTube clips to catch up on his act.
I called the school a day ahead of time:
“Is it OK if I report a student’s absence in advance?”
“Yes, that’s fine. Is she not feeling well?”
“No. She’ll be working a show at the Casino tomorrow.”
We arrived at Turning Stone at 5:50 PM on Thursday. We’d met with Leon and his co-star Romy the previous Saturday, to assemble a new illusion. And I admire this about Leon: he wants stagehands he knows, and he makes an effort to know them. Like a good manager, he uses team-building techniques to ensure we’re invested in the show; it’s not just about the paycheck. At the Casino, we watched as Leon tried and repeatedly failed to back his large rental truck into the loading dock – it endeared him to us, more than anything else (he still handles many of the details of his growing operation himself. Although for his sake, I hope he gets a truck driver.) For the next 24 hours we watched Leon answer phone calls from dozens of friends who wanted tickets – he wouldn’t let them go to voicemail, despite the fact that he had a major show to prepare.
On Thursday, we worked until 10:00. The Casino’s stage was amazing, and Sarah seemed at home. After, we checked into the hotel and went in search of dinner. (Leon had booked us a room and given us some per diem money.) The Casino is a different world. No clocks. Smoke everywhere. Dead-eyed zombies pressing buttons. Large rednecks snuggling near the buffet. To that, add: an old guy and his 14 year-old daughter in stage blacks getting burgers at 11:00 PM.
On Friday, we started with a 10 AM meeting. From there, we worked pretty much the entire day, until the show was loaded back on the truck. And here’s the thing: it was fun. I almost never have fun working (I’m too pre-occupied with my responsibilities), but this felt like a vacation. Leon and Romy drilled their act over and over again. Sarah and I learned what had to be in place for each number, which wheels had to be locked, how the curtains had to be draped, and we ran the setups many, many times. (How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.) Sarah ran stage left, I had stage right. And she held down her side.
I should mention that the Casino’s regular stagehands were a joy to work with. Skilled, helpful, and enthusiastic. The stage left workers didn’t bat an eye when Sarah asked them to move boxes. Actually, I’d say all of the Casino’s employees were excellent to us; they went above and beyond. And Leon and Romy seemed to genuinely appreciate it.
At the end of the day, we were almost as invested in Leon’s show as he was. It was a sold-out audience, and we couldn’t have been more proud if we’d conceived the show ourselves. When Sarah brought a piece onstage he introduced her to the audience. His motto seems to be the same as mine: surprise and delight the audience, and maybe your crew as well. And for as many times as I watched the illusions, I still don’t know all the details. Sarah and I discussed it on the way home: “I was hoping YOU’D figured that one out!” I expect big things for Leon, and I hope our paths cross again.