Ten minutes into illusionist Harry Blackstone's one-night-only show at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Douglas Fluor, 11, folded his arms and announced: " I know how he's doing it. He's got trapdoors."
But long before the curtain closed on the KOCE-TV Foundation benefit Thursday night--before Blackstone's wife, Gay, had been sawed in half, run through with knives, shot from a cannon, levitated and transformed into a Bengal tiger--Fluor's eyes were shining with disbelief.
"I can't figure this stuff out," he whispered, twisting in his seat for a better view. "It's just--impossible!"
Possible--and magical--it was. And young Fluor, whose mother, Martha Fluor, co-chaired the event with fellow board member Floss Schumacher, was only one of 2,100 spellbound guests baffled by Blackstone's wizardry. The master sorcerer and his wife repeatedly defied logic and gravity during a two-hour tour de force, which featured a corps of dancers, circus animals, elaborate sets and countless costume changes.
At the lavish reception at the Center Club afterward, KOCE President William Furniss said he was astounded by the performance. "And I was backstage at a rehearsal. I still couldn't tell you how they did it."
It seemed a bit of magic itself to get the world-famous Blackstone to Orange County for a solo benefit. That was the work of Newport Beach neurosurgeon Robert Ragatz, who said he and Blackstone had been friends for years.
"Harry's here because of his generous heart," Ragatz said. "He donated so much, and all of these wonderful people with him worked for next to nothing."
Among KOCE supporters attending the benefit were several amateur magicians who claimed an inside track on the proceedings--but mum was the word.
"Magicians have a code of silence," said Dr. Larry Marks, a South Laguna resident and emergency room physician at Saddleback Community Hospital. Marks, fancifully attired in a speckled dress shirt, red cummerbund and black-plastic bow tie with flashing lights embedded in it, said he came to the show "because I know Harry Blackstone will inspire me with my own magic."
Inspiration of another sort was the subject of Furniss and others as they feasted on angel hair pasta alfredo, spinach and egg tortellini marinara, ham and cheese omelets, grilled chicken, fresh raspberries and other delectables on the buffet in the Center Club.
Larger than life and shining in the soft lights was an ice sculpture of-- presto!-- a rabbit peeking from a top hat.
"The real benefits from this evening won't be just ticket sales or donations," Furniss said. "The important thing tonight is that this is a chance for us to make a lot of friends for KOCE, to get the word out about who we are."
Despite funding losses, budget cutbacks and staff layoffs in recent years, Furniss said the station was enjoying "our best year ever in terms of membership. At one point we projected $800,000 in membership donations for '87; we've already surpassed $900,000."
Proceeds from the evening, with tickets ranging from $50 to $200, were expected to be tallied by Monday.
"My whole value system says that (public television) is important and good," said Carol Geffner-Kravitz, a Tustin management consultant and president of the volunteer support group Friends of KOCE. "Also, I don't want to see Orange County stay a stepchild of L.A. It's important for us in as many ways as we can to establish an identity of our own."
Foundation member Don Karcher, attending the gala with his daughter, Diann LeVecke, added: "I know there are a lot of causes out there vying for our attention, but I think it would be a shame not to have the voice of this community in public broadcasting."
As the evening eased toward midnight, the barrel-chested Blackstone finally appeared in the Center Club, delighting dignified autograph seekers. Blackstone said he had just completed work on "a mathematics version of 'Sesame Street' " for public television in which he teaches a magic trick accomplished by mathematical formulas.
"Public television is one of my pet projects," he said. "It gives us a chance to use an entertaining way to present not-so-entertaining material--like math.
"And from a really selfish standpoint, I'm building an audience of 7-year-olds that will be my audience in 10 to 15 years. And I plan to be around."
Earlier in the evening, Harry and Gay Blackstone's own 7-year-old, Bellamie, had joined her parents on stage in a magical skit called "Toyland"--"the first time ever she took part in an illusion," her proud mother said.