SAN DIEGO — San Diego-born Steve Wheeler became smitten by the magic bug when he was a little boy. By age 11, he was a real magician, producing shows in his garage.
Wheeler might be just another illusionist scrounging for a living by performing at parties if he hadn't connected with Susan Jones, a former classmate at Madison High School.
"I was looking for a new way of performing magic," he said, "and Susan was a figure skater, so we decided to work together. She was able to help me (learn to skate), and I taught her the magic."
Wheeler, a natural athlete, took to ice skating quickly. But he soon discovered that making magic on ice was a lot trickier than creating the same effects on a conventional stage.
"The problem is you have boots and blades to deal with, and it's a lot more dangerous getting two people in a box when they have sharp blades on their feet than it would be if they were just wearing shoes," he explained.
Those and other obstacles make performing on ice more of a challenge.
"Illusions are usually performed in front of a stage audience or in a proscenium theater," he said. "But in a big arena, there's nowhere to hide. The audience is all around you. . . . This makes it very hard to create an illusion. We've had to redesign our illusions to maintain the effect."
Despite the dangers and difficulties of plying their trade on ice, Wheeler and Jones over the years have perfected their act, developing a special blend of illusion and skating. For two years, they have been performing "Illusions on Ice" as featured artists in the Ice Capades.
Beginning with Tuesday's performance, the team is showcasing its special brand of deception at the San Diego Sports Arena.
As usual, the eight performances will take on monumental proportions. Ice Capades deploys a huge cast of elaborately costumed performers in its production numbers, and features plenty of daredevil duets and high-speed solos, flamboyantly danced by a handful of headliners.
This year's program, "The Best of Times," will feature Olympic gold medalists Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean (the only skating team in history to snare nine perfect marks in world competition). Kitty and Peter Carruthers, four-time U.S. national pairs champions, are also included.
Wheeler and Jones conjure up elements of the supernatural by disappearing into thin air, then suddenly popping up again in another guise. But they bring down the house when Wheeler shoots his willing assistant out of a cannon.
Circus-goers have seen this before. However, in "Illusions on Ice," Jones vanishes after she slips down the barrel of the cannon, then re-emerges looking through the glass sides of a locked container, clear across the stage from the cannon. Then, Wheeler suddenly trades places with his partner, although the transparent box remains strapped shut. The master escape artists also manage to elude detection when they vanish from an exploding box suspended high above the arena.
Neither Wheeler nor Jones is willing to reveal the tricks of the trade, but as Wheeler explained, "Illusion is a form of escapism. It's fun. It's not real. It requires the audience to suspend their disbelief. It's really like saying, 'OK, I know it isn't real, but wouldn't it be neat to believe it?'
"People are fascinated with magic. Kids aren't as skeptical. But especially as you get older, you come to expect certain things from reality, and anything that stretches that boundary is exciting. You know people can't fly, so you're curious about how it was done."
As far as Wheeler and Jones know, they are the only pair of magicians performing this kind of elaborate trickery on ice. In true team spirit, each has a hand in designing the complex illusions.
"First, we develop an idea--put it on paper to see if it can work--and then we make mock-ups," Wheeler said. "Then, we have to combine the trick with skating. We work on each element separately, and sometimes it can take as long as a year to perfect a new trick."
The "Illusions on Ice" act is a sure-fire show-stopper for the Ice Capades, and Wheeler and Jones are proud of their success. But they still have other worlds to conquer, including the big-time shows in Las Vegas.
For now, however, they are content with their lives.
"We're just thrilled to be performing in our own hometown," Jones said. "We've been telling everybody in the show what a great place it is."