Like his favorite football team, Notre Dame, Father James Blantz is at the top of his game. The wisecracking magician-priest is booked solid, doing 200 to 300 magic shows a year and sending his considerable earnings to Roman Catholic missions in Bangladesh and Uganda.
He thus lives in what, for him, is the best of two worlds--helping the impoverished half-way around the globe while breaking up audiences around Los Angeles.
"The other night I had a woman on stage assisting me, and she was laughing so much she couldn't talk," said Blantz, 55, fresh from a week of performances at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. "I'd ask her a question, and all she could do was squeak."
The silver-haired priest mimicked the speechless woman, tilting his head upward and emitting a few raspy sounds.
"The audience was in stitches," he remembered with a touch of pride.
Blantz, however, does not limit himself to performing magic. As chaplain to the brothers at Rancho San Antonio Boys Town of the West in Chatsworth, where he lives, Blantz celebrates Mass six mornings a week. Then, most days, he hops on his motorcycle and leaves for work, sometimes as an assistant chaplain at a hospital, sometimes as an assistant pastor at a parish.
On Saturdays, of course, there is the sacred obligation of watching Notre Dame football on television. Blantz graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1955. His priestly order, the Congregation of Holy Cross, owns the school, and his kinship with the football team has been especially close since the arrival last year of Lou Holtz as coach.
"Holtz is a magician too," he said. "I've seen him do tricks on Johnny Carson."
Besides his stints at the Magic Castle, Blantz performs at public and private schools, service-club events, company parties--in short, before anyone who wants a magician. One of his regular bookings is the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Monica, where he appears twice a month.
"He's very popular here," said Gerry Foran, hotel concierge at the Pritikin Center. "He does his show in the ballroom, and there will be a few people at first, but then everyone gravitates there because of the laughing. It's not just magic. He's cracking jokes the whole time."
Bill Larsen, president of the Academy of Magical Arts, the group that runs the Magic Castle, termed Blantz "one of our top close-up people."
"Close-up is magic that's done right under the audience's noses," Larsen explained. "He's very good, and he's equally adept at entertaining adults or children, which a lot of magicians are not. A lot of magicians hate to perform in front of kids. They're unruly, and they're harder to misdirect. You can't fool them as easily."
Although Blantz frequently does magic shows in his priest's garb, he keeps religion out of the act.
"When I come on stage in my Roman collar, I tell my audience not to worry," he said. "I say they might expect a priest to deliver a long sermon, but I've given them up because of my throat--my brother priests all said they would cut it if I didn't."
Magic tricks not only are Blantz's major fund-raising tool, they have found their way into his work as an assistant chaplain at Daniel Freeman Medical Center in Inglewood, Queen of Angeles Medical Center in Los Angeles, and other hospitals. He visits about 25 patients a day, three days a week, taking along a deck of cards and his jokes.
"One thing we're learning in hospitals is that laughter is healing," the priest said.
Blantz had no special interest in magic while growing up. He first added sleight-of-hand to his pastoral bag of tricks while doing missionary work in Africa in 1961.
"I found myself in Uganda surrounded by a bunch of kids I couldn't talk to," he said. "Everyone knows a few tricks, so I did the little bit of magic that I knew, and I could see right away it was a hit."
Uganda was Blantz's second foreign assignment. His first, the previous year, was in Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, where he became ill from heat exhaustion. The malady persisted in Uganda.
"My job was to produce movies and slides for vocational work and fund raising," he said. "In Bangladesh, it's so blazing hot you don't go out in the middle of the day, but I did because I had to shoot in the sunlight. So I got sick. In Uganda I tried to recover my health by eating hippopotamus and boiled bananas, but it didn't work."
Blantz, who says hippo meat is surprisingly tasty, returned to the United States and was assigned light duty at a school in Terre Haute, Ind. During his two-year recuperation, he devoted much of his time to learning magic.
"Jim Ryan, a Chicago magician, took me under his wing," Blantz said. "When I got a day off, I'd go see Jim and learn his secrets. He was 65 years old and overweight, and he realized he wouldn't live forever. He knew the money I made would go to the church, so he taught me everything he knew. Of course, he's still alive and in his 90s now."