VERNON, Conn. — Rodger L. Phillips worked the toy-cluttered room at Yellow Brick Road Child Care Center like the professional magician he is, sensing the right amount of prompting needed by his audience of children aged 3 to 7 and mixing in just a bit of kiddy shtick.
The Little Wizard, as he is known, pulled Tofu the Ferret out of his magical box and, about five minutes into the show, the audience was his.
Each of the children was allowed to pet the ferret as he carried it around the room. A few minutes later, he had each of the children wiggle their fingers at another little box. Out popped a white dove named Merlin.
Animal Tricks Carried Day
The magician instinctively knew that the little kids would go for the animal tricks.
After all, Rodger was only about 6 years older than most of his audience members. At age 12, the skinny, bespectacled sixth-grader from King Philip Elementary School in West Hartford is among the nation's youngest professional magicians. He is a visiting member of the Society of American Magicians. He would be a full member if he met the age requirement of 14.
"I think if you give kids or young children a completely serious show, they would be bored to death," Rodger said after the recent matinee.
Rodger has been performing illusions for about five years now, ever since his father gave him a beginners' magic set. He spends endless hours practicing his craft and attends a summer magician camp on Long Island.
"It took me a few years to get comfortable with the magic, then I went pro," he said.
He has been wowing audiences with his fast-paced show for about a year and a half now. His following is growing steadily; he commands $80 to $150 per performance. It beats mowing lawns and shoveling snow, but his savings are small because of high overhead, he said.
'Equipment Is Pricey'
"It all goes back into the hat between buying equipment and buying candy to pass out to the kids," he said. "The equipment is pricey."
Not only does he perform at day-care centers, he plays birthday parties, convalescent homes and town fairs. Recently he brought his act to the Old State House as part of the annual Taste of Hartford celebration.
Rodger's mother, Karen Phillips, an employee of the state Department of Human Resources, doubles as her son's driver, manager and public relations agent. She also helps him move equipment. But she draws the line when it comes to taking part in the show.
Karen Phillips doesn't get a percentage of Rodger's earnings, either, but her son pays for meals when they're on the road and "he does pay me back for some gasoline," she said.
Paper Yellow Brick Road
An avid collector of Wizard of Oz memorabilia, Rodger enjoyed the irony of performing at Yellow Brick Road. In fact, the children welcomed him by rolling out a paper version of the famed path followed by Dorothy in L. Frank Baum's classic.
Midway through the show, little Cara Wachsam thought she had figured out one of Rodger's tricks.
She heard his little wooden "Man in the Moon" head slide from one slot to an opposite slot when it was supposed to disappear. "I know how you did that. Open them both," she demanded, stirring the rest of the toddlers.
"Yeah, open them both," they chimed in.
But a little stalling, some quick hand work and a lot of fast talking helped Rodger recover. He simultaneously revealed two empty slots to the wide-eyed children.
It was the show's only shaky moment.
Turned Silk Into Fruit
Anne Gould, another student, was delighted to help turn blue and green pieces of silk into fruit. The 25 or so children cheered in unison when wooden Freddy got his head back. They giggled when a red-faced Tommy Pace fell for the old snake-in-the-peanut-brittle-can trick.
For the finale, Rodger handed out candy as his mother played a scratchy old Glenn Miller rendition of "Over the Rainbow." The candy, like the animal tricks, is another can't-miss.
As the children's parents arrived to pick up them up, Rodger and his mother packed two trunks of magic tricks and a couple of small animals into their red, 4-wheel-drive vehicle for the late-afternoon ride back to West Hartford.
"This is the real yellow brick," the Little Wizard said, all smiles as he showed his mother his big, yellow paycheck.