While recovering from a back operation, Donald Wortman, 42, got started on a new career.
"A friend brought me some ballons and a book on how to make them look like animals and I got real good with them," the Long Beach resident said.
He later took courses in clowning and magic and is now known throughout Orange County as the Balloon Man, which he emphasizes by handing balloons to everyone he meets.
"It promotes good feelings," he said.
While he performs for all ages, Wortman mainly entertains at children's parties, especially for hospital-bound children and the mentally retarded. He is part of the clown group at Children's Hospital of Orange County. He recently performed at the UCI Medical Center for a stroke victims' support group.
"Using magic, I can see a light in some of the children's eyes that you can't see without it," he said. "Magic makes a sick or retarded kid respond in a different way."
Doing sleight of hand has helped him make contact with teen-age retarded workers on his job as a repair technician at the Cal State Long Beach library. He has been there 10 years.
"Every time I would go by this retarded kid who works with me, I would do a little hand magic, and he would call me by name and start coming out of his own world into everyone else's," he said.
"I get a sense of accomplishment and a wonderful feeling from being good with balloons and magic.
"I have a degree in English, but when I graduated (from Cal State Long Beach), the only job I could get was as a teacher and I didn't want to do that."
He joined the Navy and later became a certified arc welder.
His original goal was to be a children's librarian.
"Magic has changed my thinking," said Wortman, who found that performing for children "made me feel good inside. The more I gave of myself the more I got and the better I felt."
Two years ago, Wortman performed his first show for $35. His fee now is $100 for a 45-minute gig in which he uses various props including a magic cape, finger puppets, a toilet plunger and balloons. He has done 60 shows this year.
"Magic is like music," he said. "It appeals to everyone, including kids who can't speak English. You communicate through magic. Everyone knows that. I can go any place in the world and have people understand me."
A Magic Castle member and a vice president of the International Assn. of Magicians, Wortman sometimes uses his 2-year-old daughter in his act, making her disappear "right before your eyes."
Said Wortman: "I'm not a world-class magician yet, but I'm a very good magician."
So caught up is he in his magic act that he plans to retire from his regular job at age 50 and become a full-time magician.
"I'm having a good time with magic and I'm getting paid for it," he said. "Magic promotes good feelings, and it's my way of making the world a little nicer place."
And, he added: "I'm selfish. I want to feel good, and magic does that for me."