Each afternoon, Fredric Broder, 59, enters a storefront in North Long Beach to bask in the presence of disappearing ink, stink bombs, exploding pens and snake cans. "How can you live without snake cans?" he asks.
He is a speech professor during the morning at Compton College, and then--presto!--he turns into Presto the Digitator in his cluttered, little magic shop.
He promotes himself. A flyer proclaims: "One million people entertained by Presto!" and describes his tricks as "amazing". . ."fantastic". . ."truly entertaining." And it shows photos of Broder wearing a devilish grin while performing tricks for transfixed children.
Broder has performed for 20 years at the Magic Castle, a private magicians club in Hollywood, and has given shows throughout Southern California.
In his shop on Atlantic Avenue on Wednesday afternoon, Broder had the same grin above his pointed beard, but instead of a tuxedo he wore a black silk shirt under a red T-shirt. Silver wizards were attached to the chains around his neck.
He wore no top hat, but if he had, and was asked to pull a rabbit from it, he would likely have taken off the hat, dipped his balding head and said, "See. No hare."
Behind his counter, Broder turned a piece of rope into two silk cloths.
He declined to reveal how the rope trick is done, pointing to a sign that read: "We Sell Secrets."
"I won't satisfy a person's curiosity, because there are too many people trying to make a living (as a magician)," he said. "As soon as you buy the trick, I'll show you how to do it."
Broder always yearned to act, but despite commendable elocution, was neither handsome enough to be a leading man nor old enough for character roles.
The role he plays now, he said, is of a man "who can work miracles." And so he has become an actor after all.
Growing up in Saranac Lake, N.Y., Broder was fascinated with magic. "I remember sending in a dime to Super Magician Comics for a magic coin that floated," he said.
But he did not take magic seriously until he was 40 and was taken to the Magic Castle. "I fell in love with the place," he said.
Wanting badly to become a member of the Magic Castle, he spent a summer learning about magic and putting an act together. Then he returned to the Magic Castle, claiming that he was a well-known East Coast magician.
"I literally bluffed my way in," he said. "They let me perform before an audience, including the evaluators, and they immediately approved my membership."
After that first performance, he knew he was hooked. "I am applause-happy," he said.
To gather supplies for his act, he put in a counter of magic at the bookstore he had opened in the mid-1970s for his mother in Bixby Knolls. After two years, he moved the store to its current Atlantic Avenue location.
"The books didn't sell, but the magic did," he said.
Many big-name magicians, including David Copperfield, have been in Broder's shop, he said, but two-thirds of his customers are amateurs who want to have fun at parties and who have to be shown the most basic tricks, such as palming coins.
Paul Kiah, a Georgia truck driver, was being shown some tricks by shop manager Irving Hopper, who used to be clown-magician Hoppy the Hobo. Kiah, who said he was in the shop " 'cause I'm a kid," bought a needle-through-the-balloon trick, some card tricks and a nickels-to-dimes trick.
When he left. he said, "I've had the best time in my life the last half hour."
There had been a lot in the Presto Magic Shop for the truck driver to choose from. There was the costume section, where there were Henry VIII coats and gorilla suits, and an area with novelties such as foaming sugar, fake arms and blue-mouth gum.
There was a Houdini chain-escape trick for $199.95 and something called "Knot Unexpected," which the label said included a 15-foot rope, "complete with knife," for $39.95.
And in the window was a $2,500-device called a Zig Zag Lady that cuts a woman into three pieces ("It hurts only when you laugh," Broder said) and removes the middle section. And there was a guillotine for $750.
The Long Beach magician, who has taught at Compton for 26 years, has been refining one trick in which he takes 53 jumbo playing cards, lays them on a board and has three people each select a card, and a fourth person select one of those three. Then Broder points to an envelope and rips it open to reveal a regular-sized card that, "hopefully," matches the one picked.
When it doesn't, Broder will try to joke it off.
"In my introduction I point out that (being wrong) is a possibility, and that all I can do is sense things," he said. "If I'm getting the wrong answer, I'll close the curtain for five minutes, run out to the car and bring back some magic tricks."
Broder has succeeded as a magician despite possessing poor coordination. "That made it a hell of a challenge," he said. "But if I find a trick I like, I'll work 100 hours to make it smooth."
He takes a Don Rickles approach, playfully insulting people who don't buy anything. "I tease a lot," he said. "I'll tell kids I'm going to turn them into toads. Or if I've done the nickels-into-dimes trick and someone asks me if I can change them back to nickels, I'll tell them, 'Boy, I want to be your banker.' "
When a man comes in asking if there is something that will make his wife disappear, Broder will say, "Gee, I could do it for you, but I could only afford the first book. I don't know how to bring them back."
The greatest trick?
"The ability to levitate," said Broder. "That's one of the great dreams."
He knows he'll never be able to do that, but he never doubts that his tricks will always entertain.
Or that youngsters and 59-year-old kids like himself will always, when they leave the magic shop and step back out onto the sunny sidewalk, be happier than when they came in.