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Master of Magic : The 'Wizard of Oxnard' uses old tricks to teach young students not only magic but self-esteem as well.

August 13, 1992|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With parents and younger siblings in tow, students of Ted Wakai arrived at the Barranca Vista Recreation Center last week ready to dazzle the assembly with feats of legerdemain.

The event was the graduation recital of "Marvelous Magic Tricks," the first magic course offered by the city of Ventura Parks and Recreation Department. And for the occasion Wakai, the 67-year-old Professor of Prestidigitation, had donned his tuxedo, red bow tie and cummerbund.

Some performers ran their patter and tricks like old pros. Shy ones had to be coaxed. And one boy beamed upon rejoining some severed strings after three failed attempts.

Next, Wakai ceremoniously awarded thaumaturgy (magic) certificates and a D.D.S degree--Doctor of Deceptive Stuff--to each sorcerer's apprentice.

Then the "Wizard of Oxnard" himself took the stage. He began counting crisp bills under the scrutiny of his students. "Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco." Wakai paused to regard the crowd innocently in response to the kids' protests, "That's Spanish, not English."

Gratified at their language recognition, he resumed counting--this time in his mother tongue, Japanese. And his well-tutored proteges counted right along with him. "Ichi, ni, san, shi, go."

With only a few tricks up his sleeve, in six short weeks the former NASA space science lecturer had imparted more than hocus-pocus skills to his 9- to 15-year-old students.

"I don't want to teach the kids just the magic secrets," said Wakai. "I like for them to have stage presence, to perform well enough so (that) not just their mother says it was good--but so they can entertain and the audience will appreciate it.

"Not everyone can go out and hit a home run or run a touchdown. I want to build their confidence and self-esteem. If they practice and master a trick, they feel good about themselves. If they feel good, they don't get into trouble."

Wakai knows first hand the value of sleight-of-hand tricks. A Nisei or second-generation Japanese-American, he was born in Hawaii where his father was a Congregational minister. After his father's death in 1936, Wakai found comfort in a magic class at the Honolulu YMCA. And over the years Wakai, a retired professor of chemical engineering, has used magic tricks to illustrate lessons while teaching night classes in Japanese at Oxnard College and Sunday school.

"I started teaching Japanese for military intelligence in World War II. I was such a good instructor of Japanese that all my students were sent to Europe," he said wryly.

In 1950, after completing military service and earning his master's degree from the University of Iowa, Wakai monitored bacteria in chemical laboratories and ran environmental impact studies at Pearl Harbor and Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. "Everybody envied my job because I got to go out on a boat every day," he said. "But, poor me, I get seasick."

Later, while teaching at Michigan State University, Wakai met and married Millie, mother of their three grown children. "She was also an island girl," he said. "But another island--Rhode Island."

Wakai moved to Oxnard in 1958 when he began doing water pollution research at USC. After several jobs in water desalination and environmental health, Wakai retired in 1979. That was when he really increased his magical pursuits.

Wakai is a professional magician and member of the Society of American Magicians, the Fellowship of Christian Magicians and a lifetime member of the Academy of Magical Arts at the Magic Castle in Hollywood.

"Most big-named people are stage magicians. But I like close-up 'parlor' or 'stand-up' tricks using ropes, silks and paper currency," he said. "And I like bills because I can keep them in my pocket and do tricks anywhere I go."

Wakai said magic has enriched his life by enhancing his self-esteem and his friendships. "But it's like golf. You practice a skill until you can do it well. And it doesn't matter if everyone on TV saw you hit the ball. You know you did it."

MAGIC MOMENTS

* Beginning in September, Wakai will again teach "Marvelous Magic Tricks" through the City of Ventura Department of Parks and Recreation. The cost is $5 for materials. To register, call 644-6542.

* On Oct. 3, the Fellowship of Christian Magicians will present magic shows at 2 and 7 p.m. with face painting, balloons and door prizes at St. Paul's Methodist Church, 1800 South C St. in Oxnard. Family tickets cost $20. Matinee admission is $3 for children ages 12 and under, $6 for adults. Prices are a dollar more for the evening performance.

* On Nov. 8 at 4 p.m. the church will host a free lecture and demonstration by nationally renowned magician John Fedko for magicians, mimes and clowns of all ages and skill levels. For information about either show, call 487-8311.

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