When magician-illusionist Chuck Burnes toured the movie-house circuit in the early '50s, he could work audiences waiting to see monster movies into a dither by conjuring a couple of "real" monsters and dispatching a few shrieking spooks over viewers' heads. Then he would pack up his bag of tricks and move on to the next town and the next thrill.
Burnes, 65, has spent more than five decades in the entertainment business as a performer and a producer. With his wife, Bambi, he now runs the Anaheim-based Periwinkle Productions, which books what he calls "strange, odd and unusual people who do strange, odd and unusual things" into venues from Vegas theme parks to college theaters. Among those sites is Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, where, on Saturday night, they will present "An Evening of Mind-Boggling Madness" showcase of magic and illusion.
Nowadays, spectacular movie effects and splashy theme-park extravaganzas are commonplace. But Burnes firmly believes that a good, mind-boggling illusion is still just as thrilling to viewers as it was for the crowds he entertained on the horror-movie circuit or in the vaudeville houses he managed in the 1940s. More recently, he has helped create spectacles and special events for Disney, Knott's Berry Farm and Tommy Walker Productions.
"If you have a very good illusionist, audiences are always going to be amazed," said Burnes, a charter member of Hollywood's Magic Castle, who says he keeps current on the latest trends in magic. "Kids are never going to be too jaded for this, because it's not like the movies, where they can figure out how [an effect] is done. They're just completely blown away by it."
Periwinkle Productions has access to about 3,000 acts, said Burnes, from "mathemagician" Arthur Benjamin to an all-female Russian circus troupe to a "fellow who sticks kabob skewers into his arm."
The variety allows the company to handpick a new lineup for every booking. Burnes said this weekend's "squeaky clean" show is suitable for first-graders through adults.
Burnes spent seven years as a clown with the Ringling Bros. circus and managed smaller, three-ring shows; Bambi was a circus performer and dancer.
The handbill for the Saddleback show, their 10th at the college, reflects the couple's vaudeville and circus roots. It lists the performers as "Cerebral Sorceress" Cheri Soleil, "Mind-Romancers" Len Reid and Jeff Bornstein, "Hilarious Hypnotist" Michael Mezmer and the aforementioned Benjamin, the "Amazing Mathemagician."
It's Benjamin's act that often is the most intriguing to audiences, Burnes said. The college professor and entertainer claims he can do complex mental calculations "as fast or faster than a computer."
Benjamin teaches math at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont. He holds a PhD in mathematical sciences from Johns Hopkins University and has been written up for his prowess at mental calculations in Scientific American, Discover, Omni and other publications.
An avid magician as a child and young man, Benjamin said he began blending his math skills into his magic act at the urging first of his father and later of a college psychology professor who was studying his mental processes.
In his performance at Saddleback, Benjamin will challenge volunteers armed with calculators to beat him to the solution to sums posed by the audience while he figures them in his head. For his finale, he attempts to, and says he often succeeds at, multiplying two five-digit numbers correctly.
Recognizing that many in his audience may not be so enamored of numbers as he is, Benjamin jokingly said that he keeps his 25-minute act fast-paced so that "people are so interested and entertained that they don't have time to think, 'Hey, I'm not supposed to like this . . . I hate math!' "
In fact, he added, through his performances and the "mathemagic" workshops he presents in schools, he always tries to correct some of the negative impressions people, especially children, may have about math.
"To me, math and magic are a lot alike because they both have the appeal of a problem to be solved," he said. "They're puzzles, and if you work on it, you can find a number of creative ways to solve them." To that end, he usually offers audiences a simple explanation of his facility for numbers-crunching.
"The object here is not to show how smart I am," he said, "but how smart [the audience] can be."
* What: "An Evening of Mind-Boggling Madness."
* When: Saturday at 8 p.m.
* Where: McKinney Theatre, Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo.
* Whereabouts: Exit Interstate 5 at Avery Parkway. Drive east to Marguerite, then turn left.
* Wherewithal: $15-$17.
* Where to call: (714) 582-4656.