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VALLEY WEEKEND

They Don't Pull Rabbits Out of Hats

Magicians Edward Thompson and John Tong combine quick comic rap, stunts and 'geek tricks' as Dr. Reality and son.

June 20, 1996|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Until now, it was nothing but a gag. Edward Thompson would lock partner John Tong into the water torture cell for one of the world's greatest illusions. A death-defying trick. The type of escape that made Harry Houdini famous.

Tong, then, would have to be rescued by paramedics.

But for their show opening Friday at NY / LA Theatre of the Arts in North Hollywood, the two magicians insist the stunt will be for real. Tong--in straitjacket and suspended upside down--will escape from a padlocked tank of water. He hopes. Otherwise they'll have to cancel Saturday's performances.

Under the title "Dr. Reality's Traveling Magic & Medicine Show," Thompson and Tong perform a blend of comedy, illusions and "geek tricks" that they call guerrilla magic. They don't just show magic to people--they inflict it upon them. Why hire a beautiful assistant when you can just as easily saw a member of the audience in half? Theirs are the kind of tricks that make slick showmen like David Copperfield cringe. Heck, they make the audience cringe--especially the lucky individual who gets to remove the screwdriver from Tong's nostril.

Thompson, 51, and Tong, 26, met about four years ago in a magic shop in Glendale and have developed a father-son relationship--meaning, Tong says, that he borrows money and never pays it back. The two have an unstoppable repartee that blurs the distinction between their own lives and that of their characters--Dr. Reality and his son, Bieno Svengali.

Their show has a loose structure that revolves around a shady magician and his son who are trying to go legit. Dr. Reality, it seems, killed his first wife sawing her in half. His second wife died trying to catch a bullet in her teeth. One son drowned in the water torture cell. He has only his son Bieno left. They will do two versions of the show each night. At 8:30, it's family fare. At midnight, it's NC-17. The magic is the same, Thompson said, it's the patter that changes.

Thompson sits by the pool in the backyard of his Granada Hills home, dressed in one of his Dr. Reality costumes: a suit, suspenders and a Merlin-meets-the-Grateful-Dead tie-died T-shirt. With his mustache, glasses and balding head, he looks--as Tong suggests--not unlike Wilfred Brimley.

Thompson started acting at age 12 and his illustrious career has included being fired from several disc jockey jobs, starring as a suspect in a 10-part FBI training film, and playing Mr. Tooth Decay in government videos that promoted dental hygiene. He was forced into his current career after the cast magician for a children's stage show quit in the middle of a tour. The cast drew straws and Thompson lost; he had to give up his roles as the singing Popeye and the dancing Pink Panther.

He still takes to the stage for comic roles but spends much of his time doing coin and card tricks for bar mitzvahs and private affairs (like a birthday party for Sylvester Stallone's dog at a Century City restaurant) and working his guerrilla magic along Universal CityWalk.

Since death-defying escapes require practice, Thompson set up the water torture cell--a custom-made device that can cost as much as a new car--next to his swimming pool. To demonstrate the stunt, Tong dons his straitjacket--very dapper with his two-tone shoes--and puts his feet through the stock-like holes in the tank lid. An electric winch reels him up feet first and dips him repeatedly like a candle. When it gets uncomfortable, Thompson offers him sage advice: "Hang by your feet, not by your ankles."

Other venues around Los Angeles won't let Thompson and Tong perform this stunt--including the Magic Castle--not so much because of the danger, but because they don't want water spilled all over the floor.

Drying off afterward, Tong professes to come from a family of magicians. Or, at least, people like magicians.

"Gypsies!" hollers Thompson.

"Confidence men," counters Tong.

At 12, Tong took up fakery--fire eating, sword swallowing, pounding nails up his nose. He was particularly inspired by meeting Harry Anderson, the performer who popularized geek tricks in the 1980s and has since made a career as a sitcom actor. After judging an improv contest, Anderson did his famed hatpin-through-the-arm trick right at the lunch table--and left quite an impression on Tong.

"I realized at a very early age that I could go to jail . . . or I could get paid for doing stupid card tricks," says Tong, whose freckled skin and green eyes reflect more of his part-Irish mother than his part-Chinese father.

At 14, he took his act to the Venice Boardwalk, where, for a quarter, he'd give you a joke or a magic trick. Later he performed as half of the Svengali Brothers--who took their name from magic-trade slang for a deck of trick cards. The stage name stuck.

"Dr. Reality's Traveling Magic & Medicine Show" draws on Tong's improv background and Thompson's flair for drama. There is a rough outline to the 90-minute show, but they have three hours' worth of tricks to choose from. And if things don't work out exactly as planned . . . "that's the great thing about comedy magic," says Tong. "If we screw up--hey, it's funny! It didn't work!"

Tell that to the person they're going to saw in half.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Dr. Reality's Traveling Magic & Medicine Show."

* WHERE: NY / LA Theatre of the Arts, 6006 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood.

* WHEN: 8:30 p.m. and midnight Saturday and Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: $10.

* CALL: (818) 761-6006.

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