Lance Burton has come a long way since traveling from his native Louisville, Ky., to Las Vegas. Having developed a reputation for his "Burton Babes" and tricks with ducks and doves, he is now one of the highest-grossing magicians on the Strip. The 39-year-old recently signed a 13-year contract to perform five nights a week at the Monte Carlo Hotel--the longest-running contract of any magician in Vegas' history. We caught up with Burton backstage after one of his recent shows to talk about his rise in the ranks of magic's elite.
Question: You first attempted to make it as a magician in Louisville. What was that like?
Answer: Louisville is a great place to grow up, but it's not like there is a lot of magic to see. Most of the magic that I saw growing up was on television. My first magic jobs were in strip clubs because that was the only kind of place where you could get a steady gig.
Q: Tell me about your first trip to Las Vegas.
A: I understood at age 13 that there was this place called Vegas. I didn't know anything about gambling, but I knew this was where professional magicians lived. So I always wanted to come. I was 22 years old when I finally did, and I was booked for eight weeks at a tiny hotel with another eight-week option. I stayed there for nine years.
Q: Why is magic such an integral part of this city?
A: It really has become that way in the last five years. Las Vegas has evolved a lot as a town. It used to be a gambling town. People wanted to play craps, the slots or blackjack. The entertainment was a little extra, maybe a show, but then they'd go back to gambling. You never saw kids in Vegas.
Now you have the convention business and families coming here to vacation. You have all these family shows, and the magic shows have changed too. You've got Mom, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa and the kids in the audience. But that's the thing about magic. It's the one form of entertainment that brings them all together.
Q: Do you gamble?
A: Oh, no. I realized early on this gambling thing is addictive. I said, I've got to stay away from this if I'm going to live here.
Q: But aren't the gamblers your bread and butter?
A: [Laughing] That's right. That's not to say you shouldn't gamble if you're visiting Vegas. I just meant if you live here. It's a wonderful form of entertainment.
Q: Speaking of those who live here, what would happen, say, if you ran into David Copperfield in a dark alley?
A: [Laughing] Well, magic is a small community. We all know each other. We are all friends. Penn and Teller called me a couple of weeks ago to borrow a dove. So I lent them one of my doves. I have things in my show that were originally other people's ideas.
Q: Is it unusual to have a mishap on stage?
A: When you work with animals, children or even props, stuff always happens that will surprise you. I've split my pants on stage, had birds fly into the audience, knocking over people's drinks. Even kids in the show, you just don't know what they're going to do. I had a little boy on stage a few months ago named Miles. He was from England. I said, "How old are you Miles?" He said, "Five." "Are you married?" "No." "Do you have a girlfriend?" "No." "Do you want a girlfriend from our show?" "No, no," he says. "We could never afford one of those." The audience was laughing for a minute, and there was nothing I could do.
Q: A magician once called you to the stage from the audience. Tell me about that.
A: When I was 5, the first magician I saw in Louisville was Harry Collins. I was the kid from the audience who came up on stage. At that age, you really don't understand the tricks. He was pulling coins out from behind my head, and I really thought there was money hidden behind my ears.
Q: What's better--to be the boy on stage captivated by the magic or the magician performing it?
A: When you study magic all your life you don't often get that feeling you got when you first saw it--that wonder, that amazement. I don't get that often now, although I still do once in a while when I see a great trick and say, "That's the greatest thing in the world."
When you're performing, you feed off of the audience's reaction. That's the goal, you want the audience to feel what you felt.