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A slighting of hands? Magician hopes not : Dale Salwak knows conjuring U.S. visits for N. Korean illusionists won't be an easy trick.

October 09, 2009|Bob Pool

For his next magic trick, Dale Salwak is going to attempt to pull international diplomacy out of his hat.

That is the plan for the La Verne college professor, who has found that getting in and out of North Korea requires some sleight of hand.

Salwak teaches English literature by day at Citrus College and performs illusions at night at places such as Hollywood's Magic Castle. His skill at floating mysterious zombie balls in the air and turning silk scarves into exploding flowers earned him an invitation earlier this year to visit the secretive Asian nation.

His six-day stay in Pyongyang in April prompted him to attempt to organize an exchange program that will lead to visits by North Korean magicians to this country.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, November 26, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
North Korean art festival: An article in the Oct. 9 Section A about illusionist Dale Salwak's participation in North Korea's Spring Friendship Art Festival said it is held biannually. The festival takes place every two years.

Salwak has no illusions that such visits will be easy to pull off.

"Traveling to North Korea is not a simple matter. One doesn't just buy a ticket, hop on an airplane and fly there," he said. "It took two years to sort out the regulations and the logistics. Travel in and out of North Korea is always supervised by the highest echelon of government."

Officially, the 62-year-old Salwak was attending the 26th Spring Friendship Art Festival, which is held biannually by the Kim Jong-il government to promote "friendship, solidarity, exchange and cooperation" among musicians, dancers, acrobats and other performers.

Salwak's invitation was arranged by several South Korean magicians who were acquainted with him. He was the only American among 680 performers from Asia and Europe.

"When I arrived, I was told to 'act as if you're always being watched, because you are.' We were given a list of dos and don'ts -- 'don't express your feelings, don't talk about politics' -- and told we'd have to turn over our cellphones. We weren't allowed to take telescopic camera lenses, we could bring no books or magazines. We turned over our passports when we arrived."

Salwak was assigned two young college-student "managers" who were at his side every time he stepped from his hotel. They spoke fluent English and translated when he spoke with others. They also supervised the two-minute phone calls he was allowed to make from the hotel.

Nonetheless, he came to respect his escorts. "I knew how I behaved, what I said, would reflect on my managers," he said. "So I was extra careful."

The visitors had no direct contact with regular Pyongyang residents, although they saw blocks-long lines of people waiting for buses as their group was driven through the capital, he said.

Salwak said the visiting magicians took in several North Korean magic shows and performed twice themselves. He said he staged his own impromptu 20-minute card-trick exhibition for two dozen dining room workers when he showed up early for breakfast at the hotel.

He said he hopes to arrange for the North Korean magicians' American visit in time for them to attend a planned International Brotherhood of Magicians convention next July in San Diego. He said there will be no restrictions on where they go or whom they talk to.

"I've started by writing a letter and sending it through the appropriate channels. We'll see what happens," Salwak said.

Along with giving North Koreans an opportunity to perform here, Salwak envisions holding a forum so that the visitors can discuss their views of the performing arts and their role in it.

Salwak, an English professor at Citrus College for 36 years, predicted such a visit would be a learning experience for all involved. It could also conjure up surprise for those in his literature classes on the Glendora campus.

"I think the majority of my students are unaware of my magic," he said. "I don't force magic on folks. There's no 'pick a card' in the classroom."

So they don't know that their professor first became hooked on magic at age 5, when he attended a friend's birthday party and asked the hired magician to teach him how to "change" a scarf's color by pulling it through his hand and how to make a 50-cent coin "vanish."

Nor do they realize he spends his spring breaks and summer vacations performing at magicians' conventions, clubs and casinos around the world, or that he is the published author of 22 books about literature or religion.

They never know what Salwak has up his sleeve.

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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