Reporting from Las Vegas — — Harrah's magician Mac King unexpectedly had the evening free — his wife was at the movies with friends and a babysitter already installed at home. He then realized the night, Aug. 19, was the third Thursday of the month: "I thought, 'Isn't tonight Wonderground?,' I could go and not subject my wife to anything magic."
So King headed to Olive, a Mediterranean restaurant and hookah lounge not too far from Wayne Newton's house, part of a nondescript suburban strip mall. Once a month, Olive is transformed, starting in the early afternoon and finishing just before opening to the public around 7, into Wonderground. A stage is added; various pieces of art (like a map of the United States made from 50 state license plates) are installed; large video screens are hung; a DJ platform is set up; a back room is outfitted with a table and chairs to accompany close-up magic; and equipment is brought in to broadcast the proceedings live on the Web.
When King arrived that night, a couple hundred audience members were already interacting with roving magicians, balloon twisters, a fire breather and a stilt walker. Behind King a woman wearing a formal dress and a black boa was blowing bubbles into the air from her Champagne glass. Next to King a body painter was at work covering a topless model in flowers. Meanwhile a magician from Argentina was on stage.
King, on his first trip to Wonderground, was in a state of shock. "Topless girls and magic is perfect for Vegas. Still it is hard to believe this is going on here in Las Vegas."
Or magician and Wonderground creator Jeff McBride's cliché of choice: "We are in Vegas, not of Vegas."
Of course, the presence of so many magicians alone screams Las Vegas; yet it is hard to imagine another Vegas entertainment offering that has a French intellectual-style manifesto. "The Wonderground Manifesto" argues for a vision of theater as communities, urging magical culture to mingle with "performing arts" and "night-culture." The manifesto concludes: "Each month, we encourage new creative expressions to deepen our relationships to our art and each other."
Chicago-based magician Eugene Burger (who counts King among his longtime fans) notes another important difference between Wonderground and a typical Vegas show: "Las Vegas is a town that is very focused on money. An event like this is really about people who love to perform. You perform to be part of the experience." Audience members pay $10 for admission that includes two drink tickets. A hat is passed around at the end of the night to gather money for the dozens of performers.
McBride created Wonderground as a private monthly gathering in 2003 (Olive is the third home for the event), and did not open the event to the public until 2008. In addition to theater, art and magic, McBride sees Wonderground as combining elements ranging from '60s happenings to '90s rave culture. "Magic is the community where many of us come from," he said. "But in Wonderground with the audience, once a month, we are joined with other artists and traditions."
McBride counts on word of mouth to grow the audience for the eclectic gathering. At the moment, he estimated about 250 people can be counted on to attend and he expects the number to grow.
McBride has been known for decades as a magician's magician. Based in Las Vegas, he travels the world lecturing on magic as well as performing. McBride also founded a school run from his home that offers seminars to improve professional magicians and highly practiced enthusiasts. Some of the faculty of McBride's Magic & Mystery School, like Burger, also choose to perform in Wonderground.
As a result, many magicians view Wonderground as the center of the Las Vegas magic community. Although McBride acknowledges the centrality of magic to Wonderground, he emphasizes the range of performers who participate. So, McBride and other magicians for August's Wonderground shared the stage with a dancing troupe from Rhode Island, a local slam poet, a one-man band playing an instrument of his own invention, a trio of belly dancers and a model wearing a dress made entirely from balloons.
Magician Lawrence Hass has a day job as a philosophy professor at Austin College in Texas. He is also on the faculty of McBride's magic school. After performing, Hass noted that he sees in Wonderground one feature that stands out from every offering at a casino. "No matter how much fun you have in Vegas at a casino, most people will leave as losers. But Wonderground is an event that everyone can feel good about when it is over. This is meant to create joy."
Maybe so, though being in Vegas and of Vegas, Olive does have a few video gambling machines in the back of the room.