Jack Evans is a tricky fellow who based his life on deceiving people.
Evans says he’s a kid of almost 88 who never grew up. He now lives out his retirement in a comfortable Vista mobile home as a lifelong bachelor. He is tall, straight and slim. He walks with the stride of a middle-age golfer and has the tenor pipes of a home-plate umpire. He laughs with a merry cackle, reminiscent of young Mozart in “Amadeus.” There must be something to the second childhood thing.
Knowing all that about Evans, it’s clear the brother found his calling: He’s a magician.
His home has so many magic tricks, it might disappear. Ever nearby are boxes and drawers filled with “oh” and “ah” things to entertain a visitor, and probably even a meter reader who might happen by.
His “uniforms,” about a dozen of them, are neatly hung in a closet, looking ready to wear. All were sewn by the artist himself and are gaudy as a psychedelic rainbow.
An onstage sidekick is a red dragon that sits on his shoulder; he can move it like a puppet due to an ingenious series of hidden pulleys. The man’s enthusiasm might exhaust you, but it will not bore you.
Evans was born in Roundup, Mont., and grew up in that snowy clime, a place metaphoric of the first girl who sensibly rejected my clumsiness — beautiful but frigid.
He carried a rifle toward the end of World War II in Europe but never had to perform with it for a Wehrmacht audience.
Then in 1946, Uncle Sam pulled a discharge out of that starry top hat and cut him loose. What then to do? Open a gas station in Helena? Go out on the range to round up doggies? Evans chose to be himself, which meant to get up before people and make them laugh and love him. His desire — need — to entertain is irrepressible. He would probably make a rabbit appear at a condo board meeting.
He first learned magic from his great-grandfather who was an amateur but really good, he says. Evans was smitten early and started learning the art like your child learns the piano — practice, and then practice the practice. He was doing what he loved.
Well, he had to love it, because his first job was performing for the public school circuit in Wyoming, Colorado and the Dakotas — in midwinter. On the upside, he sometimes gave four shows a day; the downside, he made $11 per show.
“One time, the snow was so deep we couldn’t get to the town. They sent a horse-drawn hayrack; they packed up all my stuff and took me to the school.
“Another time, the school burned down the day before, so they put us in the town theater that night, and the whole town came to see the show.”
After a year traveling that back-roads circuit, Evans took off his parka for a New York drama school and a season in summer stock, then a TV show in Montana. Eventually, he got big-time ideas and departed for Los Angeles, where he earned a place onstage at the Magic Castle. That’s the Carnegie Hall of prestidigitation (a rather silly word; magicians should make it disappear).
The prestige of being part of the Magic Castle troupe was the ticket to a decade of performing virtually nonstop on cruise lines — first Princess then Royal Viking. He spent the ’70s floating the seven seas, and also floating in happiness: every night an audience of cruisers, just happy to be there. It allowed him in his travels to meet the pope and Jack Lemmon. The pope was interesting, but Lemmon? Wow!
How good was Evans? From listening to him, and putting it in baseball terms, I would guess he was maybe Triple-A in his prime. But he says that ranking might have been his choice. While he was entertaining retired Iowa farmers off the coast of Jamaica, his competitors’ agents were begging to get their guys on Jay Leno. Big edge to the agents. Life is full of choices, and he says he wouldn’t undo the ones he made.
Now, we get down to the meat of the magician’s mystery. How do those tricks work? No magician is eager to tell those secrets, but Evans proves persuadable.
He gleefully describes in detail how some of the best known tricks are done, and I, in turn, promise to enlighten readers. Later, however, he has second thoughts and implores me not to reveal those sacred secrets. “If that got out, I’d be an outcast, and probably kicked out of the magic club.”
I make a final stab at it: “Jack, you knew you were being interviewed, and the recorder was running.”
“People have been blackballed for telling those things,” he says.
Oh, well, OK.
Evans is a fellow of good humor but not of what you could call current humor, if you get my drift. The jokes he repeats from his shows are 1950s cornball. (Please, Jack, I’m just doing my job.)
He doesn’t enjoy working in front of children, because the cynical little devils are quick to say of his tricks, “I know how you did that,” and, worse, they don’t get his jokes.
Since he left the cruise lines to handle family sickness, he has worked clubs and parties in Southern California, not getting rich, but making people laugh, which is wealth to him.
Slowly, he made his dates smaller and longer apart until he now performs in his memories.
Evans is working on a self-published memoir to be called “Don’t Fool Yourself: That’s My Business.” He wants to make sure it’s mentioned. An artist who doesn’t self-promote stays as visible as a nighttime mole.
He looks back at his years onstage and says, “I’ve made a comfortable living, but I’ve also spent a lifetime entertaining people and brought happiness into their lives. That’s the best paycheck.”
When you see someone for whom a beam of sunshine never leaves their face, you wonder if it’s not a mask, hiding all the scars common to Hamlet’s mortal coil. However, I think people of perpetual happiness do exist, though rare as an albino crow. Unless joy is a trick out of his bag, Evans may be such a person.
When Evans’ last audience has gone home and the stage lights have dimmed to black, on that day his disappearing act will no longer be a trick. Jack Evans will exit his stage, leaving behind that happy cackle as the last laugh.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org