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Love of magic never gets old

Profile: Mark and Nani Wilson, of Valencia, are living proof magic appeals to everyone

Posted: August 21, 2010 4:11 p.m.
Updated: August 22, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Nani Darnell Wilson and husband, Mark Wilson, of Valencia, demonstrate a popular magic trick at their office in Valencia. Pioneers in early television, Mark and Nani brought the popular show — “The Magic Land of Allakazam” — to Los Angeles television in 1960. The show lasted five years.

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Mark Wilson couldn’t count the times he’s levitated his wife in mid-air. He’s performed the illusion on television, for a live audience, at theme parks and even in his warehouse for photo shoots.

The trick is one of his favorites. But the magic doesn’t stop there.

Just as Wilson would remove the drape from his wife’s floating body, she’d vanish. Seconds later, she’d reappear behind the audience and run back onto the stage.

“The fact that she floats in the air and then vanishes while in the air is a very strong effect,” said Wilson. “Then the fact that she reappears from the back makes it even stronger.”

It’s a magical performance Wilson and his wife, Nani Darnell Wilson, dazzled their audiences with for decades, and its one of hundreds of illusions and tricks Wilson brought to television in the 1960s.

A hospital stay last year put a damper on Wilson’s world-wide performances. After publishing a top-selling magic instruction book, creating his own television magic show and inspiring dozens of young magicians, he could have called it quits.

After all, many others at the age of 81 would find it an opportune time to retire — but for Mark and Nani Wilson, magic never gets old.

Even 50 years after Wilson’s first magic show premiered on TV, the seasoned magician is still exploring new realms of magic.

He and Nani’s latest venture revolves around the Internet.

The Valencia couple launched Mark Wilson’s Magic University online. The website hosts a subscription-based magic instruction program complete with video demonstrations.

“Just like we pioneered magic on television, I’m hopeful we can pioneer magic on the Internet,” he said.

The young magician
Magic hooked Wilson at the age of 8. Not long after he witnessed his first magic show in Indiana, he was splurging his allowance money — $1 per week — on magic.

By the age of 12, he was working part-time at Douglas Magic Land in Dallas, Texas.

Vaudeville and full-evening magic shows were a remnant of the past — names like Houdini and Blackstone had faded into magic’s hall of fame.

But Wilson knew he was on to something when he engaged his first professional audience, a Rotary Club, at age 13.

By high school, he was making up to $5 a day as the Magic Land shop’s only demonstrator. Come college, Wilson went off to southern Methodist University’s School of Business Administration to major in advertising and marketing.

Wilson was confident he would make a career out of selling his magic, even if others in his life — like his father — didn’t see it right away.

“I wanted to sell a magic television series,” he said.

All four Dallas television stations at the time declined.

They told him magic wouldn’t work on television — the public would likely mistake the illusions for trick photography and special effects.

But Wilson thought otherwise — people would know magic when they saw it.

Wilson realized he was breaking new ground, but he knew all he needed was a fresh marketing strategy — if he could sell a sponsor on his magic, he would find a way in.

Television magic
There are two parts to doing magic, Wilson said. The first is performing the magic and the second is selling the show.

“It’s satisfying the needs of the customer — in our case — the sponsor,” he said.

With the help of Nani Darnell — an American Airlines stewardess who Wilson wed after college, Wilson was able to sell and present his first TV magic series.

They hooked Dr. Pepper.

“Time for Magic,” sponsored by the soda company, debuted in 1954 and became Dallas’ highest rated daytime show. His next target was Los Angeles. Again, he faced rejection.

What worked in Texas wouldn’t work in the entertainment capital of the world, L.A. station producers told him.

Again, the Wilsons wouldn’t have it. A call from Kellogg Cereal Company led to a fully sponsored CBS Saturday morning program.

“The Magic Land of Allakazam” began Oct. 1, 1960  as America’s first network magic television series. The show set a standard for magic on television, Wilson said.

Keeping the secrets

The ’60s, ’70s and ’80s brought a flurry of activity for the Wilsons, including six one-hour “Magic Circus” television specials and a syndicated series “The Magic of Mark Wilson,” co-starring Nani and the couple’s son Greg, 12.

Wilson wrote “The Complete Course in Magic,” selling more than 850,000 copies. The book was translated into Italian, French, Chinese and Russian.

The family toured the world, performing at theme parks, fairs, expositions, schools and much more.

“Magic is universal and international,” Wilson said. “It’s universal because you can entertain any age — children, adults or seniors. You can perform it in any country whether you speak their language or not.”

Magic’s entertainment may be open to all, but its secrets are not.

“If you like magic and you learn the secret, you don’t want to tell anybody else,” Nani Wilson said.

Before Nani met her husband she had no interest in magic. However, she was a performer who had travelled the world as a dancer — so assisting her husband on stage or television came naturally.

And once she learned the secrets to her husband’s trade, her lips were sealed.

“(Revealing) the secret would just ruin the entertainment,” she said. “So the people who learn the secrets don’t want to divulge them.”

Leaving a legacy
Paul Gross was 5 when he was beckoned to the living room by his mother — on the TV was the first episode of “The Magic Land of Allakazam.”

“I didn’t miss an episode after that,” he said.

Prior to watching the show, Gross had never heard of — or seen magic.

“It was just so unique — I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Gross said.

Gross couldn’t find any books on magic at any local libraries or bookstores. He began keeping a list of the tricks Mark and Nani Wilson performed on their show. The young man followed the Wilsons’ work, including television and live performances as he grew up.

Gross opened up a magic store in Fresno when he was 18. Decades later, the Fresno resident is celebrating 37 years as a successful magician and owner of the Hocus Pocus shop.

He owes his success to Mark and Nani Wilson, he said.

“I wouldn’t be in this business if it wasn’t for the two of them,” Gross said.  “As children or adults we have heroes, people we look up to.  They’re my magic heroes.” 

He met the couple about nine years ago, and in the years since they have formed a close personal and business relationship.

“I feel blessed and lucky to call them my friends,” he said.

There are two generations of Mark Wilson admirers — those that grew up watching him on television and those who were introduced to his magic through his book.

Santa Clarita Valley magician Bryan Hoffman is in the latter group. Hoffman received the book as a Father’s Day gift from his son in 2005.

“Like many magicians, I liked magic as a kid growing up but I didn’t get serious about it until 2005,” Hoffman.

Hoffman was impressed by the diverse spectrum of tricks and illusions demonstrated in the book.

“There is anything from simple-to-learn to more complex stuff — he has illusions in there you can build out of a washing machine box,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman was pleasantly surprised when he found out Wilson lived in the SCV. Not long after, he had the opportunity to meet and learn from Wilson at a meeting of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.

Hoffman is currently the president of the SCV club — named The Mark Wilson Ring.

Never-ending magic
Amidst the blocks of traditional business offices in a Valencia industrial park sits Wilson’s office. 

Shelf displays crowded with retired and antique tricks line the walls. Black-and-white photos that capture Mark as he levitates his wife are scattered throughout the office. 

Boxes of glittery costumes and life-size illusion contraptions — created by the Wilsons — fill the warehouse.

In one corner sits the famous “Train.” Wilson would place Nani in the train, slide a divider down the middle and roll two parts of the train away from each other giving the illusion Nani’s body had been divided into two.

“I was in this train hundreds of times,” Nani said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this throughout the world. It was kind of our signature piece.”

The “train” is an illusion tool the Wilsons would never let anyone else use — until now. At the end of September, Greg Wilson will perform the train illusion at The Magic Castle.

Greg, 45, is now a magician. The Wilson’s oldest son, Michael, is a producer.

From Sept. 27 through Oct. 3, friends and family will join the Wilsons to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “The Magic Land of Allakazam.”

The couple continues to teach lectures and magic demonstrations. Mark and Nani Wilson can’t imagine they will ever stop doing magic.

“As long as you keep creating, inventing, doing and selling, then the business works — everything continues,” Wilson said.
“It’s never-ending.”

Mark Wilson’s office phone number is (661) 257-6070. His website is www.markwilsonmagic.com. The Magic University’s website is www.markwilsonmagicuniversity.com.

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