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By Chuck Strouse
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It isn't the rabbit living in his bathroom, the videotape he sent to Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, the three shots of Jägermeister he had as a lunch appetizer, the Eighties hair band pictures carpeting his walls, or his habit of making Marlboro Lights vanish in midsmoke. It isn't even, really, his cryptic answer to the basic reportorial question: What is your name? "Let's just leave it at Trixx," he said tersely.
No, the man who calls himself Michael Trixx is so damn perplexing because of his brazen cocksurety.
He is roundish, long-haired, profoundly tattooed, and a chain-smoker. Looking, talking, and partying like a bloated Kid Rock, 36-year-old Trixx, who shares a cramped one-bedroom trailer (not a double-wide) with Hocus Pocus (his rabbit) and five birds, was sprawled out on his couch one afternoon this past May, explaining with stone-faced seriousness and absolute lucidity the Michael Trixx Website, the Michael Trixx T-shirts ($15), the upcoming DVD, and the master plan to expand the Trixx brand from its seasonal headquarters in Islamorada to a national audience.
At one point he wobbled up from his perch on a couch and put in a videotape. It was Criss Angel, the star of A&E's show Mindfreak. Angel, a buff, hard-edged longhair with a rough Long Island accent, seemingly walked on air, hovering at least 30 feet over a parking lot. A small crowd watched from below, awestruck. Trixx shook his head respectfully. "He's pretty much the only one who's kind of got a rock style. Kind of like me. But not really."
Twenty minutes later, Trixx, seeking to demonstrate his own sorcery, walked outside into the midafternoon quietude of the Sea Breeze mobile home park, a mish-mash of ramshackle trailers and half-trailers within earshot of Overseas Highway.
He placed a small coffee table on the ground. He grimaced and his eyes bulged as he seemingly used mind control to lift the table off the ground for about 30 seconds.
He lowered it. It appeared normal weighing about ten pounds.
A middle-age man in a tank top walked toward him.
Trixx turned toward the table, his eyes bulging again. The table rose and hovered about a foot off the ground. Trixx's hands were at least two feet from it.
The man, a neighbor, watched, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Anywhere I go," Trixx said later, "I'll attract attention. I can amaze people."
The Friday-night crowd at Snook's Bayside didn't look like the type Trixx would amaze let alone amuse.
Snook's is classic Keys; a bar/seafood restaurant overlooking the water on the bay side of Key Largo. About 30 people were there mostly older couples and families. They were vacationers catching the sunset, relaxing after another sun-blasted day, deciding whether to order grouper or yellowtail snapper. It was Margaritaville mellow, and the entertainment matched the mood an older guy was wailing out easy hits. (Think Lionel Richie or Jimmy Buffett.)
Then the longhair arrived. He was wearing a leather vest and a top hat, and lugging a magic trunk. He quickly erected a stage prop. It was a huge hand-painted mural of himself. He held Hocus Pocus in one hand and a fiery torch in the other.
After a brief "Hello, Snook's," Trixx declared that music gets him "fired up" to do magic. He promptly cranked Aerosmith. Mouthing the words to "Walk This Way" and with the wave of a finger, Trixx transformed a flame into a white flower. Then he strutted across the stage to a Black Sabbath tune as he rapidly folded and unfolded a newspaper; a bird appeared.
Most of the tricks were set to rock; many were about the wonders of drinking and smoking. It was a parent's nightmare.
He grabbed a shot glass, poured in some Jack Daniel's, and placed it under a cup. It multiplied. Two shots. Trixx smiled broadly and then downed one of the shots. To the AC/DC classic "Have a Drink on Me," he tried a levitation trick. It was the table maneuver, except this time, the object hovering in midair was a glass filled with Budweiser. Next he did a riff of smoking gags to the sounds of Mötley Crüe's "Smoking in the Boys Room."
The whole sweaty, smoky, boozy event lasted about 30 minutes. Trixx was right; it was, for sure, totally unique a bizarre kind of rock/magic hybrid.
But what was really bizarre came after the show. There was Trixx, a Hell's Angels-like creature who looks like he could eat small children, hopping from table to table, smiling and chatting amiably with old-timers and young moms, doing extra tricks for small children, collecting tips in his top hat.
Of his ability to entertain the seafood-eating, sport-fishing, retired-vacationer-from-Michigan crowd, Trixx said with his typically supreme confidence: "Anywhere I've been. Cape Cod. Sarasota. Upstate New York. I do it. I can play any crowd. I can make a name for myself anywhere."
But just a few weeks after the Snook's gig, Trixx, back in his trailer, said the days of playing for anyone anywhere might be ending. After ten years of toiling in the minor leagues of magic, he was ready.
"I love this," he added. "But I don't want to be drinking Jäger in the Keys when I'm 50."
On May 26, Trixx was preparing to hit the road. "Going to Baltimore on Monday to meet with Jeff McBride. He's huge. One of the best. If he likes me, he could really open doors." Then, the next week, Trixx was off to Boston to make his new DVD. Of this, he said, the goal was pretty obvious. "Vegas. Of course, Vegas. That's where every magician wants to play."
After leaving the trailer park, as he zoomed past the Island Grille restaurant (one of his steady gigs) in his battered '93 Ford Explorer, after he had talked about plans to shock the Keys (a Houdini-style stunt), and his Vegas strategy, Trixx added with an almost sweet softness: "I finally found something that I'm really good at."
As he drove away, it was difficult not to wonder: Is he really good at this? Is it possible that a guy who has spent six years pulling rabbits out of hats at the likes of Snook's Bayside and the Island Grille, who couldn't look less like David Copperfield, actually make it to ... the Bellagio? Is it conceivable that, with this rock/magic thing, he's on to something, a new genre, the successor to rock/rap?
Also, how the hell did he lift that table?
The president of the Magic City Conjurers is Merlina, who goes by Maria Ibanez among laypeople. After she dropped several references to obscure early twentieth-century magicians, called Doug Henning "my hero," and said she, like any serious magician, will inevitably go to Queens to make a pilgrimage to Houdini's grave, it seemed patently obvious: If anyone in South Florida can make sense of the Trixx testimony, it is the Society of American Magicians Chapter 280, the Magic City Conjurers.
The Conjurers gather once a month in a small back room at the Steak and Ale just off the turnpike in Kendall. Trixx didn't show for the June 15 gathering, but if he had, he would have been obvious like, say, Kid Rock at an opera. The group was overwhelmingly male ("At least 95 percent of magicians are," Merlina said), older (50-plus), and retired. Most were dressed in street clothes, but two fellows were ready for Vegas: One wore slick Miami Vice-style threads; another sported the stereotypical tuxedo. Most of the Conjurers had names like Brazilian soccer stars: Herbini, Pepe, Mordeeb, Fantasio. It was a small crowd only 20 of the 60 members but there were all kinds of magicians: mind readers, coin tricksters, manipulators.
Around 8:30 p.m., after a prime-rib dinner, some administrative business, and side jokes (Mordeeb kept making balls disappear and saying, "I don't know what it is.... I can't stop playing with my balls), Merlina took control and kicked off an hour-long show. Good times, for sure. Mind-reading by Merlina, coin tricks by Herbini, a slapstick set by Rene, an elegant linking rings show by Sabu. A lecture on money trickery by Phil "The Money Man" LaBush.
But as for Trixx? Bupkes. Merlina had never heard of him. Nor had Pepe and Fantasio. Herbini, though, when asked later, was dimly aware of him. He knew Trixx lived in Islamorada and had a "rock and roll" connection.
Still, the Steak and Ale trip yielded two crucial bits of information:
First, Trixx's refusal to discuss his vanishing cigarette or table levitation tricks that's standard. Magicians are close-lipped. In fact Merlina had warned the Conjurers that a layperson (nonmagician) was present. Whenever the magicians discussed a trick, they did so in code. Merlina's mind-reading stunt was explained, cryptically, as "a modification of the Steinmayer Principle." This is because all members of the Society of American Magicians must take the Magician's Oath, which binds them to "never reveal the secret of an illusion" nor "perform any illusion for a nonmagician without first practicing it to the point where the illusion of magic can be maintained."
Second, it was abundantly evident that, among this secret society, there was a hierarchy. Novice magicians, such as Sandy Gonzalez, didn't perform or have a magic name. Then there were the part-timers, who for decades had been practicing on nieces and nephews and doing part-time gigs. They workshopped tricks. (Feedback among peer-level magicians was generally positive, although Pepe, a retired ad exec, was not pleased with the way Rene, a karate instructor, used an assistant during a gag.) Finally, though, at the top of the food chain were a handful of elites. For instance, when Ricardo Roucau an elegant, sixtyish-looking native of Argentina with perfectly coiffed hair walked into the room, several magicians turned, reverently. "That's Fantasio. You should talk with him.... He was on The Ed Sullivan Show nine times. He's played in Vegas...."
If Trixx had come that night, where would he have fit into the magical hierarchy? Was he a Sandy Gonzalez, a Herbini, a nascent Fantasio?
At least one Miami magician made comments suggesting that Trixx wasn't exactly on the Fantasio track.
Wil Golden formerly known as "The Liberace of Magic" and a graduate of Chavez College of Magic, the Harvard of its kind chortled at the notion that Trixx was unique. "Franz Harary," he said, as if it were self-evident. "Go see www.harary.com. He's very well known. He's rock."
Golden also cast doubt on Trixx's ritual of having a few drinks before getting onstage. "That's crazy," Golden howled. "Do you think David Copperfield has a few shots before his show? You can do magic drunk, but it wouldn't be good." He paused. "Maybe it's the heavy-metal thing."
Trixx talks about his burning passion for magic with the intensity of a recently converted Mormon. He has told the story of his epiphany hundreds of times. But eventually Trixx will concede: Magic is his back-up plan.
It's not difficult to guess his first career goal. You can hear it in his speech: "That's cool.... Dude.... Hot chicks.... Awesome." Then there's the hair, the tattoos, the drinking, the chain-smoking, the Mötley Crüe posters, the Aerosmith Christmas card. And, perhaps more than anything, there's the worship of Nikki Sixx, the Mötley Crüe bassist.
"I wanted to be Nikki Sixx," he says, like a high school football player remembering the dreamy days. That was before he began watching levitation instructional videos, before he knew how to produce rabbits. Back then Trixx had another name.
Michael Costa grew up the second of three children in Sandwich, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. His mom Betty worked as an aide at a school for the disabled, and his step-dad drove a cement truck. The name Costa is his stepfather's.
Back in the 1970s, young Mike was, from a very early age, "different," Betty Costa says. "Nothing like his brothers, Paul and Steve. He always wanted to be the center of attention." He quickly found a way of distinguishing himself: rock. He collected Kiss cards; he even started crude air-guitar maneuvers at age seven.
But his full-blown obsession began with Mötley Crüe's album Shout at the Devil. Costa became the first longhair in his school. (His mom jokes that his last haircut was in fourth grade.) He was also a precocious smoker who pushed the limits of his school's dress code. He wore spandex and ripped jeans. It was as a preteen that he picked up his interior design taste. "All rock," he says. All four walls and the ceiling in his room were devoted to Mötley Crüe posters. "One wall for each guy in the band," Trixx says.
Costa, though, wasn't content with being a look-alike or a rabid fan. In eighth grade, he buddied up with Blaine Perry, a fellow metalhead from another middle school, to form his first band. "I was like Tommy Lee," says Perry, a drummer. "And he was Nikki Sixx."
It didn't take long, though, for Perry to notice a problem with his best friend. "He looked right, had brilliant facial expressions. He partied like a rock star," Perry said. "But he just wasn't getting better.... Let's be honest. He sucked."
Still, Costa wanted to rock badly. He played with a Boston-area band, Cry 'N Out Loud. They toured New England and planned to record a CD. But that crumbled. Then he followed a girlfriend to Sarasota. There he got a job working the salad bar at an Outback Steakhouse and began jamming with local bands. "I wasn't making much money, but I was still a rock musician."
The night of Costa's magic epiphany was, he says, in December 1995. Shortly after finishing a jam session, Costa began winding down, as usual, with a smoke. He was joined by a fan whom he refers to only as the Kid. While they were talking, the Kid took his lit cigarette and with a quick hand gesture made it vanish. Moments later the cigarette reappeared. Costa was fascinated. "What was that? How'd you do it?" The Kid refused to tell him. But Costa persisted. He offered a bribe: "Ten bucks. Twenty." He even pleaded: "Dude, I don't wanna be a magician. I'm just a bass player who smokes a lot. I wanna do this at parties." Finally the Kid accepted $40 and then spent two hours explaining the trick.
The following day, the rocker and his new sensei went to Sarasota's only magic store. Costa showed his new tricks to some co-workers. They were amazed. "The reaction was unbelievable," he recalls.
By the time he returned home to Cape Cod just six weeks later, Costa had a new identity.
"Everyone was surprised. I mean, Mike the magician?" Perry says. "It was weird."
Costa's mom was amused by her son's new tricks, but admitted a tinge of concern when he declared so assuredly that he was going to be a magician. Also, a fear soon grew in the Costa house. The first time Betty saw her son perform, at a Cape Cod club, he struggled. "Oh my god," she says, recalling the sight. He was dropping props and did such a poor job concealing the magic that Mike's step-dad, Steve, figured out the secrets to the tricks. "We were very worried," Betty says. "I wasn't sure if magic was the right decision."
But Mike was committed.
Don't be seduced by David Copperfield's salary ($57 million), the extravagance of a Siegfried and Roy stage show, or the Monte Carlo Casino's lavish courtship of a magician (Lance Burton was given his very own $27 million theater there). Of the roughly 10,000 self-proclaimed magicians in the United States, an overwhelming number is part-time or does it as a hobby. In South Florida, of the roughly 100 serious magicians, Magic City Conjurers president Maria Ibanez estimates, less than ten make a living entirely on magic.
The reason: Gigs are hard to come by. The last magic club in South Florida, Bill Malone's Magic Bar in Boca Raton, folded more than two years ago. Nowadays performers are forced to be creative working libraries, condo association meetings, weddings, bar mitzvahs.
Even the elites aren't raking it in. Golden, who has performed on Showtime and has won scads of magic competitions, says, "I never could survive by performing alone." His income is augmented by building illusions and inventing tricks for other magicians. His copyrighted match trick, "Perfect Strike," for instance, is sold online and at magic stores.
Superstar magician Jeff McBride, who struggled for years, puts it bluntly: "If you're a full-time magician in the United States, you are extremely lucky."
Prospects are gloomiest for newcomers; most need to spend years before they get a paying gig.
But in 1996, Trixx caught a break that most magicians never get.
Riley's Comedy Club in Sandwich the place where he seemingly flopped gave him a steady gig. Most club owners and goers couldn't tell the difference between good and bad magic. But they liked rock 'n' magic. Trixx would lay down a track of Aerosmith or Mötley Crüe and then do every trick he knew. "I'd make $125 a night. I just started ... and I got paid to practice," says Trixx, snickering at his good luck.
Another incredible break: A truck driver for Budweiser saw Trixx's show. He told his boss, who told a marketing person. Less than a year after performing his first sleight of hand, Trixx had a sponsor. He added a few beer-oriented bottle tricks, traveled New England, and earned even more money from magic.
Meanwhile, Perry says, there was another side effect to Trixx's magic. "It was getting a little irritating. He loved the attention; he always wanted to be the center of attention, and he found the way. Anywhere he'd go, it was the Mike show. I'd say, come on, let's just hang out. He couldn't resist. He always wanted to sneak in a trick."
Trixx was always in character always on and that's what earned him his unusual job: the only full-time magician in the Middle Keys.
In the winter of 1998, while visiting a buddy in Islamorada, Trixx busted out a few of his tricks. As usual, people began watching including the manager of The Lorelei, a restaurant. Later that night, John Maloughney, amazed by the vanishing-cigarette trick, offered Trixx a gig: He could hop from table to table for tips. "Everyone seemed to love it. Families, old people," says Maloughney. "No one else around here had a magician."
Trixx's real break, though, came the following year. Back in the Keys, for a short stint at the Lorelei, he found a nearly uninhabitable trailer that was vacant. The walls were caving in. "But this lady said if I fixed it up, I could I live there for $295 a month," Trixx recalls.
With a permanent place in the Keys, Trixx began adding more gigs. He worked the Island Grille in Islamorada, and Snook's Bayside in Key Largo. On a good night, Trixx says, he could pull in $400. On a disastrous night, "I'd still get $150 or $200."
Trixx had seemingly found nirvana: a cheap place to live in tourist land. "There are new people coming down all the time. I didn't have to change my tricks that much." In fact, aside from an annual migration up north, he rarely even strayed beyond the Middle Keys. He didn't even play Marathon that much. "I didn't have to," Trixx says.
But the sweet life got a jolt last year. Neighbors at the Sea Breeze began whispering that developers were planning to buy the trailer park.
This was a wake-up call. "I always knew I had to take my career to the next level," Trixx says.
It was time to go to Vegas.
The magician's world has its holy spots. There is the Magic Circle, the storied and secretive London club where magicians have gathered since 1905; and the Magic Castle, a legendary private club nestled in the Hollywood Hills. Then there's the Houdini gravesite in Queens.
But the undisputed capital of the magic world is Las Vegas. "Vegas is to magicians what Hollywood is to actors," Golden says. The desert mecca has the most and best magicians, and the biggest shows. Unsurprisingly it's the hardest place to crack. In September of last year, Trixx took his first trip to the hub. He wasn't there for sightseeing or gambling.
He had performed for close to ten years in virtual isolation. "I'm all self-taught," Trixx says with a rock and roller's pride. He bought his tricks on the Internet; he'd throw away the instructions and try to figure them out himself. He thought he was fast. Maybe he had a gift. But Trixx knew that all great magicians from Houdini to Burton to Copperfield have mentors.
So he signed up for a week-long class hosted by Jeff McBride and Eugene Burger. The students spent four hours each day studying different genres of magic and analyzing magicians' presentational skills. The week culminated with a critical evaluation.
The result: "I had to rework my entire show."
Two months later, in October 2005, Trixx was sweating backstage at a comedy club in Macon, Georgia. He was prepping to open for a comedian named the Disgruntled Clown.
The thought of talking onstage terrified him. But this was McBride's chief instruction: "Tell your story." For his whole career, Trixx had been Teller, the mute, and now he was trying to be Penn, the gabby one.
Though Trixx usually loosens up with a drink, this time, he says, "I had a few extra. That helped a lot." Then he went onstage, and unveiled Trixx 2.0.
"It rocked," says Trixx, "like never before. Amazing. They were going crazy."
Not long after the raucous applause, the club's owner approached him. There was going to be a change. Trixx not the clown would be the headliner the next night.
When he went on, he again got a huge response from the Georgia crowd.
As he headed back to the Keys, after a week-long run, he had a new fantasy. He wasn't jamming with Tommy Lee in front of thousands. He was pulling rabbits out of hats in front of roaring fans in Vegas.
During the next five months, Trixx prepared. He performed new tricks for his Keys audiences, his music was increasingly tied to the action (when doing smoking tricks, he played "Smoking in the Boys Room"), and he honed his story.
He booked studio time.
In 1998, Trixx mailed a videotape of one of his shows to Mötley Crüe's Tommy Lee and then-wife Pamela Anderson. A week later he received an e-mail from Lee and gratis backstage passes to the Crüe's next show.
This past June 21, Trixx went into a studio north of Boston to record a new DVD that would have more riding on it than a backstage pass. Talent scouts would see it, as would casinos and club owners and television booking agents and other magicians. Trixx planned on sending it first to his teacher, McBride. "If he likes it, shit, that could change everything," he said. And then he would roll it out. "Conan, Letterman, Leno...."
The Trixx DVD arrived in Miami and Vegas on June 27. It was 32 minutes long, had more than twenty tricks, included the story of Trixx's magical conversion, and was backed by snippets of twelve songs (all rock, except for themes from The Pink Panther and Sanford and Son). He used four doves, one rabbit, two cigarettes, two shot glasses, one bottle of Jack Daniel's, and at least eight beer bottles. There was some levitation.
McBride reviewed his student's work. He praised Trixx's technique, his gags, and the voice. "It's like adding lyrics to music," McBride said, gushing. "Trixx has such a unique style. He can bring magic to an audience which so needs magic." He concluded. "It's just a matter of time. I envision him as an opening act for rock bands. And yes, I think Vegas is a possibility for him."
Trixx was understandably ecstatic. "That's so awesome," he said.
But McBride was, after all, his teacher his paid teacher. The rocker had spent $1200 to attend the McBride School of Magic. Ultimately the only way to truly get a sense of Trixx's magic was to scrutinize the video with the hard eye of a magician.
George Iglesias, a.k.a. Mago George, comes with strong references from Miami's magic elite Merlina, Wil, and Fantasio. A star magician in his native Peru, he moved here last year. Why? It was a first step toward his ultimate goal: Vegas.
A shared Vegas lust is one reason he's a good evaluator for Trixx. Then there's the 27-year-old's bio. As a teen, he was the protégé of Jorge Lam, a legendary Chinese-Peruvian magician. Per the instruction of his mentor, a fourteen-year-old George spent five hours a day standing in front of a mirror, practicing his technique. "So I could move my hands faster than the eye," he says. By age 21, he'd created Peru's first school of magic. In brief, George was ideal a hard-core magic geek.
George, who is tall with spiky hair and looks like he could be in a boy band, reviewed Trixx 2.0 at his sister's house in Kendall. Like Simon Cowell, he pulled no punches. At times during the viewing, he couldn't resist breaking the magician's code. "Ugh," he said during a bird trick, "he should have placed the fake hand on the other side of the bag."
He groaned when Trixx produced a beer bottle. "That's so old." Yet he smiled at the musical choices and listened attentively to Trixx's speaking parts. Some maneuvers he called "pretty clean"; other times he'd frown and say, "That was dirty."
"The guy's got potential. He's got a good character and good energy and lots of tricks. But he needs a story," George said. "You see how we were getting tired of watching tricks? He needs something to tie it together. For Vegas?" He paused. "He's not even close. Years. Maybe ten years."
Ten years. That was astonishing. George shrugged. "This is magic."
He then smiled and told a story about Lu Chen, a Taiwanese magician who, he said, "blew people away at the International Brotherhood of Magicians convention." After Lu performed brilliantly he turned a cell phone into a dove George approached him and asked how long he'd been working on the act. "Seven years," George said. "And that was an eight-minute act!"
"If he wants to play in Vegas, he's got to put in the time. At least ten years."
Trixx was on the road, in Waupaca, a small town in northern Wisconsin, when he was told of Mago George's prediction. "Ten years," he said, "I've got ten years. I'm doing this for the rest of my life."
Trixx conceded the DVD wasn't going to Letterman and Leno just yet. "I'm going to do it again," he said. McBride had e-mailed him with a more detailed critique, suggesting improvements. "There will be no more smoking tricks."
In the meantime, he was prepping for a return to the Keys. It'll be year number eight; the usual gigs were in place. He was thinking about other places to live.
And this year Trixx is concocting a surprise: a major stunt. All he will disclose is that it involves a crane and hanging over the water off Islamorada. "It's an escape," he says. "As far I know, no one has ever done that in the Middle Keys."