An international squad of escape artists, grand illusionists, mind readers and tricksters descended on San Quentin State Prison for a special Nov. 26 performance right before Thanksgiving.
Set to make their Broadway San Francisco debut later that night, Champions of Magic chose to first visit SQ and dazzle prisoners with theatrical wizardry and humor.
“On paper, I’m sure a room full of 300-plus criminals seems terrifying,” said Los Angeles magician Kayla Drescher. “But we didn’t view anyone we met as their crime or their number.
“We were just happy to meet and perform for a great audience of human beings.”
The British duo Young and Strange opened the SQ show with their original signature illusion.
“We weren’t sure what equipment to bring inside the prison,” said Richard Young. “We came up with this trick when we were two broke teenagers—nothing but cardboard and some sharp wood.”
With a bit of slapstick and comedic flare, Sam Strange got Young squeezed into a standard-looking cardboard box.
“Caution—Heavy Load,” Strange read the label, taking a jab at his partner’s somewhat portly girth.
Strange then thrust 17 spears, one after another, straight through the box from all sides. Young’s hand popped out the top—waving a white flag in surrender.
Strange drove one last spear smack down the center, a maniacal grin across his face. The standing-room-only chapel crowd “oohed” in amazement at how Young could be in there.
Young gladly emerged after Strange pulled each and every stick out. It was clear the holes left behind went through-and-through.
Mentalist Alex McAleer, another Brit, took the stage next. “I don’t read palms or talk to the dead,” he said. “I talk to the living.”
He selected Tony DeTrinidad and Brian Holliday from the audience.
“I can see you wondering, ‘How can this British guy read my mind? Will it hurt?’”
McAleer turned his back to each prisoner while they answered specific questions on slips of paper. DeTrinidad was asked to think of one simple word.
Holliday wrote down the name of someone he cared about. “Put some other personal information about them on there, too,” said McAleer. “Not too fast—nice and slowly for me. I’m a performer. I’m very needy.”
The answers were placed in envelopes and sealed behind McAleer’s back then handed to Tommy Wickerd in the front row.
McAleer soon voiced DeTrinidad’s word choice—“pasta.” Wickerd tore open the envelope to confirm it.
McAleer then focused on Holliday. “This is a bit more difficult. Close your eyes,” he told him. “I can tell you’re picturing it. The name starts with a ‘K.’ Am I right? And I think you gave the age, too.”
The mind reader then told the crowd about Holliday’s 21-year-old sister, Karen.
“I’m still trying to figure out how he did it. There’s no way he saw me writing any of that stuff,” Holliday said later. “Guys on the yard keep asking me if I was in on the trick.”
Fernando Velasco, the 21-year-old magician from El Grullo, Mexico, was up next.
“There’s a number of things you need to be an escape artist,” he said.
From her front row seat, Lisa Strawn volunteered to help bind Velasco securely with plastic wrap and duct tape.
“Don’t worry—I got this,” said Strawn. “I’ll make sure he’s good and tight.”
The other magicians began raising a four-sided curtain, yet almost instantly Velasco stopped them before they could finish. He’d gotten free—with the plastic and tape all still hanging there intact.
“The single most important thing you need to escape is luck. Lots of luck,” said Velasco, surrounded by applause.
Drescher’s expressive eyes set the tone for her boisterous, cheeky performance. Reliving her teenage days as a policeman’s daughter, she called “three young gentleman” from their seats to compete for a date.
“No way. That’s the name of the guy I went on my first date with,” she said coyly after asking Brandon Riddle-Terrell his first name. “Ooh, and look at those big muscles—just like him, too.”
Each man answered questions, trying to merit the one sealed envelope out of four with a “date” card inside. “Sorry, you didn’t pass my dad’s background check,” Drescher said, dismissing them one by one.
The crowd sat in anticipation, enjoying Drescher’s personality as much as her magic. Of course, the “date” card remained in the final envelope that no guy could obtain.
Young and Strange closed the short set by having the entire audience participate in a final illusion. Asking everyone to put their hands together and interlock their fingers, the pair demonstrated the same.
“This is crazy, but we’re going to totally blow your minds,” said Strange. “Lock your fingers up tight—and don’t let go.”
In front of everybody, they asked the participants to twist their hands around without releasing. Young and Strange accomplished the feat easily, but no one else could unravel from the awkward position.
The true magic, however, may have taken place after the performance. The four magicians, along with their producer Alex Jarrett and Broadway SF’s Scott Walton, received their own special tour of SQ’s North Block, Death Row and Main Chow Halls.
“My cast mates and I are really passionate about politics, documentaries, etc.,” Drescher told SQNews. “I remember watching, with my dad, trials of some of the people whose cells we passed on Death Row.
“That was an amazing experience, but also understanding that the justice and prison system in this country is… well… a mess. I was excited to learn from people who’ve experienced it firsthand.”
When Champions of Magic were inside North Block, Jerry Drawhorn, barely at SQ for two weeks, had to tell them what it meant to catch their chapel performance.
“I’ve never seen a magic show in prison,” said Drawhorn, incarcerated for the last 26 years. “Being down all these years around bad, ugly, evil—it’s hard to keep your humanity when you’re around stuff like that 24/7.
“I’ll always attend beautiful events like this because it keeps me grounded—keeps me going without going crazy.”
While in Chicago on the next leg of their tour, Drescher and Jarrett both emailed about the visit’s impact on Champions.
“San Fran shows were good, but I can honestly say we all enjoyed our performance with you more,” said Jarrett. “We’ve told many people what a positive experience it was for us. I hope it will inspire other performers to make themselves available if permitted.”
Drescher added, “Growing up with a dad that’s a police officer, you’d think I would view criminals as ‘bad guys.’ I was lucky to learn from him that one bad decision doesn’t mean someone is a horrible human. The visit to San Quentin certainly showcased all of that.
“Later that night [in San Francisco] was the first time in a while our show hadn’t gotten a standing ovation. I just yelled from the stage, ‘THEY STOOD FASTER IN SAN QUENTIN!’
“We’d do a show for all of you every day if we could — haven’t stopped talking about how lucky we are to have had this experience.”