By SARAH AVERY, Staff Writer
RALEIGH -- He arrives carrying only a black pad the size of a place mat that serves as his
stage, raising suspicion that there's more to Enrico Leoni than meets the eye. "I'm glad you
noticed," he says. "I get a big kick from knowing that I can walk into a place and entertain
with nothing more than what's in here."And as he says that, he unrolls the rubbery pad to
reveal a deck of cards. An ordinary deck of cards. Hoyle, to be exact. Blue. Rather well-
worn. The cards are Leoni's able assistants. From the moment he breaks them out of the
box and sets them in motion on his portable stage at one table after another at the
Warehouse restaurant in downtown Raleigh, the entertainment begins and a firm grasp of
reality ends. "Oh, my God!" squeals a patron, dissolving into laughter. "How did you do
that?"It's simple, really: Enrico Leoni is magic.
In his hands, cards appear, then disappear, and appear somewhere else. Coins turn up
under one card, then the next, and back again with no visible means of exchange. He
shuffles and reshuffles, cuts and clips and, voila, the chosen card is always at his
fingertips."Isn't that wild?" he grins, feigning incredulity. What's especially wild is that
Leoni's old-fashioned magic goes over so well in a time when the art of illusion has become
such a technological spectacle; when movies bring alien monsters to life; when Broadway
stages appear to land helicopters; when video games offer reality so far beyond virtual they
"I'm always amazed by it," says Gary Hunt, a Durham historian of magic who edits an
online publication, Magical Past-Times (http://www.uelectric.com/pastimes/) "I just got
done watching three 'Star Wars' episodes this weekend to get ready for the new movie, but
seeing a card trick done under my nose will completely blow me away.
"I think it's because it's happening in front of you, it's live and real and not TV. People like
to be fooled. It's magic -- it's that mystery."
A hard sell
Like most magicians, Leoni became transfixed by the mystery of illusion when he was a kid.
His first memory of performing a trick was when he was 5, and he was in a boarding school
in Italy. As soon as the nuns had put the children to bed, he entertained his classmates by
making a handkerchief disappear up his sleeve. Later, after his family immigrated to Canada
when he was 7, he would frequent a magic store near his home, buying trick cards, rigged
ropes and other gimmicks. He graduated from sucker stunts to real sleights of hand that
required a smooth technique, learning from master magicians who congregated in the store.
"They instilled in you the need for dexterity," he says, instinctively reaching for a deck of
cards to demonstrate. With one hand, he shuffles, cuts the deck in three places and
produces a perfect white fan, such that no card shows its face or color. Enrico Leoni shows
off a spoon bent by his magic. Even after he graduated from college and worked as a
graphic artist, magic was there to augment his salary. The kind of up-close magic Leoni
mastered was popular entertainment in restaurants in Canada. But that wasn't the case in
the United States, and in particular the Triangle, where Leoni moved in 1989 when
SAS Institute of Cary recruited him to make people and animals come alive for its video
games. For one game he's working on, Leoni is creating the illusion of life for horses and
cowboys. In one sequence, a cowboy gets shot, falls and then staggers back to his feet. It's
a movement Leoni can relate to after trying to establish his magic act at area restaurants.
"Some owners wouldn't even come out of their offices to talk to me," he says. Shot down,
he'd just get back up. Eventually he landed a two-year gig at a restaurant across from SAS,
but that closed. Then in November, when Yadi Parangi and Paul Woo opened the Warehouse
restaurant, Leoni got a his break. "People usually don't get a chance to see magic so close
up and he's right in front of you," Woo says. "It's unbelievable how he does this in front of
you -- you have no idea how he accomplishes the tricks."
An ancient profession
The first trick Leoni performs -- the one he does while he's still gauging his reception, still
working his way to a place at the table -- is a variation on one of the oldest tricks in the
book. He does his version with cards and coins, but back thousands of years ago, the
preferred devices were cups and balls, perfect vessels for the dizzying here-there-where
Most of the stuff Leoni performs has its roots in the ancient conjuring games that were
both celebrated and feared. The first written record of a magician dates 5,000 years back to
Egypt, when a fellow named Dedi swapped the heads on two live chickens and earned the
admiration of the pharaoh. Later in Europe, magicians used science to pull off the
impossible, and many performers suffered the consequences of the public's ignorance,
getting burned at the stake as witches and sorcerers.
Eventually, though, science explained more and more phenomena and magicians became
pure entertainers, travelling from town to town as regular characters of history right on up
through the middle of this century. Then, their image changed again. As television and
movies replaced vaudeville, they forced everyone to assume that what appeared on screen
was fake -- that there was nothing at all magic about magic. The disappearing doves of the
old parlor shows and the levitating ladies in the stage illusions came across as old-fashioned
and tawdry. "Magic, after the stage shows passed, went into the nightclubs," Hunt says.
But in the 1970s and 80s, some magicians began to see television as an asset rather than a
liability. They changed their old tricks to capitalize on the medium's potential for glitz and
illusion -- creating productions so spectacular that people were awed despite the
presumption that it wasn't real.
Now there's David Copperfield, Penn & Teller, Siegfried and Roy. And while such grand
productions gave all forms of magic a new cachet, they still operated from afar -- offering
distance as an easy explanation for the otherwise inexplicable.
Close-up magic has a different effect. People know they're being fooled right before their
noses, but they can't figure out how.
There e no cameras, no smoke, no mirrors -- just technique. "Now there's this rebirth of
close-up magic," Hunt says.
Eager to be fooled
Tina Westfall of Raleigh discovered Leoni a few weeks ago, when she came to the
Warehouse with friends. This time she has asked to have Leoni come to her table, because
she wants her boyfriend, Rick Orsini, to see this stuff.
Leoni, in his trademark black shirt festooned in playing cards, deals four blue Hoyles onto
his portable stage.
Orsini sits back, skeptical, until four half-dollars appear out of nowhere, under the cards.
"The hand is quicker than the eye," Orsini surmises, which only provides Leoni his segue
into the next trick. The magician takes the half-dollars and puts them in his right hand, and
produces a single Chinese coin in the left. Slowly -- "I don't want you to think I'm pulling a
fast one on you," Leoni says -- he shows the couple the coins. Then, clink, clink, without the
slightest movement -- one of the right hand's half-dollars somehow winds up in the left
hand with the Chinese coin.
"Freaky, huh?" Leoni says. Orsini shakes his head. Westfall laughs and laughs. It's like
that everywhere, as Leoni moves from table to table, pulling cards out of thin air, bending
spoons, stopping watches. Men are baffled. Women are amazed. Everyone is delighted to be
Sarah Avery can be reached at 829-4882 or email@example.com
Cards and a few coins are all Enrico Leoni needs to
bring magic up close and personal at the Warehouse.