Sleight of hand: Popular courses are about more than magic – South Whidbey Record | Wonder Mind Kids

For JR Russell, life’s most magical moments involve more than just waving a wand and chanting an incantation.

The Oak Harbor magician has been performing and teaching classes for eight years. Whether it’s making a resident of a retirement home glow during a show or seeing the shyest kid come out of their shell during a lesson, there’s plenty of magic to be found in everyday life.

During a recent class held at the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District building, a small group of South Whidbey students, ages 7 to 12, focused intently on Russell teaching them some new tricks with dollar bills. No one was distracted and no digital device was in sight; it was almost as if a spell had been cast over the room.

Russell teaches as part of Discover Magic, an international program that provides children with a kit they can use to perform their own tricks. The classes subtly build character, confidence, and communication skills, all useful tools in the real world. For example, Russell always asks his students to stand up and introduce themselves in the room.

Wherever he teaches, Russell is accompanied by a banner listing the eight qualities of a “true magician”: Respectful, Prepared, Enthusiastic, Confident, Humble, Creative, Authentic, and Giving. Classes are all about keeping busy without the use of electronics.

“I’m not trying to make them wizards, but I’m trying to get them off their screens,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what they do. Today they might want to be a magician, tomorrow they might want to run back for the Seahawks, or they might want to be a doctor or a newspaper reporter.”

In eight courses, children learn 30 tricks, from table magic to deception with cards and coins to illusions of the mind. Behind every trick is a story and script for kids to follow.

Despite being in after-school classes in the middle of the fall, Russell plans to offer another series at South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District in the winter and spring. Some of his students, like 7-year-old Dylan Gluckman-Oskin and 10-year-old Cam Peloetier, are returning after previously attending several series of classes.

In addition, Russell teaches summer programs in both the Parks and Recreation District and the Oak Harbor School District.

“There’s always camps for sports, but getting camps for the arts is a bit harder,” he said, adding that he’s always wanted to help kids find art.

He is in the process of starting a new program for younger children aged 5-7. In the future he hopes to start a society for young wizards on Whidbey Island who will be able to take their craft beyond his classes. He also wants to teach a “Magic for Grandparents” class during the holidays so that grandparents can inspire their grandchildren.

Magic has always been a common thread running through Russell’s life. As a child, he recalled watching Canadian magician Doug Henning on TV. After borrowing and studying a book on tricks from the library, upon seeing it again he returned it and hid it on the library shelves so no one else could find it and learn the tricks.

It turns out that this level of secrecy is essential to a magician’s life, and something he now teaches his students.

“Just because you know the trick doesn’t mean you show the trick,” he said.

Later in life he performed tricks at fraternity parties.

“I did magic in college. I always joked that I did it in college to try and pick up girls,” he said. “I did it in the Navy to try and take money from my friends at poker.”

Becoming a magician was Russell’s second career, after all. Former Navy captain flew EA-6B Prowlers for 30 years.

“Now they’re museum pieces,” he says, laughing about the Jets.

When he retired in 2010 and his kids went to college, he had newfound free time to pursue his own hobbies. He turned down the opportunity to work as a civilian for a military company, deciding instead to do card tricks so his wife could teach music to Oak Harbor students.

In addition to teaching, he also performs at a variety of gatherings, including birthday parties, corporate events, and fundraisers. Some of his first magic shows were in retirement homes, where he was careful to focus on visual magic and not something that would require a lot of memory.

After a certain show, a woman who hadn’t spoken a word in two months suddenly wanted to sing and dance.

“It was just a simple thing with bubbles and flowers appearing,” he said of his show that day. “That’s when I realized that there really is magic going on. It made me feel good.”

Things were understandably quieter for magicians in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Russell recalls his peers adapting quickly and starting teaching over Zoom. He did the same, even though he offered these courses for free.

But now things are looking up again. There’s even a documentary in the works about Russell, directed by a retired video production teacher from Oak Harbor High School.

Russell does come up with his own tricks from time to time, although there are always magicians conferences and conventions where more can be learned. There are some people, he said, who have been doing incredible things with 3D printing lately.

“I always have a few things up my sleeve when I see my buddies, especially when I know I invented something but they don’t know that invention exists,” he said.

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Dylan Gluckman-Oskin, 7, studies his kit.

Photo by David Welton Miles Guggenheim, 9, right, attempts a trick while Dylan Gluckman-Oskin, 7, looks on.

Photo by David Welton Miles Guggenheim, 9, right, attempts a trick while Dylan Gluckman-Oskin, 7, looks on.

Photo by David Welton Left to right, Cam Peloetier, 10, Miles Guggenheim, 9, and Dylan Gluckman-Oskin, 7, point to a selected card on the board.

Photo by David Welton Left to right, Cam Peloetier, 10, Miles Guggenheim, 9, and Dylan Gluckman-Oskin, 7, point to a selected card on the board.

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