Harry Potter’s got nothin’ on Marty Martin. Potter discovered his powers on his 11th birthday. Martin found his at age 10. During a school assembly, a performer entertained Martin and his classmates with magic tricks. He tried to duplicate one of them, but failed.
Frustrated but fascinated, Martin couldn’t stop thinking about the magician. Soon after, he walked by a magic shop at a local market. Cards, coins, cups—the tools of the trade called to him.
Martin volunteered to work at the stand if the owner would teach him tricks. In no time, Martin was a fledgling magician, annoying his family with pleas to pick a card, any card, or think of a number, any number. Magic is a craft, and because he’s more Muggle than wizard, Martin spent years learning and honing his tricks. “Every magician needs an audience,” says Martin. “Magic, unlike music and acting, is a participatory art, not just a performing art.”
Danny Archer got hooked on magic while working in a men’s clothing store. When a magician came in to buy suits, Archer plied him with the request that he’d hear for the rest of his life: Show me a trick. A few coin flips was all it took to get Archer out of the suit business and into magic.
Now, Martin and Archer are co-owners of Smoke & Mirrors Magic Theater and the Magical Arts Center, a performance space, school and shop located in Huntingdon Valley. After a year of meticulously designing the building to meet the needs of performing magicians, the duo opened the center last August. Smack dab in the middle of an industrial strip mall, the MAC is fronted by a nondescript door and minimal signage. That’s part of the fun, the owners say. “We want people to walk in and feel like they’ve entered another world,” Martin says. “We’re going for the Wizard of Oz effect.”
It works. The posh lobby has an air of mystery. It’s darkly chic, with leather couches, purple and gray walls, and mirrors everywhere. Long glass counters and deep shelves hold books, kits and cards to intrigue magician wannabes. A big room called the Little Theater is used for corporate events and private parties.
The main theater, Smoke & Mirrors, is Archer and Martin’s baby. Its 60 luxury seats are specially tiered so audience members can get up close and personal with performers as they do card tricks, stunts, mind reading and sleight-of-hand tricks. This is what the pros call “close-up magic,” and it’s a far cry from David Copperfield’s grandiose illusions and David Blaine’s dramatic TV feats. “At Smoke & Mirrors, the audience isn’t sitting yards away, gazing up at an enormous stage assuming that there are hidden doors and other props,” Archer says. “This is live, intimate parlor magic. The more you see, the more you’re amazed.”
Crowds of magic aficionados have been flocking to the theater from as far as Virginia and New York. Ticket prices range from $25 to $35, making Smoke & Mirrors an affordable night out, especially for couples seeking new entertainment. Martin groans at the request he gets most often: Can you make my wife disappear?
That’s not one of their tricks, but Martin and Archer can explain the centuries-long appeal of magic. They see magic as a form of escapism that still creates a sense of childlike wonder. When you go to see Romeo and Juliet or a Bruce Springsteen concert, they’re usually familiar with the work. That’s not the case at a magic show—and people delight in experiencing the unexpected. “There’s a joy in being amazed,” Martin says. “It’s really fun to hear people ask, ‘How’d he do that?’”
Martin and Archer’s love of magic has powered them through tough times, including Martin’s tour of duty in Vietnam, where he put on magic shows for his fellow soldiers and Vietnamese locals. The latter have a real connection to magic. “It’s almost an extension of their spiritual beliefs,” he says.
Martin and Archer waged a different kind of war with the city of Philadelphia. Their first joint venture, Philadelphia Magic Company, was a beloved fixture of the area adjacent to Chinatown. Then the city claimed eminent domain and demolished the building to make way for the Pennsylvania Convention Center. They moved the shop, but, unable to succeed in Old City’s high-rent, low-parking district, they shuttered the business. Reigniting their entrepreneurial magic is part of the reason Martin and Archer opened Smoke & Mirrors.
They also want to create a hub for the region’s community of magicians. “There’s a great sense of camaraderie among us,” Archer says. “We hang out all the time and learn from each other.”
Sharing tricks is one of the hallmarks of professional magicians. Early in their careers, magicians have to prove their mettle to older pros by demonstrating their skills. Only then will more experienced magicians reveal the secrets behind complex tricks.
Smoke & Mirrors is already becoming a magical mecca. A 20-something Penn student recently trekked to Huntingdon Valley on the off chance of getting a minute with Martin. “I said, ‘Show me what you can do,’ and he did,” Martin says. “I was blown away. Danny was, too.”
They gave him a 15-minute slot to perform the next weekend.
Martin and Archer have heard, “Show me what you can do,” for decades. Archer was the coolest dad on the playground because he did tricks for his kids’ friends.
Martin carries a deck of cards in his pocket. It’s clearly his métier—cards practically fly through his hands. He moves with a smooth elegance that seems easy to follow, until an unexpected card is turned and viewers are left with the same question: How’d he do that?