Now you see it. Now you don’t.
With one effortless sweep of Keith Leff’s hand, the olive he made appear seconds earlier, disappears. A wine cork takes its place.
“Is it real,” he asks the crowd. “Is it magic,” he continues. “Or is it real magic?”
Just ask the judges. At a recent International Brotherhood of Magicians Ring #129 contest — a local branch of an international organization made up of magicians and enthusiasts — more than 20 judges were so impressed with Leff’s skills they awarded him the 2016 Close-Up Magician of the Year Award.
The annual award is granted to those who have shown exemplary skills in close-up magic — or magic performed right under an observer’s nose.
During a recent routine in front of almost 100 attendees, Leff also made a bottle of sparkling cider, a lemon and a lime appear.
But Leff didn’t study at Hogwarts like Harry Potter. Born and raised in Shawnee, Leff, 47, says he knew from a young age that he had a knack for magic. At the age of seven, he received a magic kit for Christmas. It was the second box he opened, he says, and he was hooked from the minute he unwrapped it.
“I was so smitten and bitten by the magic bug that I didn’t even open up my other Christmas presents until the day after Christmas,” he says.
Leff continued studying magic by reading books and spending time with two magicians who lived near his mother and grandmother. The two would eventually become his magic mentors, he adds.
“Both of them really were shocked at how fast I picked up on things,” Leff says. “I was fooling adults when I was a kid.”
Leff went on to work in the corporate world, including a marketing stint at Sprint Corp. here. But his heart was still in magic, he says. In 2000, he took “a leap of faith” into making magic a full-time career. He’s never looked back.
“I don’t have any regrets at all,” Leff says. “I wasn’t cut out to sit at a desk nine-to-five.”
Now, you can find him performing card tricks and disappearing acts everywhere from a local pizza shop to corporate, team-building events. And what some might consider an unlikely career path has blossomed into a bustling business, Leff says. He also travels around the country to give magic lectures.
Alan Goodheart, president of the local magician’s organization, met Leff almost 20 years ago at a local meeting when he first became a member of the group. Goodheart says magicians are “amazingly” in demand because people are “always looking for something fresh.” Leff, who managed to swap a regular desk job for a full-time magic gig, is a perfect example of that demand, he says.
Leff landed his first gig for $50 in seventh grade when his science teacher asked him to perform card tricks at his daughter’s birthday party. He’s come a long way since then, and now charges between $500 for a two-hour event to $1,000 for corporate events.
Will Walker, owner and manager at Old Shawnee Pizza at 61st and Nieman Road in Shawnee, says Leff has been performing his magic routine with a mix of comedy for the past 20 years at his restaurant, making the rounds from table to table to keep guests entertained during the wait.
“Sometimes kids are kind of restless waiting 20 minutes or 30 minutes for their food,” Walker says. “This is something to keep them preoccupied.”
Magic lovers can find Leff performing his tricks every first and third Friday of the month from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Old Shawnee Pizza.
Jason Moore, president of the Society of American Magicians local Assembly 38 to which Leff is also a member, met him at a meeting almost 10 years ago.
Moore says Leff is “upbeat” and “always has energy.” But perhaps the biggest characteristic, he says, is his ambition and passion for magic.
“It takes a lot of time and dedication,” Moore says of learning the tricks of the trade. “Keith has to dedicate thousands and thousands of hours,” to make it a full-time job, he adds.
And just as Leff was captivated by his mentors’ magic tricks as a child, he is now paying it forward by enamoring the neighborhood kids near his aunt’s home in Prairie Village with his card tricks. As soon as they see his truck in the driveway, the neighborhood kids come running, says Kay Leff.
“It always reminds me of the awe and wonder I felt as a kid when I see a kid light up the same way I did,” he says.