Student showman suddenly a magic big shot
If he plays his cards right, Jeremy Mikaelson could become the next big name in magic – at least, that’s how he sees it in his always vivid imagination, which has driven his passion to become a professional magician since about the age of 10 when he was growing up in China.
Freshly back from winning a highly prestigious international competition for magicians sponsored by the Society of American Magicians this July in Orlando, Florida, Mikaelson — a good-natured if politely mischievous Saint Michael’s College rising senior theater major and international student from Fuzhou, China, launches into a card trick on request during a campus interview, seamlessly tying the action together with polished professional patter and a charming narrative about buying what he thought were conventional playing cards, only to be disappointed when they all seemed to be blank.
His English is excellent since his father, who once had a beer company, is fluent, and his family spent time in largely English-conversant Hong Kong and Singapore. He fans open a deck of cards to reveal that they are all, indeed, entirely blank white on both sides. “But when I start to use my imagination, I realize I can see the front and back of actual playing cards!” he says. He shuffles them for a few seconds while still narrating barely an arm’s length from bedazzled audience eyes, and soon, the deck mysteriously and incrementally appears to have become half normal printed cards and half blank. A few more quick movements and the young magician is holding a complete deck of apparently conventional printed playing cards, which he turns over and fans out to reveal their authentic appearance – but, a snap of his fingers and suddenly, they’re all white again on both sides. Barely has all this registered with his audience when Mikaelson, hands quicker than the eye, casually starts to pull what seems to be this same deck of cards out of his mouth — though nobody saw him put them there. The effect, as intended, is astonishing.
“The real magic for me is not so much the tricks I do….that’s all just technique and muscle memory, which I’ve learned in books and practiced over and over. The real magic is the connection I make with people,” he says. His Western-sounding stage name, which he has adopted for general daily use on campus and in the U.S., has a simple explanation: “I just wanted to choose a name that everyone could pronounce and easily remember,” says Mikaelson, whose Chinese given name is Yu Weiguo. As a kid he loved the TV show The Vampire Diaries, he explains, “and the Mikaelsons are the original vampire family – really fast, immortal and really strong, so I thought, that’s real magic! So I just chose that name.” Did he make any intentional connection to Saint Michael’s College in choosing that name? “Sure …” he answers with a true showman’s audience-pleasing instinct and a wry grin.
It all began by chance when he was about 10 years old: “A bunch of kids at my school started doing card tricks for no reason and eventually they all just gave up and went to do something else — but I thought this was very interesting – I really liked to see the smile on people’s faces when I’d show them the card tricks,” he says. “Then I started to be more professional, doing some gigs and making some money doing magic before coming to Saint Michael’s, but just a little.”
Since coming to the U.S. in August 2015, he’s already done small shows and competitions all over the U.S. (as time and funds allow), notably a few times in Las Vegas where he did busking on the strip and learned from veteran mentors. He also performed several campus shows at Saint Michael’s last year. Already he has achieved notice among several highly regarded magic pros as documented by their quotes of praise for his talent that he’s splashed across his sharp-looking and self-created website. He previously won other lower-level magic contests too throughout the U.S., but this is his biggest breakthrough yet, says Mikaelson, who thinks a fulltime career as a professional magician now is within reach after his Florida win.
The July Orlando contest, at a convention attended by nearly 1,500 magicians from all over the world, was sponsored by the world’s oldest magic organization (The Society of American Magicians’ first president was Harry Houdini in 1901, he says). Mikaelson’s six-minute prize-winning act for Orlando used props other than cards, although the mind-bending effects and intent are similar.
“I make umbrellas appear,” he explains. “The show starts with thunderstorms and lightning and rain sounds and then I go on stage and the music starts – it’s a music driven act — and umbrellas change to silk to smoke and to confetti. A lot of these are my own inventions that you can’t see anywhere else.” He said seven finalists were selected from videos of acts sent from all around the world, and he was one of them. “It’s a very diverse group – we had a female magician from China, people from Argentina and Brazil and all over the U.S.; I do stage magic, some people do close-magic like coins and card tricks, and some do theatrical story-telling magic – variety is the word I choose to describe the show.” The participants all supported one another to offer an audience the best possible show, he says.
The distance of Saint Michael’s from home and family might be the only downside that Mikaelson mentions about his College experience. His mom runs a yoga studio in his large home coastal city in Fujian province about halfway between Shanghai and Hong Kong, directly across a sea from Taiwan. He’s an only child, common for his Chinese generation, he says, and he’s only gotten back home once in his three-plus years in the U.S., given the 15-hour flight and expense. That’s hard, he says, but otherwise, he considers Saint Michael’s and his theater major to be a perfectly sensible and happy path to his dreams.
“It’s a very loving community and you can get support from everyone,” he says of the College, giving the example of Student Activities Director Kerri Leach, who offered him three magic show venues at which to perform during regular student campus programming, including the annual MLK Talent Show that he won as first-year student – a real confidence-builder.
His favorite Saint Michael’s classes so far have been Acting Techniques, which he says “gave me a general idea of what it’s like to act on stage,” and a couple of dance classes. “I think that dance makes you be more yourself on stage, whatever you do, whether dance or singing or magic,” he says, adding that he has made so many friends through magic and theater that he can go to the dining hall “and just be friends with anyone – magic is a good ice-breaker.”
Another tour de force for Mikaelson as a theater major was being cast as Charles Dickens in last year’s hugely popular original Mainstage musical play “Mill Girls,” since the director, Peter Harrigan, knew he could approximate a British accent, and encouraged Mikaelson to whimsically incorporate his magic into the character — a fanciful twist to which the large audiences responded with warm enthusiasm (See large photo below). He appreciates Harrigan’s willingness to adapt the story to showcase a student’s unique skills — an example to him of the lengths Saint Michael’s mentors will go to provide meaningful and memorable education. He says he hopes to take part in both Mainstage shows his senior year.
Other major campus supports he mentions are Eric Roy in the “MakerSpace” who helps him use the College’s facility equipped with technology such as laser-cutters and 3D printers to create items for his shows. Also, he says, a 1975 St. Mike’s graduate who happened to be in an audience for an Orlando performance introduced himself and after they talked, ended up paying his membership in the magician’s group for a year. “We really hit off and have stayed connected,” he says. Mikaelson’s creativity is multi-faceted: He designed his own tuxedo and a tailor-friend of his mom made it a one-of-a-kind reality.
As for his supporters in the professional magician world, he names the estimable Vegas personality Johnny Thompson as his main mentor. Thompson works behind the scenes for Penn & Teller and other established magicians and has his own established, long-running and well-honed act. They met at a convention of the International Brotherhood of Magicians in San Antonio, Texas, a couple years back. “He saw my show and really liked it and voted for me for the People’s Choice Award,” says Mikaelson – and then later, when busking and doing a contest in Las Vegas, Mikaelson took two days off to work his act with Thompson – the same act that won him the recent prize in Orlando.
Mikaelson also admires Lance Burton, a leading American magician, and had Burton sign an oil painting of Burton that Mikaelson completed in a Saint Michael’s art class (shown in a recent art-focused edition of the College magazine).
The young magician’s large silver cup trophy from Orlando — the same prize that was won many years ago by Burton — will have a prominent place in Mikaelson’s Quad Commons (Aubin Hall) single dorm room (which doubles as his magic studio) this year. “This is one of the most prestigious awards given in magic, by the oldest magic society,” he says. “It’s been a long time coming for me to have this level of recognition, and it feels good to have won it.”