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This is a bad time for magic.

Illusionists these days are thought of as tacky, guys like the masked magician are spoiling important secrets on Fox, and people are more amazed by David Copperfield's ability to date beautiful women than by his magic.

Then there's Peter Cumbo, a magician or "an illusionist, if I want to get paid more," who doesn't claim to be an expert on the supernatural, either offstage or on. He won't force you to believe he's magical, but after watching his ability to not only perform illusions but also entertain an audience intellectually and emotionally, you'll have a hard time ruling out the possibility.

If you're a cynic (like me), you'd have trouble believing some third-rate, birthday-party-performing, balloon-animal-making magician could wow you with cheesy "nothing up my sleeves" cliches. The above-mentioned characteristics of your subaverage magician could never be used to describe Cumbo's hilarious and theatrical performance.

Theatrical is the key word. His performances reflect not just his skill at creating illusions but also his abilities at acting (he had a part in "Tony 'n Tina's Wedding") and improvisational comedy (performing in ComedySportz and the Eclectic Company).

To him, magic "is not something a magician does, it's how an audience feels." So he emphasizes the "show" in magic show and does serious monologues, does comedy (rehearsed and unrehearsed) and tells stories even within his tricks, all ways to connect with his audience.

Part of his show is parlor tricks, midsize effects, big enough to do for a large group but not as spectacular as grand illusions. Parlor tricks give you the feeling that he's doing cool tricks just for you. They're small, clever, and if you're a magician, they're supposed to come in zip-lock bags.

Apparently magicians are suspicious of purchasing tricks from nicely made packages. They prefer the homemade look of zip-lock bagged tricks purchased at the local magic store. These are things you have to consider if you want to become a magician. The tricks can be expensive and it's hard to get a refund. That's because "in effect, when you're buying a trick, you're buying a secret," he says.

So he suggests starting at the library, do some research on magic and see if you have what it takes.

More important than starting money, you also need genuine interest. Though Cumbo's career is just getting started, he has been fascinated by magic since the age of four. He graduated from college as a business major in May because that way he will have the training to market himself on his own, as his business, Tower Entertainment Group.

Among the "grand illusions" he performs is a "wall illusion," in which he seems to jump through a wall. In another, loosely based on Houdini's metamorphosis (in which an unbound Houdini instantly traded places with his wife, who was bound and gagged inside a trunk), Cumbo becomes a classic private eye in a mini-film noir mystery.

All these big illusions require lots of hardware, technical support and hard work. As Cumbo showed me his notebook of sketches, I saw the blueprints for one of his grand illusions. Even though I could see how it's done, I will still be amazed. Maybe not by the trick itself, but by his ability to make a show-stopping scene out of it.

Cumbo will combine his parlor effects, monologues, comic bits and grand illusions in a "mirage" show at Canisius College Little Theater from Jan. 28 to 30. Call 888-2188 for show times and ticket prices.

Geoff Golden is a junior at City Honors High School.

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