Oct. 16, 1946 – July 2, 2018
Brian R. Gillis was a magician’s magician, a sleight of hand artist they all looked up to.
A magician who posts on Reddit as TheClouse, wrote that he often pointed out Mr. Gillis when he gave tours of the Magic Castle, a mecca for magicians in Hollywood, Calif.
He said he would tell his group, “See that guy in the shiny jacket? He’s appeared on "The Tonight Show" more than any other magician in history. He was Johnny Carson’s favorite magician.”
A native of Niagara Falls, Mr. Gillis rose to the top of his profession with those appearances in the late 1980s and early '90s. He did television commercials, appeared in films and performed in Las Vegas. He was proclaimed World’s Best Close-Up Magician on “The World Magic Awards.”
In recent years, he divided his energies between the Magic Castle, where he worked all three showrooms, and private appearances for corporate events and celebrities.
Billed as “Magician to the Stars,” he performed for Paul McCartney, Jay Leno, Eddie Murphy and the late Muhammad Ali, among others. His website notes that Johnny Depp considered his show the best he’d ever seen.
He died July 2 in Torrance Memorial Hospital, Torrance, Calif., two weeks after undergoing quadruple bypass surgery following a heart attack. He was 71.
Before he was hospitalized, he was scheduled to be the star attraction at the VIP opening of the new Magic Castle Cabaret in Santa Barbara, Calif.
In his website biography, Mr. Gillis said he was inspired by his “highly entertaining fortune-telling grandmother” and took up magic in college. After graduating from Niagara Falls High School, he earned an associate’s degree from Niagara County Community College and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from SUNY Brockport in 1969.
He was a co-founder of Power City Motorcycle in 1969. He also briefly taught math in Connecticut and at North Junior High School in Niagara Falls and was an adjunct philosophy professor at NCCC.
His brother, Greg, noted that Mr. Gillis was legally blind in one eye, but developed his power of memorization so that he could recall all the letters on the vision test for his driver’s license. It proved helpful to his magic.
At the same time, he frequented the Forks Hotel Restaurant in Cheektowaga, which featured close-up magicians performing at the tables. From the owner, the legendary Eddie Fechter, he learned the techniques which became the foundation of his act.
“His magic style was a take no prisoners approach, visual and technically excellent,” magician Paul Gertner recalled in a blog. “He learned well from Eddie Fechter, ... so his card and coin magic was very direct and to the point. Over time Brian added other elements to his repertoire like mentalism, a wrist watch steal and with his excellent partner Sisuepahn a two-person mind-reading act that had them traveling the world.”
He settled in Los Angeles in the 1980s and began performing in the Magic Castle and on the celebrity circuit.
Magician Jamy Ian Swiss, writing in magicana.com, said, “In his glory days, doing well with private events, national television commercials (he was the voice of national commercials for Subway sandwiches for a time), and consulting for film and television, he lived in a castlelike home in Redondo Beach, with a couple of super cars in the garage and a closet filled with hundreds of flashy Vegas-style blazers that would remain a trademark throughout his life.”
Part of the 2016 documentary film, “Magicians: Life in the Impossible,” chronicled his descent from the top in recent years. He sold the Redondo Beach house, with its collection of magical artifacts, in 2013 and moved to a studio apartment in Hollywood with his beloved dogs.
The film also spotlighted his partner, Laotian-born Sisuepahn Phila. Journalist David Mendez writes in Easy Reader News that they met at a stoplight in 1996. Mr. Gillis asked where she and her friends were going and if he could join them.
“Within a year, Sisuepahn and Gillis were an item, both romantically and ... as a magic stage duo,” Mendez wrote. Mendez noted that the romance ended after eight years, but they remained close friends and partners on stage.
Following his death, the Magic Castle hosted a Broken Wand ceremony where numerous magicians paid tribute to his inspiration, his generosity and his encouragement. A collage of photos of Mr. Gillis with notables he entertained will be on permanent display there.
In addition to his brother, survivors include a niece, a nephew, aunts, uncles and cousins.
A funeral service will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 11, in M.J. Colucci and Son Funeral Chapel, 2730 Military Road, Niagara Falls.