For JR Russell, some of life’s most magical moments involve more than simply waving a wand and chanting an incantation.
The Oak Harbor magician has been performing and teaching classes for the past eight years. Whether it involves getting a retirement home resident to light up during a show or seeing the shyest kid come out of their shell during a lesson, there’s plenty of magic to be found in everyday life.
During a recent class session hosted in the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District building, a small group of South Whidbey students between the ages of 7 and 12 focused intently as Russell taught them some new tricks involving dollar bills. No one was distracted and not a digital device was in sight; it was almost as if a spell had been cast over the room.
Russell teaches through Discover Magic, an international program that provides kids with a kit of materials to perform their own tricks. Lessons subtly build character, confidence and communication skills, all useful tools for the real world. Russell, for example, always asks his students to stand up and introduce themselves to the room.
Wherever he teaches, Russell is accompanied by a banner listing the eight traits of a “true magician”: respectful, prepared, enthusiastic, confident, humble, creative, authentic and giving. Classes are about staying engaged without the use of electronics.
“I’m not trying to make them magicians, but I am trying to get them off their screens,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what they do. Today they might want to be a magician, tomorrow they want to be running back for the Seahawks or they want to be a doctor or a newspaper reporter.”
In the span of eight classes, kids will learn 30 tricks, from dinner table magic to deception with cards and coins to illusions of the mind. Every trick has a story behind it and a script that kids can follow.
Although Russell is midway through teaching the fall after-school lessons, he plans to offer another series in the winter and spring through South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District. Some of his students, like 7-year-old Dylan Gluckman-Oskin and 10-year-old Cam Peloetier, are returners, having taken multiple series of classes before.
In addition, Russell teaches summer programs through both the parks and recreation district and the Oak Harbor School District.
“There’s always camps for sports, but getting camps for the arts, that’s a little bit harder,” he said, adding that he has always wanted to help kids pursue the arts.
He’s currently in the process of starting a new program for younger kids, ages 5 to 7. In the future, he hopes to form a society for young magicians on Whidbey Island, who will be able to take their craft further than his classes. He also wants to teach a “Magic for Grandparents” class around the holidays so grandparents can wow their grandkids.
Magic has always been a common thread weaving its way through Russell’s life. As a kid, he recalled watching Canadian magician Doug Henning perform on TV. After checking a book out from the library about tricks and studying it, he returned it and hid it once he saw it on the library shelves again, so nobody else could find it and learn the tricks.
This level of secrecy, it turns out, is essential to being a magician, and something he now teaches his students.
“Just because you know the trick, don’t expose the trick,” he said.
Later in life, he performed tricks at fraternity parties.
“I used to do magic in college. I always joked that I did it in college to try to pick up girls,” he said. “I did it in the Navy to try to take money from my friends playing poker.”
Being a magician ended up being Russell’s second career. For 30 years, the former Navy captain flew EA-6B Prowlers.
“Now they’re museum pieces,” he said of the jets with a laugh.
Upon retirement in 2010, and with his kids off to college, he had newfound free time to explore his own hobbies. He turned down the opportunity to work for a military firm as a civilian and decided to do card tricks instead so his wife could teach music to Oak Harbor students.
Aside from instructing, he also performs at a variety of gatherings, including birthday parties, corporate events and fundraisers. Some of his first magic shows took place in retirement homes, where he took special care to focus on visual magic rather than something that would require a lot of memory.
After one particular show, a woman who hadn’t said a word for two months suddenly wanted to sing and dance.
“That was just a simple thing with bubbles and appearing flowers,” he said of his show that day. “Right then I realized, there is some real magic going on. It made me feel good.”
Things were understandably quieter for magicians during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Russell recalls that his colleagues were quick to adapt and began teaching through Zoom. He did the same, although he offered those classes free of charge.
But now things are picking back up again. A documentary film is even in the works about Russell, led by a retired video production teacher from Oak Harbor High School.
Russell does come up with his own tricks from time to time, although there are always magician conferences and conventions where one can learn more. There are some guys, he said, who have done incredible things with 3D printing recently.
“I always have a couple of things up my sleeve when I see my buddies, especially when I know that I’ve invented something but they don’t know that that invention exists,” he said.