Magician Johnny Ace Palmer
Johnny Palmer was born in Warren, Ohio, in 1960 and attended Lakeview High School in Ohio until his graduation. Following high school, Palmer attended Kent State University in Ohio in the late 1970s and early ’80s. He came to magic early in life, and as a teenager, performed a stage act with his sister, Peggy. Palmer likes to say that he was “put on this Earth to do magic.” In college, he majored in both theater arts and psychology, stating he wanted to prepare himself for his future career as a magician.
Palmer started performing magic in the early 1970s, many times performing at churches and giving a Christian message with his magic. His mother, Ann helped get him bookings and was one time asked what he could do that was really amazing to which she replied, “He can pull an eight ball from a thimble.” This was not a skill that Palmer had even tried but, because he was very creative, figured out a way to do it for the performance and has been one of his signature effects ever since.
Palmer was able to get a job as Bingo the Clown at The Ground Round Restaurant in Niles, Ohio in the late 1970s on the weekends and incorporated his magic to entertain customers before and after their meal. He used Ground Round tokens instead of coins to perform his coin magic and prided himself on being able to do sleights without using gaffed(trick) coins. Working on the weekends afforded Palmer the opportunity to hone his skill with sleight-of-hand and practice his cups and balls routine to help make it one of the classic effects he performs today.
Throughout the 1980s, Palmer entered and competed in a large number of American magic competitions, culminating in his first-place wins at the annual convention of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the annual convention of the Society of American Magicians.
Then he set his sights on international goals, entering the world-championship of magic, a competition called FISM, in 1988. He presented a 10-minute act which was one of the first competition acts to utilize stage techniques in a closeup setting. One routine for which he became known was a version of the Cups & Balls in which the final load was three live baby chicks.
Palmer’s skills won him the title of World-champion magician. In so doing, he became the first close-up magician in history to receive the Grand Prix award, and only the second American to win (Lance Burton was the first in 1982). This award is given out only once every three
The Magic Castle named Palmer Best Close-Up Magician two years in a row (1987, 1988) as well as Lecturer of the Year (1996, 1999). He performs at the Castle twice a year, in September during the week that encompasses Labor Day and in April during the week that encompasses April Fool’s Day.
As of 2006, Palmer is the only magician to be awarded both the International Brotherhood of Magicians‘ Gold Cups Award of Excellence (which he received in 1983) and the Society of American Magicians‘ Gold Medal Award of Honor (which he received in 1986).
Palmer was one of the original seven magicians who opened Caesars Magical Empire in June, 1996. However, his home base for nearly two decades has remained suburban Los Angeles.
With many awards under his belt, Palmer has turned down many opportunities to pursue a lucrative stage magic career. Instead, he has said that he prefers the excitement and personal contact involved in closeup magic.
He has performed table side magic regularly at many restaurants through the years, including his current weekly gig on Sunday evenings at Earth Wind & Flour in Santa Monica, which he has had since 1994.
Past restaurants in Los Angeles have included the decade that he spent at Zach’s Italian Cafe (Studio City) and the several years that he spent at the Green Street Restaurant (Pasadena).
Palmer’s knowledge was utilized by Mattel when the company vied for the merchandising contract to create toys for the Harry Potter film franchise. Palmer assisted the company in designing toys with a magical theme. Warner Bros. ended up awarding the contract to Mattel.
Palmer was featured in an episode of the TV series Masters of Illusion aired March 2009.
I am walking through Hollywood’s Magic Castle with a legend, a man who’s performed here 29 years and still gets four standing ovations a night.
He doesn’t do big magic. He does small magic; up-close. So close that you’re almost on top of Johnny Ace Palmer when baby chicks pop out of cups two feet from your nose. Or when a bottle of Coke materializes in front of your eyes. Or when a live dove flies out of his hand and then – before your jaw returns to place – multiplies into two doves!
“I was put on earth to do magic,” says Palmer, who twice won the Magic Castle’s prestigious “Close Up Magician of the Year.”
Palmer got good by paying attention to details. Tiny details. Minuscule details. And then perfecting them. Which is why he’s puzzled when the entertainment director approaches about the length of Palmer’s 18-minute show.
“We need to talk,” the director says, holding up a stopwatch.
“Why?” asks Palmer, wondering if his perfectly timed show ran too long.
The director holds up his stopwatch in disbelief: 18 minutes, 00 seconds.
Such precision made Palmer a world champion magician. It’s why Disney chose him to perform at their premiere events for “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “WALL-E” and “Ratatouille.” And it’s why another client flew Palmer to Germany – for a single, 10-minute show.
How did he get so good? It started with three short words: “I’ll be back.”
In 1988, those words made him a world champion. Today, they’re reason he says before one show:
“I so don’t want to be famous.”
MAKING UP TRICKS
Before he could read, Palmer learned his first card trick.
By 9, he had a stage show; by 10, a paying gig; and by 16, membership in two Ohio magic clubs. One day his mom dropped him off at a Cleveland magic shop and, while grabbing coffee nearby, overheard some magicians talking. Naturally, she bragged about her son.
“What can he do?” they asked.
“Have you ever heard of someone pulling a tennis ball out of a thimble?” she said, inventing something to impress them.
They hadn’t but none dared admit it.
“I think I read of it in a book,” one said, and extended an invitation to their upcoming magic convention.
When Palmer’s mom picked him up, she was excited. “You’re invited to a magic convention. All you have to do is pull a tennis ball out of a thimble!”
“How am I going to do that?” he asked.
“It’s all right,” she assured him. “It’s in a book somewhere.”
It wasn’t. But it made Palmer work harder than ever. And it introduced him to the world of magic conventions.
In 1978, one month after graduating high school, he flew to San Diego for his first national “junior” competition. He won.
In 1981, he sought to win as an adult. He placed second and got so upset that he was sick for three months with ulcers.
The next year Palmer sought more than first place. Practicing up to 16 hours a day, he sought the International Brotherhood of Magicians’ “Gold Cups of Excellence” award – over-and-above first place and rarely handed out.
He won first place, but not the Gold Cups award.
“I was upset again,” he says.
That’s when he learned his best trick. It consisted of three words:I’ll be back.
“Over the next year, I didn’t just work on magic,” he says. “I worked on my attitude. I decided if I didn’t win first place and the Gold Cups award, I’d just go back the next year and the next and the next – until I won or until I died.”
It worked. In 1983, he won both.
“I was like an astronaut that walked on the moon,” he says. “I was 23 years old. Now what do I do?”
For one, he began performing at the Magic Castle. And for another, he set his sights on the biggest competition in magic – the International Federation of Magic Societies contest held every three years.
In his first attempt, in 1985, he placed second. “I’ll be back,” he said.
“For the next three years,” he says, “every day, every minute, I’m thinking and preparing for this.”
For the 1988 contest, he changed the stone in his ring to match his tuxedo. He learned to tie a bow tie to impress European judges. And he timed his show – with applause and laugh lines – within seconds of the disqualifying 10-minute limit. No room for error.
Palmer sought not only first place but magic’s highest award – the Grande Prix, which had never gone to a close-up act. After a week of competition, the judges announced winners in eight categories. Palmer was not one.
“You got robbed,” one friend told Palmer, in the audience. “That’s not fair,” said another. But all Palmer said was: “I’ll be back.”
And that’s when the judges added: “For the first time ever, the Grande Prix goes to a close-up magician: Johnny Ace Palmer.”
At last! This was his ticket to fame and fortune.
Except it didn’t happen that way.
All these years, Palmer has never chased Hollywood fame.
“I have two daughters and a wife I like to spend time with,” he says. “I have a dog I like to take for a walk. I love to go places with my family.”
What he seeks is more valuable than celebrity, he says. It is balance – with family, church and work.
“He’s one of the top magicians in the world,” says magician, author and magic instructor Mark Wilson, 83, of Valencia. “He’s also an extremely nice guy.”
For the most part, Palmer avoids Vegas (though he helped open the $50 million Caesars Magical Empire in 1996) and TV (though he appeared on the David Letterman show in 2010). He prefers private parties, corporate events, even a steady restaurant gig at Santa Monica’s “Earth Wind & Flour” for 18 years.
Now when he says, “I’ll be back,” it means this: “I’ll be home – after the gig.”
We’re sitting in lawn chairs at a Fountain Valley tennis court where Palmer and his wife Susan watch their daughter Isabel, 14, take a group tennis lesson.
No tuxedo. No doves flying from his hands.
“After she hits a good one, she looks over at me and smiles,” says Palmer. “That’s one of the most beautiful things in life.”
Isabel hits another shot and looks at dad. She smiles. And the man who just got 28 standing ovations at 28 shows in the Magic Castle smiles back and declares:
“It’s a good life.”
It sounds to me like Johnny has figured out, and lives a happy balanced life.