Interview With BARRY MITCHELL
By Skip Way
KJ: We all have those unique places we wish we could poke around – The Oval Office, David Copperfield’s private museum, The Muppet Factory, Blackstone’s Barn to name a few. One of my preferred destinations would have to include the fertile mind of magician, humorist, and inventor Barry Mitchell. All Aboard!
BM: There’s something wrong with you.
KJ: Shhh. I’m trying to slip into the Mitchell mindset. There’s the door. The yellow biohazard caution tape is a nice touch. We step through and Wow! Everything is neatly racked and labeled! Moon Pies. Rubber ducks. Your first magic kit!
BM: I bought that at a White Way Dime Store when I was nine years old. It had all this cheap stuff on a card and it was priced at a dollar and nine cents. I stood there staring at it because I didn’t have a dollar and nine cents. I was ten cents short. A gentleman saw me staring at the card for so long that he stepped up and asked me if I liked it. I told him that I wanted it bad but that I was a dime short. That man handed me a dime and changed my life. I have been mad at that son of a gun ever since.
KJ: So your magic career began with a dollar and, well, kinda stuck there, huh?
BM: Yeah. That was my first magic set. When I was a kid it was all about books. When the RIF program – Reading Is FUNdamental – came to my school, I would get the magic books. There were no magic shops or magic mentors around me. All I had were the mail order stores.
BM: I was a Boy Scout so I received their Boy’s Life Magazine. It carried ads for the top mail order magic shops like Hank Lee and Tannen’s. I sent away for every magic catalog I could get. These were usually very basic black & white line drawn catalogs. I would study the pictures and descriptions until I could figure out a way to make it myself. Sometimes I would figure out their method and others I would create entirely new methods for doing the same thing.
KJ: For example …
BM: Well, my rabbit production. I didn’t know about flaps or springs, So, I used a dove production technique. I suspended the rabbit in a bag held by a wire. When I released the wire, the bag would fall and the rabbit appeared.
KJ: A great desire faced with poverty is a powerful motivator.
BM: I grew up on a farm and we were very poor. So, all of the shows I did through high school were produced with props I made myself. We had plenty of old wood and flat black paint, so all of my props were made from old wood and painted flat black.
BM: A friend of mine had access to money. He went to the Winter Carnival of Magic in Gatlinburg and Paul Diamond sold him a thumb tip. He brought it home and made a tissue disappear while we sat in the back of the church during services and I was blown away! I had to have one of those plastic thumbs! It was the most incredible thing I had ever seen.
KJ: What was your first show?
BM: I did my first free show for my Boy Scout Court of Honor.
KJ: For the non-scouts, the Court of Honor is when Scouts and their families gather to see the Scout receive their new rank, merit badges and other honors.
BM: Were you a Scout?
KJ: All the way and to this day. Cub, Boy Scout, Explorer, and Explorer advisor.
BM: I am an Eagle Scout. There is no honor that I have ever received that means more to me than being an Eagle Scout.
KJ: Earning the Eagle follows you through life.
BM: It does. It follows you in your heart. I believe it develops within you a strength of character. It helps us serve as role models for others and there is nothing more important than making a difference in someone else’s life.
KJ: Scouting is such a misunderstood and under appreciated program these days. When was your first paid gig?
BM: I did my first paid gig at the age of sixteen. I called myself a professional magician after receiving that first check. My friend with the thumb tip had doves. He wanted to do the Chalet-style dove from balloon production in our show, but neither one of us could afford it. So, I made one out of rat traps and old flat black wood. When he tripped the gimmick, those old rat traps went WHHOOOOOMMM! That balloon didn’t have a chance! It dang near scared that dove to death! Feathers were flying everywhere!
BM: For me, it was always about building a magic prop in my own style. There was a LOT of trial and error at this stage of my life. Every error made each success that much sweeter. I guess that’s the reason that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is my favorite movie. The main character, Caractacus Potts, an eccentric inventor who is always tinkering, has always been a role model for me.
KJ: Did you want to be an inventor?
BM: No. My only goal in life was to make a living as an entertainer. Potts inspired me to always explore new paths when the path I was on was suddenly blocked or ended. For example, I spent a great year as a comedian on Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede dinner show in Pigeon Forge. They wouldn’t give me a raise the following year, so I went on to write and appear in a show with three Dixie friends for a theater in Gatlinburg. The theater owner refused to advertise the show until we opened. Naturally, the show flopped. After a month, he decided to close the show. He offered us a month’s pay to settle our contract or we could sue him after he filed bankruptcy. We took the money and ran.
BM: The next day, I went back to Dixie and asked for my old job back. The director of operations wanted to punish me because I didn’t take their original offer. But he also wanted me back. He offered to lower my pay by $100 a week and put me dealing blackjack in the saloon. But I had to sweep floors and clean up between shows. Emotionally it destroyed me. I thought I was too good to sweep the floor.
BM: Remember that my life’s goal is to earn a living in entertainment. I was sweeping floors, but I was still in entertainment. It wasn’t long before I was making more money from tips and a lowered salary than I was making on stage. I turned my card dealing moments into an entertainment experience for our guests. After about two weeks, it clicked that I’m still living my dream; I’m in entertainment and I’m paying the rent. Sweeping floors is not beneath me. Nothing in life is beneath me. Once I realized that my life changed. It stopped being about me and became all about the people. Entertain the people, help them, greet them with a smile, and my dreams will find me.
KJ: You said you’d been a pro for some time before this. Where were you before Dixie?
BM: Obviously my private shows through high school and college. After my first two years in college, I began working as a magician in Gatlinburg. I was also a missionary at the time, so I was part of a team. We worked to pay our expenses so that we could present mission programs at the campgrounds at night.
BM: The day after I graduated from college, we got on a plane and flew to New Orleans for the 1984 World’s Fair. I was still a volunteer missionary, but I performed magic in the French Quarter with a mime and a jazz band.
BM: Well, we wouldn’t take tips. We would attract the crowds, then other people would step forward and deliver our mission’s message. Shortly after arriving, I visited this magic shop for supplies. I introduced myself and this guy in the magic shop threatened to kill me because I was working the street without taking tips. And he meant it.
BM: I remember going back to the car and telling the lady in charge of us that I needed to go home. I’ve never been in a fight or threatened like that in my life. After that, the first show we did on the street, I saw this guy in the audience. I was performing my linking rings. Now, remember that up to this point I have still had no formal training in magic. My linking rings were modified craft rings from a craft store. After the show, he walks up to me and asks to see my rings.
BM: I just know he’s planning to twist my rings out of shape. I’m shaking as I hand him my rings and he says, “Let me show you how to do the linking rings.” He did things with my rings that I could never have imagined. He stood there and taught me how to make those rings dance. He then taught me the cups & balls. It turns out that he was taught by Frank Garcia.
KJ: Manhattan’s Man with the Million Dollar Hands.
BM: That’s him. This man, Jason, taught me everything Frank Garcia had taught him and really brought magic alive for me. I helped him, too. He was not a Christian when we met, but by the end of our six months together, he became one. He has a brief appearance in Tightrope with Clint Eastwood. There’s one point where a clown-mime says “Boo!” or something like that in the French Quarter and that’s him. When I watch that movie I wait for that split second to stand and shout, “That’s Jason!”
KJ: So, you returned to Tennessee to a new show?
BM: I actually decided to give up magic and took a job in construction. I worked on a site for one week. Apparently there is a technique to hammering nails where you let the hammer do the work. If you do it wrong, you will bruise your hand and it will swell. I woke up that next morning and my hand was really swollen. My first thought was that I won’t ever be able to perform again. I called at that moment and quit the construction job.
BM: I took a job as an activity director and started entertaining again. I married and we started a balloon delivery business called Balloons by Barry. This was before helium balloon bouquets became the big thing. We attended a convention in Georgia that focused on balloon decorations. We did Funny Bunny Bouquets, Gorillagrams, and so on. We were really ahead of the crowd.
BM: I twisted balloons in New Orleans. I could inflate a 260 by mouth. Nobody used pumps. It was a mark of pride to develop cancer from the balloon powder. I could inflate and twist the complicated stuff like two lovebirds in a heart kissing or a poodle juggling four balls on a unicycle in record time. That was complicated stuff for 1984. The stuff they do now, I don’t even want to think about.
BM: I sold advertising for a while, too. Then I auditioned for Dixie and got the job. I stayed with them for four years. I opened for country superstar T.G. Sheppard for a year. I opened for country legends Jim Ed Brown, Helen Cornelius, and Con Hunley for a year.
BM: About that time this guy named Terry Evanswood comes to town trying to land a gig. Poor kid, he had nothing. He was broke. I’m kidding about that, but you can write it up that way if you like.
BM: He goes to every theater in town but he can’t find anything. He comes to our theater, but we already had a strong night show. The owner asked if he’d be interested in doing a breakfast show. The last thing he wants to do is a breakfast show. Then the owner adds that he would be doing the breakfast show with his resident comedian. The last thing Terry wanted was to share the stage with some stupid comedian.
KJ: Let’s see. I’m guessing that you were that comedian.
BM: You catch on quick, Skip! I was that comedian. I was really excited about it and before he even met me I would call him with all these great ideas like performing torn & restored newspaper to Dueling Banjos. His response was always a less than enthusiastic, “Well, we’ll see about that.”
BM: He finally gets around to meet and get to know me. We start playing with these different ideas. He did his sets, I did mine and then we did a few things together. It turned out to be a really fun show and the two of us became best friends. It’s grown stronger over the years.
BM: We worked together for a year then the owner decided to lower our salaries. I was still doing school shows, so I decided to break out on my own. I was scared to death, but God provided. I’ve been fortunate to live my dream and earn my living as an entertainer ever since.
KJ: You’re as well known in magic retail circles as Chance Wolf and Steve Axtell. When did you decide to branch into manufacture and retail?
BM: I’d been making and retailing magic effects for years off and on. Hank Lee carried my colored sponge balls for years. Then Goshman called me and said they wanted to start making colored sponge ball sets and they created the Ultrabright line.
KJ: So, you’re the brain behind the Ultrabright colored sponge ball concept?
BM: The concept, yes. After Goshman did that, I had to move on to something a level higher, so I created the process for screen printing onto the sponge ball. That led to my Boo Balls line and Hank Lee carried those. Hank Lee has always been very good to me.
KJ: You’re one of the KIDabra’s flagship lecturers. How did you become one of the Daniel’s crew?
BM: Terry introduced me to Mark Daniel. Terry pushed me to come see this guy running a kidshow entertainers’ conference. Mark invited me to attend KIDabra then allowed me to lecture the following year. Mark made it possible for me to start manufacturing and selling props that appealed to me. Before KIDabra, I never thought that magicians would buy something that I thought was entertaining.
BM: Keep in mind that I had never been around this many professional entertainers before KIDabra. I believed that most magicians wanted products that fool their audiences. I always felt that magicians saw entertainment as a secondary result of magic. Fooling your audience requires a routine or prop with a dramatic effect. Entertainment on the other hand doesn’t require that. It can be storytelling, singing, or theater.
BM: Of all the church conferences I attended for clowns, puppets, and magic, it wasn’t the magic or the clowning that I found entertaining. It was the drama that held my attention. I’m not stupid. I’m a college graduate. If they’re getting more laughs than I am, I need to start doing what they’re doing. So, I combined magic and drama and created performance storytelling. That’s where effects like The Magic Box and The Mother of All Diamonds come from. I never ever thought magicians would be interested in these ideas.
BM: At my first KIDabra lecture, I demonstrated my Super Chicken routine. I’ve been performing this bit for more than twenty years before this, so I knew it worked on stage. But, I honestly didn’t think any self-respecting magician would be interested in it. It has too much comedy and not enough magic to suit the average magician. A friend of mine calls it my one-hundred-and-fifty-dollar Silk-to-Egg trick. And he’s right! I sold nineteen sets at a hundred and fifty dollars immediately.
BM: That was when I first realized that magicians are starved for true entertainment routines. They’re tired of the same old put-this-here and take-that-from-there stuff. I had found my unique niche in the magic market. When you find your niche, don’t change it; build on it. Michael Ammar’s niche was the Topit. Tim Sonefelt’s niche is his marvelous silks. My niche is creativity and storytelling.
KJ: You encourage people to think outside of the box. Your books are roadmaps for creative thinking. You’re also so approachable. You’re one of the most helpful people in magic.
BM: Let me tell you something about one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned. We’re sitting across from Jay Rumple. I learned a long time ago to do what you do as well as you can possibly do it. Surround yourself with others who think this way. Pay them to do what you can’t. Don’t ask someone to do anything for free. Jay is one of the world’s best in graphics, video editing, and design work.
BM: Some people who first meet me are turned off because I don’t sugarcoat my opinions. If you’re overly sensitive about my opinion, then you really shouldn’t ask for it. You’re wasting my time, and now that I’m fifty, I don’t have that much time to waste. If you’re willing to openly consider another perspective, then I’m there for you.
JR: Let me jump in here. There are times when we all need to hear the truth and Barry will tell you flat out. He’ll be honest with you and it’s that honesty that makes you take a step back and look at yourself through his eyes. One of my favorite quotes from Barry is “What you tolerate, you cannot change.”
BM: That’s one of Dr. Mike Murdoch’s Wisdom Keys.
JR: Performers will tolerate doing things poorly. If asked, Barry will call them out on this mediocrity and most people can’t handle that. Those who strive to be their best, like Barry, should not be expected to tolerate or coddle those who don’t. He has always said that if something he does doesn’t improve what’s already there, he won’t do it. He wants to build the better mousetrap, not just another mousetrap.
KJ: You and Tim Sonefelt are tight friends and you work well together. Are you a creative team?
BM: When Tim or I write something, we’ll email to each other with the instruction, “Funny Up.” This tells us to rewrite it to make it funnier or relate better to the effect. So anything that either of us puts into print is basically a Barry-Tim creation.
KJ: Not Tim-Barry?
BM: No, it’s Barry-Tim. Pay attention. Both of us had our hands on it at some point. We’ve gradually spread out to include minds like Steve Wronker, Jay Rumple, and Dorian LaChance. Now when I find something interesting, I just email the guys and ask, “Ok, what do I do with it?”
KJ: So, your creations are now Barry-Tim-Steve-Jay-Dorian creations …
BM: You could say that but it takes too much ink on the title page.
KJ: And you don’t buy ink by the barrel.
BM: Nope. Seriously, I couldn’t do this without them because of our level of trust and each of us has different talents. When I was younger, everything I did was mine. Nothing I do today is entirely my own work. And thankfully I’ve added a few more minds to the mix like Gene Cordova and Tommy Johns. And I have to include Nathan Roberts for his music help. Now that I’m married, I think Sherry is going to be a great addition too.
KJ: That’s Napoleon Hill’s Mastermind concept. Would you have that beautiful Camaro without this league of extraordinary gentlemen around you?
BM: She’s a beaut, isn’t she?
KJ: How long did it take you to get that car?
BM: Just a weekend, actually.
KJ: I mean …
BM: I know what you mean. I’m a college graduate. I’ll tell you the story behind that Camaro. I had a Camaro when I met Terry. Terry had a van. Somehow over time, it switched. I had the van and he had the Camaro. When I was a kid, I wanted a Corvette, but they are very uncomfortable to sit in.
BM: I bought my first Camaro after drumming up the courage to ask this really hot blond at my gym out. I went in planning on failure, but she said yes. At the time I drove this beat up old pickup truck with a camper on the back and on the back glass “Barry loves Trudy” was written in paint. I couldn’t rub it off! Trudy was my first wife.
BM: I couldn’t take this hot girl out in this old truck, so I drove to the used car lot and looked at sports cars. They had a red Camaro that I liked, so we worked a deal and off I drove. My roommate couldn’t understand how a guy goes to the gym in the morning and comes back with a Camaro a few hours later. He asked me how I did that and I pointed out that I had a Gold American Express. Then he couldn’t understand how someone buys a car with American Express! He made it his mission after that to post articles all over the room listing Camaros sold for less than I paid for mine. To make matters worse, by the time I detailed and waxed the Camaro, the girl had changed her mind about our date.
BM: I’ve always planned on buying another Camaro once my house is paid off, but I started thinking, “Why wait?” So, I found one I liked and laid down my American Express.
BM: No, it’s Platinum now.
KJ: Barry, this has been a fun interview. Any final words for your KIDabra fans, friends, and peers?
BM: One of my favorite quotes is from the poet Maya – I can’t pronounce her last name – one of those women that Oprah likes …
KJ: Maya Angelou.
BM: Yeah, that’s her. She said that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. That pretty much sums up my philosophy on life.
BM: The people I’ve met at KIDabra are among the finest in the business. They make me feel like a celebrity when, in reality, they are the stars. I am grateful to Mark and Tami for allowing me to be a part of this great adventure and helping me get to where I am today. Just like that guy who gave me the dime for my first magic kit, I will never forgive them.