If you were trying to find the epicenter of predictable, humdrum social life in New Orleans, the scene at Applebee’s on Gen. de Gaulle Boulevard in Algiers would be a respectable guess.
But you’d be so wrong.
Thanks to one of the city’s least visible subcultures, magic and eccentricity make regular appearances there along with the spinach dip and Buffalo wings. Every Monday night, at a long table in the back dining room, local magicians gather to chat, talk shop and try out their latest tricks on one another.
There are no officers, bylaws or spoken rules, but they do have an excellent name — the Knights of Sleight — as well as an agreeable raison d’être: fellowship, fun and illusion-based forms of amusement.
Call it a support group, but one where jokes fly, coins appear and disappear and a disquieting number of foam balls occasionally get pulled out of someone’s ear.
“There’s this great sort of vibe here,” said Taylor Galyean, 46, an architectural planner and a hobbyist magician who discovered the group a few years back and got hooked. “Everybody’s so sincere and dedicated to this craft. They’re here making the tricks tighter and more beautiful.”
Last Monday, around dinnertime, 14 magicians showed up, including Michael Dardant, who has won more than 20 first-place medals in national and international competitions over the past two years. He’d given a solo show the previous week at the Castle Theatre in Kenner, where he regaled the audience with jokes while performing outrageous feats with an iPhone and pulling enormous ball bearings out of a tiny, frail-looking hat.
Dardant, who also serves as the emcee for the burlesque troupe Fleur de Tease, was happy to share the most important trick of the trade.
“The first thing you should do if you want to be a professional magician is find a wife with a solid job,” he said.
The Knights are mostly but not entirely men — magicians as a whole are mostly men — and anywhere from two to 25 show up on a given Monday. Many of them seem to have wandered out of a charming novel.
They range from geeky to slick, old to young, professional to amateur. One is an MIT graduate, another a high-school dropout. Still another, the professional magician Steve Reynolds, chose his college (Holy Cross) based on its proximity to this very Applebee’s.
“I thought if I had a Monday evening class, I could swing by here afterwards. I don’t know what my problem is,” said Reynolds, who now does magic at corporate events and writes a monthly column for Magician Magazine.
Irwin Royes, 67, who is 4 feet, 3 inches tall and bills himself as the world’s smallest magician, drove in from the north shore with his wife, Stephanie Royes, 35, and a deck of absurdly oversized playing cards.
“I met her online in a chat room for little people, even though she’s 5-7,” he said. “We were married in Vegas, not by Elvis. She’s a person who loves magic as much as I do.”
Tommee Pickles, a magician with hair dyed fire-engine red to match his shoes, sat manipulating a deck of cards with miraculous fluency.
Like Dardant, Pickles practices the subgenre known as comedy magic, as opposed to close-up magic (just what it sounds like), strolling magic, stage magic or street magic.
“My mom is so proud,” he said. “She thinks I’m a doctor. I don’t tell her what I do.”
Pickles (definitely not his real name) used to live in Los Angeles, where he worked at strip clubs. A few years ago, he flew to New Orleans to work the Christmas party at Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club and decided on the spot to move here. He found an apartment in the Marigny area; his roommate, Rick Wellington, is a juggler around town. Sometimes they perform together as Rickles and Pickles on the corner of St. Louis and Royal streets.
Joe Dalgo, a soft-spoken veterinarian in Barataria, drove in to get feedback on a magic routine he’s developed to explain the history and culture of New Orleans to tourists. He showed off an illusion in which torn thread becomes whole again — a metaphor for the city’s resurgence.
“And I didn’t even have ‘What a Wonderful World’ playing in the background,” he said. “The tears would have been flowing.”
But the grand old man of New Orleans magicians has to be Jon Racherbaumer, 75, a bearded fellow in a black wool cap whose hazy blue business card reads “Fabulist — Improbablist.” The most mystical and cerebral of the lot, he sat chatting over a club sandwich and fries. Besides having started the Knights of Sleight 28 years ago (this is its fourth location), Racherbaumer is the author of dozens of books on magic, including a volume called “The Amazing Cigar.” When he’s not making occult pronouncements or levitating dollar bills, he gives classes and consults with Hollywood directors.
“ ‘There are no facts, only interpretations,’ ” he said in a rare quotation of Nietzsche at Applebee’s.
Racherbaumer lives in Algiers Point with his wife, textile restorer Jessica Hack, in a house with several thousand books on magic. “I’ve moved them 11 times,” he said. “Never again.”
Avuncular and generous, he’s always helping young upstarts perfect their tricks.
“His knowledge and skill level surpass what most magicians could even comprehend,” Dardant said.
“There are people who’d travel down here just to have a cup of coffee with him,” Reynolds said.
When he was growing up in Chicago, Racherbaumer hung out in magic shops and honed his craft among fellow magic devotees. But because of the Internet, magic stores in most cities have shut down, he said. New Orleans’ last magic shop, Sideshow, was owned by actor Harry Anderson, of “Night Court” fame, but it closed after Hurricane Katrina.
Nowadays, aspiring magicians here and elsewhere learn tricks and buy props online, which can get lonely.
The Applebee’s get-togethers tide everyone over.
Racherbaumer intends to keep the magic alive and growing there.
“I plan to take over the entire restaurant — and take hostages,” he said jokingly. “Hostages are good because they’re a captive audience.”