Fringe: In the Cards for Magician Jon Armstrong

Jon Armstrong

Jon Armstrong, a fixture at Hollywood Fringe headquarters, was getting some lip from a fellow magician. “All he could do was prattle on about everything he was a master of. About how he could do this, he could read minds, he was a great stage magician, he was the most incredible thing since sliced bread.”

Then, after the guy finally took a breath and asked Armstrong what he did, “I go, ‘I don’t know, I just do card tricks and I’m funny.’”

And that’s what stuck. I Do Card Tricks and I’m Funny, staged through June 25, is squirreled in Studio A at Fringe Central, only feet away from a gypsy-like tent that pulses with music. In the tiny warehouse space, 25 to 30 folding chairs surround Armstrong’s playing field, a simple fold-up table covered with a felt cloth. Spectators sit shoulder to shoulder within easy view of his hands, like gamblers at a blackjack table.

Outgoing in his owlish glasses and fedora, Armstrong — who is the Fringe’s director of special programming – combines the laid-back, conversational style of magician Harry Anderson with Bill Irwin’s new-vaudevillian wardrobe. He bad-mouths cheap card tricks with no real finesse (“mean magic,” he calls them) and, like Ricky Jay, occasionally riffs about the historical context of games like three-card monte.

The home crowd was evident at a recent performance. Because the space is intimate, the audience — spanning hipsters to middle-age homemakers — swapped opinions of other Fringe offerings and many had returned to Card Tricks with friends.

There’s plenty of dazzle. Armstrong’s digital dexterity is impressive, even when he’s just choreographing his cards into fluttering cascades or fanning them, perfectly aligned, on the table. He can, for instance, pick the cards representing someone’s 10-digit phone number and has the ability to memorize, in 35 seconds, the position of each card in the deck. In a home game, he says, he owns you.

Serendipitously, the 35-year-old Armstrong was raised in Orlando, Fla., where he learned his craft on the faux Main Streets of Walt Disney World. Thanks in large part to the secrets passed on by his magician-mentor, Terry Ward, he had his own show there by age 20. He moved to Las Vegas in 2000 to run the show Caesars Magical Empire. Two years later, he moved to Los Angeles.

Armstrong is in his first year as director of special programs at the Fringe, a title that allows him to curate dozens of variety acts and cabaret, as well as family-oriented events, a new initiative. His involvement with last year’s inaugural Fringe didn’t include the desk job, but produced other benefits: He met his now-fiancee at the fest.

Because of his involvement with Orlando’s fringe events in the ‘90s, Armstrong was approached by festival director Ben Hill to spin some ideas. That past experience informs what happens in the tent on Santa Monica Boulevard — a performance space and cafe that doubles as his Fringe office.

“What would work in a theater isn’t always going to work for the drinking patrons of a loud tent,” he explains. “You have to be able to find a mix of what’s interesting, what’s avant-garde, and at the same time hold an audience’s attention.”

Armstrong’s performance in little Studio A offers him some respite from the action in the tent – a swirl of musicians, cabaret artists and street performers who dress up as space aliens. “A lot of what I do in the show, because it’s very table-based, would never work in this environment because I need too much focus,” he says, of the performance scene in the tent.

“With the distraction of people talking, it’s not going to play. But a magician who’s doing a straitjacket escape, or more visual manipulation, would work out just fine. A juggler is more visual. You need visual things that are easy and eye-catching, that are going to play to pretty much a drinking, fun-loving, post- and pre-theater crowd.”

Booking dozens of shows is a mind-melting effort, but Armstrong says Hill declared that “the best thing about last year’s festival was the fact that we did a festival.” For the second edition, according to Hill, “I think it’s safe to say we are trending twice as big as last year.”

A primary challenge for the Fringe going forward is to convince the diverse artists to wave flags for the festival as a whole, along with their individual acts, says Armstrong. “The skills they all learn here at the Fringe … are the same skills they can take and use whenever they do their own shows outside of the Fringe. So it’s a really great proving ground. You’re going to see some great emerging art-theater variety. Interesting stuff that you wouldn’t be able to see in a normal run.”

I Do Card Tricks and I’m Funny, Hollywood Fringe Festival. Sun, June 19, and Sat, June 25. 323-455-4585.

Linda Fowler

Linda Fowler, formerly arts editor for the Star-Ledger, is a Real Freelancer of New Jersey whose new career is seen by some as payback for all those cut grafs, rewritten ledes and groaner heds.

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