Tricks are the trade for two Nicholasville magicians

Doug Doolin and Mark Comley get together often and talk on the phone daily. Here Doolin showed that he had an ace of hearts printed on his arm, the very card the photographer had picked.
Doug Doolin and Mark Comley get together often and talk on the phone daily. Here Doolin showed that he had an ace of hearts printed on his arm, the very card the photographer had picked. Herald-Leader

Ladies and gentlemen, out of these ordinary-looking words are about to appear two full-size, professional magicians. They're not just any magicians. One is the "World's Greatest Magician" (in his price range) and the other is "America's Favorite Magician."

What is even more amazing is they grew up within five years and a few blocks of each other in Nicholasville.

Today, more than five decades after they first shared magic tricks, they're both working full-time in the trade.

'World's Greatest Magician' (in his price range)

"The thing you've got to understand about magic is that it's as addictive as any drug ... if your personality is the type," says Doug Doolin. "You eat it, breathe it, drink it, sleep it. That's all you think about."

Doolin, 65, traces his addiction back to comic books, the video games of the 1950s. He read them cover to cover. On the back were ads.

"They would say something like: 'The vanishing milk pitcher: Magician pours milk into cone, and milk disappears,'" says Doolin, in a voice dripping with suspense.

"I ordered something off that, it was Blackstone's dancing handkerchief. It was $5 and I saved, saved, saved. When it came it was a piece of thread. You talk about disappointment! I said, 'Mom, Can you see it? Can you see it?'

And she said, 'Honey, of course I can see it. It's just a piece of thread.'"

But Doolin was not deterred. He pressed forward, consuming every book on magic in the library and hounding the librarian for more. He learned that materials alone were not enough — that it took skills to make that piece of thread disappear. He collected more supplies and stored them in a locker at the foot of his bed.

"I carried the key with me all the time so nobody could learn my magic," he says.

But sometimes he'd exchange tricks with a younger kid down the street. They'd talk magic on Sundays at church.

'America's Favorite'

"My parents gave me a Remco box of tricks when I was about 5 or 6," says Mark Comley. There were card tricks, box tricks, little ring tricks. He too was lured by ads in magazines. "The tricks would take two to three weeks to come. The anticipation would kill me. 'When's it coming, Mom? When's it coming?'"

Comley would practice card tricks on his Mom and get his brother and sisters to tie him up so he could master the quick escape. He performed for neighbors and charged a nickel.

For both Comley and Doolin a highlight of the school year was when Lee Allen Estes of the state police brought his magic safety program to town. "He inspired us all," says Doolin. So did Preston the Magician, a Kentuckian who rose to the top of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.

Later, when Comley was a student at Transylvania, he'd do tricks at parties. People starting tipping. "Hmmmm," he thought, "Maybe there's a paying job in this."

He moonlighted — doing walk-around magic at restaurants, stage shows at corporate events — while he had other careers, but with his wife's encouragement he's been a full-time magician for the past 10 years, putting on 400-500 shows a year. When his son was killed in Iraq in 2005, he got up and put on a show the next week. It provided a small bit of normalcy.

Comley performs at Gattitown every weekend from November to May. He does corporate shows, Keeneland special events, schools, private parties. In summer he travels the county fair circuit — six nights a week, two, three or four shows a night.

Tough act to follow

Some people may remember Doolin from his days as a Fayette County building inspector. He says magic helped him build better relationships at that job. He's pretty sure he once cut off Mayor Pam Miller's head — It's hard to remember when you've guillotined so many. But at employee talent shows he came in second — despite a terrific sword through the neck trick — because a magician almost never beats a singer, he learned.

The job's hours were ideal for working magic on nights and weekends at restaurants, private functions, corporate trade shows.

One big job, a Toyota perfect-attendance event in Rupp Arena, really put him to the test.

When the booking agent called and described what was needed, he couldn't believe it.

"I said, 'You want me to do tricks on stage after David Copperfield? That's like committing suicide!'"

But he lived to tell the story.

"I kind of did a parody. I had them laughing. But you talk about humbling."

That's entertainment

Doolin retired from his city job in 2001, and since then has been working 200-300 shows a year at state parks, schools, libraries, churches, birthday parties. Shows with a mix of children and grownups are his favorite. That way everybody can be a kid together.

"I think that's the reason magic stays popular ... you can suspend your disbelief for a bit and be a kid. Even today, if I see a magician who fools me, I'm a little boy again."

"Men in their 40s will come up to me and say 'You did my 6th birthday party and I can remember the cards you pulled out of your mouth.' Well, I did no such trick. But I knew I had accomplished what I set out to do," which was to put on a memorable show.

Both magicians will tell you it's not enough to have the mechanics down. A magician also has got to have good stage patter to entertain and distract, and that's usually scripted.

"I became much more successful when I put humor in the show," says Comley. "I've gotten some of my best lines from the audience."

To illustrate the patter point, Doolin adopts a tired monotone to present the classic hat-tear trick: "'I've got a green piece of paper and a black piece of paper. I'll tear them up in pieces. Squeeze the pieces together. Look. Now I've got a bonnet.' Well," he says, in his own voice, "in my mind that's not magic."

"The entertainment is more important than the trick," he says.

"Is pulling a rabbit out of a hat difficult? Not really. The presentation is what's important. You don't just say, 'Empty box. Boom. Rabbit.'"

Magic: The gatherings

Doolin and Comley talk on the phone every day and meet regularly for lunch. They belong to IBM — International Brotherhood of Magicians, local Ring 198, which meets once a month.

There's always plenty for magicians to talk about: what wowed the audience, what fell flat. A new trick or new technology, the next generation of magicians.

Magic teaches its practitioners a lot about human nature, and that's an endless topic for discussion. They learn to read the audience, choose carefully the ones they call up on stage and wait as long as it takes to pull off the sleight of hand.

"Young magicians will say, 'I'm afraid I'm going to get caught. When's the best time to do a move?'

When they're not looking! Do it when they're not looking! That's when you do the move," says Doolin.

There will always be the heckler who yells, "I know how you did that, buddy! I know how you did that!"

But chances are, say Comley and Doolin, those people have no idea.

Contact the magicians

Doug Doolin: or (859) 885-4600.

Mark Comley: or (859) 621-8730.

DYI supplies: The Clock Shop, 154 W. Short St. (859) 255-6936.

Doug Doolin pulls a rabbit out of a hat

"I've got several methods, but my favorite is I've got a red box on the table ... and I've got a black top hat that's flattened.

"And I say, 'Boys and girls, right now I'm going to do the most famous trick in all of magic for you. ... I'm going to produce a rabbit from this hat.

'As you can see it's thin,' — and then, POP, it opens, and I take it around and say — 'See it's empty. How could it be possible to produce a rabbit out of this hat? Yet, I am going to produce a rabbit.

'First what you need is some rabbit food' — I've got some confetti and I dump it in the hat — 'Ahhhhhh.'" says Doolin, his voice registering amazement. "'There's a rabbit in the hat! There's a real rabbit!' — I show a handkerchief with a picture of a rabbit on it. And I say — 'I'm so sorry boys and girls. This is not a real rabbit, but this is the way we magicians carry around animals. We turn them into something else, because they're a lot of trouble. Hold on a minute, I'm going to pump it up for you.' I put the handkerchief in the box and I use the balloon pump. The pump doesn't pump. I unstop it, and spring snakes burst out. The kids scream bloody murder. They love it.

I take another balloon pump, and I pump, pump, pump. I peer in and say, 'She's here....'"

And out comes Daisy, his real-life dwarf rabbit.

(Below: Daisy's proxy.)

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