Magician Jay Alexander wrote the pandemic performing arts playbook

The star of Marrakech Magic Theater never stopped hustling, connecting and inventing

By Laura Fraenza

Special to The Examiner

Magician, comic, mentalist and rainmaker Jay Alexander has always been an adaptor and a hustler. He never stops working, never stops creating. When the world shut down two years ago, he remembers thinking, “I don’t know how long this thing is going to last, but I don’t have the theater. I’ve got to keep working.’”

Alexander sat down to learn Zoom and downloaded the software programs a virtual show would require. He tried not to look back, even though he had performed seven shows, four nights a week for three years in his gorgeous jewel box of a venue that was once a speakeasy: the 35-seat Moroccan-themed Marrakech Magic Theater, a few blocks from Union Square.

Jay Alexander’s “Mind Tricks Live!” was a hit as soon as it opened in 2017, becoming #1 on TripAdvisor’s nightlife listing and retaining that spot when the show reopened last June. Every night, Alexander greeted guests with up-close, sleight-of-hand magic while they enjoyed pre-show cocktails and Moroccan finger food provided by the historic Marrakech restaurant next door.

Two weeks into quarantine, the entertainer invited people who’d seen him at the Marrakech to join him on screen for a free evening of magic. To his surprise, over 160 people from all parts of the world showed up.

“Many were people who came to the theater, saw the show and had this incredible time on their vacation in San Francisco,” Alexander said. “Now they were stuck at home, kind of freaked out, so they felt like they could relive their vacation in a fun way, watching the show virtually.”

Alexander discovered a unique intimacy while entertaining remotely.

“In the theater, I only see the first two rows of faces,” he said. “For the first time, I was getting a glimpse of everyone in their homes, with dirty dishes piled up in the sink and kids and dogs running around in the background.”

Alexander also brought together over 100 magicians on Zoom from small theaters throughout North America and Europe, so they could try to figure out how to survive whatever was next. Each faced the worry of having to shut down.

Shawn Furquhuar, a third-generation magician and two-time World Champion of Magic who runs the Hidden Wonders Speakeasy Magic Experience outside Vancouver, jumped at the chance to commune.

“Having us all connect allowed us to commiserate together,” Furquhaur said. “It’s inspiring — we talked about everything from new tricks to great ideas for marketing.”

It’s been two years and the magicians are still gathering weekly.

Alexander has been figuring out how to thrive since coming to The City on a San Francisco Art Institute scholarship. It was the halcyon days of the mid-80s when it was easier to live the life of a starving artist.

Two years in, he left school to pursue his passions, supporting himself by making flyers for beloved and now long-gone music venues like Nightbreak and the I-Beam. Alexander also performed magic at kids’ birthday parties on weekends, something he’d done since middle school in his hometown of Houston, where his love of magic began.

At 11, his grandfather took him to see Doug Henning, the long-haired hippie in tie-dye with a broad grin and gentle nature. That day sealed his fate.

“Doug Henning took you on a journey doing magic tricks with things like different colored silk scarves and feathers,” Alexander said. “When you watched him, you believed his magic and the childlike wonder he created.”

Soon after seeing Henning, Alexander joined Houston magician Wayne Raeke’s youth magic group, The Joker’s Wild Junior Club, spending hours every week in training. At 14, Alexander was the youngest ever to win the Society of American Magicians Gold Medal of Honor.

The work ethic he learned under Rieke drives him, but it’s Henning’s sense of wonder that Alexander brings to each performance.

“I stand on the shoulders of the many magicians who came before me,” he said. “Some trained me, and some I just watched, studying everything they did. … I just wanted to work, so I said ‘yes’ to everything.”

Alexander spent almost four decades saying “yes” as an in-demand performer traveling the world and making magic for rock stars like the Rolling Stones and U2 and for companies like Google and Pfizer.

Running his live theater show has been a dream fulfilled. Audiences of mostly locals are coming back slowly to the Marrakech. Lately, international tourists have appeared; most seem to be from Australia and Canada.

Alexander attributes his success partly to his aim to be in touch with every person in the room.

“My place is small enough that in the experience, I can control every aspect of the night. From the second they walk in until the second they leave, I can take care of them,” he explained.

In-person custom magic is also returning. Weeks ago, Alexander showed up at Salesforce Tower for his first live corporate event for a company welcoming its employees back to the office.

“It was uplifting and felt very safe. Everyone who entered had just had a rapid COVID test,” he said.

“Great art comes out of the hard times,” he continued. “The City has constantly been in transition, so you either learn to work with it, or you get stuck and hate everything about it.”

But Jay Alexander is not one to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes when it comes to the difficulty of artistic pursuits.

“I used to say, ‘Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. Now I say, ‘Do what you love, and you’ll work, very hard, every single day of your life, but you’ll end up loving it.’”

IF YOU GO:

Marrakech Magic Theater

Where: 419 O’Farrell Street, S.F.

When: 90-minute shows, 6:30 and 9:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Contact: (415) 794-6893, sanfranciscomagictheater.com

Magician Jay Alexander. (Courtesy photo)

Magician Jay Alexander. (Courtesy photo)

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