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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Bringing Magic From Xenia, Ohio To Stages Near and Far

Dave Williamson is a Xenia, Ohio native who's traveled around the world as a magician
courtesy of Dave Williamson
Dave Williamson is a Xenia, Ohio native who's traveled around the world as a magician

Tuesday night, the world of the circus, circa 1903 – with its awe-inspiring physical feats, goofy comedy and over-the-top showmanship – will descend upon Dayton for a handful of performances at the Schuster Center. And the actor playing the ringmaster, Willy Whipsnade?

It’s magician David Williamson from Xenia, Ohio. He’s world famous, but you’ve probably never heard of him. The story begins in Xenia over 40 years ago.  

"I turned to my mother when I was ten, and I said: I’m going to be a professional magician. So don’t worry about me, work on my brothers," says Williamson.  "In fourth grade, Mrs. Moore, at Spring Hill Elementary in Xenia, we had a little reader about Harry Houdini. Little story about Harry Houdini. And at the end, they taught a coin trip: The French Drop. A little move. I did it – I practiced it – and I did it pretty well. And Mrs. Moore turned to me, and she said: Oh David – maybe someday you’ll be a magician! And I like to think that’s when the neural pathway was formed, because that’s the first time someone pointed at me and said: You could be a blank…And then shortly after that, Shepard the Magician came to Spring Hill Elementary, and he was a traveling assembly school magician. And he had a van with rabbits and hats. And his name was Walter Shepard. Walked into our school, and did these amazing things on stage, and Mrs. Moore – recognizing my excitement – again, I give it back to Mrs. Moore -  asked Shepard the Magician, Shepard the Great, if I could help him carry his props back to his van after the show. Imagine what that did to me. It was like I was in this exclusive club: I was the magician of our school at that point."

Throughout his childhood in Xenia Williamson worked to hone his craft, trying out tricks on family, friends and anyone who would watch. The style that Williamson cultivated during this time is one of complete naturalness.

"I didn’t want to be someone other than me, because I couldn’t fool them that way," says Williamson. "I couldn’t fool my brothers or my grandmother if I was trying to be someone I wasn’t, but if I was just being normal, natural David then I could slip things by them. And that really taught me a lesson."

Dave Williamson on stage in Circus 1903
Credit courtesy of Dave Williamson
Dave Williamson on stage in Circus 1903

"He is one of the most naturally funny people I’ve ever met. And hysterical on stage. No holds barred. No filters. Yet everything is precisely controlled. He’s like a scientist – you can’t see it, when you watch him perform, but he has everything and every potential contingency planned out," says Richard Kaufman. Kaufman is the publisher of Genii: The Conjuror’s Magazine. He’s a magician himself and has written and published dozens of books on magic.

"One of the great things about David is that his comedy – there’s no language barrier. You would think that when he works in another country, because he doesn’t speak any foreign languages, you would think that there would be a problem, but no, I’ve seen him work in Asia and Europe, and people are in hysterics!" says Kaufman.

At that magic convention in Columbus, I walked in to find Williamson teaching young guys card tricks at the table in the front lobby. His friends say he’s always doing that. It must be because he was lucky enough to be encouraged when he was growing up.

"When I was a kid, my dad was a farmer," says Williamson. "He worked at three different factories in Dayton, blue collar guy, hard worker. And so, for me, for my parents to allow me to quit Wright State after two years of art school and go off and be a magician, they said go for it. They could see that that’s what I was meant to do. But I’m one of those few people who don’t know how to make a living doing anything else. That’s what I’m proudest of. That I’ve been able to build a career, raise a family, make a life – doing card tricks."

Williamson has a starring role in the production of Circus 1903 that opens at the Schuster Center tomorrow night. He’s playing Willie Whipsnade, the ringmaster. He’ll be doing card tricks.

Circus 1903 is onstage at the Victoria Theater June 13th - 18th.  More information at: https://victoriatheatre.com/shows/circus-1903/

Luke Dennis tried to get a job at WBUR in Boston in 2002 and they told him to come back when he had experience. In 2012 he landed at WYSO and plans to never leave. In between he served as the executive director of Muse Machine, taught acting to undergraduates, led opera education courses for adults, and served as a curator for Harvard University. Luke learned how to make radio documentaries as a member of the first WYSO Community Voices class. He lives in Yellow Springs with his family.
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