ALEXANDRIA BAY Whether it be at the local supermarket or in Dunkirk, France, magician Ronald J. Obie OBrien is always ready to entertain.
At his riverfront home just off Kring Point Road late last month, four days before turning 80, he reached into his back pocket for his wallet shortly after welcoming a guest. He revealed a card carrier, took out four cards and launched into a routine:
A magician and a gambler were talking. ...
The trick, with cards changing suits and appearance, took less than five minutes, and left his guest impressed. Mr. OBrien has been doing that with magic for half a century, but that particular trick he always carries around is his favorite.
I look at it this way, he said. If I walk into the bank or the Big M, and theres nobody in line, what do you think the girls are going to say? They say, Show us a trick! If I turn around and say, I dont have anything with me, theyll say, What kind of magician are you?
Quite the dedicated and talented one, many would say. For example, just look to his French connection.
Late last year, Mr. OBrien, in Dunkirk, received the French Cultural Influence gold medal from La Renaissance Francaise, an organization founded in 1916 to promote French culture and language. Its one of the highest distinctions given by the French government to people who have made significant achievements in the arts, literature, science and cultural heritage.
Mr. OBrien was honored for helping French magicians get started in the U.S. The native of Ottawa, Ontario, who also speaks French, has also helped magicians from Quebec get their start in the States.
Mr. OBrien served as president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians from 1993 to 94, and hes been a brotherhood member for 50 years. Earlier this year, he hosted his own 42nd annual close-up magic convention in Batavia. This summer, hell attend his 13th straight world championships of magic, hosted by the International Federation of Magic Societies. This years event is in Blackpool, England.
He does about 25 magic shows a year, mostly in the U.S. and Canada, but hes also performed in Ireland and Germany, and in October he attended a magic convention in Italy. Hes been to China twice for the world championships of magic, where he did some tricks at the Great Wall.
North country residents may have seen him perform in recent years at Behlings Spookhill Farms in Adams. He also does yearly Mothers Day performances at Cavallarios Restaurant in Alexandria Bay. These days, hes been doing fewer acts as he focuses more on the politics of the magic organizations hes involved in.
It was his hockey wizadry that brought Mr. OBrien to the north country. The former All-American, who played right wing but shot left, received a hockey scholarship to St. Lawrence University, Canton, and graduated in 1957 with a bachelors degree in math. A classmate, who said he did a magic show for Roy Campanella of the Brooklyn Dodgers, introduced Mr. OBrien to the craft. His first trick was multiplying golf balls. His first big show was for a minor hockey banquet in the Potsdam area in 1962, where instead of the anticipated 125 guests, more than 300 showed up.
He later earned two masters degrees; one from SLU and the other from New Mexico State. He finished all of the course work for his Ph.D. at the University of Buffalo but didnt write a thesis.
He taught math for two years at Potsdam High School and for 31 years at SUNY Canton, retiring in 1992.
Hes a former semi-pro hockey player for teams in Lake Placid and Morrisburg, Ontario. He started the hockey program at SUNY Canton in 1964 and coached through the 1973-74 season, winning two national championships. He was the official scorer for hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, including the famous Miracle on Ice game when the U.S. beat Russia 4-3; an appropriate stint for a magician.
Mr. OBrien, who still moves swiftly and is solidly built at a little more than 6 feet tall, for more than three decades refereed high school football and basketball and college and high school hockey, lacrosse and soccer.
His main sporting activity these days is golf, something he had to put on the back burner for several years because it was interfering with his magic, which he cant imagine not practicing.
I like to entertain, he said. Its not that I want to fool you. I just want to entertain you.
He mentioned his mentor, Buffalo bar owner Eddie Fechter, who died in 1979. Mr. OBrien named his convention, Fechters Finger Flicking Frolic, after that magician.
He said to me, Listen, you dont want to do all these hard sleights and all that stuff. If you want to do that, you want to fool a magician. But if you want to earn some money, youve got to entertain the public. If you entertain them, theyll love ya, Mr. OBrien said.
Mr. OBrien focuses on close-up magic, performed with simple objects in front of small groups of usually less than a dozen.
He explained that when magic is done for groups of more than that, its called parlor, or stage when its performed for large crowds of 100 or more.
In Mr. OBriens den, the walls are filled with certificates, awards and signed pictures of stage magicians such as Siegfried and Roy and good friend David Cooperfield. He said Mr. Cooperfield, his favorite magician, surprised him several years ago when he told Mr. OBrien that he was inspired when he saw his act in the Catskills.
He said, You used to work for Morrisey Magic out of Canada, and Id watch you demonstrate, Mr. OBrien said. That really surprised me.
A huge hanging portrait of Mr. OBrien is made up of 1,250 photographs of magicians who have been to his Frolic conventions over the years. The artwork was presented to him at his 40th convention two years ago, and he was shocked when they smashed it over his head. It turned out to be a cheap copy of the original on his wall.
Theyre always pulling a prank on me, he said.
In July, at the International Brotherhood of Magicians convention in Norfolk, Va., Mr. OBrien will get his 50-year pin and certificate, which will add to his wall collection.
A few days ago, Mr. OBrien and his wife, Elizabeth A., hit another magical milestone when they marked their 55th wedding anniversary. He said his family has always supported his magic pursuits. The couple has two daughters: Karen, associate director of physical plant/operations at SUNY Potsdam, and Kelly, director of financial aid at Trinity College in Hartford, Ct.
They were both born one year apart to the day, Mr. OBrien said smugly. Thats a magician.