Magic’s a Class Act

Chavez College of Manual Dexterity and Prestidigitation


From The Detroit News Michigan, March 2, 1986:

In Colon, Mich., Magic’s a Class Act


Just about every semester somebody asks Neil Foster, dean, chancellor and principal faculty member at America’s only college of performing magic, whether his curriculum includes “how to pull a rabbit out of a hat.”

The answer, Foster says, sums up what the “Chavez College of Manual Dexterity and Prestidigitation” in Colon, Mich., is all about. “I tell ‘em that getting the rabbit out of the hat is the easy part,” says the 65-year-old Foster. “Getting it into the hat in the first place, without anybody seeing you – that’s the trick.’

The trick is the thing at Chevez College, which, with its branch campus in Pasadena, Calif., is the nation’s only school training performing magicians. Twice a year, magic majors from across the United States, Canada, Mexico and as far away as Bombay, India, show up to take Professor Foster’s 20-week course.

Foster, who retired as an active performer after a 35-year-career, covers sleight-of-hand, card tricks and basic vanishes and transformations which can be performed without elaborate apparatus or expensive assistants. Then it’s out into the world of stage shoes, conventions, and cruise line gigs. Or, more likely, birthday parties, school assemblies and Kiwanis benefits.

“The business has changed since the days of vaudeville,” Foster says, “There’s still a living to be made in magic, but there’s really no middle ground between the starting out level and the top right now … Some go on and hit it big with the $4,000-a-week jobs in Las Vegas, while many others make a lifetime career out of school assemblies. I know some who have made a very nice living at the latter.”

Foster himself may be the school’s best advertisement. He took the course in 1947, when the school was Los Angeles-based and run by Ben and Marian Chavez, a pair of old vaudeville hands. Upon graduation he took a job as an instructor, and later kept in close touch with his alma mater after striking out on his own.

In 1979, after a career that took him to 27 countries, he bought the college name and opened a campus in Colon. It seemed only right. The southwestern Michigan town has billed itself as the “Magic Capital of the World” since the 1930s, when Harry Blackstone settle there and Blackstone colleague Percy Abbott opened his magic store, which continues in business to this day.

“The funny thing is, I took the course myself under the GI Bill,” Foster says. “Magic qualified as a manual trade. And today, that’s right what we start with; working on sleight-of-hand.”

Today’s students, who pay an average of $50 an hour in tuition fees, are also interested in basic, good old-fashioned showmanship, Foster says.

“We teach silent magic so that our graduates can work abroad without a language barrier,” he says, “Learning showmanship, which is really just another word for salesmanship, is what this is all about.

Foster is learning a few new wrinkles himself these days. The college, which limits class size to four pupils, has lately begun to enroll female interns, giving rise to “sawing the gentleman in half” and other possibilities.

“We encourage them to work in sleeveless evening gowns,” Foster says, “Even though we men don’t use our sleeves anyway, people still think we do. But what do you say to a woman in an evening gown?”