Imagine a third-grader in coat and tails in the middle of a desert in Saudi Arabia — doing magic.
It was 1990, during the Gulf War, and John Michael Hinton’s dad, who worked for an oil company, had heard U.S. troops could use some entertainment, Hinton says now. Could he and his tiny son put on a magic show for the soldiers?
Now, Hinton gets a shot at wowing a national crowd on Monday night: He’ll be featured on The CW’s “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” in which the famous illusionists try to unravel the method behind specific tricks.
But it’s what Hinton saw as a boy in that desert that taught him to love the craft.
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His family moved to Saudi Arabia for his father’s work when Hinton was in first grade, he says. Two years later, they found themselves in the middle of a war.
The third-grader carried a gas mask to school.
But when his father told him about performing for the soldiers (magic was a father-son hobby), Hinton put on his coat and tails and hopped in the car — thrilled for the chance.
He stood in front of the troops, he now recalls, who held their large artillery close, and did what he calls “cheesy magic,” drawing laughs from the crowd. He and his dad would end up doing more than a dozen shows, at several different camps. And they’d end each performance with Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to Be an American” playing in the background.
“You’d see these 18- to 22-year-olds laughing the entire show,” Hinton says. “Then we’d end the show ... (and) tears were coming down their faces.”
That glimpse of what magic could do would come back to him, but not for years.
‘It’s in me’
The family moved back to the United States in 1996 when Hinton was in eighth grade, he says. He dabbled in magic through high school in Missouri, and Simpson College in California, where he met his future wife.
Four years ago, he and his family of four settled in Hemby Bridge, about 30 minutes southeast of Charlotte, and Hinton decided to pursue magic as a full-time job, despite the risk.
“I have no memories without magic,” Hinton says. “It’s just something I do, and it’s in me.”
Hinton also works as a motivational speaker, and says that his shows, travel, practice and paperwork make up about a 60-hour work week.
Being on national TV has always been a dream, he says. He didn’t dream of where it’d start: in a Chili’s restaurant.
‘Extraordinary things with ordinary objects’
Most people think of magic as the stuff they see at kids’ birthday parties or big Vegas shows.
Hinton does neither.
He likes to say he does “extraordinary things with ordinary objects.” In one of his videos, you see him drop a Rubik’s Cube, which then seems to shatter into a pile of gum balls.
“When you see what I can do with Oreos,” he says, “you think, ‘I can’t do that with my Oreos at home.’ “
He describes his work as close-up magic, and in his shows, he projects a live video feed onto screens beside the stage to magnify what he’s doing.
He works to get better, he says, by meeting weekly with other local magicians. They call it Sleight Club.
“The first rule of Sleight Club is ‘Don’t suck,’ ” Hinton says. “But we basically meet to try to further the art of magic.”
They had gotten together one night at Chili’s, and he was working with his Rubik’s Cube when another member asked if he could push the trick farther: What if you do this? (He won’t describe the idea more than that, or — obviously — say how it’s done.)
Hinton then spent hours working at it, perfecting his method.
This was the one — the trick that he felt was ready for national television.
He sent a video to producers at the Penn & Teller show, and got a call soon after. The producers wanted to see the trick live. With a quick performance of what Hinton says has never been done, he was invited to the show, done in Las Vegas.
The show’s concept? If Penn & Teller can’t figure out how he did the trick, he gets to come back and open for their world-famous show.
That’s the hook, Hinton says, but it’s not the real purpose.
That purpose is what he found as a third-grader in the desert. It’s letting people escape, he says, and giving people a moment to relax.
Hinton can’t remember a time in his life without magic. It’s his outlet — but it isn’t everything.
“(My kids) don’t need someone pulling a coin out of their ear 24/7,” Hinton said. “They need someone who loves them as a good dad.”