Take Two #57: Brian Gillis

July 11, 2018

On July 2nd, 2018, magic lost one of its favorite sons. The professional magician, Brian Gillis, passed away from complications due to open heart surgery, the result of a major heart attack suffered two weeks prior. He was 71 years old. 

Brian was a respected professional who specialized in private events for a wealthy and celebrity clientele in the Los Angeles area. A glance at his website will reveal a photo gallery of Brian pictured with countless stars, including the likes of Paul McCartney, Eddie Murphy, Dustin Hoffman, Stevie Wonder, Kevin Kostner, Harrison Ford … the list is endless, and these are not just people he encountered at big corporate events but rather, more often than not, at private parties in their homes. He truly was “The magician to the stars,” and he took pride in that moniker. “So if you guys ever have a party you want to spend a lot of money on, give me a call!” was his closing line more often than not, and he even said it on one of his three appearances on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson—more appearances than any other close-up magician. From Michael Skinner to Paul Gertner, two of the best who Johnny ever had on, Brian was the only one who made it back a third time.

Carson started out as a magician and remained an avid amateur throughout his life. In the ‘60s and ‘70s his was the only network television show you could see great close-up magicians on (with the rare exception of The Ed Sullivan Show, but Carson presented close-up magic as it should be done, seated at a table with a small group of spectators, typically Johnny himself along with celebrities from the panel). In my youth I saw Al Goshman and Don Alan, who both inspired me with their Carson appearances. Later came Michael Skinner in the 70s with two marvelous spots. And then in the 80s Johnny’s interest in magic became reinvigorated, and he brought on Michael Ammar, Dean Dill, Paul Gertner, and of course Brian, who Johnny pronounced to be his favorite magician, and with whom he spent time practicing and sharing magic off stage as well (as he also did with Dean Dill). That third appearance for Brian was no small accomplishment.

Brian came up in his teens with the Buffalo Magic Bar legend, Eddie Fechter, and Fechter’s influence pervaded Brian’s magic throughout his life. On Facebook last week, Paul Gertner reminisced about Brian and their early days of learning from Fechter at the Forks Hotel restaurant and bar that Eddie owned in Buffalo: 

Brian and I were friends for over 45 years. We first met in April of 1973 when we both attended our first 4F Magic Convention at the Forks Hotel in Buffalo New York. Brian had about 6 years on me but we were the only young kids back then at a convention made up of mostly old guys … at least they seemed old to us at the time. So as two of the “kids” at those early 4F Conventions we bonded and stuck together a lot. At the time we were both learning from Eddie Fechter, who was generously passing on his incredible knowledge and magic to both of us and we were like sponges … we soaked up everything we could. Brian and I both simply idolized Eddie and between us his name was spoken with reverence … we knew we were fortunate to be learning from one of the best and we took advantage of the opportunity.

Eventually Brian went west, settling in Los Angeles, where he became a regular performer at the Magic Castle, and established himself in the local celebrity market. He broke into television commercials. And in later years he would also develop an excellent mindreading stage act with his partner, Sisuepahn. 

I wasn’t close with Brian but knew him collegially for many years. In the 90s we worked together at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, in their Magic Castle-inspired venue, Caesars Magical Empire. Brian was a powerhouse of a close-up magician—relentless in his pacing and his selection of direct, strong, audience-involved magic. He was an energizer bunny who could just keep going until something or someone stopped him, and he truly loved the work. Even at a social event at the home of some Empire staff, Brian would be the one with a pack of cards in his hands, ready and eager to perform. 

Not only did he seek to perform for celebrities, he conducted himself like one as well. Not that he was unapproachable—many magicians have recounted in recent days how he helped them out with a sleight or technique in a casual encounter. Paul Gertner tells this story, typical of Brian’s kindness:

On one of my last trips to the Magic Castle I had mentioned to Brian how I’ve noticed that when getting older my hands were a bit dryer, making some of the card work I needed to do more difficult. Brian immediately took out a small bottle and said: “Try this.” He dabbed a drop on my palm and said: “It’s what Vernon always used, rosewater and glycerin.” I picked up my deck of Bee’s and immediately performed a series of push off seconds that would make Richard Turner proud. I remember saying “That’s good stuff … I’ll have to get some of that.” He handed me the little bottle and said: “Keep it.” I did, and I have used that little bottle every day since then. I used it when I taped my latest spot on “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” a spot that aired the same day that Brian passed away. I was so looking forward to telling Brian that his little bottle was a lifesaver on the show, and it made a big difference. But late that evening I read the sad news online and realized ... that is one conversation we will never have. But Brian … I carry that little bottle … that last gift you gave me every day in my pocket … and I’ll carry you forever in my heart. Rest in Peace my dear friend. 

But that aside, Brian considered himself a magical celebrity, and he lived the part. In his glory days, doing well with private events, national television commercials (he was the voice of national commercials for Subway sandwiches for a time), and consulting for film and television, he lived in a castle-like home in Redondo Beach, with a couple of super cars in the garage and a closet filled with hundreds of flashy Vegas-style blazers, that would remain a trademark throughout his life. In recent years, living in a nearby apartment, he could still be seen at the Magic Castle most nights, gathering crowds for impromptu shows, wearing one of that seemingly infinite supply of sparkling jackets. 

Another mutual friend and colleague, Steve Kradolfer, posted on Facebook: 

Brian Gillis liked ice in his Merlot.
It only made me love him more.

And this made me smile, acknowledging, even among his friends and colleagues and admirers, that Brian was eccentric to his core. Fastidious beyond imagination, his close-up cases were custom made so that every single prop, down to the tiniest item, had a separate and perfectly fitted compartment. A weightlifting gym rat, he wore short sleeve shirts to show off his biceps and was in better shape than most men decades his junior. 

Brian was one of the subjects of one of the four storied magicians featured in the feature-length 2016 documentary film, Magicians: Life in the Impossible (available for viewing on streaming services). Brian’s portrait becomes a troubling riches to rags story of a sort, as the big house and the muscle cars become things of the past, a story that confronts and discomforts viewers with the challenges and costs of devoting one’s life to a passion for one’s art. One cannot help but be provoked by the camera’s detached view, staring into the heart and mind of a complex, unusual character, one who sometimes wore his demons on his trademark short sleeves. 

Here’s another powerful Facebook tribute from mutual friend Eric Mead, who did many gigs with Brian in the ‘90s. The man he references, Karrel Fox, was a revered magician, internationally beloved in the magic world. Here’s Eric:

Let me tell one quick Gillis story—a group of magicians had finished a gig together in Palm Desert and went to dinner together. A group from another table overheard our boisterous conversation and asked if we'd do some magic. The great Karrell Fox was with us, and he offered to do something. Brian insisted that he be allowed to do a couple tricks first—and I witnessed one of the most amazing and generous things I've ever seen. 

In the course of his short performance Brian stole the wristwatches off of a man and a woman. He finished his set without returning them, then passed them off to Karrell secretly. Karrell went over, performed the classic Benson Bowl routine, but at the end he made the wrist watches appear under the bowl. It was an unforgettable miracle for those people, made possible by Gillis' doing the hard work, then giving the credit and the "moment" to Karrell Fox. It was a beautiful thing to see.

Attention must be paid to the passing of this accomplished magician; acknowledgement must be made of the path and the reach of his life. Brian Gillis didn’t write books, he rarely lectured, rather surprisingly he never won an award from the Academy of Magical Arts—but he was a performer to his core, literally to the very end, having appeared for a week in the Close-up Gallery at the Magic Castle a mere few weeks before his death. When I was at the Castle with guests or colleagues, I would always take them to see Brian if he was working, because there was no doubt—there was simply no doubt at all—that audiences would be amazed and delighted, and magicians who didn’t know his work would often find themselves surprised and even fooled. Early this year I brought a couple of friends to see him perform in the W.C. Fields Bar, and they went home with one of his special stuffed animals—you can see that routine in the Magic Castle performance below. And I also brought a veteran magician friend to see him, who ended up, much to his surprise, also being fooled by the same signature routine. Brian Gillis could surprise you that way, and you would remember the encounter. I, for one, always will. 

You can find a handful of videos of Brian Gillis on YouTube, including all three of his appearances on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, although the quality of the recordings of the first two appearances vary. I’m going to provide just two videos here in complete length, rather than in select clips, and from these you can garner a pretty good sense of what it was like to be present at a Brian Gillis magic show. Please: Expand the browser. Turn up the sound. Set the smartphone aside and watch each of these without pause or interruption. Respect the man and his work. 

The first video is Brian’s third appearance on the Carson show, seated at the table with Johnny, comedian Buddy Hackett, and two women selected from the audience. When you consider the annals of close-up magicians on major nighttime talk shows, Brian’s work is impressive, because while he does have a planned repertoire, he is also spontaneous, highly interactive, and he takes chances. He’s fearless and confident, performing on the most important talk show in the country, while flanked by the hazard of a powerhouse celebrity comic like Buddy Hackett. With Carson on his side however, Brian handles it all seemingly effortlessly. Few magicians on talk shows are ever as fluid and risk-inclined as this.


And here is a fairly recent recording of one of Brian’s complete sets in the Close-up Gallery at the Magic Castle. Stick with this until the end. If you never saw Brian Gillis perform, I’m sorry that the chance has passed you by. But here’s a reasonably good record. 




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