City native comes home for illusion and reality

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Joe Harrison has made a career out of illusions — turning balloons and hankies into exotic birds and making things go “poof” for audiences from Europe to Australia.

His best reappearing act seems to be happening in his hometown, as Harrison performed Tuesday in the Vicksburg area for the first time in about 40 years.

“I’ve been lucky with magic,” Harrison said following a veritable tour de force of kid-friendly magic acts before about 250 students at South Park Elementary, assisted by his daughter, Lisa. “I’ve loved to perform and I’d like to see if we can do this here.”

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Harrison may search a while for the perfect venue for his sleight-of-hand maneuvers and feathered friends that include Gandolf the cockatoo and Siegfried, a fluttery macaw, but the subject to his most awe-inspiring acts certainly can explain the “oohs” and “aahs” elicited by those pesky skeptics.

“I always loved magic growing up,” South Park teacher Beverly White said. “But, I mean, I’m standing there and I don’t know how he did that.”

White was chosen from the throng gathered in the school cafeteria for the 90-minute show to witness Harrison’s magic up close.

First, the GATES program instructor was asked to hold a large pan set aflame — only to see a living, breathing rabbit emerge at the hand of the master magician. White tensed up for Harrison’s “zig-zag” act, a variation of the sawing-in-half trick first popularized by 19th century illusionists. Only this time, White was about to be chopped into thirds using a pair of intimidating metal blades — or so everyone thought.

White removed her shoes and eyeglasses, then stepped into the trademark box known to draw shrieks from magic show onlookers. Harrison secured the four locks and seemingly lodged the blades into her midsection and pulled her apart a bit, only to have White emerge a little sore but all smiles.

“I always make sure the person’s not claustrophobic,” Harrison said later as his routine moved outside and entertained parents picking up their children in the school’s rear plaza by appearing to levitate school counselor Marian Richardson a few feet off the ground.

Harrison’s acts have been family-friendly for much of his career, which began during his first career in the railroad industry with Illinois Central Railroad. A transfer to New Orleans allowed the 1966 St. Aloysius High School graduate to pursue what had been a dabbling interest into a full-fledged new life.

“I piddled with magic in the 9th, 10th, 11th grade,” said Harrison, whose talent with playing cards and handkerchiefs quickly put him in demand. “The other kids wanted to hire me to do a magic show for a prom fundraiser. Then, I did the first flea market in Vicksburg up at the Old Court House.”

One career ended while another began as Harrison was joined by his wife, Dorothy, and three daughters on a road that took them to four continents. Harrison said a European tour with fellow magician Robert Harvin inspired the zig-zag, which debuted to magic audiences in the United States during Harrison’s performances on the short-lived 1980s ABC program “That’s Incredible.”

“We were at the London Palladium and, that night, on a paper napkin we designed an illusion,” Harrison said. “For “That’s Incredible!” we told them we’d go one step beyond and cut a lady in three.”

Along the way, Harrison has consulted some of the biggest names in TV and stage magicians, such as David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy and Doug Henning.

“(Copperfield) was 9 years old and we were performing where you had to be 21 to get in because they served alcohol,” Harrison remembers, adding the young magic prodigy watched the show by peering through a back curtain.

Other highlights include several shows at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, Calif., a temple of sorts for those in the industry and home to the Academy of Magical Arts, and five projects with Disney, most recently an appearance with Lisa as masters of the performance art in the 2005 film “Now You See It…”

“It’s good for the kids to see this because they are fascinated,” said South Park librarian Rosemary Murphy, who was a classmate of Harrison’s. “It’s hard to find entertainment for families.”

Until Hurricane Katrina, Harrison’s self-described “semi-retirement” from magic involved playing for elementary-age school children across the Gulf Coast. His schedule has remained busy despite the years of adjustments since the storm, with a gig teaching magic at Brother Martin High School in New Orleans and a show June 17 at St. Stanislaus in Bay St. Louis. 

His pending move back to Vicksburg from his previous home base in suburban Gretna seemingly won’t dampen his love for performing for families and children, summed up by his monologue on the uniqueness of every child that accompanies his turning a seemingly water-soaked wad of paper into a perfectly cut snowflake.

“Real snowflakes are all different,” Harrison said. “Just like every one of you are all different.”

Students who attended the performance dubbed “Illusion or Reality” were able to do so by their achievement in the Accelerated Reader program at the school. Seven students received $50 savings bonds sponsored by the PTO.

Recipients were kindergartener Ta’Mya Thomas, first-grader Rashun Moore, second-grader Claire Jamison, third-grader Jason Benard, fourth-grader Tyler Kimble, fifth-grader Bill Cohen and sixth-grader Hunter Screws.


Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at