After years of covering entertainment, a veteran journalist tries the other side of the stage
Somehow I have talked Mac King into letting me be the bear that delivers a memorable jump-scare in his comedy magic show at Harrah’s. This was gonna be hilarious, I thought. A major brag.
But now, crouched in position, sweating in a furry onesie and trembling from complaining knees and near-panic, the playful irony of an entertainment reporter’s anonymous cameo has evaporated into my own hot breath huffing inside a heavy mascot head. I’ve already done this twice, but my performance anxiety hasn’t dissipated:
Don’t screw this up. For the sake of Mac. And the audience. Please don’t screw this up.
Mac gives the cue. I lunge.
A few days earlier: “Welcome to show business,” Mac said with his wry Kentucky slow-burn as I entered the Harrah’s showroom, where his act has been an afternoon staple since 2000. “This is the pinnacle.”
Joke aside, for me it really was a pinnacle. As much as King’s onstage persona — the wide-eyed Kentucky rube — is an amplified version of the big kid most magicians are at heart, there’s a Peter Pan aspect to entertainment journalism, too. I mean, I see shows for a living. Now, after 17 years of getting close enough to the stage to wonder what it’s like on the other side, I was about to find out.
Mac was more worried about my knees.
“It’s pretty hard,” he warned me. The squatting, the duck-walking. “I’m worried we may not still be friends after.”
When he had mentioned that one of his two assistants was on the road, I cajoled my way into being the stunt bear for one of my favorite magic tricks — a genuine scare from out of nowhere. (Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen it, let’s just say there’s a camping tent, inspected by a youngster pulled onstage. Turns out there’s a bear inside.) Among magicians, it’s considered a classic.
As I spend a couple of days practicing with Mac and his other assistant, Tristan Redding, I’m reminded of eighth-grade wrestling practice. “It’s simple, but it’s hard,” Mac explained. “It’s so much more precise than you think.”
“To be able to pop out and scare those kids was awesome,” says entertainer Adam London, who was in on the trick’s development and played the bear for nearly five years before opening his own magic show at The D. “How evil is that? There would be times Mac could hear me laughing in the bear head.”
The first of my four bear stunts, on a Thursday afternoon, turned out to be the best. I jumped out. I scared 9-year-old Darius. The audience gasped. And me? This was the fulfillment of my Peter Pan dream, and it was ... okay. I was too focused on not screwing up to savor the moment. Thankfully, I managed to not charge off the front of the stage. The 46-inch mascot head didn’t drop to the floor. Mac flashed a discreet thumbs-up from the stage. I was elated. Was that rush I felt maybe my first taste of what makes show business so addictive?
Then came the second show. “I saw you in the tent,” announced the girl brought onstage. You didn’t scare me.” Nothing any female ever said has broken my heart more. But Mac later said it wasn’t my fault. He and Tristan set to work with gaffer’s tape to fix the gap in the tent before my third and fourth shows the next day.
Mac gives the cue. I lunge.
And, despite my complaining knees and near panic, my third show is my best pop-out yet. I hear the gasp. And I’m clear. Peering through the mesh-screen eyeholes, I track the young volunteer for the high-five we’re supposed to share. She backs away. I don’t know when to give up. I bear-stalk her until she uses Mac as a human shield. Then, as I head toward the wings, I lose my sense of direction … and walk right off the stage.
The audience gasps again.
I land on my feet, but painfully hard on the left foot — and the bear head pops off. Uh, hi, everyone?! Mortified, I grab my head and bear-tail it into the wings.
Mac is howling onstage, can barely talk. He brings me out and lets the audience in on the joke, smoothing it over as only he can. And, it turns out, he had grabbed a hunk of bear suit in time to slow my fall from the three-foot stage. “In the aftermath, it feels like you didn’t fall so much as get … lowered quickly.”
In his dressing room, he is uncharacteristically serious. “My big concern is that it’s a genuine live experience,” he says. “It’s not watching TV. Stuff can happen. And it did. That was a genuine moment, and they realized that.” He insists I do the trick again for the 3 p.m. show, when my wife and daughter will be watching.
The only thing endangered this time is the goldfish bowl parked in the wings, and Mac steers me clear before I run into it. The bit goes well enough onstage. Jump, scare, gasp. I manage to keep my head on straight. But after the post-show autographs and photos, Mac asks, eyebrows arched, “Are we done yet?”
Sounds like. A part of me wants one more chance to get it perfect. Another part, a complaining left ankle, says we should not lunge anymore. It’s also Mac’s way of reminding me I don’t really belong in this world. Show business requires a special mix of creativity and discipline; there’s little margin for error, and very real chances of getting hurt. At least I have a new appreciation for the work that goes into even the most basic illusions.
There is also, inevitably, the dreaded review. After hammering out so many B-minus critiques over the years, it was my turn to be on the receiving end. It was showroom usher Katie James who supplied the blurb I could pull out of context and scream in big promo type across my imaginary billboard.
“This show,” she proclaimed, “will go down in history.”