Performing magic requires its own form of salesmanship. You’re constantly selling yourself to the audience, proving to them that what they’re seeing is real and, if you’re participating in any major stunts, that the potential for danger is genuine.
It makes sense, then, that before he was an internationally touring illusionist, Jay Owenhouse was working in advertising sales in Montana. It wasn’t until he started setting up magic shows at a local shopping mall, where he performed three times every weekend, that he realized he could make a lifelong hobby into a career.
“It was a huge hit,” Owenhouse said during a recent phone interview. “I was looking at what I made in one weekend, and it was as much as I was making in a month working full-time in advertising.”
Owenhouse, who was born and raised in Northern California, saw his first magic show at his older sister’s birthday party when he was 4 years old. His infatuation with the craft followed him into young adulthood. He started performing for elementary school classes and birthday parties when he was a teenager and began designing his own illusions while attending Montana State University, where he graduated with a degree in psychology.
He started touring around the Northwest some time thereafter, and Owenhouse says he was greeted with such enthusiasm that he kept returning to the same venues year after year.
“We had this grass-roots kind of fan base,” Owenhouse said, “and it just kind of grew from there.”
But it was Owenhouse’s re-creation of Harry Houdini’s famous Water Torture Cell feat that got people talking. In the act, Owenhouse is manacled upside down in a glass case filled with water, and he must free himself from the shackles before running out of air.
His current touring show, which lands at the INB Performing Arts Center on Saturday, features more than just big spectacle. There are small-scale magic tricks, sometimes featuring audience members, as well as stunts involving Owenhouse’s pair of 3-year-old Bengal tigers, Sheena and Shekinah.
And then there’s the Table of Death, which actually lives up to its name. “It almost killed me 15 years ago,” Owenhouse said. “It’s 1,000 pounds of 2-foot spikes that are up above this steel bed, and I’m chained up … and the spikes are connected to a timer, and I have 90 seconds to escape before the spikes come down.” That one of those spikes once went through his knee, requiring months of physical therapy and rehab, tells you that he isn’t messing around.
“It’s very intense,” Owenhouse said , “and I was concerned as a parent myself what kids would think, that maybe it’d be too scary for them. But interestingly enough, it’s actually become one of the things that the kids love and talk about the most.”
Owenhouse has always taken care to tailor his show for general audiences, and it’s a true family affair in that his four kids are an integral part of his performances, helping to engineer the show and assisting him onstage.
It’s Owenhouse’s devotion to family, as well as his intention to remain completely genuine while he performs, that he said makes him an “authentic” illusionist.
It’s an adjective he admits wouldn’t normally be applied to someone “entertaining you through trickery,” but the authenticity refers not to the illusions onstage but rather to Owenhouse’s desire to put on a captivating, family-friendly show.
“It really creates a sense of wonder, that feeling of belief and emotion that most people haven’t experienced since they were kids,” Owenhouse said. “The magic show is becoming something very rare. … People come away from the show glad they experienced it, because it really is a vanishing art.”