If you can’t break the glass ceiling — levitate


By Atticus Brady

It would seem that two or three world-famous magicians are all the world can stand. There is Lance Burton and the two Davids, Blaine and Copperfield, but magic has never been like Rock ‘N Roll where a hundred bands at a time can sell hit records. It is more than likely that when one of these performers fade from the spotlight someone else will come along to fill the vacancy.

Maritess Zurbano wants that someone to be her. As a BBC camera crew films her for a multi-part documentary on women in magic, Maritess performs sleight-of-hand, mentalism, and cabaret magic at the Inn at Irving in Gramercy Park. After introducing herself as one of roughly 50 professional female magicians in the world, she produces cards and coins from thin air, links solid metal rings together, multiplies golf balls, and changes $20 bills into $1 bills and back again.

Her hour-long special event performance for the BBC is the next step in a career that has spanned 17 years and has brought her from the palatial tourist traps of Las Vegas to the raunchy nightclub scene of Tokyo to the more intimate venues of Lower Manhattan. It has been a journey that she hopes will culminate in her becoming “the Martha Stewart of magic,” complete with her own line of magic-themed make-up kits, comic books, and action figures.

She says she hopes her accomplishments will expose magic to a wider female audience and help dispel the image of the vixen assistant dressed in sequined bras and high heels. Even with her feisty self-confidence she is reluctant to reveal her age. She knows that being a woman in magic, most things, including time, work against her.

“The history of magic is riddled with stereotypical ideas,” she said. “You get so much crap as a woman. People are so confrontational. They say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re a magician? Show me something.’ You have to be 100 times better than the average magician when you’re a woman.”

Women overall are a minority of the magicians who perform today. Of the 7,000 members of the Society of American Magicians, the largest magic organization in the country, 479 are women – about 7.5 percent. In the organization’s 157-person New York chapter only two are women.

“Ten years ago you’d rarely see a woman at an S.A.M. convention,” she said. “Now I see three or four. Anything above zero is an improvement.”

Inspired by watching the late Doug Henning dissect and reassemble his wife on television, Maritess started to learn magic as a child growing up in Chicago and, at 12, began performing for fun (the cigarette-through-quarter was an early favorite). The daughter of Filipino immigrants, she says her heritage plays an important role in her magic.

“Non-western countries are very into magic,” she said. “They don’t spend time with technology. They spend time with each other. They respect that feeling of connection. That’s the real magic that we’re so separated from here.”

She went to the Arts Institute of Chicago as an art history major, but dropped out after three years and drove to Las Vegas to work toward becoming a professional magician. She supported herself as a blackjack dealer until “the evilness of gambling” chipped away at her morale. She worked at a string of magic shops, performed close-up magic for tips, gave psychic readings, all while studying with Gary Darwin who, at 68, is Las Vegas’ oldest resident magician. In a telephone interview, he said Maritess had a flair for magic.

“She had a natural gift,” said Darwin, who is also a caricaturist, inventor, and Borscht Belt jokester who toys with the idea of writing a book that reveals the secrets of Biblical miracles. “I’d show her things with cards and coins and cigarettes and billiard balls and she’d come back the next week and be able to do it. She’s a true magician from the ground up. She’s ready to be discovered.”

As she worked to hone her act and define her persona, Maritess’ time in Vegas evolved into a dues-paying apprenticeship that lasted seven years. Invited by a female producer to take her illusion show to Japan in 1996, Maritess spent six months in a 5-star Tokyo hotel, dressed abashedly in a bathing suit and turban, as the opening act for a striptease show. When she returned to Vegas, she had to reject jobs doing magic at topless revues. Eventually she decided enough was enough.

“I wanted to return to my artist’s roots and not be a sellout,” she said.

Since moving to New York three years ago she has created and produced a one-woman show, has been asked to perform for Mayor Bloomberg, and has appeared on Lifetime Television. Performing now on her terms, she is relentlessly driven to be the best.

“I try to work towards perfection,” she said. “I’ve been around the world and met a lot of female hobbyists, but I know only a few who have dedicated their lives to it like I have.”

Her next performance at the Inn at Irving (56 Irving Place) will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 27. Starting in May she will be performing on yacht cruises around New York departing from the E. 23rd St. port and sponsored by the New York Health and Racquet Club. Updated performance schedules are available at her website (www.girliemagic.com).

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