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It's no secret that NBC's hit summer primetime show "America's Got Talent" has been an amazing resource to the campus market. Providing a steady stream of fresh-faces, the college market has found a nearly bottomless well of new talent to draw from.
It's completely true that the inverse has often been the case; many of the performers that have done well (like last year's winner Mat Franco) built their chops in the campus market, perfectly preparing them for AGT. It makes sense that it would work the other way, with notable acts on the show sliding nicely into the campus mold. Every so often though there comes an entity that has made waves on the show and is also new to students on campus.
Michael John is one of those examples. Performing magic for the last 20 years, it's kind of hard to believe Michael hasn't been through the campus market yet, but those of us embedded in this niche for years lose sight of the fact that it is indeed a niche market and many performers and artist representatives spend a long time either never realizing its existence, or dismissing its significance. For Michael, the former was the case. Since his appearances on the show however, the campus market found him.
Like many magicians with a professional level of commitment to the art, Michael was bitten by the magic bug very early in life. "I started with my first magic kit when I was seven years old," he says. "My Aunt Margie gave it to me for my first communion. She actually passed away about a year ago, which is a little bittersweet since she just missed seeing me get my first real national success that was a direct result of her gift."
Like most tyke magicians, his audiences had humble roots, but his motivations were pure. "I started performing for family members at first and that feeling I got when I saw a magic trick for the first time, this impossible thing that I had no idea how to accomplish, was the feeling I wanted to be able to impart upon others at will. I discovered myself NEEDING to know how it worked. Something compelled me to learn the mechanics and how this ability to amaze and enchant were accomplished. I guess that's just human nature, but it was certainly a very strong pull for me personally. It was like an instinct." That is a pretty succinct statement on the cyclic marriage of art and art appreciation.
For the next 5 years or so, Michael was an inside-the-family magician, studying and learning, honing his skills and preparing for entertaining the wider world. "It wasn't until I was 12 or 13 when I felt the need to perform for people. I had kind of kept the hobby to myself, I was afraid that my peers wouldn't appreciate it and I was afraid of failing in front of them."
This was around the era of Blaine, who has been the most profoundly influential performer on young magicians since David Copperfield. "After I saw David Blaine's first 'Street Magic' special, I stepped out of my shell. I saw a guy that looked completely normal; no top hat and magic wand, a regular guy who wore t-shirts and skater shoes just like everyone else. He was doing these tricks where all of the attention was on the spectators, not beautiful assistants and giant magic boxes. That really lit a fire under me and I knew it was what I really wanted to do. I thought it was the coolest thing. I even got his Adidas shoes that he wore in the TV special. I shaved my head," he says laughing ruefully. "I wanted to be him so badly. That phase passed, but my love of performing and provoking astonishment never did."
Michael took himself down to a local Italian restaurant to see about a job. "My dad took me down there," he remembers. "Both of my parents have always been so supportive it has made a huge difference in my path. I performed for the owner and he thought it was impressive, but at the same time he was like 'You're 14, come back in a few years kid.' I wanted to get a job doing magic, it's all I've really ever wanted to do outside of playing professional baseball. I always found it funny I had an interest in following two career paths that are both difficult and rare to find success in. My mom -not so much," he laughs. "Growing up my mother was always back and forth between supporting it and being cautious and a little worried in terms of financial success. She wanted me to be able to make good money and be secure in the traditional sense and she really didn't think that magic could do that. So there was a little bit of apprehension with her that I always had to fight through. My father has always been very supportive, and now my mother is as well," he says chuckling over how that sounds in light of his recent success.
He performed more and more through high school and decided to take the infamous and parentally dreaded "year off" of school to sort things out. "I took a year off between my senior year in high school and my freshman year in college where I did some soul searching and tried to figure out what it was that I really wanted to do and how to go about doing it."
Originally he went to a school in New Haven, CT to play baseball and soon discovered he was not quite ready to leave the nest. "I got really homesick," he says a bit chagrined, that time now nearly ten years gone. "I made it for five days (laughs). Growing up I was definitely a homebody. Aside from playing baseball, I didn't really do things like sleep over at friends' houses or hang out after school. I just hung out with my parents and my dog, and practiced magic."
Finding himself in the quickly narrowing chasm between a graduating senior's freeing jump from the nest and the fast-approaching hard-packed soil of reality, Michael was forced to take the eventual choice of all who find themselves in that situation by doing what he must. "I worked a few odd jobs in that time that I really didn't like very much. That didn't really matter since all of a sudden I was learning how to be an adult and had to make some kind of money to get by in the interim. I was 19 years old at the time and I guess I really just was not confident enough to throw all of my chips in and make a full time (paying) career out of magic. I just didn't know how it was possible. I knew I wanted to do it, I just didn't know how to go about it."
Here Michael stumbles upon an interesting conundrum VERY common to young performers who are having trouble getting their hands on the service manual for their careers. "It's funny, because if you want to be a brain surgeon, people look at that like it is an incredibly difficult thing and it is! But at the same time, there is a very precise education and training path for that occupation. You go through specific schools and courses and are taught step by step what to do and where to go. Sure, there are still people that wash out because of a lack of ability or commitment, but provided those two things they can go as far as they want to. How do you be a professional magician? I couldn't have told you. Didn't have the slightest clue. I am doing it now and still don't know how the hell I did it (laughs). A lot is experience and a lot is making great friends in the same field that have been very generous and kind with their advice. Persistence has been key, that's for sure.
"I don't know if it was naive of me to pursue this; to be able to ignore all the people that told me this was a great hobby but not a career and keep going. And perhaps it was little more than dumb luck that got me here now, but I like to think that with enough hard work and dedication, and paying attention to people closely, eventually you will make it. I am 27 now, this didn't happen for me overnight, even if it seems like it because I was able to be discovered by so many people all at once on TV."
After being a bus boy, a waiter and a pitching coach, he went to college to study for a degree in psychology. "I honestly went thinking that would be the closest thing I could get to studying something that would relate to my career in magic. I have that degree now (laughs) and I have to admit it doesn't really help at all with magic. Even though I like to tell people it does make a difference, I've found magic is something I really have to just do to get any better at it. It's not something I can just sit and study. Of course you can learn about theory and presentation, but if you're not out there doing it, you won't really get any better."
It wasn't until after he graduated from college that Michael really started to work as a magician in earnest. "I got my degree and realized I didn't want to go to graduate school, so I went to different bars and restaurants and attacked it as best I could. It was really difficult to try to scrape and grind and make it work in a rural place in Massachusetts. I found myself driving a lot, I drove my truck into the ground walking into places and pitching the show cold. I started off charging $150 for two hours of walk around magic (laughs) and believe it or not, the grind of making sure restaurant patrons didn't hate their wait time eventually led to television."
One of the producers of "America's Got Talent" eventually took notice. "I always watched that show with my family and we loved it. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me 'You should be on AGT!' I wouldn't have needed to be on the show," he jokes. "I would just laugh it off, I really thought it was a pipe dream. Then, I was channel surfing one night and saw an acquaintance of mine on the show and it hit me, 'Why couldn't that be me?"
That acquaintance was one many in the campus market will know, Eric Dittelman, who is from the next town over from Michael. "Then, Mat Franco, another New England guy, got on the show and won it. That tipped it for me. I had been performing a lot and getting better and gaining more confidence, so I sent in a video. Come to find out I had just barely missed the cutoff for submissions. I didn't hear back. A couple of months later I got an email from one of the producers who said they had flagged the video for the next season and they wanted me to come down to New York and audition for them and Mat Franco. I spent a lot of time preparing and did it. From there the rest is history."
As far as the campus market goes, another performer we all know introduced Michael to the concept of college entertainment and kicked his interests towards performing on campus some time back. "Nate Staniforth performed on my campus. My heart told me I needed to talk to this guy, it was like I was hit with a bolt of lightning. I didn't even want to go back to my dorm and do my homework that night, I just wanted to drop out of school and go do exactly what he was doing. It was a revelation. That was only my freshman year. So I have wanted to do it since then, but I had to put it on the back burner, first because I was trying to get through school, but more importantly because I had no idea how to get into the campus market as a whole."
He let it ride for a while, then after AGT he got a call from a campus agency and it all came back. "I was so excited and knew it was what I wanted to do. I am only a little bit older than the audience, I have gotten a lot of experience and I think I am ready. I have a showcase coming up at the NACA national conference this year, and I hope to be on as many campuses as will have me in the coming years. I am super excited to be where I am now and it finally feels like the dreams that were born when I was 14 are coming true."