For this Philly guy, African-American history is magical

Ran’D Shine and other black magicians will perform in the “Heart and Soul of Magic” at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown. (BEN MIKESELL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

NOW YOU SEE them, now you don't.

Philadelphia has Mystique the Magician and Derek Lee of D&J Entertainment. But not a whole lot of other African-Americans make their living doing magic tricks.

"Finding an African-American magician is like finding a needle in a haystack," Ran 'D Shine, 45, of Mount Airy, told me earlier this week. "We are out there, but it's hard to find us."

Come Saturday, it won't be hard at all. Five black magicians will perform at Shine's "Heart and Soul of Magic" show at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, 12th and Market streets. It's open to the public, but it's also the official gala show for the national convention of the Society of American Magicians. (Harry Houdini once headed this group.)

"I started it because when I started attending magic conventions, there were only a handful of African-American attendees," Shine said. "I wanted to showcase that we are here."

The roots of blacks in magic are deep and mysterious. The first successful American magician was a black man named Richard Potter, born in 1783. The son of an Englishman and an African servant, Potter was a well-known illusionist as well as a hypnotist and ventriloquist, according to the African American Registry.

Then there was Henry "Box" Brown, a slave who in 1849 famously mailed himself to freedom in a wooden box addressed to abolitionists in Philadelphia. After freeing himself, he supported himself for a time by doing magic tricks that he incorporated into anti-slavery presentations.

Shine, who will moderate a panel tomorrow on the history of blacks in magic, didn't set out to be a professional magician. The son of the Rev. Robert P. Shine Sr., founder and pastor of Berachah Baptist Church on Limekiln Pike in East Germantown, he was working on a master's degree in health education at Penn State when he became enamored with magic. Shine was serving as a teaching assistant back in 1995 when a student performed some tricks after class.

"I had this overwhelming feeling of witnessing something that was so improbable, it just didn't compute," Shine recalled.

He went on to become the graduate adviser for a campus magic club. After graduating, he moved to South Africa, where he researched adolescents and HIV. During off-hours, Shine worked on his magic at the College of Magic in Cape Town.

After several years, Shine returned to the United States, getting a job at the University of Pennsylvania and enrolling in a Ph.D. program. But he couldn't shake the feeling that he was supposed to be on stage. So he gave himself a year to try to make it as a professional magician.

"I just had this burning desire," Shine recalled. "Everyone thought I was crazy. They thought I was running away and joining the circus."

His first gig as a full-time performer was at a children's party in New Jersey. It didn't take long before he moved on to corporate events and university functions.

Since those early days, his career has taken him around the world. Shine performed at both of President Obama's inaugurations, and in April he was in Japan performing at military bases.

He's in demand. It's easy to see why. During our sit-down yesterday, Shine pulled out coins that he managed to make disappear and reappear at whim. Watching him perform trick after trick had me laughing out loud.

"Black magic, for me, is not the occult . . . it's African-American magicians who perform magic and they just add their aesthetic to it. And it's mysterious."

As for claims that magic is somehow ungodly, he had this to say: "If I really had powers, do you really think I would be making a quarter disappear?"

Tickets for "Heart and Soul of Magic" are $25 and available at the door. Showtime is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the "Houdini Theater" on the fifth floor of the Marriott.

On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong