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CITRUS COLLEGE PROFESSOR DALE SALWAK: A LIFETIME OF MAGICAL LIVING

February 12, 2010
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The amazing "Gentleman of Magic"

The amazing "Gentleman of Magic"

Akron, Ohio, may be the rubber capital of the world, Las Vegas, Nev., may be the wedding capital of the world, and Castroville, Calif., may be the artichoke capital of the world, but, darn, if La Verne, Calif., isn’t the magic capital of the world.

A couple of weeks ago, LaVerneOnline.com brought you the amazing story of Wayne Kawamoto, La Verne’s 50-year-old ex-engineer who performs magic acts hundreds of times a year at a variety of venues, including weekends at Mama Petrillo’s restaurant. He is also About.com’s (a subsidiary of the New York Times) expert on magic.

Life Lessons of a Harvard Reject

Well, La Verne is also the happy home of Dale Salwak, owner of the prestigious and nationally renowned Chavez School of Magic, which was founded in 1941. Last October, Salwak was invited by the North Korean government to perform at the country’s 26th Spring Friendship Festival, held biannually by the Kim Jon-il government to promote “friendship, solidarity, exchange and cooperation” among musicians, dancers, acrobats and other performers. Salwak was the only American among 680 worldwide performers, his reputation for floating mysterious zombie balls and turning silk scarves into exploding flowers obviously preceding him.

But Salwak’s story is even far more amazing than pulling a rabbit out of a hat or making a 50 cent coin vanish before your eyes. He has been practicing magic for all but five of his 62-years, and, by all accounts, appears to keep getting better at his craft. This Renaissance man is also a professor of English literature at Citrus College, where’s he lectured on everyone from Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot for the past 37 years while also finding time to publish 21 books.

“When I came, I was the youngest professor on campus,” said Salwak. “No longer is that the case.”

In the Beginning

Like most good stories, Salwak’s should be told at the beginning. From the start, his life has been an open book and a great stage where the spotlight continues to burn bright.

Salwak became hooked on magic at age 5. At a birthday party in his home town of Amherst, Mass., a magician cut a rope and then magically restored it. In another trick, a bunny in one hutch magically reappeared in another. After the show, while the other kids were running to the punch bowl, Salwak lingered behind, asking the magician to teach him his tricks.

Amazing in front of 10 people or 10,000.

Amazing in front of 10 people or 10,000.

Salwak dog-eared a copy of his father’s Ripley’s Magic for Boys and started practicing simple tricks. At age 10, the shy performer gave his first magic show, a full half-hour of tricks. “I had no sense of routining or presentation,” Salwak recalled of that tender time. “I made $2 for the show. My parents hired me for my own birthday party.”

By the time the family moved to Indiana when he was 14, Salwak was practically a pro. From 1963 to 1965 while still in high school, he took the Chavez School of Magic’s two-year correspondence course, comprising 17 different sessions on which he’d spend about a month working to master each lesson. “That was a real turning point for me,” Salwak said.

Salwak, was hardly a one-trick pony, however. Academia and the arts shaped his upbringing. His father had been the assistant to the provost at the University of Massachusetts and his mother was a teacher and concert pianist, the latter skill which Dale also owns. He loved all high school sports and was a member of the varsity wrestling team.

He put himself through Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., performing magic at clubs, churches and “wherever I could get the work.” At age 21, he came to Los Angeles to enroll at the University of Southern California as a doctoral candidate in English literature.

While pursuing his advanced studies, he continued to pursue magic. This alter-life was hardly an idle pursuit. “That first year, I went to 150 agents on the West Coast,” Salwak recalled. “It was the typical story, knocking on doors with my 8x10s. Eventually, three agents were interested.

For one agent, he auditioned in her kitchen. “I said just give me a spot, wherever you want me to do it.”

His agents gave him about 30 percent of his work; the other came from his own sleight of hand and ingenuity. He became the moonlighting doctoral student. Despite giving four shows a night, seven nights a week in the basement of the Magic Castle in Hollywood, he didn’t complain. The Magic Castle was like Hamburg, Germany was for the Beatles. It gave him a place to hone his craft.

“The importance of the castle to a lot of magicians is it gave us a place to learn our craft in front of an audience,” said Salwak, who still performs there twice a year, a week at a time. “You can rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, but eventually you have to leave your rehearsal hall and take risks in front of an audience.

“Just as in vaudeville,” Salwak explained, “the comics and dancers and singers had a place to be bad and learn their craft, that’s what the castle afforded the magicians – a place to learn their craft and try out things.”

After arriving in California in 1969, Salwak also met Marian Chavez and helped her in her Panorama City, Calif., studio. Benny Chavez had passed away in 1962.

A Real Job

In 1972, with his freshly minted doctorate in English literature finally in hand, he began to look for work as a professor, an act no less difficult than learning how to saw an assistant in half or bending metal spoons with your mind.

The Professor

The Professor

“I wrote 220 letters, 10 a day for 22 days,” Salwak said, revealing a glimpse into his lifelong work ethic, not to mention his persistent nature and ordered mind. “I received three invitations for interviews. That’s how tight it was.”

One of those callers was Citrus College in Glendora, Calif. “It turned out to be a perfect match,” said Salwak, then living in Pasadena, a perfect halfway point between USC and Hollywood and his new job on the Citrus College campus. “I love the students. I teach the courses that I like to teach and the focus is on teaching. There isn’t a publish- or-perish syndrome.”

For the now 37 years Salwak has been on campus, however, he has published a book at a rate of more than one every two years, including his latest, Teaching Life: Letters from a Life in Literature (University of Iowa Press, 2008).

“It’s a reflection on 35 years of teaching,” Salwak explains. “It’s written as a series of imaginary letters to a student of mine who died in 1978 in an auto accident on her way to my office. What I imagine is that she survived the accident and went on to her teaching career, which is what she wanted to do. It’s a series of 17 letters to her, and in doing so, it’s become somewhat a memoir of my work.”

That same year, 1978, Marian Chavez died, and it was the Chavez School of Magic co-founder’s wish that Salwak and Neil Foster become the co-owners of the school. Together over the next nine years, Foster and Salwak made every effort to carry on the training in the tradition established by Benny and Marian. In 1988, Foster passed away, leaving Salwak to continue that tradition at the West Coast branch where he works hard to maintain the high standards that the founders of the studio set for all of their students. He helps magicians polish their acts and helps them see themselves through the audience’s eyes. “I have been at it so long that when a performer walks out on stage, I can tell within a minute whether or not he knows how he is being seen,” Salwak said.

As for his current Citrus College students, few are aware of their Shakespeare-quoting professor’s secret life. Nor would they find his magician’s skills listed on his academic resume, which among other accomplishments lists receiving Purdue University’s Distinguished Alumni Award and a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, as well as a National Defense Education Act fellowship from the University of Southern California.

Early in his career, he said he learned from comedian Phyllis Diller, who was also a brilliant concert pianist, not to mix careers. “Her agent told her, ‘Phyllis, you’ve got to decide what you’re going to do. If you promote yourself as both, that will confuse the public.’

“I have always remembered that advice,” Salwak added. “So the academic is the academic, and the magic is the magic, and I don’t confuse the two by any means.”

He also opposes mixing the two on moral grounds. “There’s something not quite ethical about mixing the two,” he said “It would be like coming in with my golf clubs and showing them my swing. I’ve never been one to say, “Take a card, any card.”

Connecting with Audiences Everywhere

Regardless, there is a strong bridge between his two separate professions.

“I was a very shy kid,” Salwak said. “And magic helped bring me out of myself. When I stepped into a classroom, there was an element of comfort there, because I was just stepping onto another stage.”

Whether it’s showbiz or the field of higher education, Salwak is relating to people.

“I’m convinced that the secret to teaching, or at least one of the secrets,” Salwak said, “is connecting, meeting the students at their points of need. That’s very much what performers are doing. They are sensing, discerning the areas of need in the audience and reaching those. Neil taught me that the reason we’re on stage performing is to serve others.

“In every audience there’s going to be people who are hurting, who have rough times, and part of our purpose is to lift their spirits if only for a few minutes,” Salwak said. “Without exception, every audience will have someone hurting. Whether it’s an audience of 10 or 10,000.”

It’s that sense of duty to the audience that keeps Salwak practicing every day, in between performing, teaching, writing books and caring for his family.

“If I go a couple of days without practicing, there’s just a subtle change in feeling; I guess just like a pianist,” he said. “The technique is there, the muscle memory is there. I can do it in my sleep. Yet if I don’t practice every day, then I find that slips a little bit. I don’t want to compromise the art. I don’t want to cheat the audience.”

It’s that dedication to his magic that has been noticed by others and been his ticket for traveling the world, to Europe, Australia, South America, Latin America and Asia, including to mainland China 11 times, and last year to the highly secretive and isolated North Korea.

He was under no illusion about his trip, he told the Los Angeles Times’ Bob Pool last October. “When I arrived, I was told to ‘act as if you’re always being watched, because you are.’ We were given a list of dos and don’ts – ‘don’t express your feelings, don’t talk about politics’ – and told we’d have to turn over our cellphones. We weren’t allowed to take telescopic camera lenses, we could bring no books or magazines. We turned over our passports when we arrived.”

Salwak was invited to perform twice, and now he would like to invite his North Korean counterparts to the states, an act of reciprocity, it seems, more difficult than passing health care legislation. About three weeks ago, Salwak received a letter informing him that the cultural exchange could only occur through a back channel. “The bottom line is this can’t be done on a civilian level,” Salwak said. “It has to be government to government. So what I’m hoping is the U.S. government can enter into some kind of discussion.”

To pull off such a feat would practically require an act of magic.

“I know this is small potatoes compared to what’s going on in the world,” Salwak confided, “but sometimes it’s the small things that create inroads. It’s not a big diplomatic mission obviously. We’re magicians, but you never know where it could lead.”

Shimoda, the David Copperfield of Japan

Shimoda, the David Copperfield of Japan

Hometown Performance

Salwak is the same guy, however, who once ran down 150 agents and wrote 20 letters a day for 22 straight days. For the last 35 years at Citrus College, he has emceed a wonderful night of magic on the Citrus campus, and this year will be no different. On March 13, the Robert Haugh Performing Arts Center will host the International Stars of Magic, featuring top-flight magicians, conjurors and illusionists from around the world, including Jorge Blass from Spain, David and Dania from Russia, the Gizmo Guys from the United States and the elegant Shimoda from Japan.

“He is to Japan what David Copperfield is to America,” said Salwak, known around the world as the “Gentleman of Magic,” who will also perform during the spectacular and amazing evening.

A portion of the proceeds from the show, which is already two-thirds sold out, goes into a scholarship fund for Citrus College students. For ticket information, please visit, www.haughpac.com.

Pulling off everything Salwalk does is no easy trick. But however he does it, he only seems to get better with age.

“All my life, I really wanted to do three things,” Salwak said. “That is, teach, write books and do magic shows. “I feel very lucky and fortunate to be doing those.”

 

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