Before pulling the first Mexican magic shop out of Sammy Hagar's money, before touring the country as the "Marlboro Magician," before keeping the last magic shop in Oregon afloat amid vanishing mini-malls, Mark Benthimer was just a boy with a dream.
Ever since first lying about his age to join a Phoenix-area magic club, he's been a passionate student of the dark arts.
"Pretty much the only thing I've ever done is magic," Benthimer says. "Made my living since I was a kid. Almost got arrested when I was 12 years old because of magic. And mailboxes—I stuffed at least a thousand with this little flier. 'Planning a party? Add a little magic! Magic by Mark.' The FBI didn't know 'Mark' was a kid and came looking. Mail fraud's a felony."
Benthimer nevertheless landed $25 gigs—his corporate gigs now run $2,500—and built up enough of a bankroll for a 1991 move to Oregon. And while his monthly All American Magic revues now feature ventriloquist performances and touring magicians from across the globe, Benthimer got his start in the '90s performing for a much less family-friendly crowd. He was Philip Morris' Marlboro Magician.
"The rules were very strict," says Benthimer. "I was only allowed to perform for people who were smoking, I didn't breathe in smoke, I didn't bash Camel or Winston, and I didn't hand out cigarettes. I went all over the country. Four shows a night, 80 nights a year, I was on the road—mostly small neighborhood R&B bars, some bigger clubs, opening for bands. That's how I got the millennium gig with Sammy Hagar."
After appearing with Blues Traveler at Seattle's Fenix Underground in mid-December 1999, Benthimer was booked for the New Year's Eve show at Hagar's Cabo San Lucas nightclub. Although the subsequent show was a success—"Sammy Hagar loved magic," Benthimer said, "he'd shoot at me at with his fingers and call me a gunslinger with cards"—the club never arranged for the Benthimer's work permit and paid his fee from the bar till. Stranded south of the border with thousands of dollars in 10s and 20s that he was loath to smuggle into the States, Benthimer canceled his return ticket and opened a store called Magic Fest.
"Nobody'd ever put an American magic shop in Mexico," he says. "I was the first one, so I had to go show these, I guess, bishops that the tricks were just tricks and not, you know, evil magic—el Diablo. It's a real Catholic town."
Many years and magic stores later, All American Magic thrives amid Mall 205's shuttered storefronts as the state's last remaining fount of magic. This summer, Benthimer plans a regional tour and hopes to bump up mall performances to twice a month. "Our show is great—two hours of magic and comedy and ventriloquism and illusions and pretty girls floating in the air and people being cut in half. There needs to be more than just comedy clubs and bars and airparks, right? The circus is gone. We're it."