Magic Man

Lawrence Sullivan '05 entertains the elite simply by saying "Pick a card"--and then astonishing them.

It's 10:00 p.m. on a Thursday night at Dragon-i, one of Hong Kong's hippest nightspots, and Lawrence Sullivan '05 looks as out of place as an accountant at a fashion shoot. Dressed like a schoolboy, with the tails of his pale-blue shirt hanging over the pleats of his ebony slacks, he meanders incongruously among the super-cool swaying to a smooth bossa nova in their skin-tight Ts and ripped jeans.

But Sullivan's horned eyebrows and a menacing, velvety goatee hint at mystery, and before the night is over, he's the one getting invitations to everyone's tables.

It happens like this. He stops at a table where three models clutch fruit martinis and holds out a deck of cards. "Take a card and don't show it to me," he commands. A billowy blonde import from Ukraine complies--draws a card (the nine of hearts), purses her lips, and then, knowing the gig, replaces it in the deck. A shuffle, a distracting quip about the unruliness of cards, and suddenly the nine of hearts appears hanging from Sullivan's grinning lips.

"How did he do that?" squeals the blonde.

The answer: magic. More specifically, exceptional finesse with card tricks. Armed with a metallic briefcase filled with playing decks, Sullivan is a master tableside card magician who has used his deft fingers (and a few family connections) to hone his craft in some pretty exotic locales for audiences embracing not just the hip but also luminaries from the worlds of entertainment and politics.

Spending a semester abroad in Beijing to learn Mandarin last year, he impressed family friend U.S. Ambassador Clark T. Randt Jr. and was invited to perform a few weeks later at an intimate dinner with former president George H.W. Bush. At Dragon-i, he has mystified actors Ed Norton and Michelle Yeoh, soccer star David Beckham, and hip-hop king Ice T. For those not connected enough to see him in person, he has done guest spots for MTV-Asia's popular, Jackass- inspired show, Whatever Things. On Bravo, he has performed David Blaine-style tricks on the streets of Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong's premier nightlife neighborhood.

Not bad for a newly minted graduate, all of twenty-three years old.

Sullivan's experience with the far reaches of the globe, and with magic, started early. He was born in the Netherlands, but his family soon moved to Bahrain. On his fourth birthday, they settled in Hong Kong, where his father is now the chief executive officer of DBS Bank.

As for sleight of hand, during a family vacation in Salt Lake City when Sullivan was eight, his father bought him a copy of Jean Hugard and Frederick Braue's book The Royal Road to Card Magic, considered the bible in the field. Lawrence was hooked.

From the book's now dog-eared pages, he learned gambling- inspired moves with gangland-sounding names like the rifle stack, the double duke, and, his favorite, the shift and pass, for which a dealer hides a few good cards and then, after the cut, slips them back to the bottom of the deck before dealing from the top for his opponents--and from the bottom for himself.

During his boyhood, Sullivan relied on magic as more than a diversion. Growing up in a home where video games were banned and TV came on only after homework was completed, he used his new talents to make the lonesome hours vanish. Obsessively practicing (up to six hours a day), he mastered twenty-five card tricks--most walk-around magicians have a repertoire of about fifteen--as well as a handful of other entertaining feats of legerdemain. By the time he was fourteen, he was receiving invitations to perform for birthday parties and other small gatherings. (He made $50 for his first show.)

Magic also became a kind of social ice-breaker. After all, who doesn't want to be buddies with the kid who can make eyeglasses levitate?

Like many American ex-pat children in Hong Kong, Sullivan went to a boarding school in the United States. At the Woodberry Forest School in Woodberry, Virginia, administrators recognized his skills and invited him to perform for prospective new students. (Even after he had left for college, they would fly him back to spice up recruitment drives.)

His interview at Kenyon was, to say the least, unusual. By then, magic had become part of his persona, and so when Elizabeth Forman '73 of the admissions office asked him about his interests, out came the cards. "He was one of the most memorable interviews I have ever had, if not the most memorable," says Forman. "Lawrence started with a simple card trick and then kept on going. I was rapt, fascinated. The [college] tour guide had to come knock on my door and make me end the session."

For someone whose specialty is the intimate tableside performance, Kenyon was a good choice. A double major in political science and international studies, Sullivan cites Associate Professor of Political Science David Rowe and Professor of Political Science John Elliott as important influences. "I learned that international relations is a lot harder than it appears to the fellow reading the newspaper in the bathroom wondering why can't they just do this or that," he says.

Magic remained very much a part of his campus existence. He kept his card skills sharp with impromptu performances for students, professors, and the occasional visiting parent. During the fall of his senior year, he also branched out, discovering that he could fast for eight days straight and still function. Within the next year, he plans to out-endure Blaine, sealing himself in a box and then having it immersed in water for up to ten days.

"It's mostly mental," he says. And he doesn't mean crazy.

Is magic a realistic career? Sullivan is respecting his father's wishes and working on a degree in financial planning. But his heart remains in the realm of cards that flutter, vanish, and mysteriously reappear. And so far he's staying very busy, supplementing biweekly gigs at Dragon-i with a slate of private functions.

"It doesn't have to do with quickness," he says, deftly shuffling. "It's all about timing."

And about the pleasure of hearing people gasp, then laugh, then look up in wonder as they ask, "How did he do that?"­

--Chaim Estulin has lived in Hong Kong for the past seven years, where he has worked for various publications, including Time magazine. He is a native of Los Angeles, California. This is his first piece for the Bulletin.

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