Russell Anderson lights up with a magical excitement when he thinks of building props from which everything from rabbits to motorcycles can appear as part of an array of illusions that he hopes bring joyful amusement to the quizzical young and old who attend his shows.
Providing an eclectic mix of singing, comedy and magic is what the Elloree resident said he loves doing to create a unique experience. His talents, which he has shared with others, have not only helped created an extended family of friends over the years but also brings him a fulfilling life purpose.
'Entertainment is my drug'
"My passion is to perform. I have other skills, but my passion is entertainment. I guess a race car driver could enjoy driving any car, but there’s just that difference when he could put that pedal on the floor and go as fast as he possibly could. For me, that’s singing, that’s dancing, that’s magic. Entertainment is my drug. It is so enjoyable,” Anderson said.
Anderson has billed himself as the only touring singing illusionist in North America, with his ability to blend music and magic, along with a little comedy, making him unique.
“Back in vaudeville, the guys that sang and danced and could tell jokes and stuff like that were variety artists. So I’m today’s vaudeville. It’s really funny. I don’t label myself as that because younger people that aren’t into entertainment so much wouldn’t get the correlation.
“So for lack of a better word, I’m a variety artist. That’s how I make my living ... Sometimes I do singing and do magic, and then a couple of months later, I’ll get hired by a theater in Charleston and I’ll do my standalone magic show. We’ll cart everything in and set it up, and we’ll run for a weekend, a week, two weeks, and those are always great gigs,” Anderson said.
Along with being a magician and illusionist, Anderson’s vast career has included his talents as an actor, cabaret vocalist, ringer master, dancer and a motivational speaker.
What is the difference between a magician and an illusionist?
“The joke is that an illusionist gets paid more, but the difference is a magician does more things right in your face, the smaller things, and an illusionist does the bigger tricks,” Anderson said.
“So I guess the difference a lot of times is there are illusionists that have the larger tricks that do not do sleight of hand. They do not do anything small, and it’s hard to sell something like that. So that was why I did the singing in illusions because I started with the bigger things instead of the smaller things because I wanted to dance and put the girl in the trick and continue singing and that be a part of my show," he said.
“And as I developed that, it just logically and naturally progressed into the smaller things that were sleight of hand that you could see from the stage, like a really nice rope trick that I sing Frank Sinatra to with ‘I’ve Got the World On a String,’” Anderson said.
He has performed everywhere from cruise ships and corporate events to theme parks and theaters.
“I do larger illusions, and I do a lot of smaller ones, too. I do the close-up sleights of hand and things like that, and I carry around a 60-inch plasma or flat screen TV with a Go Pro that shines down on it and I do my card tricks. That is also what they want to see on the cruise ships and stuff like that because you can’t bring the big things. So they want you to flash your card trick up on a 10-by-10-foot screen,” Anderson said.
He appreciates the hard work that goes into making his magic shows complete.
“It’s a one-man show, and I’ve invited a dancer to come do it with me. I couldn’t do it without her, but I’m doing these one-man vaudeville shows and I’m building them up bigger and inviting a dancer to be this extra character on stage.
“And she has to be this extra character on stage because sometimes she’s Ginger Rogers dancing with me ... But then in the next moment, she’s playing the part of the Rockette and I’m the guy on Broadway. And then there’s the next scene where we actually do a rock ‘n roll show that we would have done in the circus when I was a singing ringmaster,” Anderson said.
'Just an incredible experience’
Anderson grew up in Charleston, where he honed his skills as a singer and dancer at a young age.
“I found a joy in singing. I found out in elementary school that I could sing. Then my fifth grade teacher, Chuck Long, was very instrumental in the way that he led a children’s group. As a matter of fact, my son is in that children’s group now. We drive the hour and a half to Charleston two or three times a week so that he can rehearse with them. It’s called the Charleston Youth Company,” Anderson said.
He added, “We went all over the state and we toured up into Canada even in the summer programs and in the off years. That was a ton of fun. That actually led to me doing things in high school. That’s when I got involved with the Robert Ivey Ballet because I was a terrible dancer…. I found out that it was another great outlet to express creativity.”
It was in his sophomore year that he attended the Governor’s School for the Arts.
“That really opened up my eyes. A lot of professional teachers and stuff like that came in and were just so positive. It gave me a desire to continue to learn ... We would actually end up doing European tours with the Robert Ivey Ballet to places like the World’s Fair in Spain, Russia or down to South America. It was just an incredible experience for such a young person,” Anderson said.
He went on to snag a full scholarship to Trident Technical College, where he performed with the Trident Technical Singers.
“We went to competitions and I actually won. I won a lead vocalist in some of those Show Choir competitions and things like that. All of us over a Christmas break went down to Six Flags Over Georgia and auditioned for their theme park. Another girl and I got a job in the same show,” he said.
It was at the theme park where Anderson further honed his singing and dancing talents before being eventually bitten by the magic bug. He wanted to experience more.
“Almost every day I did a different role, and it really diversified what I learned to do and the kinds of songs that we sang. I had to really stretch myself. What I really enjoyed doing was making the role my own,” he said.
He was eventually hired by the now-defunct Opryland amusement park in Nashville, where he served as a singer and dancer for their shows.
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“It was an incredible experience. These shows had live musicians that played in the shows. They had a full orchestra for almost every show. I worked in Nashville for a couple of years and got to go some fun things with some of the Nashville celebrities and sing some backup at the Grand Old Opry,” he said, including with people such as Doug Stone, Shania Twain and Tanya Tucker.
A cruise ship offer would come along to change the course of his life.
‘I really loved the magic shows’
“That was a bug that bit hard. I went out on the cruise ships and I just really enjoyed it. Again, the shows were a different caliber. My first extended family was on the cruise ships. So it was wonderful. I was always trying to show them more so my contract would get extended,” he said.
When Costa Cruise Lines offered him an opportunity to do his own show, he could not refuse.
“That started my foray into the cabaret aspect of being a headliner on the cruise ships ... But each cruise ship always had a magician, and I really loved the magic shows. I saw what the magicians were doing, and I said, ‘I can do that. I want to do that,’” Anderson said.
He added, “The magicians were getting paid a lot more than anybody else. If you were considered a variety act, you got paid a whole lot more ... I didn’t know anything about magic, but I had always been so impressed with David Copperfield and the things that I saw on TV. I never was able to figure them out. So I thought everybody was like me.
“So I saw these bigger tricks and said, ‘Wow, if I could sing a song and do those tricks, I would be unique.’ So I started introducing smaller things into my act and the rest is history.”
He met more people on the magic scene when he eventually landed a job at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida.
“I went down and sang and danced with them, and that’s where I met more people that were in magic scene. I looked up old videos and things that they had done. I continued to sing and dance, but developed my magic while I was doing it.
“It was a great outlet because I did three shows a day, and I was only at work for six hours a day. So I built stuff when I got home, played with my birds. I had no idea how that worked, but I went and bought six doves and started reading up on it and buying things and created my dove act,” he said, smiling.
He continued to develop his magic, but everything came to a halt when his trailer containing $20,000 in equipment was stolen in 2018.
‘Everything just kind of shut down’
“I should never forget that. Everything just kind of shut down. I’m a singing illusionist, and I had no sound system. Lots of times I got into these corporate events for Boeing, Google, Budweiser or whatever, and I bring the sound. So I didn’t have that,” Anderson said.
“I went through a major depression. I cried in the immediacy of it. I had hope that they were going to find it, and they just didn’t ... So I went and I helped my wife with some of her real estate stuff. I did some handyman-type work and stuff like that and started rebuilding my props.
“I only had big jobs lined up. So I started asking other magicians, ‘How do you book for a smaller show?’ I bought some new ropes and cut them up and learned those again and found some of the smaller things and just kind of perfected those,” Anderson said.
But he was still getting calls to do bigger shows.
“I had a gigantic levitation and then I had a card trick. So I needed something to bring them together. So I started doing smaller magic shows, creating new magic. And I wanted to take the new smaller things. I said, ‘This would be so great if people could use it,’ and I was figuring out the new songs I was going to sing with my new tricks.
And I said, ‘OK, well, I’m gonna go buy this camera, buy the biggest TV that I can stick in my van and still travel, and I’m going to make these small things a big illusion with my TV.’ So whereas another magician might not get away with doing the smaller things on a larger stage even if he had the video camera or whatever, I was able to make it more by singing with it,” Anderson said.
His Christmas show in Charleston in late 2018 was evidence he was on his way back.
“I’m completely back doing very large illusions. The upcoming shows that I have are more corporate things. So that’s the bread and butter at the moment while I’m still getting back into the theater scene. One of the things that we’re very consciously doing now is when we do a theater show, we video it so that we can try and get the best shots on our demo as we start working our way back into doing a big theater tour show,” Anderson said.
While the stolen trailer had left him despondent for a while, he went on to earn his contractor’s license.
“When the trailer got stolen, I had the knowledge and I had the ability. So I went and got my contractor’s license. I can now actually build a really cool magic trick with all the experience I’ve had,” he said.
‘The best is yet to come’
Anderson was named the Top Illusionist in South Carolina in 2007 and was a featured character in the HBO pilot “Righteous Gemstones,” starring John Goodman and directed by Danny McBride.
“The first season of it is out. I haven’t even seen an episode, but my friends keep calling me and saying, ‘We saw you!’ I made some great friends in it. When I take my son to Charleston to do the Charleston Youth Company rehearsals, we sometimes go to the Citadel Mall where we did some of the filming,” Anderson said.
He and wife Kristie, an Orangeburg County native, have lived in Elloree, where a lot of her family is from, for 15 years. They are the parents of Aidan, 15, and Emma Mae, 9.
Anderson sits in the Cameron Theater, the place where he did his very first full-scale illusion show in 2007, and looks forward to a bright future.
“I would say the best is yet to come. My children are getting older and they’re performing with me. My wife is doing well in real estate. My show is not where I want it to be, but the neat thing is my show’s better than it’s ever been,” he said.
“I’ve recreated the best of what I had, and I’m introducing things that are better than what was taken. That was kind of what I decided. I said this time there’s no rush back ... I’m working on an illusion right now for a television program. My assistant and I want everything that we put in our show to be the best that we’ve ever done,” Anderson said.
Anderson can be contacted directly by phone at 803-387-9451 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.