|THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FOR ALUMNI AND FRIENDS||VOLUME XX NUMBER 1 Fall 2004|
BJ Hickman '75 pulls a career out of his hat
"Children always ask if I'm going to saw somebody in half," says BJ Hickman '75. "Adults often have someone specific they'd like me to make disappear." These special requests are all part of the job for someone who has pursued a career in magic for 27 years.
Hickman usually declines to bisect people or make them vanish. Mind reading, sleight-of-hand, word games, and optical illusions are more his style. His assistant is Star, the magic bunny, and, because his shows include audience participation, everyone can expect to get into the act.
Hickman performs his magic shows for schools, childcare facilities, preschools, festivals, corporate events, arts centers, and libraries. His school assembly programs use magic, humor, and entertainment to motivate and educate.
Mainly targeted to elementary school children, the programs often have serious subjects. In the "Magic of Reading," magic tricks center on the alphabet and word games, and children learn to "escape" from television. For "Recycling Magic," the props are bottles, cans, cardboard, and paper, used and reused with the magic words, "I reeee-cycle." His school assembly, "Conflict Resolution," employs comedy and magic to show nonviolent methods of handling conflict. And, abracadabra, someone's head vanishes (and, yes, reappears).
Robert J. Hickman, a psychology major at Keene State, changed his name to BJ in his freshman year. "You've got to have a name," he says. That may be all that was magical about his college career. Though he can cite professors who influenced his learning, he concedes that college had little to do with his proclivity for the sleight-of-hand.
His father gets credit for BJ's lifelong pursuit of pulling rabbits out of hats by teaching him his first magic trick – something with a piece of string – when BJ was just a child. While growing up in Manchester, N.H., the budding sorcerer read every magic book he could find and practiced tricks on anyone who would watch.
By the time he arrived at KSC, he was already a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Order of Merlin. And while many students might wish they could use mind reading to get a passing grade in calculus or essay writing, he used his magic only for good, i.e., to help pay for tuition and books.
Hickman developed his wizardry from assisting other magicians, working on a live weekly television program for kids, and performing his own shows throughout New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. At KSC, "I would do a little magic act in talent shows in the old Mabel Brown Room," he recalls, "and card tricks at frat parties."
On campus, Hickman was better known for his stints at WKNH than for his magic wand. He remembers the radio station being located in a projection studio above the Mabel Brown Room in what is now Parker Hall on Main Street. Lou Dumont was the advisor. During his junior and senior years, he took jobs at WKVT in Brattleboro, Vt., and WKBK in Keene that led to a 21-year career in commercial radio at WTSN in Dover, N.H.
He remembers well his academic mentors, psychology professors Peter Jenkins, Homer Stavely, and David Andrews, who, seeing him after 27 years, asked, "How're the magic tricks going?" He credits journalism professor Bud Lyle M'61 with setting up an audition for him at Channel 9 television. He learned public speaking from a "very supportive" Tara Stuart. English professor Harold Nugent '58 taught him magic of a different kind. "I learned how to 'read' an author," he said. "You learned his intellectual framework; it made [his work] easier to understand." Hickman's own son, Dan, now attends Keene State.
Magic was always his avocation during those years of college and radio work, but, in 1996, presto change-o, he made it his full-time occupation. In addition to New England venues, Hickman performs throughout the United States, including Caroline's on Broadway and the prestigious Magic Castle in Hollywood. "I was there for seven nights this spring," he said. "I have been going out to the Magic Castle for about six years."
In June, he organized the New Hampshire Showcase of Educational Performers to acquaint teachers, principals, parent-teacher groups, librarians, enrichment coordinators, and other community leaders with education-related performing artists. Through an audition and interview process, he was recently approved as a special interest lecturer for Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Princess, and Delta Queen cruise ship companies. In all, Hickman figures he has presented more than 5,000 live performances for more than 500,000 people.
Not all of those people are in the mood to laugh: children heading to the doctor's office, for example. For them and their physicians and nurses, Hickman has prepared what he calls "pediaTRICKS," a compendium of ideas and tricks he teaches to healthcare professionals to help children relax, to elicit smiles, and to divert their attention. Some of them can't wait to go back, he claims.
Hickman's magic is not exclusively for children. With a mini-magic show, he takes humor and stress relief entertainment into the workplace. He also lectures to corporations and health professionals about the success of humor in enhancing productivity, creativity, and compatibility.
Hickman also teaches magic classes and workshops and has produced instructional videotapes on performing magic for family audiences. He maintains a web site for bookings (bjhickman.com), along with pediaTRICKS.com and inventiveteacher.com. From whom does the magician himself take inspiration? "I admire the late Harry Blackstone Jr. for his style on stage, Harry Houdini for his publicity and promotional stunts, Doug Henning for how he changed magic," Hickman says. "As far as contemporaries, I admire several for various reasons – David Copperfield, David Blaine, Lance Burton, Siegfried and Roy."
What is the universal appeal of magic? "I think magic is similar in appeal to other forms of entertainment (music, theater, movies, other variety acts). People like to get lost in watching something out of the ordinary. They forget about other things when they're engaged with amazement and laughter. It relaxes people, reduces stress," Hickman explains. "Magician Doug Henning often talked about a magic show as helping us 'renew our wonder for the magic in the world around us.'"
With all those tricks up his sleeve, what gets the most requests? "Young children who have seen me before always ask for a little mouse puppet routine that I often do for them. It's a silly little thing but they usually remember it," he says. And then they want to know if he will saw someone in half.
Barbara Hall is the founding editor of Keene State Today. She now edits Class Notes and is a frequent contributor to the magazine. Bill Menezes also contributed to this story.