How does the illusionist switch places with his assistant in the blink of an eye? How does he escape his shackles and break out of a tank of water? How can he trust the word of a random audience member and avoid impaling the volunteer’s hand on a knife?
There is no smoke. There are no mirrors. There is nothing to distract your attention from the trick. And in the tiny Starlite Theater at the Riviera, there’s nowhere to hide.
So how is it that this master of illusion — the man named by a local paper as the best magician in the Entertainment Capital of the World — is not being thrust onto the largest stages in town?
“I have something up my sleeve,” he says, in case that opportunity arises.
Before the bright lights and big promoters find him, I took the chance to solve a few mysteries about Jan Rouven.
When the house lights dim in the Starlite Theater, a disembodied voice announces that the show you’re about to see is “direct from Europe.” When Rouven appears on the stage, he introduces himself to the crowd by saying that he has come “direct from Germany.” That’s how he’s billed in the show’s ads, too.
Rouven points out his accent immediately, asking the audience not to “make funny” of him, and he spends a good three minutes meeting German, Austrian and Swiss guests, greeting them in German and translating for the non-German speakers in the house.
When we sat down to talk last week, he invoked Germany at least half a dozen times before I found the right way of asking why he made his homeland such a big part of his act.
Rouven explained that magic is tremendously popular in Germany. Much more than it is in the U.S., magic is an established art form in Europe, surrounded by culture and prestige.
Like American cities have comedy clubs, German cities have small independent venues where magicians perform.
“We have lots of good magicians,” Rouven said. “Mentalists, close-up guys” and illusionists, like him — artists who perform large-scale acts that look physically impossible.
Rouven explained that his heritage sets him apart from other magicians — but that didn’t seem to me like reason enough to spend valuable stage time emphasizing that he’s German.
I had developed a different hunch.
I told Rouven that there were one or two American magicians who I had known growing up (Harry Houdini, for example. Maybe Lance Burton.) They were so well known that they became household names, even in little Midwestern farm towns like mine.
I asked if a German child would know the name Jan Rouven.
Rouven shrugged, a little shy.
“Yah,” he said. “In Germany” — he hesitated — “I’m quite famous.”
He’s a huge deal in the magic community, too. In 2004, he received the Merlin Award for Magician of the Year. In 2006, he won the Mandrake D’or Award (the Oscar of the European magic scene), and in 2007, the International Magician’s Society named him Entertainer of the Year.
Rouven learned his first tricks from books and collected experience in magic clubs, but his career really took off when he met Frank Alfter.
Alfter was a famous illusionist with a big show in Germany. He met Rouven when Rouven was 16, and he was so impressed with the young magician that he broke with tradition to take Rouven under his wing.
“I was very young when I started,” Rouven said, “and it helps you. It pushes you. But this is something which is not so common in Germany. It’s more in America where you have mentors.”
“Maybe in Germany they all want to keep their secrets,” he joked.
Rouven started subbing for Alfter in big shows in Germany when he was 19.
“Actually, I was kind of embarrassed,” Alfter said, “because [audiences]loved it. They wanted a young and hip magician and I was not young and hip anymore.”
Alfter decided to give up his very successful career as a performing magician and produce Rouven’s show full-time. He got his protégé in a contract with the German theme park Warner Bros. Movie World performing for 10,000 people a day.
It took Alfter and Rouven a couple of years to put together an entire show. Rouven would need music, lights, big props, an assistant and costumes.
“I had some little things,” he recalled. “I had some shiny velvet pants, and [Alfter] said, ‘No. Change the pants. It’s not good.’”
Now, Rouven struts on stage in fitted jeans, studded shoes, bedazzled shirts and fashion-forward leather jackets. He teases his hair and looks a little like a glam rocker. He looks the part of a huge European star.
Rouven turned down a huge contract in Europe for a chance to come to Vegas.
“It was the next logical move,” Alfter said, “because in Germany, he had done everything.”
In just 10 years, Rouven had performed for more than 3 million people live and some 55 million on European TV. Now that he’s performing in Vegas, Alfter said, national German TV stations are even more eager to feature him.
But Rouven is still a newcomer on the Strip.
“No one knew him here,” Alfter said, “which was difficult for him. He had to start from zero again.”
Rouven is youthful, funny and a little sexy. But beneath the glamour is a serious magician — a master trained by masters.
Siegfried Fischbacher is Alfter and Rouven’s personal friend and Rouven’s long-time idol.
Rouven explained that in Germany, owing to Siegfried and Roy’s success, “Vegas is something.”
“They became famous here, and their fame went all over the world,” he said. “And I’ve tried to step into their footsteps.”
Rouven is the first German magician to have his own show in Vegas since Siegfried and Roy’s at The Mirage.
“Because of that, it has a little quality seal,” he said. “People trust it more. And probably they are right.”
Siegfried and Roy won the 1972 award for Best Las Vegas Show. Rouven’s award came exactly 10 years after Siegfried and Roy’s show ended.
Now, a piece of their famous act has made its way into Rouven’s production.
The trick is called the Origami Illusion. Siegfried taught it to Rouven himself, and after seeing his successor perform it, he recommended the inclusion of a little joke.
Rouven invokes his predecessors and describes how he loved to watch their show, as he unfolds a box that can’t be more than a foot and a half cubed. While he sets up the trick, he explains it as though he were watching the old masters perform it.
He unfolds the box to make a larger one.
“Then the girl would climb inside,” he says. “Then they would close the box.”
Rouven refolds the sides until the box is again so small that no human could fit inside. Then he impales it on all three axes with swords, still describing Siegfried and Roy’s trick.
“I still don’t know how they did it!” he says.
But then Rouven removes the swords and unfolds the box, the girl emerges unscathed, and the audience cheers for Las Vegas’ new prince of illusion.
Rouven told me that he and other magicians in town visit each other’s shows often. I asked him whether he knows how others’ tricks are done.
“Usually, but not always,” he said.
He explained that every artist has his own trademark — a form of magic that sets him apart from the others.
“My thing is being from Germany — the accent,” he said. And, as though great danger is an afterthought, he added, “And the death-defying stunts like the water tank, the swords, the saw and the blades.”
I asked which of his illusions is most likely to stump another experienced magician. I expected him to pick out his “master illusion” — the show’s almost-finale, which, after seeing it three times, I can assure you is downright impossible.
But he named two other acts: the bed of death, which features falling swords released by a terrified audience member, and the quiet little illusion that closes the show.
In the final act, Rouven tells a simple story as he removes a frame from around a group of wooden blocks that form a rectangle. He moves the pieces around and then removes a separate piece from a small cloth bag. He adds the piece to the puzzle and re-forms the whole into a rectangle, explaining how we can adapt to new experiences and challenges in life. Then he does it again, this time adding a larger block to the puzzle and declaring that larger challenges become easier to adapt to once we learn to listen to our “inner voice.”
The show comes to an end as he replaces the same frame around the puzzle and it fits perfectly.
“A good show is about personality,” Rouven told me. “A good magic show needs these big illusions, but it’s not just about the big stuff. You also need personal, intimate, touching, emotional things. And this is a very emotional ending because it’s a story about life that relates to everyone … People leave with that little story in mind.”
His show has more than enough energy to fill an arena, but Rouven said that acts like the Origami Illusion and the puzzle trick are perfect for the Starlite Theater, where the audience can see the action up close.
Rouven turned to Alfter and spoke in German, asking how best to describe the arrangement.
“Make lemonade when you have lemons,” Alfter said.
But later, Alfter told me that “Illusions” is ready to show the world why it was voted Best of Las Vegas.
“We’re always open for a new show in the middle of the Strip. Either Bellagio or Caesars Palace,” he said, in good humor but not in jest. “You can quote us. ‘Either Bellagio or Caesars Palace.’”
Rouven is clearly a star waiting for his stage. But he is a magician at heart, and he says he loves to perform anywhere, for anyone.
“On my off night, when I’m not on stage, I feel all…,” he said, squirming in his seat. “That’s a good sign.”