By Evan Henerson
He may share his name with a certain film and TV sitcom star, but Kevin James the illusionist would hardly content himself with being a mere King of Queens. Not when the whole world is his playground.
Sporting colorful Yoko Ono glasses and with a goatee and mustache that call to mind a cleaned up Colonel Sanders, James is a member of The Illusionists. Eight shows a week, the man whose alter ego is The Inventor takes the stage and saws people in half.
Let me repeat that. Kevin James saws people in half…with a chain saw…in full view of an audience. “The operation,” as it is called, is but one of the many macabre feats made famous by the Inventor whose website holds plaudits from celebrities ranging from Nicolas Cage to Barack Obama to Woody Allen.
Kevin James, The Inventor. “Operation”
“With knowledge comes great responsibility,” James says with a soft laugh. “That feeling is very elusive to me these days. So when I get fooled by a trick or routine or a method or just some piece of magic that just amazes me, I cherish it. Because that’s the feeling that I remember.”
James was born in France, the son of a U.S. Air Force helicopter and jet pilot. He initially held dual citizenship, but when Charles de Gaule declared that all French citizens could be drafted into the foreign legion, James’s mother said, “you can have that one back.”
As is the case with many future magicians, James got the magic spark when he was a kid growing up in a small town in southern Michigan. The library in Jonesville (population about 2,000) had six books on magic which James checked out repeatedly. An hour away, in the town of Colon sat Abbott’s Magic Company which, every year, would hold a week long magic convention out in the cornfields.
While his parents would camp, James would spend the day developing what would become his future profession. In fact, fellow Illusionists cast member Jeff Hobson (AKA The Trickster) was a fellow attendee when both he and James were in their teens.
“There were no hotels out in the middle of cornfields, so you either had to camp and go in or stay and rent a room in somebody’s house,” James said of the Abbott’s Magic Get-Together. “It’s not a big city convention. It’s a down home great magic convention and they hired big stars to come perform and do seminars.”
“That was a great place for me,” he continued. “Once a year I saved up and spent a week there, and I made lifelong friends. You could buy books, videos and all your supplies. That was kind of the foundation of my upbringing in magic.”
Kevin James, The Inventor.
James moved to California in the early 1980s, joining the Long Beach Mystics where he continued to hone his performance. He eventually become a junior at the Magic Castle, earning honors such as Parlour Magician of the Year and Stage Magician of the Year.
According to James, Southern California was the “magic capital of the world” during the 10 years he lived in Anaheim. But as a small prestidigitating fish in a large pond, James knew he needed to be unique.
He draws the comparison to an aspiring rock star arriving on the scene and unleashing a killer rendition of a Stevie Wonder hit. The tune may sound great, but where does it get you?
“You’re not starting at a very high level. Stevie Wonder wrote that song already,” James said. “Now you have to write the song and perform it great. I worked really hard trying to do something that other people were not doing, trying to be as original as possible. Sometimes it’s not so easy. It’s extra work, but I think it’s worth every minute of it.”
Ultimately James went back to France where he performed on the variety show “Sebastian C’est Foux” and as a headliner at the Crazy Horse in Paris. He spent three more years in Korea and moved back to Las Vegas where he is currently based.
Not that he’s home much these days. Since joining The Illusionists, James has traveled to Sydney Australia, to Broadway to London’s West End and across North America, breaking box office records at every stop. When he joined the company, James developed and embraced a new professional identity: the Inventor was born.
Kevin James, The Inventor, on the red carpet. Credit: Chelsea Lauren
“Our producer, Simon Painter asked us all to find a moniker that we could use in the show and hook our specialty onto,” James said. “He said, ‘try to imagine if you were a superhero, who would you be? What would your power be?’ I decided the Inventor would be a nice big playground to play in and not box me in too much.”
“We look like The Avengers,” he continued. “Everyone has their unique style, their unique specialty, and that’s another thing that makes the show delightful. Instead of one person performing for two hours with the same point of view, the same voice, here if you don’t like something, three minutes later there’s going to be something you’re going to like.”
James has spent enough time with his fellow Aveng…er…Illusionists that he knows many of their secrets, just as they know his. But he says one of the great secrets to magic is knowing the secrets is beside the point.
“Penn and Teller will show you how something’s done and then immediately fool you with the same method a second later because they’re that good,” James said. “The most amazing parts are all the little details for the artistic interpretation of an effect. The trick doesn’t really matter. The secret doesn’t matter. What are you going to wear? What’s your music going to be? What’s your lighting going to be? What’s your dialog going to be? Where are you going to pause for that dramatic tension? How long does that pause have to be? All those minute little details make a piece great.”
Evan Henerson has been writing about theater in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. He was the Theater writer and critic for the Los Angeles Daily News for nine years and has written for Playbill Online, Backstage, American Theatre and Stage Directions.You can read his reviews on TheaterMania, CurtainUp and Examiner.com.