Jon Armstrong’s first magic lesson came when he was 8 years old. His dad picked up a few card tricks in the Air Force, and he taught his son how to cheat at gin rummy. Armstrong grew up in Orlando, close to where the magic is made, so he parlayed his father’s lessons and his own studies into a job at Epcot Center, a job that he secured by faking an English accent. “I was from Manchester for about three weeks. Then I was from Oxford.”
Eventually Armstrong made his way west to Vegas, to the dark heart of the illusive arts, where he worked headlining Caesar’s Magical Empire, a venue that helped launch the careers of some of the country’s biggest magic acts. There, in an elaborately constructed 66,000-square-foot restaurant space, Armstrong and a band of magicians circled around rooms with names like the Chamber of Destiny and Forbidden Crypt, working the crowds of diners forking their way through sirloins and Caesar salads.
After Vegas, Armstrong migrated to the Magic Castle, Hollywood’s legendary private magic club, where he took up the charge of Chairman of the Academy of Magical Arts Trustees. Since landing in California, he’s been twice named the Close-Up Magician of the Year, has consulted on magic-heavy shows like The Mentalist and X Files, helped open up two close-up magic theme parks, and performed his unique brand of comedy-soaked sleight of hand in over 40 countries around the world.
When I first met Armstrong, we were eight miles off the coast of Malaysia, en route to Bangkok aboard the Crystal Symphony, a luxury liner widely considered to be the best cruise ship in the world, which made the curious decision to invite Roads & Kingdoms along for a free ride to Vietnam. Armstrong, for the past month, has been Crystal’s magician in residence, not only performing 30-minute shows to intimate groups of passengers on cruising days, but also spontaneously dropping into the various bars scattered across the ship to queue up a cocktail and wobble the minds of the whisky-drinking set.
His act on the boat is decidedly low budget; it involves a deck of cards, two rubber bands and a mini toilet plunger no larger than a lollipop. This is not stage magic; there are no special lights or fog machines or dramatic music piped in through the ship’s speaker system. Before he comes out on stage—really, a bar with leather couches and neon purple backlighting—he hides behind a curtain and announces himself.
Armstrong specializes in close-up magic, also know as micromagic or table magic. According to him, his talent involves a carefully measured cocktail of “physical dexterity, mental acuity, deception, and the occasional gag.” With a snap of the fingers, he splits the deck between reds and blacks. Another snap and they’re perfectly dispersed: red, black, red, black. He’ll pluck your phone number, card by card, out of the deck in a way that will make you want to call your provider and change your digits.
Beyond the memory tricks and sleights of hand, Armstrong’s act, like many modern magicians, leans heavily on comedy. He balances gentle audience ribbing with self-deprecating cracks and well-practiced one-liners, so that when you watch him, you’re not sure if you’re at a magic show or a comedy club. Which is exactly the point.
Perhaps Armstrong’s most popular bit involves the tiny plunger, “just like the one you’d find in any Barbie Dream House.” It’s genius, like the best close-up magic, lies in its simplicity: portable, familiar, and incapable of arousing suspicion. He brought the tiny plunger with him recently onto the Today Show, where he unleashed it on Hoda and Kathy Lee in the 10 o’clock hour. For his grand finale, he has Kathy Lee whisper her card to the plunger, then proceeds to plunge her card directly from the deck. Hoda eats it up. “Now that’s how you end a segment.”
Armstrong’s current closer is established at the start of his show when he passes a tiny box to someone in the crowd and asks him to put it in his pocket. As the performance winds down, Armstrong asks a handful of people to sign their names on a card with a Sharpie. After a series of manipulations that quickly ratchet up the suspense, the man pulls out the tiny box and finds the autographed card is inside. People go nuts.
As a few of the only late-nighters onboard the Symphony, Armstrong and I spent a good amount of time in the casino or one of the ship’s many lavish bars, drinking gin and tonics (“bars and magic go great together” he likes to say) and talking magic.
“I know this might surprise you, but I was a bit of a nerd growing up.” It’s true, he doesn’t cut the coolest figure—a doughy 37-year-old with glasses and a baby face and strawberry-blonde eyebrows that seem to be perpetually arched. At sea, he wears a dark jacket and a dark vest with a pocket watch that dangles by his ribcage. On land, the same jacket, but he swaps the vest for a black Batman shirt.
If Armstrong has a cool factor, beyond his ability to blow your mind, it’s his connection to Hollywood. He was the consulting magician for the three-season cult favorite Arrested Development, the man charged with the duty of turning Gob Bluth (played by Will Arnett) into one of the world’s worst magicians. “Will wanted to learn how to do all of the tricks first so that he understood exactly how to screw them up.” (For those Arrested nerds out there, Armstrong’s greatest contribution to the show is one of Gob’s signature lines: “But where did the lighter fluid come from?”)
The Alliance of Magicians, the group that blacklists Gob for inadvertently revealing one of his tricks, is based on the Magic Castle’s Academy of Magic Arts, an earnest association of performers who take their craft—and its secrecy—very seriously. It’s through Castle connections that Armstrong finds himself onboard the Crystal Symphony, and through their vast network of alliance-affiliated magicians, we find ourselves in a teashop in Saigon, surrounded by pack of card-carrying close-up trainees.