ZEPHYRHILLS — Steve Marshall has been a clown most of his life. No really, a clown, as in bright makeup and a big red nose. But not just any clown. He's a magic clown.
Cue the circus music and the abracadabras.
Over the years, his clowning and abilities of making things disappear, manipulating cards, escaping from straitjackets and fire eating, have taken him from Zephyrhills to around the world.
For the past 14 years, Marshall, 46, has been working the magic circuit from his home base just outside Tokyo, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. But now the Zephyrhills High graduate is back in the United States visiting his hometown, and on Thursday night he kicked off a 20-city tour in Orlando that will take him as far as New York City in the next month teaching other magicians how to wow audiences.
It all began when Marshall was 8 years old and saw a commercial for a magic set.
"Hey, I could do that,'" Marshall remembers thinking. "It was really cool stuff. It was like a miracle."
Good ol' Saint Nick delivered that gift to Marshall when his family still lived in Bartow. He's been doing tricks ever since.
"We used to have to sit in the living room and watch him do magic tricks," said his mother, Nancy Marshall.
"I always told him magic was a good hobby, but he had to find a way to make a living," his dad Bill said chuckling.
His son didn't take that advice to heart.
As a teen he worked birthday parties. Then he met and befriended a professional clown at a magic club, who taught him a few things and gave him the idea to combine clowning with magic. By the time he was a senior in high school in 1983, he already had experience as a paid magician at a now defunct amusement park in Tampa. While his friends applied at universities, he applied to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.
"I've been waiting for years to give this to someone," Marshall recalled his guidance counselor saying as he reached into a file and pulled out the application.
He was one of only 60 accepted from 2,000 applicants. His 10-week course list included arena choreography, juggling, pie throwing, water spitting and yes, cramming into a car with a bunch of clown classmates.
Then he hit the road working for the circus for about five years, and that's how he met fellow clown Ric Beery. The pair are now about to embark another road trip: Beery, now a filmmaker and owner of Beery Media based in North Carolina, will begin filming the documentary Sayonara to Hello, chronicling Marshall during his lecture tour, performing eight of his favorite tricks, many for the first time in English. The film will show viewers how Marshall fulfilled his childhood dream. Marshall never imagined how far he would get.
When he moved to Japan he immersed himself in the culture, learning the language and the art of Asian magic. His comedic style and success has led to other opportunities in Japan, including acting gigs that have put him in Japanese national advertising campaigns for Sony, McDonald's and one launched this week for Ikea. For the McDonald's campaign he became known as Mr. James, a goofy-looking American. Once when he had a restaurant appearance, 200 fans lined up to meet him.
"It was the closest I'll ever come to being a rock star," he said.
These days, Marshall doesn't put on his clown face much, instead opting for crazy leopard print tuxedo jackets paired with traditional pants and shirt. But on this day, he's more casual in his parents' living room. He takes two seemingly ordinary forks — made in Japan — and has a visitor hold them.
Marshall takes one fork and rubs the middle of it. The fork starts to bend. He instructs the visitor to do the same. Nothing happens. Marshall bends back his fork and rapidly waves it. Its prongs bend. To the touch, the fork is cold and strong. It won't bend back for anyone but Marshall.