DADE CITY — When Keith "The Magic Man" Fleming pops up tableside at your favorite restaurant, he's already read you. Who's approachable? Who's not?
"Audiences have different tastes in food, music and comedy," Fleming said. "But just about everybody is fascinated by magic tricks."
Fleming is a moonlighting magician with a day job in condominium sales. After the real estate market crashed in 2009, the Dade City Realtor lost everything. That's when he began expanding and aggressively marketing his act, developed during childhood and refined during his military days to counteract a severe case of stuttering.
Ironically, his motto today is "the mouth is quicker than the eye." Faithfully rehearsed, Fleming's routines combine his talent for humorous distraction with sleight of hand.
"With my patter and a small suitcase, I'm ready for a crowd of three or 5,000," Fleming said.
Fleming's card tricks and disappearing foam rubber balls are amusing diners three nights a week at two venues: Kafe Kokopelli Restaurant in Dade City provides rustic fine dining; Brooksville's Coney Island Hot Dogs serves families and bikers who drink penny beer on tractor seat stools and picnic tables. Fleming may share a billing with a folk singer at Kokopelli's or alternate sets with an Elvis impersonator in the Coney Island parking lot.
"They're A and we're Z," said Coney Island owner operator Blair Hensley, who hired Fleming in July 2011. "Keith's magic adds to the whole experience and customers remember us."
Fleming rejects hand lotions, sprays or stick-ums. He calls his craft "body memory" and adheres to the magician's oath to never reveal his secrets.
What gives Fleming his greatest satisfaction is the impact he has on children. They touch his cards and experience the expansion and disappearance of sponge balls from their clasped palms. It stimulates their problem-solving skills.
"A couple sharing a dessert recently recognized me after 15 years. 'We know who you are,' they said… 'you changed our son's life,' " said Fleming, who performed at school functions as a part-time magician back then. "He was withdrawn and didn't socialize well. Now he does magic for his church."
It's also a chance for parents to share a sense of awe with their kids. "It's thrilling to deliver five minutes of fantasy land," Fleming said. "And the adults need it more than the kids to believe again."
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Fleming, 58, was born in Dade City and educated in Pasco public schools. In 1962, a teacher at Cox Elementary suggested performance arts to help Fleming overcome his stuttering. He mastered his breathing, memorization and verbal exercises.
"That helped me a lot," Fleming said, "and then pole vaulting at Pasco High School improved my hand-eye coordination."
During the waning years of the Vietnam War, Fleming enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Stationed on the USS Independence and then the USS Saratoga air craft carriers on the Mediterranean, one of his first war duties was answering phone calls. His stutter resurfaced.
While stationed at Naval Base Coronado near San Diego, Fleming was inspired by a magician/bartender named Joe Mystic.
"Joe took me under his wing and gave me card lessons," he said. "I was basically self-taught. But it was Joe who tailored my style to accommodate a crowd."
Fleming got his first set of sponge balls to audition before his shipmates.
"The commanding officer insisted that I show him some magic," he said. "I did the whole routine and blew him away."
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Honorably discharged as yeoman first class in 1982, Fleming joined a Navy buddy in Montana to intern in the carpet care business. He invested in equipment and established Nova Carpet Care in Tampa. The business expanded to three area stores, which he sold in 2002. He and his first wife had two sons — Ryan, 32, and Christopher, 28 — who are the fourth generation still living in Dade City.
"Ryan is a musician making videos," Fleming said. "And Christopher is using his magic on the young ladies."
Fleming attained his real estate license in 2003. He joined the developers at a new condominium complex, Equestrian Park in Wesley Chapel, and continues to work six days a week.
Fleming always kept a few tricks up his sleeve for special events and fundraisers. After the financial crash, though, he put more effort into building his act and landing gigs, hoping to broaden his contacts and earn some extra income.
He's currently practicing a new card catch effect but won't add it to his routine just yet. The fear of being exposed doesn't make for good magic.
Fleming also loves to lower expectations. "I'll present a sloppy card shuffle and fumble it a bit before — boom — nailing a perfect trick."
He's never encountered hecklers. Only an occasional skeptic.
"A type-A personality will need to be reminded that my tricks are not a test," Fleming said. "In fact, the more logical they are, the easier they are to fool."
Fleming met his current wife, Robin, now a private detective, a decade ago. She was waiting tables at Kokopelli's, where he did shows from time to time.
"I showed her an invisible deck of cards and asked her to shuffle them and to concentrate on one," he said. "Sometimes, magic just happens."