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A Magician and His Travel Bag


Ryan Oakes runs through two decks of playing cards per magic show, constantly shuffling them, fanning them or making them disappear. PHILIP MONTGOMERY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


Back in his hotel room after every performance, Ryan Oakes methodically goes through all his pockets and lays everything out on the bed, taking inventory.

The ritual takes a while. Mr. Oakes is a professional magician who has his suits custom-made with extra pockets—10 in all. He performs at corporate events and parties. He might mingle in the crowd doing card tricks, mind games and lighting the occasional $100 bill on fire. He has an hour-long stage show that incorporates magic and mentalism.

Mr. Oakes, 36, has performed for Fortune 500 companies like TD Bank, the Ritz Carlton and Google, and at executives’ private homes, including Paul Tudor Jones of Tudor Investments and Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group. He is based in New York City but is on the road seven to 10 days a month.

He needs to pack strategically. “Many of the items I carry will get flagged by TSA, not because they’re dangerous, but because they look funny,” he says. One is the portable audio system he uses for musical cues in his act. It has a wireless receiver and an ankle switch that he triggers by clicking his heels together. That goes in checked baggage.

“The last thing I want is for a TSA guy to find out I’m a magician,” which often sparks requests for magic tricks, he says. “That’s a 10-minute conversation, and I have a flight to catch.”

Mr. Oakes always performs in a suit instead of an old-style sequined tuxedo. “My clients want someone who looks like they fit right in,” he says.

Three decks of playing cards, two Rubik’s Cubes, dice, a rope, matches, a phone book, a message in a bottle and a foam brick are just some of the props he carries, distributed between two carry-ons: a Tumi Alpha 2 backpack and a custom-made, brushed aluminum carrying case by Theatrical Contrivances that transforms into a table for his stage act. He tries to keep it all under 20 pounds.

The most important items in his toiletry kit include Entertainer’s Secret throat-relief spray and travel scissors from Tokyu Hands that make it through TSA. The kit also holds a tiny, refillable cologne spritzer by Travalo “because you can’t be smelling bad when you’re working a room.”

Mr. Oakes fell for magic at age 5, when his parents gave him a magic set for Christmas. He soon started taking lessons from a retired illusionist. At age 11, he won a national magic contest and appeared on a CNN talk show.

“There’s this perception that magic is shrouded in secrecy,” he says. “But if you show a sincere interest to learn, magicians are very willing to teach.” He will occasionally give magic lessons to a client who wants to learn a trick or two for a presentation.

Throughout high school in Stamford, Conn., he spent weekends performing at children’s birthday parties, charging $250 to $350. “It beat having a paper route,” he says.

His act included a rabbit, a cage of white doves and a hamster, he says. When he started focusing on a corporate audience, the menagerie fell by the wayside.

He has kept something from those early days, though. One of his first tricks, at age 10, involved about 200 silk handkerchiefs, all handmade by his grandmother. He always carries one in his pocket for good luck.

He also makes sure to have two decks of playing cards, which last only one show. He is constantly shuffling them, fanning them or making them disappear. But he hardly ever plays for fun. “No one ever wants to invite me into their poker game,” he says. “Occupational hazard.”


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