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Magician priest will bless Yuma with performances
* Friday 2 p.m.
28790 San Jose Ave., Wellton
* Saturday 11 a.m.
240 Canal St., Somerton
* Saturday 2 p.m.
Yuma Main Library
2951 S. 21st Drive, Yuma
As a Catholic priest with many talents, Jim Blantz can't turn water into wine during Mass, but he sure can turn milk into grape juice at a kid's birthday party.
For most of his adult life, 81-year-old Blantz has joyfully served two passions. The first calls for him to stand before congregations and deliver sermons that stir the soul, while the second just may involve making a lovely assistant vanish into thin air.
The devoted priest is also an accomplished magician.
When the Mass is done and all of the confessions have been heard, the veteran priest trades his white collar for a black top hat and steps into his second career.
Blantz's resume lists countless gigs at venues around the country, including a dedicated spot on the roster at the prestigious Magic Castle in Los Angeles. He's performed with some pretty big names in show biz, and yes, he knows David Copperfield.
At first glance his career paths may seem divinely mismatched, but Blantz insists that the callings actually bless each other quite perfectly, even if he doesn't sneak a joke or sight gag into a sermon very often. He explains that his work as a magician is always practiced with the heart of a priest who is always looking to serve — and to heal.
“My magic gives something to people. There is so much suffering and strife and trouble in our world today. If I can make you forget about your troubles for that hour that I entertain you, then it's worth my time and effort.”
Sometimes, the magic isn't an illusion at all. It's a miracle taking place, and Blantz gives God credit for doing the work.
“Like the lady last night after Mass who asked me to bless a ring. When I made that ring vanish, she forgot that her mother was dying. She was filled with wonder and forgot her sorrows, if only for those 20 seconds.”
This week, Blantz plans to drive himself down from a Phoenix home for retired and semiretired priests and bless Yuma with performances at three local libraries.
“There's three, it's free and it's clean. I'll give you an hour to forget your worries,” he said during a recent phone interview. “And bring your kids and encourage them to get books on magic and read. Maybe we can get them a new hobby, which is clean, moral and everything else!”
Blantz puts on about 70 shows a year these days. That sounds like a lot until you hear that he performed at least 200 gigs a year back in the old days.
Being a unique performer who is difficult to pigeonhole, Blantz's bookings also refuse to conform to any stereotypes. Although he boasts a national reputation and enjoys big-name bookings, he still enjoys performing at church fundraisers of all sizes, events supporting Boy Scouts, shows at public libraries and private parties.
“I used to work restaurants once in awhile,” he said, launching into memories from working at a Santa Monica “fat farm” in the past. “I met a lot of celebrities there, of course.”
Since he has taken a vow of poverty, every dollar he makes as a magician goes to missionary programs in Bangladesh and Uganda.
Blantz joined the priesthood 54 years ago. In fact, the anniversary is the weekend he will be in Yuma. Blantz says he heard the calling to the priesthood in eighth grade, when the notion came to him that serving the church would be the best way to save his soul and the souls of others.
He discovered his love of magic while visiting a friend whose young daughter, Rosebud, asked Blantz if he knew any magic tricks. In fact, he did. He happened to know two. He made a coin disappear, enjoyed the sweet exchange with the child and “didn't give it another thought” for several years.
His life as a magician blossomed while doing missionary work in Bangladesh. He quickly realized that nothing drew a crowd of natives together quite like a little sleight of hand. His supervisory priest said they “should have thought of it years ago.”
Blantz pointed out that Catholic priests have performed magic recreationally for years. “There were three of us young priests in the 1960s who were doing magic. One became president of the Society of American Magicians and the other became a bishop!”
Blantz has also trained priests in the ways of magic-making.
He stressed that “magic” as we know it today is nothing like the “sorcery” in league with Satan that is condemned in the Holy Bible.
“In the first place, I have done magic for 50 years and have never seen anything that couldn't be explained normally. It's all actually just sleight of hand and misdirection.”
He quipped that the biggest difference between giving a sermon and working magic is that folks arrive early to sit in front for magic shows.
He admits that “1 in 10,000” parishioners over the years have raised an eyebrow over their priest's penchant for card tricks. But Blantz isn't letting himself get emotionally sawed in half over it.
“I'm not going to stop entertaining 10,000 people because one person objects simply because they don't understand.”
Depending on whether his performance is church-related, Blantz may or may not wear his white roman collar. “At the Magic Castle, I wear my roman collar. If you don't like it, you can stay out.”
He began performing at the Magic Castle 40 years ago. That's quite a feat, given that only top magicians are invited and only members and their guests can attend. The entrance is hidden, forcing visitors to say a secret phrase to an owl sculpture to gain entry. Blantz still performs there, mostly in the summer.
Over the years, he's shared the stage with everyone from Dom DeLuise to Red Buttons and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Actor Cary Grant was a close friend and often attended Blantz's shows.
“I did a show once for Marlon Brando in his home,” Blantz said, adding with a chuckle: “I also used to baby-sit the home of a famous columnist and baby-sit her dog.”
Working as magician not only helped make Blantz more comfortable standing before large crowds as a priest, magic also earns his gratitude for bringing a great deal of joy to his life.
“I kept me from being lonely all these years and has given me something to do. In the priesthood, it's not an everyday job. I may have a funeral one day and counseling tonight, but I may have absolutely nothing to do tomorrow.
“I could watch TV, eat bonbons or drink. Or I can practice my magic.”
Blantz also confesses to loving the applause delivered up by an amused and amazed crowd. But there's actually even a better reaction than applause. It's just a little harder to earn.
“Sometimes people are so shocked by a trick that there is just silence. Then they think ‘Oh, we should applaud.' That's what I really work for.
“Then, sometimes out of the silence, you'll have a voice from the back say ‘Jesus Christ!' I always say ‘No, just call me Father.'”
Darin Fenger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6860.