Lance Burton - Billy Topit


Billy Topit

Lance Burton has been hailed as: 
“The most brilliant magician of the century.” 

He was named “Magician of the Year” twice by The Academy of Magical Arts, and in 1994, he was given the honor of having the “Mantle of Magic” passed to him from Master Magician, Lee Grabel. In 1994, The Monte Carlo Las Vegas built a $27-million theater for him to perform in, and that’s where he continued to astonish fans for 13 years, entertaining over five million people. 

Burton retired in 2010, and has been enjoying his time away from the stage in front and behind the camera—filming a screenplay that he wrote, directed, produced, as well as acted in. The independent comedy that took over five years from conception to theatrical release and has been Lance’s labor of love is titled, “Billy Topit Master Magician”. It will be released to theaters this September 24, 2015—with its World Premiere screening to be hosted at Brendan Theaters at Palms Casino Resort. The film features an enormous celebrity cast, full of many of Lance’s friends making cameo appearances, including: Louie Anderson, Mac King, Robin Leach, Johnny Thompson, Criss Angel, and more—all of whom can be expected to be seen on the premiere’s Red Carpet.

The story is about a struggling Las Vegas magician named Billy, who performs at children’s birthday parties and is excellent at performing magic, but his career has not been very successful. He convinces the woman of his dreams to be his assistant, but when local Mobsters try to make him disappear permanently, he has to call on his best friends to help out. 

We were invited to Lance Burton’s incredible estate, located in a remote area of Henderson, where the legendary magician graciously sat and sincerely discussed his lifelong friendships, his true love for magic and the joys of his moviemaking process.

SMARTY: After 15,000 shows, have you been enjoying your retirement?

After performing 15,000 shows, I can’t think of any entertainer that had more fun on stage than I did. I had a blast! I did it for 31 years. It was a great way to make a living and a wonderful thing to do. 

While still working at the Monte Carlo in 2009, Michael Goudeau and I wrote the screenplay for Billy Topit Master Magician. We filmed some of the things that I did on stage and incorporated them into the movie. Michael and I met at the Tropicana in the early 1980’s, when we were both performing in the Folies Bergère. When I opened my own show in 1991, Michael became my special guest star and was with me for 19-20 years. He’s also an Emmy Award-winning writer. Michael and I wrote the screenplay as something we could shoot here in Las Vegas. There have been many films and TV shows with magician characters and some were good, but I felt I could bring something that was genuine; something based in reality. Oftentimes, the magic in movies doesn’t come across on screen. They are not using techniques common to magicians. They are using CGI or trick photography. I strongly felt Billy Topit Master Magician needed to be made by someone who understands magic. We didn’t have to do any research for the movie… Michael and I lived it. A lot of it is Billy hanging out with his buddies after work. Basically that’s what we did after work at the Tropicana.

I really enjoyed being involved in the whole process of making Billy Topit Master Magician, because I got to learn more. I’ve done roles where I’d come in and just act in a scene, and that’s great and also fun, but I’ve always been interested in what goes on behind the cameras. In 1985, I played an evil magician who was an assassin on an episode of Knight Rider, and I remember being very interested and looking at the cameras, and the cameramen would let me see what was happening. It was during this filming that I met Mark Wilson, who was the magic advisor on the show, and he encouraged me to continue on with magic in movies. Mark had also been a magic advisor on the Bill Bixby TV series called: The Magician, that I had loved as a kid, so I took his advice to heart. 

SMARTY: In Billy Topit Master Magician, you have a large cast of your friends, magicians, comedians, and actors. How did you choose them and how did you convince them to do the movie for free? 

Yeah, they did it for free! My friends are all cast in the movie, because I could go to them and say: “We are shooting a movie and I have a part for you,” and they’d go: ‘Oh, great!’ and I said: “And here’s the best part, there’s no pay.” They all knew it was going to be fun. I think every magician in town is in the movie. Criss Angel is very, very funny in the movie. He pops up in a dream sequence and is hilarious. Louie Anderson plays a security guard and he ad-libs some hilarious stuff. I met Louie back in 1985. We were both in a show in Washington, D.C. at the Ford Theater, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were sitting in the front row. They invited all the entertainers and crew to the White House later for a reception. Louie and I were the only ones who brought in our instamatic cameras. No one was taking pictures, but I said: “Louie, how many times are we going to be in the White House? Take my picture here in front of the painting of Nixon.” He took mine and then hands me his camera to take his. Louie gets this big grin on his face, and goes like this V V with his first two fingers making the peace sign, and we’ve been friends ever since. Michael Goodeau, Michael Holly, Tom Lang and Russ Merlin, all those guys are professional stage performers. They all do comedy and they’re all really creative. You get them all in a room and you start shooting a scene and things are going to happen. Frankie Scinta plays a poker player. Mac King and I have known each other since we were 14 years old. I met Mac at the Louisville Magic Club. I got to Vegas in 1982 and he moved to Los Angeles and had a good career going. I convinced him to come to Vegas, and in a couple of years he had opened his own show and the rest is history. Johnny Thompson has a major role in the movie as the ex old mob guy who’s the father. He’s 81 and still out there working and helping guys with their shows. Jeff McBride, Fielding West and Rory Johnston also make appearances.

SMARTY: Besides the part you filmed at the Monte Carlo, where did you do the majority of the shooting of the movie? 

We filmed all over Las Vegas. We filmed here at my house, which was Johnny Thompson’s home in the movie. At the Klondike Sunset Casino, owner John Woodrum and his son Mike are friends of mine and they just gave us free rein, and we shot in the coffee shop and in the casino. We shot at Criss Angel’s warehouse and at Magic Magazine’s parking lot. We also used several of the cast member’s houses. The filming took almost five years and some of the cast were concerned that they would look different from the beginning scenes to the end scenes, but nobody changed drastically. I learned the moviemaking process by doing it. You make mistakes and you learn. It was nice to be able to just shoot on weekends. Most of the cast still work, so most of the time it would be a relaxed 4-5 hours. I made sure I had food there for the cast and crew and everyone was happy. The most difficult thing I encountered was when I was acting and directing at the same time. I love acting in scenes and I love directing, but doing them both at the same time is incredibly difficult. You have to be incredibly focused and that is really a hard thing to do. That was the most challenging part of the whole process. The happiest and most fulfilling part of the whole thing was getting something great on camera. You look at it and go: “Wow!” Sometimes you have something in your mind and then you shoot it, and sometimes it meets your expectations and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s actually better than what you thought it would be. Usually, that’s because the actors brought something to the scene that you weren’t expecting. It’s a group effort. 

SMARTY: What are your top five books and top five movies of all time?

The books would have to be: 1) Tarbell Course in Magic by Harlan Tarbell 2) Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice 3) Born Standing Up: A Comics Life by Steve Martin 4) The Wizard of Oz 5) Our Magic by Maskelyne and Devant. The movies would be: 1) Groundhog Day 2) Citizen Kane 3) The Godfather 4) The Godfather II 5) Star Wars. I just got to watch The Godfather series this last year. It came out in 1972, and I was 12 and wasn’t allowed to watch that kind of movie. 

SMARTY: You’ve always been a philanthropist, and now you are going to donate all of the funds raised by the World Premiere and Limited Engagement run of “Billy Topit Master Magician” at Brenden Theaters to three charities close to your heart. 

I am so honored to be able to donate all of the funds to Variety, The Children’s Charity of Southern Nevada, (they have schools and take care of mentally and physically challenged kids, and I have been involved with them for at least 20 years), Las Vegas Shriner’s, (who are raising money for their transportation fund to transport the kids with severe burns and orthopedic problems for treatment from Vegas to the Shriner’s Hospitals in Los Angeles), and finally The Nevada SPCA that runs a no-kill animal shelter here in Las Vegas.

—Lance has settled into the fantastic home he built here in Las Vegas and said that since he retired, he’s become even more of a homebody. He’s never enjoyed traveling and would rather stay home with his TiVo and his animals. He laughingly told us that we’d see him at the World Premiere, smiling and getting his picture taken, and then: “Poof,” we’d never see him again. He loves the city of Las Vegas, and he loves his friends and animals. What more could a man ask for?!

Billy Topit Master Magician World Premiere
A Film by Lance Burton
Brenden Theater at The Palms
Sept. 24th, Red Carpet at 4pm, Premiere at 6pm.

Proceeds benefit:
Variety The Children's Charity, Shriners Hospitals for Children and the Nevada SPCA.

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