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Performing Art
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Sep. 8, 2010 7 years ago

Animal instincts

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

Dorian Blake is used to working with exotic creatures.

From Wayne Newton to lions, giraffes and miniature horses, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall’s property master is no stranger to wild behavior.

In the off-season, Blake tours with 20 birds in a traveling magic act called “Tropical Splendor.”

Prior to launching his bird show, the magician and animal trainer used to work with all walks of animal life.
His old giraffe appeared in both “Ace Ventura” movies, and his monkey and miniature horses appeared in the ABC television series “Second Noah,” which was shot in the mid-1990s at Busch Gardens.

Blake’s first backstage gig at the Van Wezel was a 1992 David Copperfield show. The theater needed someone who was comfortable handling magician props, and Blake had friends in the local stagehands union.

“David’s props were mind-boggling in size and weight,” Blake says. “I was familiar with his work.”

Blake looks every bit like an enigmatic magician — full head of dark hair, requisite black clothing, goatee, affable personality and compelling storytelling skills. And, in case you’ve forgotten how devoted he is to his birds, he wears a beaded parrot necklace as a reminder.

He started “Tropical Splendor” five years ago as a way to make money during the Van Wezel’s slow summer season.

“These are my fine feathered family members,” Blake says, gesturing toward the two macaw parrots perched above two glittering palm trees on his “Tropical Splendor” set.

He introduces them as Jade and Fergie.

Although both birds are verbal, they remain mum throughout the course of the interview. According to Blake, it takes them awhile to get acclimated to new surroundings.

He asks Fergie to spin around and show off her tail and coaxes Jade into doing an eagle impersonation. Both birds perform, and Blake lovingly praises them.

“They have this mentality where they know what they want to do and they’re not afraid to dictate it to you,” he says.

Blake and his wife, Janice, got their start working the magic circuit in the 1970s as assistants to magicians Ken Griffin and Ben Johnson.

They had a simple, one-dove magic act that quickly grew to include one-dozen birds. When the doves started having babies, the Blakes’ tricks became more complex.

Around this same time, Siegfried & Roy had just hit the Las Vegas strip and usurped the traditional magic show with elaborate sets and large exotic animals. The first time Blake saw the duo’s famous Vegas act he was blown away by the lions, tigers and dancing girls.

“They actually sank the Titanic on stage,” Blake says. “I remember I was sitting in the producer’s booth, and I turned to my wife and I said, ‘We might as well burn our props because we’ll never be that good.’”

They bought a four-month-old lion shortly thereafter and performed with large animals until 1989.

His years of touring with magic shows and training animals have served him well as a prop master.

“The majority of shows come in here and they have everything they need,” Blake says, “but every so often someone will throw you a curveball and your imagination becomes your greatest asset.”

Take, for example, the time Blake and his crew were tasked with finding a puppet theater for actor Mandy Patinkin’s one-man show.

“I had to think like a kid,” he says. “So we located scrap lumber, fabric and swag curtains. It took us a couple hours, but we built a functional puppet theater.”

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