Cliff Gustafson's minivan says "Alki Communications" on its side, but it doesn't take long to figure out that this vehicle doesn't have much to do with a traditional business. The 71-year-old magician sitting in the driver's seat is wearing a tuxedo, complete with bow tie and cummerbund, and his fly is conspicuously open. Moreover, the van's dashboard is piled with miscellaneous papers and numerous decks of cards.
At Thrashers Pub & Broiler in Bothell, Cliff loads the tricks of the trade into his tuxedo pockets, zips his fly, then marches purposefully toward the front door. Thrashers is a sprawling establishment with an interior almost entirely covered with large promotional banners. Macro beer is spoken here, and the television sets are tuned to sports. Behind the bar, an array of pull-tabs adds to the aesthetic.
At 5 p.m., the place is sparsely populated. A handful of men sitting at a booth are wearing the telltale uniforms of road workers: bright orange T-shirts with reflective neon strips. A man sitting at the bar wears a shirt emblazoned with the name of his employer, Emerald City Chimney Sweeps. Another man wears clothing with a Parker Paint logo prominently displayed.
Cliff wastes no time getting to work, approaching a jolly woman at the bar named Cami. He places a penny in her hand, then pulls out a pen, presses it on top of the penny, and says, "This pen rates women; everyone starts as a one." When he lifts the pen, the penny has somehow become a dime. Cami, now a perfect 10, is equal parts confused and flattered.
Subsequently, the magician's first card trick begins with no cards at all. He simply holds his hands out, palms up, and asks Cami to pick a card and look at it. She plays along and pretends to take a card. After looking at it, she puts it back into the imaginary deck. Cliff then pulls a real deck from his pocket and slowly fans the cards out until the woman's mentally chosen card appears face up. "Wow," she says, "you should be in Vegas or something. The magicians I saw there weren't nearly as good as this!"
Later that evening, Cliff is in Lake City at the Rimrock Steakhouse's lounge, a dimly lit bar called the Stirrup Room. At this hour, nearly everyone in the bar knows Cliff—except for the new bartender. Since there's not too much going on, Cliff quickly gets her attention. After a few card tricks, she's ready for the old card-on-the-ceiling trick. This is the trick that made Cliff's reputation around town; there are plenty of bars and restaurants in the area with playing cards stuck on their ceilings, the name of an amazed patron written on the face of each one.
The new bartender is still trying to figure out how he did it when Cliff moves over to a table of four men casually drinking beer. Three of them are familiar with his tricks but still enjoy watching Cliff do his thing. The fourth is left scratching his head, leading to the following exchange: "He's good. He's really good," says the first onlooker.
"Yeah, but I bet he can't make my child support disappear!" replies his companion.
Over the years, Cliff has found that men, especially if they're with women, aren't always excited about getting fooled. A few miles south, at Teddy's in Roosevelt, the guys smoking cigarettes on the back porch have no such concerns: It's boys' night out for them. The empty pitchers on the table hint that they'll be easily entertained.
Cliff starts with the first trick he ever learned, waving a silk scarf and then using one hand to tuck it into the other. When he opens his hand, the scarf is gone. He then moves on to the "solid through a solid" trick, which starts simply with three plastic cups and three one-dollar bills that have been wadded up into tight balls. Cliff quickly moves the cups on top of the bills and vice versa, and each time he stacks the cups it appears that the dollars have somehow moved through the cups. By the time Cliff finishes, there are astonished high-fives all around.
"There are some tricks you can do only once," says Cliff, departing Teddy's. "Magic you can do over and over."
After leaving home in Lynden at the age of 12, Cliff worked at a number of farms north of Bellingham until he was 17, at which point he joined the Air Force. He served four years, including a stint in Korea, but didn't like all the rules and eventually was discharged.
While in the military, Cliff got married, and his wife gave birth to the first of their five children. For the next 25 years, he raised kids and installed wiring in commercial buildings. He got divorced, married again briefly, and for the next 10 years continued to raise his kids and work in construction, retiring from the trade in 1992. He eventually lost everything due to what he calls "untimely investments," and found himself faced with the prospect of finding a new career in his mid-50s. While living out of his car and contemplating what to do, he had a conversation with God that led him to magic.
"God gave me a great talent," he says, "and my job is to use it in the right way."
Cliff's professional magic career began modestly in Seattle in 1993, at a bar called the Lion's Lair (now St. Andrew's) on Aurora Avenue. His idea was to work strictly for tips on Monday, the slowest night of the week, and prove to the owner that he could increase business. It worked. Pretty soon, Cliff had similar arrangements at a number of places and was getting paid for each weekly show, plus tips.
Over the past 15 years, Cliff has performed more than 3,000 magic shows in bars and restaurants throughout the region. In Seattle, he's appeared at the Rimrock for years, and he now also holds down steady gigs at Al's Tavern in Wallingford and the Comet and Twilight Exit on Capitol Hill.
At his high point during the '90s, Cliff was performing 40 to 60 shows per month at places like the Bat Rack in Lynnwood, the Sports Page in Auburn, El Tapatio in Skyway, Andy's in Kent, Shoot the Breeze in Renton, the Keg in Everett, and the Yardarm in Des Moines, among others. But Cliff's brand of magic isn't limited to just bars and restaurants. He's also worked birthday parties and corporate events, and has even done two wakes.
Cliff is an old-school magician, more impressed with classic sleight of hand than with television productions that have no human element, no social interaction. "Harry Blackstone Jr. had style," he says. "He did magic with everyday items. He didn't need TV or big props. His magic was believable." A magician like David Blaine gets a much harsher evaluation. "I've known amateurs better than him," Cliff says dismissively.
The Twilight Exit, like many of the bars Cliff enters, is nearly empty at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday. Most of the patrons are out back smoking, which is where Cliff encounters a crowd that couldn't be more different than the workaday regulars in Bothell.
Because of his tuxedo, Cliff is almost always the best-dressed man in the room. Maybe that's why the customers at the Twilight Exit seem so enamored with him. The tuxedo is one part professionalism and one part entertainment, and the smiles that greet him signal that most folks appreciate the effort.
Cliff first performed at the Twilight Exit during a private birthday party. Then one night, after performing elsewhere, he stopped by again—and the bar patrons went wild. Soon he had another regular paying gig. "It's an interesting crowd," he says. "Executives all the way to the subculture people—I love 'em."
The following night, Cliff is at an Italian joint called Vince's. Two months ago, he suffered a minor heart attack (the second in his lifetime; the first occurred in 1993) after performing at the Renton restaurant. Afterward, instead of going to the hospital, he drove home to Tacoma, but not before stopping at JJ's Pub & Grub to see a musician friend who was performing. After all, he'd promised he'd be there.
The next day, Cliff was anointed by a minister. "Normally when I get anointed, I start feeling better right away," he explains. Since then, he's had some blood work done and his chest X-rayed.
Back at Vince's, while he's performing for a table of four, an amazed woman named Tammy says, "I'm way impressed." She then asks, "What are you doing in Renton?"
It's a fair question, but one that might best be answered by looking at how Cliff Gustafson goes about his business. Cliff says that the words "You just made my day" are a common refrain from the people he performs for. "I don't know how many times I've heard that over the years," he says. "I take that stress away from people, give them a chance to laugh for at least that little bit."
His greatest trick has finally been revealed.