Doing magical things in a small town theater

August 30, 2017

Don’t blink as you drive along route 26 in southeastern Sussex County or you’ll miss the sign for Dickens Parlour Theatre in Millville, Delaware. The theater and related buildings are in the middle of an acre of tall pine trees in a town of 544 according to the last census (an increase of 118% over the previous count). Just a few miles west of the resort town of Bethany Beach, you can almost smell the tanning lotion of the thousands of sun-worshipping vacationers who flock to Lower Slower Delaware every year.

“Many magicians have 11-12-15 minutes of a show that they use in competitions,” says co-owner Rich Bloch. “I want someone who can do a 50-minute show that entertains the audience. Some magicians have a silent act because they play to international audiences where language could be a barrier. I need someone who speaks English and who relates to the audience. Given a great magician who doesn’t create a rapport vs. a not-quite-so-talented performer who has a great connection, I’ll go with the latter.”

Dickens is a year-round magic venue that opened on June 17, 2010 in an old converted home. To say the buildings are nondescript would be an understatement, at least, from the outside. Inside is a different story. The front building holds a parlour where guests gather before and after a show for a meet and greet with the talent and see a little close-up magic. Filled with Victorian decorative items and penny-arcade machines, it’s also where Jon Stetson holds his Ladies Only Psychic Party.

Within the parlour are some fascinating decorative items. Rich found the huge sparkly chandelier in an antiques store in Stuart, Florida. It was made in Europe somewhere in the 1940s and has about 20,000 dime-sized pieces of Murano glass. Each piece had a small hole drilled in it and a piece of wire threaded through the hole that attaches it to the frame.

The six clocks were collected by the Blochs over a 30-year period from shops and collectors in the States and Europe. They were made in Paris between 1830 and 1870 by Jean-Eugene Robert Houdin, a French magician and clockmaker (from whom Eric Weiss took the name Houdini). The clocks are known as “Mystery Clocks” because they have a glass face and are mounted on transparent glass supports. How do they keep time? Ah, that’s the mystery. To Bloch’s knowledge, his is the only collection of all six models.

Behind the parlour is the original home that’s now an intimate and comfortable 60-seat theater with lights, a curtain, entrances and exits, and a sliding bookcase door at the rear of the stage. Vintage magic posters and Victorian touches of Magic Castle décor provide the interesting ambiance. Backstage is “better than most Broadway theaters,” says Bloch. “There are two separate dressing rooms, one is green, with the usual mirrors and makeup table and lights, refrigerator, steam machine for clothes, and iron. They connect to our two-story dressing room facilities and a common living room that sit on top of a scene shop.” The stage is big enough for most illusions, but the primary focus is on more intimate tricks.

Bloch is a famed labor arbitrator by profession. When not arbitrating, he performed at the Magic Castle and traveled the world doing shows for corporations, associations, and cruise ship passengers. He’s also a trick inventor. His wife, Susan, is his assistant (Miss Direction) and a professor of constitutional law at the Georgetown University Law Center. They spend the two summer months and most weekends at Bethany Beach, commuting the three hours or so from their Washington, DC home.

Rich and Sue often thought: “Gee, it would be nice if we could do something that would bring audiences to us instead of us going to them. I wanted to have a closet and dressing room that was mine,” says Rich.

Then, voila! It happened. Bloch bought a piece of land to build medical offices on and while he and a contractor friend were tearing into the two-story home, he thought, “This is the place.” He bought seats from a high school on eBay and the Dickens Parlour Theatre became a reality. Serendipitously, a four-bedroom house on the property was being rented to a bunch of roofers and they patched up all the roofs.

The Blochs and the community know each other. There are four full-time and six-eight part time employees, all locals. When a function includes food, they use a local caterer. “There’s a certain synergism,” says Bloch. “Being small makes it a warm and welcoming environment. It’s a great place to see a presentation. We love it. Actors love it. There’s an intimacy with the audience that really can’t be gained other than being physically close. It’s a distinct advantage and we do attract performers who might not otherwise see that as an inviting thing to do. They like the small, charming town, where they can relax for a fun couple of days or however long the engagement is going to last.”

There are downsides. Because it’s a small theater, there’s a limit to the amount of money he can spend to bring in acts. Bloch says, “Like all small theaters, we depend on contributions and sustenance from devoted folks. We have to constantly fundraise.”

Shows are held nightly during the summer (sometimes two or three shows in an evening, by different magicians), generally to sold-out audiences, and Thursday-Sunday the rest of the year. Magicians are usually booked for Wednesday through Tuesday performances because many vacationers are visiting on a Friday to Friday, Saturday to Saturday, or a Sunday to Sunday basis. With this booking arrangement, they can see two different magicians during their week at the beach. During the ten-week summer season, magicians are also booked for a week in Bloch’s Magic at the Beach theater in nearby Ocean City, Maryland.

Dickens also has a matinee on rainy summer days. Bloch jokes, “This is a godsend for parents and grandparents and the tickets are only $500.” Jay Read, the theater’s assistant manager, is the resident magician for the matinees and birthday parties. Bloch advertises that shows are suitable for ages three and up.

Because community participation is so vital to the theater’s success during the other 40 weeks of the year, Dickens is home to full scale dramatic and musical theatrical performances by the Bethany Area Repertory Theater (BART) and charity functions. Bloch gives “scholarships to local high school students and provides the theater at no cost to terrific institutions who are doing massive fundraising and good work for people, more than we can. We work with Contractors for a Cause, raising hundreds of thousands to build homes for sick children and parents. We also give passes to help support organizations for silent auctions and raffles.”

Bloch’s theater gives magicians a venue with an audience that’s happy to break away from the sun (or rain), boardwalk strolling, and whines of, “I’m bored.” He also provides housing and most meals. It’s the only magic venue within miles. “I don’t think there’s anything like our model,” says Bloch, “one that has a really lovely theater followed by the meet and greet in the parlour. We hope they’ve had a good experience and, when they’re in the parlour, that’s where we’re making friends and they’ll come back often.”

About 70 percent of the performers are repeat. Winter months, when magicians play Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, are booked about four to six months ahead. For magicians who want to book into Dickens, Bloch usually relies on recommendations and word-of-mouth from his existing talent pool and the industry. He does look at demo tapes (DVDs) and has auditions, though.

Ran’D Shine, well-known on the college circuit, says, “Rich is known throughout the community,” came to watch a show. Afterwards, in the parlour during the meet and greet, Cheryl Dubois, theater manager, asked Ran’D if he’d like to do close-up and then, “she gave me a date,” says Ran’D, “and I’ve been a regular ever since.” He’s seen the theater’s growth and seen it change in terms of the caliber of magicians. “It’s a wonderful place to perform.”

Besides having a home where he can perform his comic magic show whenever he wants, Bloch says the greatest part of the theater is that almost nightly someone—both locals and tourists—says, “Thank you for bringing the theater here. “

The downside is that the Blochs don’t vacation. Of course, some would consider their time when he’s performing and she’s lecturing on a Crystal cruise ship sailing the Mediterranean a lovely getaway, but they ARE working.

Judy Colbert is a Maryland-based writer and author of 100 Things to Do in Baltimore Before You Die.