How are you doing, Magic Boy? I often began my morning or end of night check in with this salutation. It was about a year or so ago during a rough patch in Brian’s life. A mutual friend suggested I talk to him as he liked me and perhaps I could lift his spirits some. I did both I like to think.
Yesterday he died, suddenly, unexpectedly, the ultimate disappearing act for this masterful magician. Today the online eulogies, memories, tributes, near and far in time and place and connection abound. We covet the dead, or at least the great ones. We want to touch the shiny fabric of that coffin and say we were a part of that greatness, no matter how big or small or close or far. It is the silence of the service performed to miserly memories of mourners that dictates a life not well lived. Not the case with Brian. He was mentor, friend, lover to more than a few in his time. His art was magic and magical was his art. I called him friend and here is but my tiny presence in his large life so very well lived.
I saw Brian for the first time at a house concert at Andy’s in 2005. I was with my two small boys at the time. I have no idea what I was doing there as I was not one to go to many of Andy and Renee’s gigs back then, being secluded in my motherhood and motherly duties of PTA and football. But for the special occasions I did venture out. Brian and his mentalist partner Sisuephan did their act. I remember nothing of it other than the fire-breathing wallet. I talked to Brian a bit afterwards asking him to do the wallet for my boys again and he said, “I hate kids”. I was taken aback and thought what a jerk! Took me awhile to see he never meant that at all. He especially showed me in June of 2015 when he played my son’s Grad night for North High for a fraction of his worth as a performer as a favor to me. The kids loved it and he must have, too, as he stayed way past the allotted time. But no matter what magic he did, it was always the wallet that never failed to amaze me. Over the years we would run into Brian at a restaurant gig of Andy’s occasionally and I never failed to go over to him and say, do the wallet, please? Usually my boys were with me and they would just love it.
Fast forward to late December 2014. I had come to know Brian a bit better since now attending a lot of Andy and Renee gigs on my own in my re-entry to the musical world I loved so much pre-parenthood. Enough that I could ask for a night at the Magic Castle for my friend Val and I. Brian was playing the ‘big room’ as I call it as I could not keep all those rooms straight. It meant to me he was the star and the show was all him. We stopped at quite a few of the Magic Castle bars that night before the show began, sampling Prosecco along the way. The venue was really crowded and we had standing room only against the wall when a person in the very first row got up for some reason and I took the seat while Val stayed at the wall. A woman next to me started talking to me and I have no idea what we talked about but I started talking and she couldn’t stop laughing at what I was saying and then a few more joined in. Brian comes out, the show sort of starts but this lady next to me is still talking to me and laughing and I am answering her but trying not to. I know I am in trouble cause Brian knew me by now from various events we were at together and told me I had better behave at the show. I promised, sort of. Next thing I know, Brian stops the show and says, “Let me know when you are finished with your show, Maddie and I’ll do mine” and looks right at me. I was amused and horrified at the same time and needless to say I shut up for the rest of the show. Afterwards we met Brian in the bar for a drink and I just kept apologizing like crazy. I said, what can I do to make it up to you? Well, he said, there is a magician’s code that when you ruin his act you have to buy him a drink whenever you see him for the rest of his life!! Done, I said, done, just forgive me! He laughed and ordered a Pinot Noir with a glass of ice on the side. A short time later, we were at the first Title Tracker show in Silverlake and Brian was there. I went right over and asked what are you drinking? I brought him his Pinot Noir- a few of them and we had a good laugh over it. It got to be that no matter where we were the minute I saw him I would say, “I know I know I’m going to get your drink.” And I did every time. Yesterday we shared a good laugh over this, as I said to Lorna and Andy, we should go get a bottle of Pinot Noir tonight and toast Brian and they both said, why, his favorite wine was Merlot. No, not possible I said. I have been buying him drinks at restaurants and clubs for three years now and he ALWAYS ordered Pinot. That’s cause it was more expensive and you were paying, Lorna said. Well played, Brian!!
For the dinners he attended at my house he usually got a bottle and I got my magic wallet fire every time and often a great impromptu magic show for the dinner guests. This fire breathing Aries LOVED that wallet. I never tired of seeing it and to me it was brand new each and every time he pulled it out. I’ll never forget that night in Silverlake sitting next to him and having him do these magic tricks that would send me screaming during the Title Tracker concert. The one with the spider crossing my hand under the cellphone in particular made me jump out of my chair. I think he reveled in the idea of me ruining someone else’s show with my screeches.
Time marched on and we became what I like to think of as good friends. We were age appropriate, Brian and I. We talked a lot over these past three years about life and love and relationships and mostly aging in all those things. He hit a rough patch a little while back in his personal life and I would text or call every morning to check on him and then at night to see how his day went. I was honored to be invited to the Los Angeles premiere of the documentary done on his life and that of three other magicians at the Vista Movie theater. It was a kick to sit with him and watch his reaction to himself on the big screen. What a magical night that was as we then got to go to the Castle see him and his longtime partner Sisuepahn perform.
I brought friends to the Castle over the past several years a few times. He was always gracious and always made room for us. I never ever wanted to go there though unless he was playing the big room and doing his full act. I did go once when he was in the WC Fields Bar downstairs, but it wasn’t the same for me. That night I took my friends Case and Chuck. They went off to see the shows in the main parlors but I preferred to just stay down there with Brian. We ate and drank in between his time at the bar. Yes, of course, the Pinot Noir was on me. When Brian went back behind the bar, I entertained myself by clearing glasses from the tables. The Castle for some weird reason always felt so familiar and home like to me. I used to think I had to have been there in some previous life. I didn’t go see too many other magicians. They bored me compared to Brian’s show. I preferred to just roam around taking pictures where I wasn’t supposed to like in the fun phone booth with the ghost or sitting by Irma the piano and watching her play herself.
I was supposed to go the Castle a few weeks ago. My sister was coming to town again. It was a wonder that Brian was even going to let us go since her less than stellar performance at a dinner at my house the year before, but he was so gracious. I called and said I wanted to go on maybe Monday the 25th of June. I asked if he was playing the big room that night. He said he wasn’t but he would come down anyway if he could because of surgery he was scheduled for on June 18. I said OK, but I’m not going unless you are there. What the heck is the surgery for, I asked. Heart, he said. What the hell? But he didn’t answer that text. The following week, I texted him and asked how the surgery went. He said it’s next Monday. I was confused and thought they just postponed the same thing. Well then are you coming to the house concert on Saturday, I asked. No, I can’t, I am so weak I can’t move, he said. What exactly are you having done? Triple bypass he said and a valve repair. What the fuck?? I went into my Brian “what you need, whenever you need it” mode. What time, where, do you have lift there, do you need anything? He said, no he’s fine. Sisuepahn is driving him to Torrance Memorial at 7:30am. OK I’ll call and come see you as soon as I can and left it at that. Monday came and I thought about him all day. I asked Andy in the afternoon if he had heard anything. He got word the surgery went well. I knew my way around an ICU having spent three weeks there 11 years ago during my husband’s liver transplant. I also knew it was difficult getting in if you weren’t family but I also knew I could do it. But it was late and I was leaving for Palm Desert on Wednesday and knew how out of it he would be anyway. On Tuesday morning, I figured I’ll just call the ICU and see how he’s doing but the ICU nurse put me through. Hey, I just wanted to call to make sure you ain’t dead, I said. He said No, but I am in a lot of pain. I can’t really talk. OK, get better, love you. I’ll come see you soon. He didn’t and I didn’t. A call with a crack in her voice from Lorna at 4pm and I knew it before she got the words out of her mouth. For a week now I could not let go of the thought of where he would convalesce. My mind kept going over logical places. Would Sisuepahn take him in? Would Craig his manager/caretaker have a place for him? Should I offer my house if needed as I am close to the hospital and doctors? Where would his beloved dog go? These thoughts would go round and round but I never saw him in recovery anywhere. I kept thinking how strange that was that while I was fretting about where he would go another part of my brain would say it doesn’t matter at all it’s not relevant.
We got to let our proverbial aging hair down at times, but none so much as that night at Avenue A in early April of this year. I was on my way there when I got a text from Brian saying, where are you, I’m at Avenue A, come down. On my way, I said. We shared a few secrets that night. We would compare some notes on things that made us laugh sometimes and sometimes made us sad. We were age appropriate friends despite the everlasting search for the fountain of youth. We talked that night about a lot of things. He shared quite a few stories with me. At one point, I was about to respond to a text on my phone. He said, put that down, I can’t believe you are going to text during the most important part of my story! OK, OK. I said, but don’t think I am going to buy you food now for the rest of your life just because I interrupted a story of yours. Not the same as a magic show. He laughed. I put the phone down and listened. The conversation ended for good yesterday with Brian. It feels interrupted. The thing I wanted to talk about most with him next was the healing of the heart in all its manifestations, a subject near and dear to my heart right now. It will have to be one-sided now or perhaps this very last act of his speaks volumes to the subject at hand for me.
We don’t get to choose the impact people have on our lives or our connection to them or what they mean to us. I am a firm believer that all sorts of people come into your life for all sorts of things. Impact or connection is not measured in time. It’s measured in space. It’s measured in what occupies the space you share in the time you share it. This was just my own little time and shared space with Brian Gillis, the best magician ever and Johnny Carson’s and my favorite one, too!