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Ryan Johnson, Published April 03 2014

Working his magic: Fargo illusionist caught ‘bug’ from Harry Houdini biography 30 years ago

FARGO - Thad Ellsworth caught the magic “bug” in 1983, when his third-grade teacher gave the class a reading assignment on Harry Houdini.

The Bismarck native asked his mom for a magic set that Christmas, and a family friend connected him with Bill Sorenson, a former Bismarck mayor and performing magician who let Ellsworth help backstage and master his first tricks.

More than 30 years later, Ellsworth remains just as hooked on the art of illusion – and he’s found a way to turn his assortment of tricks, props and a white rabbit assistant named Hooper into a learning experience for the children in his audience.

“If you are able to use magic to teach them a principle or something, they’re more likely to remember,” he said.

A new direction

After getting an education from North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, Ellsworth moved to Fargo about a decade ago and now works as a computer programmer for Blue Cross Blue Shield.

It’s a full-time job, but the 40-year-old said he puts just as much effort into his magician gigs, which require plenty of practice and learning new tricks.

For years, his main focus was landing the corporate events and business parties that were profitable and could give him a large audience at shows across the region.

But he shifted gears about four years ago, around the same time his son was born, when a local school called to ask if he could put together a program encouraging kids to read.

“I found out I really love performing for these kids because they actually make you feel like a rock star,” he said. “You go in there, and they scream for you.”

Ellsworth was invited back to the school the next year, creating a second reading program to keep the kids entertained, and he knew he was onto something.

He has since bought the North Dakota rights for two educational magic programs, one focused on issues of bullying and another geared toward younger children to teach them about safety, strangers and what to do if they need help, and has gone into schools and daycares around the region to offer the fun lessons that he said kids enjoy while learning.

He also wrote a book, “I Can Do Magic,” which aims to easily teach young would-be magicians enough tricks to get started.

Ellsworth keeps busy with plenty of gigs through his companies, Beyond Reality Magic and Fargo Birthday Party Magic, often to perform at birthday parties, school carnivals and corporate gatherings.

All shows are designed to have something for children and adults, he said. While he’s not a professional comedian, his tricks are full of jokes and light humor to keep everyone engaged.

Most of Ellsworth’s business these days comes from birthday parties. He currently offers three levels of birthday programs, with a 30-minute performance running about $110 and a 60-minute gold package for $189.

He also will soon start to offer a birthday “magic camp” that will give kids a chance to learn some of his tricks.

Ellsworth said he’s able to make some profit from his performances, though most of the money is spent on upgrading his inventory and purchasing new tricks. The audience might not always realize it, but he said magic is an expensive activity – a “head chopper,” for example, costs $1,000 to $4,000, while a magic bucket could run $700 or more.

But the self-described quiet guy who only loses his stage fright if he’s performing magic for a crowd and sharing his love for the craft said he has no plans to cut back. Even after 30 years, Ellsworth said he’d like to eventually retire and focus on magic full time, and said he’s still interested because of the reaction he can get out of kids and the people who love what he does.

“I’m making them happy, and that makes me feel good that I made them happy,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587