Smile Politely

Psychic Joker and Café Extraordinaire

Do you feel that the performance scene in downtown Champaign could use some more magic? If so, there’s a way you can help. Psychic Joker is a local entertainment company made up of spouses Lisa and Jason Cerezo and Jace Hoppes. Both Jason Cerezo and Hoppes are performing magicians, while Lisa Cerezo deals more with the marketing and conceptual side of things. The fledgling business specializes in magic — shows, workshops, merchandise, and more.

Café Extraordinaire is the name of the performance café that the company hopes to open in downtown Champaign. The café would offer performances (both magic and otherwise) on an always open stage, as well as traditional coffeehouse fare like coffee, appetizers, baked goods, etc. The café will open whenever the financing is realized. Towards this end, Psychic Joker is attempting to crowd fund the concept as part of a larger fundraising campaign.

Why does Psychic Joker feel that downtown Champaign needs Café Extraordinaire? “I was getting tired of the fact that there’s no real place for magicians to perform in the area,” Hoppes said when I spoke to the three Psychic Joker partners recently.

Café Extraordinaire

Jason Cerezo mentioned that while Champaign-Urbana can be a good place for magicians with a big draw to perform, stage magicians who are just getting started can have trouble finding a venue:

I grew up in Miami where you have performing artists on almost every corner. And there’s no lack of an arts community in Champaign, but that community is often so hardcore tied to the university. I’m active in the Champaign-Urbana Theater Company, and I’ve done several things at Parkland in the past. But the one thing that really hits me is that the only solid performance stage around here that’s open to the public and not affiliated with the university is the Virginia, and getting into the Virginia as a small performer is very cost-prohibitive. If you happen to be a musician you can play at a bar, but for a small stage performer there are not a lot of options.

Café Extraordinaire would seat smaller audiences of about 60 to 90 people, numbers Lisa Cerezo feels would help make their shows better than having the same amount of people seated in a cavernous, nearly empty space: “Sixty people in the audience at our place will be almost full — then you’ve got a higher energy level. The performers are more excited and the audience is more excited.”

The stage would be open to pretty much any kind of performance, not exclusively magic: “People can come in and expect to see a one-act play, or a magic act, or even a singer/songwriter with a guitar,” Jason Cerezo said.

“We’ll have full lighting, full sound; it’ll be a real theater. We’re going to deck the whole thing out — just on a smaller scale,” Hoppes added.

Lisa Cerezo, Jace Hoppes, and Jason CerezoThe idea is that the entertainment at Café Extraordinaire would be nonstop. “The thing we want to push is that the stage is always open. If you come in at 1:00 in the afternoon and you’ve got a guitar in your hand, and there’s no one else on the stage, hop on up. You may only have half a dozen to a dozen people that will hear you, but it’s your stage,” Jason Cerezo said.

He also mentioned that even the baristas might be doing simple magic tricks between serving lattes.

Psychic Joker is eager to get the café off the ground and say they’ve gotten good feedback. “We’ve spoken with a lot of magicians — famous magicians — who have said ‘This really reminds us of the Magic Castle in California,'” Hoppes said.

The only thing stopping them is — you guessed it — money. The group is trying to raise $50,000 through crowd funding. If this happens, it could lead to a more traditional business loan to continue development. Also, they are trying to get funding through Pepsi, who sometimes funds community and arts projects that get enough popular support.

As of yet, Psychic Joker has not signed a lease for the proposed café and are looking at several addresses in downtown Champaign. The group confirmed that they’ve heard plenty of jokes about pulling the money out of a hat and so forth.


The plan is to give Café Extraordinaire a steampunk decor. Steampunk involves using motifs and images that were futuristic in the Victorian era — kind of a Jules Verne aesthetic. Jason Cerezo described it this way: “Captain Nemo was steampunk — think twentieth century technology with a nineteenth century aesthetic.”

I asked the group, why steampunk? Is this a style or movement generally associated with magic? Not necessarily, the group said; however, one inspiration was the 2006 film The Prestige, which is about dueling magicians and is set in England during the late 1800s. “That’s the time period that steampunk seems to hang around — the late 1800s, early 1900s,” Jason Cerezo said.

Another inspiration was technology. “We’re all technology buffs, also, so how do you put technology together with the late 1800s? Steampunk,” he added.

Psychic Joker

Jason Cerezo and Hoppes have actually worked together before, when Jason was the manager for a Radio Shack store and Hoppes was his employee (both confirmed that being a magician is not mandatory for Radio Shack employees). The two bonded during the workweeks through their shared enthusiasm for magic tricks and poker

Today, the trio is trying to make Psychic Joker their livelihood and leave mundane day jobs behind. “We’d like to get beyond the whole trading hours for dollars thing,” Lisa Cerezo said.

Among other things, Psychic Joker offers performance bookings and workshops. The group also organized a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at The Canopy Club last February.

The name “Psychic Joker” was taken from the name of a card trick, but to the Cerezos and Hoppes it means more: “Psychic Joker kind of fit for a lot of reasons,” Jason Cerezo explained, “There’s ‘psychic’ as in mentalism. ‘Joker’ is attributed to pranks, and magic is sometimes attributed to pranks. And of course the smoke test was whether anyone had bought the yet, and no one had. So the café, is just like, ‘Where would the Psychic Joker hang out?’ He’s a persona.”

Indeed, Jason Cerezo has even started writing a novel using the Psychic Joker persona as a time traveling character

A debt to Andy Dallas

The group told me that Champaign-Urbana has a thriving magic scene already, which they credit in large part to the influence of Andy Dallas of Dallas & Company. Psychic Joker’s hope is that Café Extraordinaire will further this scene by providing a performance outlet for the magicians who are already here.

Hoppes said, “Two of the world’s greatest card magicians live here in town. One of them works for Andy Dallas. We’ve got so much local talent, but when they’re stuck here, there’s no way for them to make a name for themselves. There’s nowhere for them to do it.”

Jason Cerezo feels that Dallas & Company provides the type of physical hub for the local magic community that is difficult to find even in larger metropolitan areas:

It’s hard to find a bricks and mortar magic store anymore. I remember when I was out in Portland, Oregon, visiting family, and I was looking to pick up some magic supplies. I didn’t travel with anything because I didn’t know what airport security would think of some of the things I would be carrying. So, I was looking for a magic store when I was out there. I looked in the yellow pages, and I looked online, but I couldn’t find one. So I started googling local musicians to ask them where they got their stuff.

They said, ‘Oh, we get it online.’ So, if they’ve got a show coming up and they need something they better order it two weeks in advance. Now, we have Dallas & Company here in Champaign that brings in people from all over, from Chicago even.

Andy used to be the president of the Society of American Magicians. He gets famous magicians from all over the country getting stuff from him by mail order. When you’ve got a name like that, it has a tendency to spill out into the community. People don’t exactly move here to be magicians; they become magicians because they’re here. And when time comes for them to spread their wings, hopefully we can help them.

The practical applications of Kaballah

Although it has nothing to do with Café Extraordinaire, through Psychic Joker, Hoppes offers workshops for teens on clarity of mind — this, in turn, is supposed to help them avoid risky behaviors like drug abuse. He is also trying to branch into teaching awareness techniques to law enforcement agencies:

I am trying to go to police departments and teach them about loss prevention, getting into soft interrogation techniques and things like that. Learning to be aware of your environment. Little things like that help you use every aspect of your mind that is possible. If you’re aware of your environment, you’re aware of things most other people aren’t. And that gives you an advantage. It has nothing to do with being psychic or anything like that; it has to do with being observant.

Moreover, Hoppes offers workshops on Egyptian Magic and Spirituality. Hoppes earned a bachelor’s in comparative religion and philosophy at Millikin University in Decatur, but was awarded a doctorate in Kaballah from an out-of-state school, l’Ordre Kabbalistique de la Rose-Croix, in France.

I asked him about the leap from helping teens avoid risky behaviors and peace officers catch shoplifters to the more esoteric realm of Egyptian Magic and Spirituality. He responded that the spiritual workshops are more practical than they might sound:

It’s just something I’ve been studying since I was about seven. I’ve studied alchemy, Kaballah, tarot, astrology … my mom bought me my first tarot deck when I was about seven and I was doing readings by the time I was eight. It’s something I’ve kept up with most of my life, really.

When I teach that stuff, a lot of the stuff is the same as when I teach teens positive thinking and focus. A lot of it is the exact same concept — just using different words. Most of the esoteric, magic side of things is learning how to use your brain more effectively.

Don’t try this at home

Hoppes is also a fire-breather. He explained:

I started fire-breathing probably six or seven years ago. I do not recommend anyone try it without training — I want to make that very, very clear — because you’re putting poisons in your mouth. I started out doing it at campfires, parties, mostly things like that. And over the last couple of years I’ve performed a few shows, where I’ve done fire-breathing as part of a major performance, most notably over at Mike ‘N Molly’s. Some of the girls in the show were behind the fence of the beer garden and they were watching the tops of my fireballs over the top of the fence. When you think about it, the fence is significantly taller than they are, and with their angle you’re getting really high. I started thinking about it and started doing a little research to see who held the current world record, and I thought ‘I can do that.’ So I’m going to.

He said that the current world height record for fire-breathing is 26’5″, which he wants to break himself, thereby setting a new Guinness World Record. Hoppes explained that to set a Guinness World Record, you have to either have your deed witnessed by an official Guinness representative (who you pay to bring there) or have it verified by credible local media (I’m not sure if Smile Politely would qualify here).

Since the travel costs and other expenses of bringing a Guinness representative to East Central Illinois would be in the thousands, Hoppes said, “We’re going to have all sorts of local media and Chicago media come in to verify it.” He hopes to make his attempt in August.

He said he is presently looking for a location for the event — some place indoors (wind is an issue), but with a high ceiling (obviously). Once a location is found, an additional step would be to get clearance from the fire marshal. “I’m testing different fuels,” Hoppes said. “Right now the highest I’ve accomplished is about 24 feet. So I’m getting very close. I’m shooting for 30 feet.”

“Redefining Magic”

Psychic Joker’s slogan is “Redefining Magic.” I asked them what they mean by this. Lisa Cerezo replied, “To me, it means breaking the mold of the kids’ magician at parties. There are some stereotypes involved with magic, and people have a very limited idea of what magic is.”

Hoppes offered a philosophical answer:

Everything is magic. The simple act of reaching out and picking up silverware is magic. Everything I see, I see magic. And that’s how I want other people to be. If we can take that concept and get it out to the public, they’re going to have more fun, and they’re going to feel better about themselves anyway. We’re an entertainment company. We want people always to be entertained. And if you look at everything as magic, then you’re always entertained.

On the subject of performing magic in general, Jason Cerezo gave his thoughts on how different ages perceive magic tricks differently:

The important thing to remember is that kids see everything differently from how adults do. The biggest challenge to entertaining kids is that to them everything is always magical. With a two-year-old, everything is magical. If you turn on a light switch, to them it’s magical. That’s why very young kids are probably the most difficult age to entertain. If you make their card go to the top of the deck, that’s not magic; you’re a grown up; you can do anything. Kids in kindergarten through the fourth grade are at the point where they understand how the world works, so if you do a magic trick that’s separate from what they expect, then it’s magical. Kids aged 10–13 years are the most challenging to entertain because they don’t want to admit to their friends that they’ve been fooled.

Lisa Cerezo noted that magic shows can be frustrating to highly educated people in particular, since they often don’t realize that magic tricks are designed to fool the thought patterns of intelligent people. They get frustrated because they want to figure out how the tricks are performed, but can’t. She concluded, “It’s part of that concept of redefining magic — we’re trying to say to our audience ‘It’s OK to be fooled, and here’s why.'”

In Conclusion

Last February, I noticed a Yahoo Finance story reprinted from titled “Jobs Outlook: Careers Headed for the Trash Pile.” The author of the article makes predictions about what types of careers will recover after the recession, and what types won’t. In the section “Top Ten Dead or Dying Career Paths,” is listed “Stage Performers.”

The five-year decline for this career path, which includes magicians, jugglers, clowns and dancers, was a startling 61% — one of the steepest on this list. According to jobs researcher Laurence Shatkin, Ph.D., live performances have fallen out of fashion and have been almost entirely replaced with movies and home entertainment technologies.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a bad thing. As great as “movies and home entertainment technologies” can be, they can’t replace the basic human thrill of seeing other humans do cool stuff — live. In conclusion, while the big picture for stage performers may look grim, as far as the local one goes, Psychic Joker is definitely doing their own part to make the existing performance scene in C-U even stronger. I say Café Extraordinaire is worth supporting.

Photos by Sarah Chen.

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