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Growing up he pronounced “Cagigal,” his last name, with the “ca” of CAT, the “ji” of JITNEY and “gal” like the “gull” in GULLET, but it wasn’t until he was 21 that Christian realized that Cagigal rhymed with “magical.”

By that time, he had been doing magic for 10 years. 

Christian Cagigal had been doing tricks at home since grade school, and by high school, he was doing impromptu performances for friends between classes or at lunch break.

He loved magic and decided to go all in.

And while it was not an easy journey, Cagigal went on to succeed as a magician and performer in San Francisco and New York. By all rights, he should be enjoying the fruits of his labors, but in the past six months he has to learn the hardest magic trick he has ever attempted: how to earn a living as a magician when the world has closed down.

***

Growing up in Daly City, a first generation American with parents from El Salvador and Spain, it wasn’t obvious that Cagigal would be a performer. He describes himself as “shy and scared” as a boy, but as scared as he was of being the center of attention, he was drawn to showing off his skill, tricks that he practiced over and over until they became second nature. It was something that “I knew I had a knack for,” he says. “I could see that immediately. … I am not terrible at this. I can do this.”

Two things spurred him to go all in on magic. First was the magic store called House of Magic on Chestnut Street at Fillmore ion San Francisco. Once he heard of the store, he begged his parents to take him there and, when they did, he was dumbfounded with the accumulated delights he discovered.

“The place smelled of latex vomit and rubber Halloween gag,” he said. “I spend many a Saturday afternoon in that shop, eventually buying one trick or book, then practicing the hell out of it for the next few weeks.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Christian Gagigal would lead participants on a ghost-story filled tour of Lower Pacific Heights in San Francisco. This month, he’s telling ghost stories online. (Photo courtesy of Audrey Penven)

The second was discovering, through TV, the late, great Harry Anderson — who had graduated from street magician to playing the character Judge Harry T. Stone on the 1984-1992 series “Night Court.” 

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Anderson performed for tourists and passersby in San Francisco’s Union Square. Anderson mixed his magic with con artistry and engaging narratives. It was a different type of performance than the sort with a magician in a tuxedo pulling a rabbit from his hat. Anderson’s style of magic was a running narrative, comedic storytelling, something that Cagigal was immediately attracted to. 

Cagigal got into acting in high school to help his performance as a magician and for a while, acting was a primary focus, but there came a time when he felt his persona as an actor — a “short, quirky, funny actor” — didn’t square with the type of magic he wanted to do and he put acting aside for the world of magic. 

He doesn’t have a name of the type of magic he practices. He is drawn to storytelling, and his magic shows have a narrative line. They are “weirder and a little darker, a little creepier,” he says. In his virtual performance space, he creates a spooky atmosphere of curios and bones and evil dolls mixed with the mystery of a gaslit Victorian parlor. He wears a dark vest and sitting in the shadows he looks like a cross between a poker player and an undertaker.

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The coronavirus rose to consciousness when he was performing in New York, as he does for a dozen weeks a year. Somewhere off of the coast of San Francisco there was a cruise ship that had a number of cases of COVID-19. He pictured it circling off the coast and ready to make port in the Bay Area. 

He decided he needed to get home to take care of some business. He told his show booker, “Look, I’m flying home. I’m just going to go home, take care of taxes. I’m going to fly right back here. I’m going to be back here next week if you want to book me.” That was in early March. He hasn’t been back to New York since. 

The virus put the complete kibosh on his income.

For several years, he owned and ran the longtime San Francisco Ghost Hunt, a small business taking tourists on a creepy ghost walk in the Lower Pacific Heights section of the city. Even in February, he noticed the bookings were drying up, and by March, all he was doing was processing refunds. In-person magic shows were canceled. 

He had the foresight to apply for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money for the Ghost Hunt, and that gave him a little grubstake and some time to look for options.

The San Francisco magic community is small, but in the words of Brad Barton, the Reality Thief, a well-known local magician, it is “a great city for magicians. The community out here is the best I’ve ever witnessed. It’’s so supportive.”

Cagigal got some of that support. He saw what some other magicians had learned about Zoom and started to experiment with taking his magic onto a new platform.

Thus was born “Sortilegios,” a Spanish word that invokes spells, charms and fortune-telling, and which is the name of the virtual magic show that Cagigal is presenting online on Thursday nights in October. 

Magician Christian Cagigal creates a spooky atmosphere at his virtual “Sortilegio” magic shows with his collection of curios like bones and “evil dolls.” (Photo courtesy of Julie Michelle)

At first, there were many questions about magic on Zoom. Could such a show be entertaining? Would the magic seem artificial? Cagigal relied on volunteers to make an in-person show personal and to involve the audience in the performance; how would you do that online?

But there were some advantages to Zoom, too. For a storyteller like Cagigal, there was an opportunity to reach into the homes of the audience and speak to them almost one on one. And by using an overhead camera he could do the sort of close-up magic that he loved, which got lost on a big stage. 

There were also some practical benefits. Cagigal could reach an audience all over the country. He didn’t have to pack up his show and travel to a new venue. He could perform from his own living room whenever he wanted.

Cagigal decided to give it a try and found that Zoom was not a lesser, substitute medium with more limitations than a theater performance. Rather, it was a different medium, which has its own limitations but was robust and fully viable on its own, not just a temporary fill-in for live theater.

He could involve the audience in his shows. He could choose volunteers just like in the live performance. In fact, there was a surprising immediacy to their reactions. And because he could mute microphones, there was less of a spillover if there were a distracted member of the audience.

Poster art that Brad Barton, Reality Thief, uses regularly to advertise his shows. (Image courtesy of Brad Barton, Reality Thief, Facebook page)

San Francisco is a good place for online magic. Barton says that the Bay Area has “taken to this quicker than most other cities and areas because of the tech.” Barton said he had been something of a Luddite before COVID-19, “but now I’m really putting the effort into learning technology.”

Cagigal expects that he will continue performing in virtual space after the pandemic ends. He’ll want to do live magic as well – he loves the energy of a live audience – but he has only begun the journey to fully explore what he can do online. 

The Ghost Hunt has started up in the virtual world as well. On Friday and Saturday nights, Cagigal presents deeply researched stories of San Francisco legends and places to an audience of the ghost-curious. 

While it is early to tell how successful the Ghost Hunt will be online, with Halloween approaching, he is optimistic. “There’s an audience looking for ghost tours in every city,” Cagigal said. “They are of all genders, of all races, of all ages. Ghosts and the paranormal, whether you believe or don’t believe, are loved by everybody.” 

COVID has been rough on creatives, Barton says. “I applaud anybody in the arts who has been hit by this and hasn’t given up and gone and gotten a day job.” 

He has great respect for what Cagigal has been doing. Cagigal has “a generous spirit, not only as a colleague and as a friend, but as an artist.”

And Cagigal has been “really good at constantly reinventing himself.” His virtual magic is “very dramatic, very dramatic storytelling. But with this taste of the dark side.” 

* “Sortilegios: The Magic of Christian Cagigal” virtual magic shows take place at 7 p.m. on Thursdays in October. Tickets are $25. For more information on Cagigal, click here. For tickets, click here.

* “San Francisco Ghost Hunt Online: Fireside Stories” take place at 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays in October. Tickets are $25. For information and tickets, click here.


* Joe Dworetzky is a second-career journalist interning at the Bay City News Foundation and Local News Matters after a 35-year career as a lawyer in Philadelphia. He can be reached at joe.dworetzky@baycitynews.com.