Merriam-Webster defines an illusionist as “a sleight-of-hand performer or a magician.” To call Criss Angel this is an enormous understatement, given the feats he’s accomplished dating back to the first television appearance he made in 1994. Over time, the man born Christopher Sarantakos has spent 24 hours shackled underwater in a phone booth-sized torture cell, walked up the side of the Luxor Hotel and cut himself in half in full view of an audience. Along the way, he’s created a number of live performance shows, on television and on stages around the country. While he’s currently been performing his Mindfreak show at Planet Hollywood in his current home base of Las Vegas, the Elmont native is coming home to perform a Broadway residency gig of Criss Angel RAW-The Mindfreak Unplugged at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience he promises, particularly when it comes to the levitation demonstration he’s been working on for two decades.
“You’re going to see a show with incredible, mind-blowing demonstrations that are done on television. I’m going to perform many of them live for the very first time, including the world premiere, on Broadway, of my levitation,” he explained. “This show here on Broadway is an evening with Criss Angel and some of my different personas. But kind of unplugged and stripped down raw and the magic happens in the audience. The audience is on stage. It’s a very intimate evening as if I was hanging out in your living room performing stuff that I’ve done on television with you kind of getting to know me with the stories behind the illusions. There is not a bad seat in the house. I get asked if I can levitate or fly and folks want to see it done. And when I do it, it’s literally inches away from people and it’s me, levitating and flying and picking somebody up and flying with them. It’s pretty nuts. It’s fully bright light on the stage. Magicians don’t even understand how I do it. I worked almost 20 years on this demonstration so I’m really proud of it.”
Not bad for a kid whose first taste of magic came at the tender age of 6, when his Aunt Stella showed him a card trick. After begging her to teach it to him, he drove everyone around him crazy performing it. Inspired during an era when the late Doug Henning was bringing magic to the pop culture masses, by the time Angel was 13, he was riding his bike to the nearby Wine Gallery on Fridays and Saturdays to perform close-up magic. It’s one of many fond memories he has of growing up on Long Island and learning the art of illusion.
“Just off the top of my head, I used to do 10 to 15 private parties a weekend—birthday parties, Sweet 16s, bar mitzvahs, corporate and school events,” Angel recalled. “I used to perform anywhere that I could get anybody to watch me. I didn’t care about money—I just wanted to perform, listen to the audience and hone my craft.”
Passion for magic and a relentless work ethic are what have driven Angel all these years and not only served to make him and his peer David Blaine almost singlehandedly responsible for the modern-day resurgence of magic, but have earned Angel accolades like being recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Brotherhood of Magicians. Angel is only the sixth person to be given this honor in the 100-year history of the award and the only commercial magician, aside from Siegfried and Roy, to earn this major accolade. Voted on by 15 different people on the Brotherhood’s board, a unanimous vote is needed in order for someone to be named to these ranks. It’s a distinction Angel doesn’t take lightly.
“The Lifetime Achievement Award given by the Brotherhood of Magicians is like the Oscar. There is nothing like that. So to get that and to be the youngest person to get it and only the sixth person in the nearly 100-year history, and the only person performing today—and I’m talking about a lot of magicians you know that never got this honor—it just blows my mind,” he said. “So I’m very humbled and grateful. I take it very seriously and I think that’s why I work harder than I used to, to remain one of the most relevant magicians in the world with the most incredible experience. That’s what I try to deliver and that’s why we do the numbers that we do, both in Vegas and on tour. Because people trust the name and the brand and they know that they’re going to get incredible stuff. They’re not going to get me onstage linking rings or reading a teleprompter like other magicians on TV used to do.”
Angel’s humility comes across in the tireless work he does in raising money to fight pediatric cancer. As the father of a son who is five months in remission from pediatric cancer after enduring three years of daily chemo, Angel has taken on the responsibility of raising money to fight this insidious disease.
“My life’s mission is to really use my success on behalf of these kids. Jerry Lewis handed me that torch personally to try to continue on working on behalf of children that don’t have a voice many a time and are worrying about life and death when they should be worrying about what toy they want to play with,” he said. “So I’m going to be having a big event coming up early next year. My goal will be to raise $5 million in one night for research and treatment of pediatric cancer.”
And not unlike his idol Harry Houdini, Angel has a pointed disdain for psychics claiming to connect with the spirit world. Whereas Houdini was known for exposing flim-flam artists who hosted séances, the late legend’s illusionist progeny is no less tolerant of any modern-day equivalent.
“It’s a bunch of garbage. I’ve offered the Long Island Medium a million dollars to do something that I couldn’t explain or reproduce and she avoids me like the plague because she’s a charlatan,” he said with disgust. “That’s what these [performers] do—they prey on people that have lost loved ones and are going through a really trying time in their life. She exploits and takes advantage of them, all in the name of fame and money.”
In the end, Angel’s ultimate message is not just about belief in magic, but in one’s own abilities.
“I love giving people the opportunity to escape and connect. The messaging is very positive and is giving people the ability to empower them to have them go out and conquer their dreams, whatever it is,” he said. “People watch me do the impossible and make it possible—so then becoming a doctor, a singer or a magician, or whatever it is that they want to do doesn’t seem too crazy.”
Criss Angel will be appearing from July 2 to 7 with Criss Angel RAW—The Mindfreak Unplugged at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway, 205 W. 46th St., NYC. For more information, visit www.ticketmaster.com or call 212-575-9200.
Stay tuned for Criss Angels’ favorite illusionists.