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Year in review: 2004

A magical year for Cesar

The Colombian immigrant earns a world record and gains a No. 1 fan.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN
Published December 28, 2004


  photo
[Times photo: Lance A. Rothstein]
At Wal-Mart in New Port Richey this month, Cesar Domico performs during the last five minutes of his 52-hour show, setting a record for nonstop magic tricks and raising money for All Children's Hospital.
Cesar Domico performs a card trick in the early hours of his Wal-Mart record-breaking magic marathon earlier this month.   photo

photo
[Times photo: Janel Schroeder-Norton]
Cesar Domico and Saundra Amrhein were married at two weddings: a Catholic cermony in Pittsburgh and a civil ceremony, shown here, at Viva La Frida Cafe and Gallery in Tampa.
Related story:
Reappearing act
In Colombia he was somebody, and it almost got him killed. Now for his next trick . . . (April 4, 2004)

TAMPA - It has been a little more than a year since I first knocked on the door of Cesar Domico's apartment to do a story about him for the St. Petersburg Times.

A few minutes into our interview, he asked me, "You want to see magic?"

For his first trick, he made me take a card, and after he had shuffled and cut and sufficiently rearranged the deck, he pointed to another card and said, "This is your card?"

It wasn't, and I squirmed in my chair, embarrassed for him. I thought, "This poor guy. Here he is, a champion magician from Colombia, and in five minutes, I've managed to make a complete fool out of him."

I thought about lying, telling him it was my card.

Instead, I looked at him sadly and shook my head.

That was precisely the reaction Cesar was looking for.

"Oh, oh, oh," he said, frowning. He picked up the card, turned it over, paused dramatically while making one of his magic clicking sounds and flipped it back, revealing - you guessed it - my card!

I gasped, and Cesar smiled smugly, his dark eyes twinkling.

"It's magic," he said.

I'd hear that phrase many more times in the days to come. It was Cesar's simple explanation to the inevitable question, "How do you do that?"

The Times ran a story about Cesar's life in April, about his career as a magician in Colombia and his escape from that country after guerrillas kidnapped and threatened to kill him.

At the time the story was published he was working at Wal-Mart in New Port Richey as a greeter. He had also begun to do birthday parties for Spanish-speaking families.

But the real test came when he did parties for English-speaking families. He dressed in his black tuxedo and arrived, nervous, with his suitcase full of magic. The group roared at his tricks, his rubber chicken routine. They thought his accent was part of the show.

Cesar came in third at a magic contest of about 12 magicians in Largo in the spring. He hired people to design a Web page, print brochures and list his name in Yellow Book.

The summer dragged on. Few called to hire him.

He lay awake at night, feeling lost, wondering what he was doing with his life.

In August, still at Wal-Mart, his manager let him work his shift in his tuxedo as a magician to promote the Back to School sales special. Kids and adults loved it.

Someone made the comment: "You're doing a magic marathon!"

An idea clicked in his head. He looked up the world record for nonstop magic. The record stood at 30 hours, set by a man in England. Cesar picked a far higher goal: 52 hours, one for each card in a deck. His store manager agreed to hold the marathon there during Wal-Mart's annual holiday festival.

By the start of the marathon on Wednesday, Dec. 8, he had assembled a team of supporters - witnesses, coordinators, nurses.

On his 15-minute breaks every eight hours, Cesar raced to the bathroom, consumed most of a chicken sandwich from Wendy's and reorganized his tricks. Twenty-four hours in, his throat raw, his appetite shutting down, he consumed only Gatorade and Red Bull.

By Thursday night, after he passed the 30-hour mark, he started hitting a wall. By 6 a.m. Friday, his eyes puffy, his face blotchy, he wanted to quit. The morning rush brought him back to life.

Nearing 52 hours, the crowd had swelled to about 100 people. Many were Hispanic. They counted down from 10, and as they hit zero, sounding kazoos and throwing confetti, Cesar exhaled deeply and made the sign of the cross.

His triumph was a current that rippled through a crowd filled with immigrants, who know the pain and humiliation of leaving lives behind and starting anew from scratch.

They cried with him, and then asked for his autograph. But first, he thanked three people: his store manager, his coordinator, and me - his wife.

Though I showed up to interview him over a year ago, I wasn't the Times reporter who eventually wrote the story in April. Kelley Benham wrote it. I gave the story to her to avoid a conflict of interest.

I had fallen in love with this man, so full of life and humor and sad wisdom. This is a guy who quotes the philosophy of Facundo Cabral, Argentine singer and poet, even as he's sitting in big, fuzzy Homer Simpson slippers.

We married at two weddings - a civil ceremony in Tampa in October for our friends and Cesar's family who flew in; the other at a Catholic ceremony in Pittsburgh with my family.

At the church Mass in Pittsburgh, the priest informed me and the rest of the guests during his sermon that Cesar had been entertaining him with card tricks behind the altar before I walked down the aisle.

At the reception, we were supposed to be visiting guests at each table, when I turned to find Cesar, cards in hand, surrounded by all my male cousins. He led a conga line that snaked through the hall, dragging people to the dance floor. And though many of my relatives couldn't understand his English, they declared me a lucky bride.

Since then, I've been learning the ways of a magician's wife. I come home to find sponge balls scattered around the living room. At 1 in the morning, Cesar will flick on the bedroom light and say, "Take a card, I just learned a new trick."

He has put swords through my neck - the only trick I absolutely insisted he explain - and asked me if I would mind his hiring a model so he could levitate her.

The other day I found a rubber chicken on the kitchen counter, next to the microwave.

"What's this?" I asked.

The chicken had a cut on its leg. Yellow goo oozed from the opening. He was retiring it, he said, bouncing the chicken into the trash.

But mostly, I've come to learn the answer to the persistent question, "How do you do that?"

Whether he's amazing me with sleight of hand or setting world records, Cesar's magic lies in his passion, his refusal to be beaten.

As a friend put it, Cesar is the best story I never wrote.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 813 226-3383 or amrhein@sptimes.com

To read our April 4 story about Cesar Domico, please click on www.sptimes.com/links

[Last modified December 28, 2004, 17:00:43]


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