tampabay.com

a hand full of tricks

And a head for business. That's what one young man is putting into a new enterprise to inspire children.

By HELEN ANNE TRAVIS
Published September 10, 2006


BRANDON - Antwan Towner learned at a young age that life is shaped by a person's choices.

Towner's mother made choices that sometimes left her unable to care for her young son. He was shuffled among foster homes until age 5, when he was returned to her.

"I learned from my mother's choices not by looking at them as mistakes, but using them as learning tools," Towner, 24, said. "Her choices taught me to be more responsible with my own decisions in life."

His mom did the best she could raising Towner, and he recalls his childhood as a happy one. A game of tag with his brother and cousin could distract him from his mother's drinking, he said. When the power company turned the electricity off, the children still had their Uno cards.

"As a kid, you don't know that you're poor," Towner said. "You just know that you're different from other kids."

Towner, who recently moved to Brandon, is the founder of MIRACLE, Magicians Inspiring Radical Active Change for Life Excellence. The new nonprofit group seeks to drive home the principle of making positive choices in life.

He wants children to know that believing in a life without welfare is crucial to making that happen.

"MIRACLE will directly help teens and young adults by using inspirational messages that are tied into interactive magic presentations," Towner said.

Inspired by a shop owner

Antwan was 4 and living with a foster parent he remembers only as Miss Elsie. His dirty jeans had holes. His shirt was a hand-me-down. In a living room the size of a small bedroom, he watched on television as David Copperfield made a woman disappear.

He had found his path.

Growing up in northeast Portland, Ore., Towner spent his free time at a local magic shop, Callin Novelties.

There he met his greatest inspiration, a salesman named Jim Pace.

Pace, an established magician, took Towner under his wing.

"I had always told him that he should pursue magic because at the time there were no famous black magicians," Pace said. "The few that were out there did not have the charisma or natural good looks that Antwan has."

Pace was impressed with Towner's skill at card illusions. When Towner taught himself the long, elaborate card trick dubbed Sam the Bellhop, Pace was particularly wowed.

Towner had seen the trick performed on television. He recorded the program and taught himself the trick by rewinding the video and watching it repeatedly in slow motion.

"It is an incredibly difficult trick to perform even if someone were to teach it to you," Pace said.

Pace showed Towner new tricks, moving on only when the youngster mastered the previous one. Towner spent time at the library of a local middle school, trying to learn as much as he could to impress Pace.

There was one particular book, Now You See it, Now You Don't, that Towner had never seen before.

"In my mind that book was my big secret," he said. "But in reality everyone knew about it."

The book had everything he wanted to know. It was too expensive to buy, but he had a plan.

"Me being the trickster I am, I knew that if I 'lost' the book, I would only have to pay a $9 fee," Towner said.

He still has the book.

A business is born

When he was 12, his stepmother insisted that the young man come live with her and his father. He moved from his mother's small Portland apartment to his father's home. An Air Force veteran, his father believed in neatness and order.

"I wasn't used to any of that," Towner said. "He probably thought I was a little pig."

But the transition got easier when he set up his bedroom, the first space that he ever had to himself.

It was a small room with a large, laminated particleboard desk. An old computer overwhelmed the surface. Still, Towner made it his first office space and used the computer to create his business card.

Launching a business gave him optimism: Anyone could succeed, no matter his background. All it takes is a little elbow grease.

"I believe you reap what you sow. I am always out there trying to sow good seeds that will grow into something fruitful."

MIRACLE isn't Towner's first venture. After high school, he started Antwan Towner Enterprises, an umbrella company that covers his magic and modeling endeavors. He also runs Entertain the World Inc., a booking company for magicians.

Growing up, the young entrepreneur had little patience for school.

"School was only teaching me how to work for other people," he said.

Daily goals, long vision

Towner left Oregon for Brandon in July. The magician saw great potential in a city so close to Tampa and Orlando.

"I sold everything," he said. "My family was shocked."

Within two days, he landed a job performing at Brandon Ale House.

"He's pretty impressive," restaurant manager Derek Bailey said. "We have customers come back and ask for him."

Every day is a new opportunity.

Towner travels around town in a suit and tie. And while his peers refer to their male friends as dudes or guys, Towner calls his male acquaintances gentlemen.

Each morning, his daily goals are written on a yellow note pad. He keeps the pad in his leather briefcase, black, his favorite color.

Now his yellow pad is filled with plans for MIRACLE. There's the business plan he needs to complete. He needs to find sponsors, partners and mentors.

He hopes MIRACLE will be up and running in six to eight months.

Pace has faith that his student's nonprofit will be successful.

"If Antwan wants it, he will work very hard to get it," Pace said. "Antwan showed what perseverance can do if you just keep your goal ahead of you."

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at 661-2439 or htravis@sptimes.com.