Joseph Keppel: The Magic Man

By Ann Wlazelek

As an expert at card magic, Joseph Keppel hates to ask people to “pick a card.” So many magicians do that, he reasons, that the audience believes they know what is going to happen next. Instead, Keppel opens a new deck of cards, takes out four aces and turns them into kings in front of people’s noses.

The trick might take a lot longer to learn, he said, but is worth it because of the effect it has on observers – their jaws drop, their eyes pop and they demand to know, “How did you do that?”

“It’s not magic if everybody can do it,” Keppel says of his mastery of the craft. “I think people are much more impressed if the trick took hours or weeks to learn.”

Perhaps his penchant for the difficult is why Keppel, a lifelong resident of Bethlehem, has been a professional magician for nearly 30 years, delighting audiences across 35 states and 42 countries. Many area adults have seen him perform as the regular, behind-the-bar entertainment every Saturday night at the Spring Valley Inn in Center Valley. The Inn, which closed some years ago, is planning to reopen and its owners want to make Keppel reappear.

I wouldn’t trade what I’ve done or where it took me for anything in the world.

He also has been a Sunday night, table-hopping regular at Louie’s Restaurant in Allentown, and before that the monthly featured entertainer at the Bridgeworks Restaurant in Bethlehem for eight years. Generations of children have seen the amazing Keppel perform in more than 2,000 schools and libraries in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Delaware and Connecticut. His shows emphasize the importance of reading and the world’s ever-changing geography.

Keppel’s career has taken him into nightclubs in London, Ireland and Hong Kong. His taste for the exotic has led him into the jungles of Burma, where he impressed members of the Karen tribe of women.

Can you guess whose hands are doing the tricks on recent TV commercials for Crest Flooring in Trexlertown, in which the owner appears to be doing a shell game and other close-up magic? And, when the owner of Priceline wanted to wow his employees at a New Year’s Eve party in 2000, it was Keppel he asked to perform at the World Trade Center’s Windows on the World restaurant.

Locally, Keppel has performed at nearly every festival and fair in the Lehigh Valley, including Allentown’s Mayfair, Macungie’s Das Awkscht Fescht and Bethlehem’s Musikfest, First Night/First Friday and the Rose Garden children’s festival.

He can do large stage acts, intimate table magic, comedy shows, children’s birthday parties and strolling performances, but his favorite form of magic is close-up card magic.

Keppel’s interest in magic began at an early age, watching James “Mark” Wilson perform at the Allentown Fair. Wilson, now 84, was a businessman, magician and author widely credited as the first major television magician in the mid-1950s.

Keppel enjoyed watching the masters and trying to replicate some of the tricks he saw, but his fancy became a life-changing fascination in high school, when, as a senior at Liberty High School, he broke the knuckles in his hand. Keppel’s doctor at the time, Charles Snyder, showed Keppel how to roll a coin over the backs of his fingers for physical therapy.  The maneuver, known as the “steeple chase,” impressed the teen and those who watched.

Keppel taught himself many tricks from books and joined the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, a group called Ring 32, the Allentown Society of Magicians, to further his skills. There, he met the man who would become his mentor: Murray Bonfeld of Allentown. Bonfeld was employed by Bell Labs but also wanted to join the Ring to demonstrate and hone his expertise at card magic. “Murray did nothing but cards,” Keppel said. “I owe everything to him.” For several years, Keppel would visit Bonfeld every Friday night to learn sleight of hand, manual dexterity and manipulations needed to hide a card and fool the eye.

“I taught him everything I know,” Bonfeld said recently, calling Keppel a quick study. Proud of the student who has made a living from magic, Bonfeld said Keppel “has now far surpassed me. Joe is very good,” he added. “I’m glad he’s succeeded.”

Keppel, who is best known for his cups and balls routine, his ability to change cards held by his audience and coat hangers that magically link or come apart, became the Ring’s youngest president at age 27. He’s been president three times total, including now.

Until his passion for performing could pay all his bills, Keppel worked odd jobs, including a garden center where he developed a yen for growing exotic orchids, even buying the flowers from the late Perry Mason and Ironside actor Raymond Burr.  He also cultivated a collection of first-edition, autographed books.

In college, he took courses to further his career, earning an associate degree in business and another in architecture (to build magic props) from Northampton Community College and a bachelor’s degree in public relations and advertising from Ball State in Muncie, Indiana. It was while at Ball State that Keppel spent four months in London as an exchange student, meeting and learning from some of the great British magicians, such as Cy Endfield, Alex Elmsley and Pat Page.

It’s not been easy making a living as a self-employed performer during tough economic times, yet Keppel continues to find ways to improve his acts and cater to his audiences. He takes the time to hand address pamphlets for his school and library shows to stand out, promotes his services through today’s social media and Internet outlets, and has developed themes such as anti-bullying.

Keppel worries about the upcoming magicians who learn all of their tricks by watching DVDs. If the performers only repeat what they see and hear, they will be little more than clones, he said. It’s important, he added, for magicians to put their own patter or story line to their tricks and make their own mark or brand.

For that reason, he is following in his mentor’s footsteps and helping to teach children and adults what he knows through classes at the Banana Factory in Bethlehem – passing the magic wand, if you will.

Said Keppel of the impact magic has had on his life: “I never became rich doing this but I’ve performed magic standing on the Great Wall of China, beneath the Eiffel tower, in the Burmese jungle, and on a houseboat in North Vietnam. I wouldn’t trade what I’ve done or where it took me for anything in the world. If I had one last bucket list destination it would be to do some magic in Bhutan.”

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