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Merlina is one of the nation's few Hispanic women magicians

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MIAMI - Magic happens when one discovers a passion in life. If you doubt or are otherwise skeptical - about magic or passion and how the two might intertwine - you obviously have never met Merlina.

Merlina the Magician.

Merlina, known to some by her other name, Maria Ibanez.

"The reaction of children to magic is, for me, magical," says Ibanez, with the wistful voice of the true believer. "You have to see them (the audience) from the magician's point of view. It's amazing, their faces, the look in their eyes."

Ibanez, 53, has been performing magic of many different kinds for 27 years at schools, libraries, hospitals, company picnics, nightclubs, birthday parties - anywhere, quite frankly, they will have her.

On a weekend in October, for instance, she performed at a Toys R Us in Miami-Dade County in front of open-mouthed children and their equally impressionable parents. She made magic cookies with imaginary ingredients and started a fire that eventually gave way to a turtledove and an opportunity to teach the kids about fire safety.

The audience squirmed in delight. One little boy kept raising his hand and jumping in his seat. Three girls in back held hands. Enthralled, all responded on cue:

"Now what's the magic word?" Ibanez asked, ready to perform another trick.

"Ishkadoodle!" they shouted in unison.

Ibanez is one of maybe a handful of female magicians in Florida, and the only Hispanic woman to do this full time. While many party clowns may also do magic tricks as part of their routine, few of these women performers rely solely on a magic show.

"I've always been a rarity, but I don't mind," she says. "It didn't close doors for me at all, either. It helped me. The men in the business really tried to help me."

She recently became the first vice president for the Society of American Magicians, the second largest magicians' organization with 7,000 members and the world's oldest, having been founded by the famed Houdini in 1902. She is slotted to take over the presidency in 2007, only the third time a woman has held that post. The responsibility isn't new: She was the only woman to be president of the Florida Magicians Association.

The national society's new goal is to grow membership, to attract young magicians, women and minorities because the business of magic has traditionally been male and white - and no one seems to know why. Many believe that the jovial presence of Ibanez will probably do much for the cause.

I think that when young girls see her perform, they'll say,I want to be like her,' " says Jann Goodsell, the last female president of the society in 2000. "I think it's a matter of showing them there's the possibility."

Until recently, Goodsell added, women played an auxiliary role in magic shows. They usually were the assistants who handed over hats or disappeared in big boxes. "Maria," she adds, "is going to be a great role model." And not only because of her tricks but also because of her vivacious personality. "She's hyper and so into it."

Ibanez charges $225 for each 45-minute show and figures she does four to six a week. She's performed for some moneyed bigwigs - members of the Saudi royal family, for instance - but she actually prefers to do shows for sick and terminally ill children.

"To work with children who are terminally ill and to make them laugh for just a little - that's worth a fortune to me," she says.

Ibanez used to perform more, but "I'd rather give as much time to the kids after the show and not have to rush off because that's what I enjoy." She also invests much of her earnings back into the business. One silk scarf, for instance, cost her $800, and she admits to having a predilection for custom-made props. Her business "card" is a large bronze-like coin, and she has several kinds of vests, including a Halloween vest and a Bugs Bunny vest.

The animals that participate in her show also happen to be family pets, though her four dogs don't perform. A visit to her home is marked with squawks and tweets from her four doves and 16 lovebirds - her one rabbit is named Bugs - and she's having an aviary build next to her house. She mates her helpers and then hand-feeds their babies until they're so docile that they respond to her every command.

"Yep, this is like a zoo," she says, with a self-deprecating laugh. "But I have to make sure they bond with me."

Her husband Jay, an automotive equipment distributor who has known her since junior high, goes to every show and builds most of her props. Her two sons, Orlando, 29, and Jason, 27 - both Marines - attend as many as they can.

"They're very protective of me," she explains. "As soon as a show is over, they're the ones who pick up and put away the props. They want me to relax and enjoy the kids."

Orlando, the eldest son, remembers what it was like growing up with a magician as a mother: The kids were always asking me,How does your mother do that?'" Both Orlando and his brother also perform magic tricks, but of course they never have revealed the secret of her success. "We're bound by oath. All magicians are."

Ibanez wasn't always so enamored of magic. The only child of a petroleum engineer and a housewife, she remembers her early years in Havana as contented and full of family activity. But she didn't think much of magicians. The only one she remembers performed a scary trick at a circus and it involved a man pretending to attack a child with a toy ice pick to remove the poisoned soft drink the little boy had imbibed.

"I know how the trick works now, but to a 6-year-old it was very scary to see some man pumping the Coca-Cola from this boy who he had attacked with a pick and then funnel it out through a clear tube," she recalls. "I thought magicians were evil."

When son Orlando turned 1, however, she hired a magician and was fascinated by the tricks - and the children's reaction. She visited a magic shop and bought $15 worth of tricks to perform for her toddler. And, in hindsight now, for herself.

To encourage her, a friend placed an ad in The Flyer and, before she knew it, she was booked for 30 parties. At that time, she was something of a novelty. "Birthday parties then were cake and ice cream," she explains. Not to mention that few women were doing magic tricks while speaking both Spanish and English.

She learned through trial and error how to choreograph her shows so there was what she calls "a natural flow" instead of an "and now for my next trick" amateurish quality. Other magicians, particularly veteran Alberto Montejo, also taught her the ropes.

"She knows how to give life to the magic trick," says Montejo, who has been doing precisely that for more than 60 years, first in Cuba and now here. "That is very important because without it the trick becomes just a trick, something foolish."

Where once she was his apprentice, says Montejo, Ibanez now has "surpassed me. She's done very well for herself."

A psychology/education graduate from Florida International University, Ibanez also incorporates storytelling and educational messages into her show. She teaches about fire safety, about gun safety, about saying no to drugs, even about her own story as an immigrant. "The important thing is not to preach to them," she adds.

The rewards can be instant. Several years ago, Ibanez performed for young Haitian students who did not speak English. After the show, a little boy asked the teacher if he could touch the magician.

"He was so fascinated with the show, he hugged me," she says. "To me, that's all about magic."


(c) 2005, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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