The Story Behind the Rick Wilcox Theater

In February of 2003, I took a trip with my family to the Wisconsin Dells and we had the wonderful opportunity to meet Suzan and Rick Wilcox. They were kind enough to let me see the inside of The Rick Wilcox Theater. As impressive as it was — and it was — their story was even more impressive. Suzan was kind enough to email to me an article she had assembled telling the story behind the story.

I’m honored to have that story here on Inside Magic. I have rarely met two people so kind and so welcoming. Their story, as I told them, is an inspiration. It looks as if this season will top all the past seasons. This would be a great time to try to reserve seats for their show. Having seen the preparations, I can tell you it will be one-of-a-kind.

This article was originally posted minutes after meeting Rick and Suzan in February 2003.

The great news is that the show is still up and running.  Check out their website for information about the show, ticket purchase and access to a very nice magic shop at www.rickwilcox.com.  Watch their video when you hit the site.  Very Impressive dove work, Rick!

Read On . . .

The Rick Wilcox Theater

Since we purchased our theater in December 1998, we?ve had numerous inquiries from magicians who would like to know “our secret”. “How did you do it?” “Do you have a rich uncle?” “Can you help me open a theater?” “Should I try to build a theater in my town?” Here?s the secret to our success. . .

The beginning. . .

When I first told my family I was dating a magician, they were “curious” to put it politely. But Rick won them over like he does with anyone he meets -with his enthusiasm and joi de vivre. But they did wonder, as most people do, how one decides to become a magician.

Rick hardly remembers a time when he had any other ambition. He was nine when his sister gave him a magic kit, and he fell in love with magic almost immediately. It was a way to make people laugh! He worked his way up the ranks as any young magician must. He did it all ? back yard shows, restaurant magic, trade shows, blue & gold banquets, sales meetings, fund raisers ? large illusion shows and small sleight-of-hand venues. Wherever there was work, he went.

After graduating from UW-Madison, Rick continued performing magic while working in medical equipment sales in Milwaukee, WI. Finally, in 1989, he made the leap into full-time self-employment. When we married in 1996 he was traveling to over 250 corporate events per year. So it was only with a wedding ring on my finger (and mainly for the sunny show locations) that I traded in my…

In February of 2003, I took a trip with my family to the Wisconsin Dells and we had the wonderful opportunity to meet Suzan and Rick Wilcox. They were kind enough to let me see the inside of The Rick Wilcox Theater. As impressive as it was — and it was — their story was even more impressive. Suzan was kind enough to email to me an article she had assembled telling the story behind the story.

I’m honored to have that story here on Inside Magic. I have rarely met two people so kind and so welcoming. Their story, as I told them, is an inspiration. It looks as if this season will top all the past seasons. This would be a great time to try to reserve seats for their show. Having seen the preparations, I can tell you it will be one-of-a-kind.

This article was originally posted minutes after meeting Rick and Suzan in February 2003.

The great news is that the show is still up and running.  Check out their website for information about the show, ticket purchase and access to a very nice magic shop at www.rickwilcox.com.  Watch their video when you hit the site.  Very Impressive dove work, Rick!

Read On . . .

The Rick Wilcox Theater

Since we purchased our theater in December 1998, we?ve had numerous inquiries from magicians who would like to know “our secret”. “How did you do it?” “Do you have a rich uncle?” “Can you help me open a theater?” “Should I try to build a theater in my town?” Here?s the secret to our success. . .

The beginning. . .

When I first told my family I was dating a magician, they were “curious” to put it politely. But Rick won them over like he does with anyone he meets -with his enthusiasm and joi de vivre. But they did wonder, as most people do, how one decides to become a magician.

Rick hardly remembers a time when he had any other ambition. He was nine when his sister gave him a magic kit, and he fell in love with magic almost immediately. It was a way to make people laugh! He worked his way up the ranks as any young magician must. He did it all ? back yard shows, restaurant magic, trade shows, blue & gold banquets, sales meetings, fund raisers ? large illusion shows and small sleight-of-hand venues. Wherever there was work, he went.

After graduating from UW-Madison, Rick continued performing magic while working in medical equipment sales in Milwaukee, WI. Finally, in 1989, he made the leap into full-time self-employment. When we married in 1996 he was traveling to over 250 corporate events per year. So it was only with a wedding ring on my finger (and mainly for the sunny show locations) that I traded in my successful sales career for show business. One year late I was accustomed (and exhausted) with the magic business, both on the stage and off. We were spread so thin because we did not have a plan – we were taking any show that came along. There was no sense of accomplishment. We needed a goal.

So, we began to look and pray for a direction to focus our business.

We thought that having one main location for our show was a great idea (i.e., less traveling). But how? Where? For over a year, we criss-crossed the country visiting casinos and contacting theaters while performing for corporate events. It didn?t take long to learn that if the general manager hadn?t heard of us he didn?t want to meet us, and of course, wouldn?t book us. So how do you “get heard of” in the first place? It was a vicious cycle.

Digging for Treasure. . .

In February 1998 while we drove 6 hours in the ice and snow to a corporate gig in Rhinelander, WI, we read aloud Acres of Diamonds by Russell H. Cromwell. This motivational book is about finding treasures in your own backyard (ie. developing your own God-given talents to your highest potential). So we decided to take a look at our own “back yard” literally and figuratively to advance our goals.

Rick wanted to entertain, and I wanted to run a business. Once we had established our objectives, the only question was “where and how”.

While we hoped the answer would present itself, we knew we had to keep preparing ourselves. We wanted to update Rick?s promotional video that was several years old. So we produced our own in the summer of 1998. We rented a local theater for a week filming over 17 hours of stage magic, then culminated the grueling week with 2 shows for a live audience for more footage. This experience was exhilarating, but we hugely underestimated the ordeal of marketing a magic show. Little did we know that it was all preparation for the challenge that lay only a few months ahead.

With our video in hand, we began making preliminary calls to convention centers and theaters, but kept running into “dead-ends”. Then in September 1998, we decided to change tactics and call realty offices in tourist areas in hopes of finding a warehouse or commercial building we could convert into a theater. If someone wasn?t going to hire us, we?d hire ourselves! For months Rick?s dad had been urging us to call a tourist area only 2 hours from our home in Pewaukee, WI. So, mostly to humor Rick?s dad, we called Wisconsin Dells.

Suzan and Rick Wilcox

“No, no warehouses are on the market at this time, but I can fax you the commercial properties for sale right now in the Dells area,” the realtor told me over the phone. Imagine my surprise (and the chill at the back of my neck) when the fax machine spit out an info sheet on a 600 seat theater for sale!!!! Could our prayers be answered this perfectly? Rick was driving to a sleight-of-hand show in Chicago when I received the fax. I tracked him down at a store, paged him, and told him the news. We could barely contain our excitement!

The next day it was a fast and early drive to the theater. When we arrived on September 22, 1998 the “Country Legends Theater” had been out of business for a little over a month. The 6400 square foot steel building had originally been built as a teen dance club in the late 80?s and in 1990 it was converted into a country music theater. The front fa?ade was a non-descript white brick with a 20-foot red and silver guitar hung above the marquee. It was the most beautiful building we?d ever seen in our lives because the potential was breathtaking! We were ready to buy it before we got in the door. It didn?t even matter that we had no idea how we were going to pay for it (the price tag read $1,000,000).

A Jewel in the Rough. . .

The Sign from the Main Strip

Once the realtor let us in the building we stayed for 7 hours! We couldn?t bear to think it wasn?t ours already. The lobby was painted baby blue and the hallway to the women?s bathroom featured painted cartoon horses with weathered plywood frames nailed around them. The two concessions stands were in shambles ? one with a tin awning for d?cor and the other with the brightest blue countertops you can imagine.

The dirty carpet was a garish red with a turquoise paisley design, and the business office was located where the men?s bathroom should have been. By the way, where was the men?s room, we wondered? The 2500 square foot lobby also had an unfinished 2500 square foot attic above which was stylishly accessed by a wooden ladder and a hole in the office?s ceiling (hmmmm? Potential living quarters?!). Still the most beautiful building we?d ever seen? Yes, sir!

Next, we headed into the auditorium. 600 seats ? good! Never mind that there were 200 seats with wood backs and red vinyl seat cushions, 200 seats with metal backs and white vinyl seat cushions, and the center 200 were upholstered with tan fabric ? many with stuffing poking out the top of the backs. (No problem, duct tape to the rescue.) The stage was 45? wide and 15? in depth, 12? high to the light rails. (No problem, we?ll take out the first row or two, add another 4? of depth and do shorter illusions).

Backstage right was all dressing room located down a 12 inch drop off from the stage – perfect for storing heavy props and then lifting them up to stage level (note the sarcasm). Backstage left. . . well, there wasn?t one. Why? Because that?s where we found the men?s restroom along with another women?s room. So the audience meandered through the auditorium during a show to find the restroom? (No, that wouldn?t work, we?d move the men?s room to the lobby & build offices above.) The lighting system was strung together with 350 orange extension cords (the state fire inspector declared them a fire hazard along with the lack of a sprinkler system), the sound system had disappeared (speaker cabinets hung with no speaker units inside), and the sound board looked 25 years old.

To less enthusiastic buyers, the theater?s cosmetic and structural condition would have been overwhelming. (Recently a friend commented that when faced with all these obstacles “anyone else?s head would have exploded”). Maybe we were a little na?ve or crazy, or both, but we were sold! This was our key to freedom from the road. And we were ready for a new challenge. When could we sign the papers and start cleaning?

Back to Reality. . .

After writing a 40 page business plan and enduring state and local inspections, our enthusiasm dwindled by the time the third bank succinctly dismissed our ambitions to own a building that had failed twice in 6 years. Never mind that our business was much more suited to this family tourist area than either a teen club or country singers. Never mind that we had 2 decades of experience in the entertainment industry. And never mind that we had a clean credit record and substantial rental real estate holdings in the Milwaukee area. We had never owned a theater before, so we had no track record, therefore we couldn?t borrow any money from a bank. How do you establish a track record if you can?t buy it in the first place? Sound familiar?

We were one month away from our Dec. 1st closing date when all of our options had been exhausted. We had no idea what to do when we called the seller and told him we still wanted to buy the building, but the financing just wasn?t available. He asked to meet with us and requested that we bring along a video of our show. We were at our wits end as he and his attorneys silently watched our 13 minute promotional video.

(Two years later he told us that the video brought a tear to his eye because he knew our show was exactly what the area needed). And then against the advice of both of his attorneys, he offered to finance the building for us. Someone was willing to take a chance on us! We walked out in a daze and one month later the theater was ours.

Renovation & Aching Backs. . .

With a May 26 opening date looming five short months away, we had no time to celebrate. So with another loan from a friend, the help of Rick?s brother-in-law and his crew and our first employee (my sister) we ripped out carpet, painted everything, laid tile, installed secret doors to the auditorium, refreshed the concessions area, built a men?s room in the lobby, finished the upstairs, unwound hundreds of yards of extension cords, paid for a commercial sprinkler system, enlarged the stage, gutted the whole backstage, studied lighting and sound systems, wrote ads and press releases, and hired 20 employees. In our spare time we continued booking and performing corporate shows to pay the bills. It was a most exciting time!

“Will they come?”. . .

This question kept us up more nights than I care to remember. (It still makes my palms sweat, even now.) We didn?t have time or budget for a slick marketing campaign (we fired our slick public relations firm after one month of talk and one huge bill). Nobody outside of our corporate clients knew we existed, local businesses were taking bets on how long we would last, and we remembered well the disheartening ordeal of filling a theater for our promo video. But we kept reminding ourselves that we had a solid show and if people gave us a chance, then word of mouth would be our “ace in the hole” just as it had been in the corporate market.

We planned an open house for the area businesses on May 19, 1999 with short preview shows at 4 pm and 8 pm. A local restaurant graciously donated snacks and we bought a cake, and at 2 hours before show time we were still shoving tools and carpet remnants into the closet. At 2 pm every member of our family was in their “Rick Wilcox Theater” logo shirt and ready to greet our guests. Miraculously, about 700 local people showed up that day and previewed a portion of our show. We only performed for 30 minutes, with 2 backstage hands (my sister and her husband) and 2 light cues since we hadn?t read all the instructions for our new lighting system (now our current show is 90 minutes with more than 300 lighting cues and special effects). We pulled it off and considered the day a success. Still we had only a few moments to celebrate as we had a week to make the final changes to our show and train our employees.

The Joy of Employees. . . .

Hiring, firing, training, scheduling, reprimanding, state and federal payroll, monthly & quarterly reports – it?s endless! We had no idea how to operate a cash register, let alone train an employee to sell a ticket. We developed a customer service plan in the box office, taught a high school student how to demonstrate in the magic shop, and deciphered the directions on the 10 year old popcorn machine. It was all new that first summer, and the 20 people who worked for us were awesome. They caught our enthusiasm and carried us when we were going on only a few hours of sleep every night. (And, at times, I take great pleasure in reminding Rick that he really thought we could do 5 shows per day all summer long!)

We?d finish our last show at 10 pm, clean up, and then often we?d all sit on the lobby floor and unwind, eat supper, critique the show, fix props, and talk about the day until the early hours of the a.m. Rick and I were back in the box office by 7 am, exhausted but thrilled to see what the day would bring. My sister, Jen, earned the title of Theater Director. She and her husband Jake put in equal hours with us that 1st summer. We wouldn?t have made it without them. And we almost didn?t during the one show they missed.

On the day that Jay Marshall attended our matinee, Jen miscarried shortly before show time. They attempted to be ready for the show, but understandably, they just couldn?t do it; we had to send her home with Jake. So, things were tense and many details were falling by the wayside when our snappy and yappy miniature dachshund escaped from my dressing room just as the audience entered. Much to his dismay, Rick had to run into the auditorium in his tux to chase our barking canine through the aisles. On any other day, this would have provided us some comic relief. Needless to say, the show began late and things went downhill from there without Jen and Jake?s backstage leadership. That was a very black day. But we all knew the show must go on.

The Magic Show. . .

The show has improved every year in production value, a little at a time as we can afford it. The first year, we basically performed the show we knew from filming our promotional video because we didn?t have anything extra for new props. But now we add new illusions to the show every May. In 2002 we installed a large screen so Rick can perform a close-up segment highlighting his “first love” (Rick won 1st runner up at MacMillan?s International Magic Convention, held in London, England in December 2001).

Over the last few years we?ve been honored to work with some of the greatest creative minds in magic today. And there are many magicians who have supported us by coming to our show and offering their ideas and encouragement. (Not the least of which is recommending our show to their audiences and friends). Again with the help of Rick?s brother-in-law and David Houseal, of Starr Productions, our biggest project in 2002 was the completion of a new fa?ade on the theater. And this year we?re bringing the Invisible Man to the stage as it?s never been seen before! Check it out in Summer 2003! We can?t wait!

Do-It-Yourselves Fame . . .

Billboard negotiations, ad copy, photo direction, graphic design, commercials and more. We did it all in-house for the first 3 years. Now we have a designer who does the ad design with lots of input (often we offer more input than she needs or wants, I?m sure). This is expensive, but we feel it gives us a more professional look in print. Since we are not in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, our target audience has little experience with a live illusion show. So our single-most difficult marketing challenge is convincing people to buy tickets for a “magic & illusion show” when their preconception is “birthday party magician.”

We are a professional, family-friendly, stage production show, elegant and dramatic, yet not scantily-clad and dark as sometimes seen on T.V. (Try making that into a snappy slogan!) Although our high season is the summer, we work year-round (shows on Saturdays) spending many, many hours on new marketing ideas during the work week.

A Milestone ? Year #5. . .

Now entering our 5th season, things are looking good. Although we?re rarely at full capacity, our shows of 20-30 people are in the past (we hope), and our attendance has grown nearly 40%. Nevertheless, the memory of those slim shows keeps us humble, and we know we haven?t “made it” just yet. After working a trade with a movie theater chain, we replaced our “vintage” seating with 2-year old seats during our second season. Our web site has been overhauled, our staff has turned over 3 times, we?ve learned countless business lessons, and we still do a lot of corporate work to support the theater. Through it all our enthusiasm for new magic and development of new ideas to amaze our guests is going strong.

The Real Question . . .

A lot of people ask us how things are going and it?s hard to give a short answer. We love what we do, and our first season was marked with the highest of highs, and the lowest lows. It was all new and I?m both glad and sad that we won?t ever be able to go back to those “first times”. Yet it?s great to know that there won?t be any huge surprises to bite into our budget and keep us awake at night.

So when people ask how the theater is doing they?re really asking if we?re getting rich. To clear that up . . . this is not a get-rich quick scheme; it?s just different than corporate gigs. As far as economics, it?s still “wait and see”. However, there wasn?t anyone besides our family who thought we would succeed, and the “nay-sayers” had no trouble telling us we were crazy. We had people telling us we?d be divorced in three years and business people in town who thought we?d close up in 6 months. And now we know why ? it was more work than we ever imagined.

Everything we?ve ever saved and could borrow is in this venture, and we?ve made sacrifices that all self-employed people have to make. There?s been little time for friends and family unless they come to usher or sell concessions. But it?s a dream come true to perform our show on our own stage. And when we?re told “This was my first magic show” or “You made me feel like a kid again”, or “We?re back again ?with friends!”, it?s very rewarding. If we had chosen not to buy the theater (lots of work, huge expense), we would still be doing only corporate gigs (lots of work, less expense), and we would be living with regret. We were ready for a change back in 1998. So we went with our heart (and prayed a lot).

Looking back, the theater was our answer to all those prayers for an open door. That is not to say it was easy. It was and still is an all-encompassing commitment ? draining us emotionally, physically, financially. But we have a peace that comes from doing what we love. Would we do it again? Absolutely. We know we?re right where we?re supposed to be. What should you do? Take an honest look at what you do best, figure out what you love about your business, research the possibilities, develop resources to move you toward your goal, and when the opportunity presents itself, you?ll be ready to go for it. There are many opportunities in magic and entertainment if you pursue your own gifts. The only real secrets we?ve discovered are these ? work hard, enjoy the journey, and keep your eyes open for jewels “in the rough”? you can find treasure in your own backyard!

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