Franz Harary is levitating a paper napkin over my kitchen table. No strings or props, just a napkin that was sitting on the counter and now is floating above his hands, with me sitting two feet away. I have no idea how he’s doing it, and he won’t tell.
Born in Ann Arbor fifty-three years ago, Harary left Tree Town in 1984 when he was twenty, dropping out of his senior year at Eastern Michigan University to begin a spectacular career as a magician and illusion designer. Though he hasn’t lived here since, he returns frequently to visit his parents, Raymond and Sigrid Harary, still living in his childhood home, and to unwind at a Livingston County lake house owned by the family.
When he did a little magic at my Dexter home in January, he was on his way to pick up his folks and take them on a weeklong trip to China. The mission: to give them a look at the new $40 million Franz Harary House of Magic at the Studio City Macau resort.
During his brief stay, he displayed his childlike wonder that’s at the heart of his obsession with illusions.
A Michigan squirrel, with audacity and persistence, was raiding my bird feeder, which intrigued Harary so much that he took time to snap some photos. Then as he was walking to his car, a light snowfall was enough impetus for a selfie (with me!) in the snow. This writer isn’t much delighted with squirrels and snow most days, but Harary certainly was.
There’s not much snow in Macau, a former Portuguese territory, now an administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. Macau, often called the Las Vegas of Asia, is just a ferry ride away from Hong Kong.
The House of Magic is a complex of four theaters: the Lair, showcasing magic presented as though the magician actually possesses supernatural powers; the Majestic Theater, with visual puzzles like those created by Harry Houdini or David Copperfield; the Illusion Laboratory, meant to show the process of creating new magic effects; and the Mega Magic Theater, the permanent home for Harary’s spectacle illusion productions.
Harary arranged the trip for his parents, he says, because “I don’t have kids and I want my parents to understand what I do. They know, but they haven’t really experienced it. This is what I’m leaving the planet, and I want to share that with them.” His wife and business manager, Akiko, made all the arrangements.
The couple’s home base is in Hollywood. “We’ve been together about twenty years, married for sixteen,” Harary says. “Akiko is Japanese and very smart, so it’s good she takes care of the business end.”
She also cares for a family of six house-trained rabbits, as well as looking after Whitney, a twelve-foot python that has been part of Harary’s act and family for thirty years. They got started keeping rabbits as pets after Whitney, who eats rabbits for dinner, for some reason didn’t want to eat one particular rabbit. So there was a rabbit hanging around the house; they got another to keep it company; and voila the couple bonded with the bunnies. Harary says they use a litter box and make great pets. “Akiko has become a celebrity in the rabbit world, even doing an Animal Planet show based on bunnies.”
Akiko travels when need be, but runs things from home as much as she can. These days, however, Harary’s not in California much. He’s in the business of making memories worldwide, but it all started in Ann Arbor.
“I was always a curious kid, and when I was about thirteen years old, Mom bought me a magic kit,” he recalls. “And I was just blown away that, with this little plastic toy, I could fool adults, my parents, my teachers. That was the beginning of my never-ending fascination with the process of creating illusions.”
Throughout his youth, Harary kept learning and experimenting with magic. “I graduated from Pioneer High in 1980, and our graduation ceremony was in Crisler Arena. Just for fun, I placed these smoke bombs all around the arena and rigged up a remote control out of model airplane parts. So as I graduated these giant puffs of smoke went off all over the place.
“I came close to being busted that day, but thankfully wasn’t arrested.”
He earned a music scholarship to attend EMU and studied musical theater, but continued to invent magic. “If I had had any idea of what my life was going to become, I would have studied psychology and engineering because those are without question the two disciplines I use most in my work now.”
Harary knew Eric Becher, then director of the University of Michigan Marching Band. The youngest director in the band’s history, Becher had been a student teacher at Pioneer during Harary’s senior year.
Harary convinced Becher to let him create illusions at U-M’s halftime shows and was even involved in one Rose Bowl halftime show. “I videotaped some of these illusions, and when I was twenty, I sent one of these videotapes [in which he made a car appear] to Michael Jackson, who was in the process of creating his Victory tour.
“Michael liked what he saw and, next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Los Angeles to work with Michael.”
For a while, he kept up with his EMU studies by mail, but once the Victory tour started, he had to let that go. “So I’m a college dropout, but so far no one has asked me to see my diploma. At EMU I did learn a lot about dealing with the quirky entertainment industry, which has helped me throughout my career.”
His work for Michael Jackson–including flying the King of Pop across the stage during concerts–propelled Harary into the entertainment world. He’s transformed Janet Jackson into a panther, materialized Madonna in a puff of smoke, teleported NSYNC across stadiums, and created illusions and spectacles for Usher, Missy Elliott, Paula Abdul, Cher, Alice Cooper, Shania Twain, and many top Asian singers and entertainers. He continues that concert work today and helps design corporate advertising and event illusions, in addition to running his House of Magic in Macau.
The concert work is lucrative, but, more importantly for Harary, gives him the opportunity to create new illusions, designed around the entertainers’ ideas and music. “I get to design and try new things, and that’s what I love to do,” he says.
He’ll often start by sketching out an image before figuring out how to create and execute it with his small team of experts. These days, it’s a multimedia orgy–with lights; video; sound; mechanical props; physical elements like fire, water, and air; music; architectural design; dancers and assistants; lovely women; engineering; computer controls; people from the audience who become part of the illusion; and, of course, the magician.
Harary certainly enjoys the entertainer part of his career: the applause, the happy faces, the selfies with fans that appear on his Facebook page. But he says, “That’s actually the easiest part. It’s far more challenging to create a space capsule than it is to sit in one. I thrive on the challenge of designing, engineering, seeing what new thing we can actually create.”
While he loves what he does, he says it’s a fringe art, with dedicated competitors working hard to take his place. In 2010, an overseas deal went bad, forcing him to financially restructure his operation in bankruptcy court. The House of Magic is his vindication.
“I want people to feel a sense of wonder,” he says. “Do you remember when you were a kid and everything seemed like magic? Think back to your first elevator ride, and how it seemed like a miracle? I want to bring that back for people, to pull it out so they can experience that wonder once again. You were born for it, you know. Your subconscious is the real magician.
“I have spent my life trying to understand how people think. What I’ve learned is if I can, just for a moment, control what they think, I can control what they see. And change their entire sense of reality. When we were young, everything was magic. A light bulb, a bubble floating through the air. Everything. As we grow older, that magic disappears.
“Today, everything I do, all of the toys, all the technology, they are for only one purpose–so that for one brief moment we can all recapture that sense of childhood wonder we had when we were kids.”
In February, Harary posted Facebook photos of his parents at the House of Magic. In one, his father gamely posed with a just-materialized Lamborghini. “It was odd having my folks here on the opposite side of the planet,” Harary wrote. “I’ve always had my home town life very separate from my life in Asia. Seeing them here was definitely weird … Nice … But weird …”
After their return, I call Sigrid Harary to ask how it went. “The whole thing was really nice–the House of Magic, Macau, Hong Kong,” she tells me. She adds that even as a child, Franz was never dull. “It was quite something having him around as he grew up,” she says. “We never knew what might happen next. He’s just a lot of fun.”
“I’m truly happy I was able to show them my place in Macau,” Harary tells me when I catch up with him by phone. “Although, I think my father was most impressed by the never-ending stream of free high-end food.
“I suppose if that’s his measure of success, I’m fine with that!”
A few of Franz Harary’s illusions:
1992: Materializes an MD-80 airliner from thin air, an illusion he’s repeated numerous times on American and international television.
1994: At Kennedy Space Center, makes NASA’s Space Shuttle Explorer disappear for an NBC special.
1995: Makes a fifty-two-story skyscraper vanish from the center of Tokyo, a feat that still holds the record for the largest illusion ever. For another Japanese special, makes the Goodyear Blimp disappear.
1996: In Hawaii, moves the Diamond Head volcano two miles.
1997: In Las Vegas, vanishes the Luxor Pyramid Hotel Casino.
1998: In India, levitates the Taj Mahal on a TV special viewed by 400 million people.
1999: Makes the Sphinx invisible, earning the Merlin Award, the International Magicians Society’s highest honor.
2000: Teleports a Japanese superstar from Tokyo to Los Angeles, live on network television, in front of live audiences at both locations.
2001: Materializes a convoy of ten semi-trucks for his syndicated TV series, Magic Planet.
2007: For the launch of the Transformers movie, transforms a Tokyo skyscraper into a massive robot.