As an award-winning magician known for his comedy magic show, Larry Wilson traveled the world entertaining and mystifying his audiences until the chance to produce and star in a regular show at Harrah’s Casino helped him settle in Northern Nevada. Eight years ago, he decided to bring his talents to a far grander—if equally mystifying—feat: Saving local libraries.
“[My son] was littler then, and he loved the library, and one day he came home and said, ‘Oh, they’re cutting back the hours of the library,’” Wilson said. “So, I reached out to them; ‘Well, budget cuts and stuff.’ I said this is crazy, we can’t do this.”
Libraries across the nation were targeted for steep budget cuts in the years after the great recession—Washoe County, for example, decreased the library’s total operating budget by 9% from 2010 to 2013—and Wilson felt compelled to find a way to protect a valuable public resource. He eventually came up with the annual Spellbinders International Festival of Magic, which will return for its eighth season on Nov. 19-21.
“In the world of magic, I’m extremely well known and, apparently, respected because when I reached out to all of these world famous people—people much more famous than me—and said, ‘I want you to come to Reno for this thing we’re calling Spellbinders, and you’ll perform in libraries for free just to draw people in who maybe have never been to the library, or haven’t been in a long time,’” Wilson said. “And to my astonishment, not a single person has said no to me.”
Spellbinders brings magicians from all over the world to perform in libraries around Northern Nevada. Instead of raising funds for the library system, which Wilson believed could be justification to cut more money from government budgets, Spellbinders is intended to boost attendance numbers (a factor in determining library spending) and introduce people to tools and aspects of the library beyond books—like music, movies or the librarian services.
Instead, Wilson has turned to business partnerships and individual donations to fund the showcase. Even David Copperfield pitches in.
“David stepped up from the beginning as a supporter, and has generously donated from the very beginning,” Wilson said.
In years past, the library shows usually consisted of what’s called Parlor Magic—illusions fit for a limited space and audiences of usually a few dozen people—allowing guests to see award-winning magicians up-close. Afterward, Spellbinders would end with a larger, grander show at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts.
“Because you’re on an elevated stage and you have wing space and fly space and offstage space, you’re able to do some bigger illusions that you couldn’t do in a situation in the library,” Wilson said.
Last year, however, Spellbinders was forced to take a hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and while there are shows scheduled in 16 libraries across six counties this year, the final gala show will be postponed again until 2022 in the interest of favoring smaller gatherings.
“We’ve already booked the Pioneer Center for next year,” Wilson said.
Spellbinders’ governing entity, Education Renaissance of Nevada Initiative, also recently attained nonprofit status. As Executive Director, Wilson said that ERNI’s nonprofit status better allows them to fund other programs beyond Spellbinders like their Prima Facie Project, which allows children access to Latin language education, or Ivy League Outreach, which recruits grad students from Ivy League schools to come talk to Northern Nevada students about the application process to the nation’s most prestigious universities.
“The nonprofit’s mission [is] to bring arts and education to Northern Nevada schoolchildren with an emphasis on things that have been cut from school budgets and stuff like that,” he said.
However, when it comes to impacting the community most, Wilson says there’s just something about Spellbinders—and magic in particular—that removes the barriers to entry.
“It has universal appeal,” Wilson said. “It transcends any language barrier … You don’t have to have any special background or training to appreciate it. There’s things like ballet or opera that I don’t have the background in. I can tell there’s great skill going on there, but I’m not educated enough to be able to really appreciate them. With magic, we don’t have that problem.”
Showtimes for Spellbinders include the following. All shows are free and all-ages. You can reserve seats at these links:
Friday, Nov. 19, 3:30-4 pm at Incline Village Library
Saturday, Nov. 20, 2-3 pm at North Valleys Library
Sunday, Nov. 21, 12-1pm at Spanish Springs Library
Sunday, Nov. 21, 1-2 pm at Downtown Reno Library
More info on Washoe County Library’s schedule of events.