Magic has played a huge role in the life of Mark Presley Hawkins of Fox River Grove.
As a kid, it was his private escape from the bullying he suffered at the hands of classmates.
As an adult, it helped him escape -- as in, physically -- when he was tied up during an attempted robbery of a restaurant where he worked.
And last fall, it gave him the self-assurance to show up at his 25th high school reunion at Buffalo Grove High School after he performed on WGN-TV and at the Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake.
"I had pennies thrown at me in high school during the talent show, so that kind of soured me toward high school," he said. "I had avoided high school reunions, but then I decided, 'If you want to be an entertainer, you can't avoid it if people don't pull the punches.'"
As it turns out, the reunion was a great experience. "People came up to me and told me they had seen me perform," he said. "It was a turning point."
The 45-year-old is best known in magic circles as either "NerdGician" or "The Imaginator," the two characters he invented and through which he performs his tricks, many of which he also invented.
NerdGician is a bumbling fellow who somehow manages to figure it all out in the end. The Imaginator is a quirky, creative superhero of sorts who speaks out against bullying and takes up causes like safe driving.
Presley Hawkins, who works in the mail room of Harper College, teaches a magic class for kids at the Cary Park District, and one for adults through the continuing education program at Harper. He also performs at birthday parties and on Fridays at Barnaby's Family Inn in Arlington Heights.
"I always try to focus on imagination, especially when I teach kids," he said. "I tell them that video games are good because you can learn reflexes and thinking fast, but you have to balance that out with imagination."
Magic hooked him from the moment he first stepped into Magic Inc. in Chicago, where his father took him at age 6, he said. "At age 11, I had my first magic show at the park district day camp," he said. "I made $5. I bought a lot of candy."
Presley Hawkins practices his tricks, some of which have taken years to master, in his garage-turned-magic studio replete with dark curtains, spotlights and a sound system.
"I learned from David Copperfield that setting the right mood with the right music is very important," he said.
Some of his favorites include the well-known "what happened to the aces?" card trick, and another trick he invented during which progressively bigger coins appear under cards, seemingly out of nowhere.
His wife, Tracy, serves as a good-natured sounding board for his craft, while his 8-year-old son, Gabriel, has inherited his father's passion for creativity, he said.
Presley Hawkins is proud of his latest trick, "Butterfly in a Box," and is considering unveiling it at a magic competition in Las Vegas. It is a variation of a fluttering butterfly trick invented by someone else, he explained, adding that magicians often come up with variations of tricks, and sometimes even sell tricks to one another.
Magic came in very handy for Hawkins in 1997 when robbers forced their way into a now-closed Wheeling restaurant where he was working as a custodian. The men tied him up with plastic cuffs, but Hawkins positioned his hands so he he'd have enough room to wiggle out of them later.
"I had a flashback about reading that in a book about Harry Houdini's greatest escapes," said Hawkins, who obtained a police report as a memento. "Without that, it would have been very hard to get out."
Presley Hawkins' website is facesofmagic.com. He is scheduled to appear as NerdGician on WGN's morning show on Tuesday. He will perform at the 10th annual "Nothin' Up My Sleeve" show on Saturday, April 14, at Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake.