Prospect Heights magician Bill Cook's talent is no illusion

  • Magician Bill Cook, 22, of Prospect Heights is one of the stars featured in the documentary "Make Believe."

      Magician Bill Cook, 22, of Prospect Heights is one of the stars featured in the documentary "Make Believe." Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Posted11/17/2011 5:30 AM

With the stage curtain about to open, Bill Cook gripped the glow sticks that opened his act, prepared to hit the button to illuminate his costume and tried to keep his heart from beating out of his chest.

Then he heard the words he hungered to hear for 12 years.


"Making his debut performance at the Magic Castle ..." a voice echoed throughout a packed auditorium at the exclusive Hollywood club. A wide smile engulfed his face.

"I just said to myself, 'Yeah, that's right,'" the 22-year-old recalls of that night in August. "Man, that was a dream."

Five days and 27 performances later, the Prospect Heights magician was an old hand, earning a spot on the wall of legends who've performed on the same stage.

Signing his name next to the late Dutch star Tommy Wonder, an idol of Bill's for his technical expertise, capped off what's been a crazy few years for one of magic's rising -- and thanks to his story hitting the silver screen, most visible -- stars.

At 18, he became the youngest person to win the Chicago Magic Competition and the only contestant to ever take home both the top prize and people's choice award.

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At 19, he placed second at the renowned 2009 World Magic Seminar Teen Weekend in Las Vegas, wowing both the judges and audience with a humorous act highlighted by disappearing, multiplying, expanding and exploding CDs.

"I didn't want to do cards or billiard balls because everybody does cards and billiard balls," Bill said. "But I've never seen anybody do anything with CDs because the shine ups the level of difficulty, and I totally believe that the best stuff is original."

A documentary film crew shooting footage at the international showcase, which drew teens from as far away as South Africa and Japan, also took a particular interest in the 2007 Wheeling High School graduate. It wasn't long before they showed up in Chicago with cameras blazing to film him 19 hours a day for three days straight.

After a year passed without a word, Bill received a phone call telling him to check out a website. There he was, alongside five other talented young magicians, prominently displayed on the main page for the film "Make Believe."


Executive produced by the same duo behind the acclaimed arcade game documentary "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," the movie follows the teens as they make personal transformations through the quirky world of magic.

Bill and his co-stars soon were on a whirlwind publicity tour and a lot of planes, making their way to both coasts and several spots in between for screenings.

"Make Believe" won the Jury Documentary Award at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival, which saw more than 92,000 attendees. It captured the Audience Award at last year's Austin Film Festival. It airs on the Showtime network and even got three stars and a hearty thumbs-up from legendary film critic Roger Ebert.

To promote it, Bill has made numerous media appearances, including a national interview with famed Las Vegas magician Lance Burton on ABC News' "World View" with Stephanie Sy. This month, the movie is being shown in Vietnam and Thailand as part of the U.S. State Department's American Documentary Showcase.

"I have Vietnamese subtitles over my head," Bill said. "How cool is that?"

To Burton, who for 14 years headlined the Monte Carlo casino in Las Vegas, Bill stands out as an outgoing leader who's quick to mentor younger magicians and demonstrate the technique behind a sleight of hand trick.

Burton predicts Bill's act will evolve into something combining his gregarious personality and musical talent. He recalls Bill pulling out a deck of cards at the dinner table at the Friars Club in New York City and then heading to the piano, where his impromptu performance drew an adoring crowd.

"I call him the Wayne Newton of magic," Burton said. "He's a natural born entertainer."

It's still difficult for Bill to believe how far he's come, especially considering the way he stumbled into magic.

He was 10 years old when he went to the library looking for a book about chess, but there were far too many words for his liking. Located in the same games and puzzles section was the picture-filled "Mark Wilson's Complete Course in Magic."

"I took it home, started playing with fire, the neighbor's cat disappeared and the rest is history," Bill joked. "But it's crazy, I never in a million years thought I'd be a magician for a job."

Without the knowledge of parents Bill and Chris Koch ("little Bill" changed his surname to Cook professionally because no one seemed to pronounce it correctly), he first perfected a matchbook trick. In it, he lights a match, then the entire matchbook, blows it out, closes the lid, takes a match from another book, makes it disappear and then reappear unburnt in the original matchbook.

Hours upon hours of practice ensued, and soon his family's basement transformed into a studio complete with a stage, massive mirror for practicing, Harry Houdini memorabilia, dozens of magic books and containers with labels such as rope, levitations/wands, mental magic and linking.

The downstairs also includes Bill's workshop, where he makes most of his props by hand, including iPod replicas in an effort to keep his act modern.

After attending Northeastern University for one year on a music scholarship -- Bill plays the piano, French horn and trumpet, which he says helps with his dexterity -- he took a break to focus on his craft.

"Every Sunday night after dinner we'd plan out a weekly curriculum as if he were home schooling himself in magic," Chris Koch said of her son. "So many hours of reading, physical performance, watching DVDs, and so on."

Not every performance is flawless.

The night before he made his way to Vegas for his first World Magic Seminar competition in 2007, he ran through his act for theater students at Niles West High School, where his dad is a teacher.

His wardrobe malfunctioned, CDs crashed to the ground, a laserdisc fell out of his jacket and the cannon that shoots confetti exploded. As the act came to a merciful end, all Bill could do was throw his hands out and give a sarcastic "ta-da."

"Everything that could have gone wrong didn't just go wrong. It failed. It burned to the ground and exploded in a mess of cataclysmic hell," he recalled for the film "Make Believe,"

Avoiding a similar catastrophe is partly what motivates Bill to work as hard as he does. He takes just about any job from birthday parties to corporate events, appears weekly at Paisano's restaurant in Richmond, gives lessons at PJ's Trick Shop in Arlington Heights, performs at Navy Pier and is a regular in the Magic Chicago show at Stage 773 on the city's North Side.

And though moving to Las Vegas or Los Angeles. has a certain allure, Bill said he most wants to help restore magic back to its glory days, when many of the world's most talented illusionists lived in Chicago.

"I want to do so much for the magic fraternity, and the best thing I can think of is to bring magic back home," Bill said.

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