In the last days of 1943 and first week of 1944, famed magician Harry Blackstone Sr., also known as “The Great Blackstone,” brought his stage show to the Orpheum Theater in Wichita.
In the audience at one of those shows sat 7-year-old Joe Stevens. The boy was mesmerized when Blackstone, the leading American illusionist of the time, sawed one of his assistants in half and later levitated another from a couch. During the Blackstone matinee finale, some children from the audience took to the stage. His second son Mark, young Joe Stevens returned home that day with a live rabbit and a lifelong love of magic and illusion.
“This was absolutely without a doubt the catalyst that propelled him into what turned out to be a lifelong pursuit,” said Mark Stevens.
Joe Stevens, longtime owner of Stevens Magic Emporium in Wichita, died Sunday at age 86, two days after suffering a heart attack.
Joe Stevens was born in Wichita on April 26, 1936 and attended school in Wichita including Marshall Middle School and North High.
While at North, Stevens became a star on the basketball court. He was drafted by Kansas State and Wichita State, ultimately deciding to continue his education and athletic pursuits for the hometown Shockers.
“Little Joe” has become a star on the basketball team.
Playing under legendary coach Ralph Miller, Stevens made All Missouri Valley Conference honors three times as a Shocker, including first team honors in 1957. When his playing career ended, he was Wichita State’s second leading scorer all-time, behind only to Cleo Littleton. He was inducted into the Shocker Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.
Mark Stevens said his father often took the opportunity on trips with the Shockers to look through the telephone directories of the cities the team was playing in to see if the city had a magic store. He continued to collect what the magic industry calls appliances—things with which to perform magic tricks—during his college playing days.
According to Mark Stevens, after Joe’s college playing career ended, he was presented with the opportunity to be drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers of the NBA. But Joe Stevens had recently become a father and at the time the pay for a professional basketball player wasn’t great. He chose to stay home and build a life in Wichita.
Stevens soon became a door-to-door salesman for the Fuller Brush Co. According to Mark Stevens, his father was very successful as a salesman due to his fame as a basketball player Shocker “Little Joe” Stevens. Eventually he moved on to managing the company.
But the lure of magic and illusion has never left Stevens. He founded Stevens Magic Emporium in 1973. Two years later he created The Wichita Conclave, a magic convention that quickly grew in popularity and was attended by magicians like David Copperfield, then in his early twenties. The Wichita Conclave was so popular that it was moved to Las Vegas in 1978 and renamed the Desert Magic Seminar. It was the premier magic convention in the United States for the next 20 years.
Meanwhile, Steven’s Magic Emporium in East Douglas has grown into one of the leading magic shops in the United States.
“The key to everything was exclusive merchandise,” said Mark Stevens.
“He (Joe) understood ‘I have to be different’ very early on, and traveled the world to source these items. In France, in Germany, in Italy. He parted with exclusive high-end products, and that’s how he got his reputation.
On Monday morning, things were quiet at Stevens Magic Emporium, but Joe Stevens’ legacy was loud and clear throughout the store.
Photos of Stevens with every famous magician from the last few decades adorn the walls. Famous mid-20th century magicians such as Dai Vernon and Tony Slydini. Joe and his wife, Martha, in a photo flanked by famous Las Vegas magicians Siegfried & Roy. Also hanging on the wall are dozens of other photos of lesser-known wizards with messages scrawled thanking Joe for all he’s done to help their careers.
“It had the biggest names in magic,” said store employee James Higgs.
Higgs pointed to a picture on the wall and said “He’s at a table with David Copperfield.”
Higgs went on to tell the story of how Joe Stevens changed his life just like “The Great Blackstone” impacted Stevens in 1944.
“I walked in here when I was 10 and Joe was the first person who showed me magic,” Higgs said.
“It blew me away and I’ve been fascinated ever since.”
Mark Stevens, who runs the day-to-day operations of the Stevens Magic Emporium these days, has been trying to recapture his father’s legacy.
“His belief was that the ultimate definition of success is making other people successful.”
David Copperfield, an attendee of Joe Stevens’ first magic convention in Wichita, has been described by Forbes magazine as the most commercially successful magician in history.
On Monday, Mark Stevens’ phone rang with a text message from Copperfield. A response to a text from Mark announcing the news of his father’s death. Two emojis. First, two hands clasped together in a gesture of thanks. The second: A heart.
Joe is survived by his children, Amy Jo Stevens and Mark Stevens; sisters Sandi Barrese and Judy Sayfie; and numerous nephews, nieces and cousins.
Visiting is Thursday from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm at the Culbertson Smith Mortuary, 115 S. Seneca. The funeral will be held Friday at 10:00 at St. Mary’s Orthodox Christian Church, 344 S. Martinson.