On their first date, Scott Flom sawed his future wife in half. So it came as no surprise many years later when the couple returned home from the movies and their 7-year old son, Justin, announced that he was about to perform a similar stunt.
The youngster had recruited the neighborhood pastor's daughter as his assistant. Both of the kids' families gathered around a small stage with bright blue curtains in the Floms' Eden Prairie basement. The girl took her place in a box and Justin began jamming kitchen knives into the cardboard.
One problem: The boy was using an ordinary box.
"I didn't know there were secrets to tricks," said Justin, recalling the incident some 20 years later and how his father halted the act before anyone could get hurt.
The young magician has come a long way since then. His YouTube videos have attracted more than 10 million views. He has appeared twice on "Ellen." A TV competition, "Wizard Wars," which he co-created, premieres Tuesday on Syfy. Some believe that his sleight of hand, boy-band good looks and contagious exuberance could make him the Next Big Thing.
But no matter what heights Flom hits, he'll always be drawn to that basement, a fun house that goes a long way in explaining a young boy's love for magic and a father's love for his children.
The shelves are lined with signed basketballs and footballs. A vintage popcorn machine and a jukebox with 10-cent selections sit in the corners. There's a Popeye music box, an Iron Claw machine, a bowling game, autographed photos of famous magicians, a "Wizard of Oz" poster signed by some Munchkins. A James Bond poster masks a hidden door that leads into a space where the young Flom fiddled with chemicals.
And that stage? It actually flips over to serve as a bar for parties.
"There's some secret switch," said Flom, 28, while absent-mindedly flipping and shuffling a deck of cards, a habit he indulges in roughly three hours a day. "I don't even know where it is."
That's not all.
A spacious back yard overlooking Mitchell Lake features a trampoline that could handle a marching band, a new putting green and a small pond filled with koi. The family cabin in Park Rapids includes a zip line, go-cart track and boats. Not bad for an insurance salesman's salary.
"My dad figured out the secret," said Flom, dressed in a tight black T-shirt and jeans. "Don't spend money on extravagant things like cars and big vacations. Spend it on things that are really fun."
Flom, who was home-schooled, spent almost all his waking hours doing back flips on the trampoline or studying magic in the basement. All four kids got hooked and even performed together as the Flom Kids. But Justin was obsessed.
He memorized all of magician Doug Henning's routines, recorded by Dad on videocassette tapes. He watched countless hours of magic lectures, long after his bored-to-death father went to bed. He put on stage productions almost every night for his parents, friends, neighbors — heck, anyone who was willing to watch a kid turn a handkerchief into an egg. He knew from age 10 that magic was his destiny.
"We dream pretty big in our family," Scott Flom said. "One of my main goals as a father was to tell the kids not to believe the lies the world will throw at you. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something."
Showing the 'Show Me' state
After high school, Justin decided to move to the resort mecca of Branson, Mo., which he compares to the time the Beatles spent in Hamburg, developing — and bombing. At one point, he was so broke he sneaked into a bar without paying the cover charge and a complete stranger named Jocelynn ponied up the cash.
The two just celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary.
Things started to turn around in 2006 when Flom, then the youngest performer on the Branson strip, opened the Imaginary Theatre and Magic Parlor, a three-room club that included a 108-seat theater. Flom was thinking big — gilded cages, large safes, giant boxes with fire spikes — until he made it all disappear.
Six years ago, he decided to reverse himself. Out went the spectacular, in came the close-up magic: Turning water into Coca-Cola. Swallowing a bit of Nerds candy and pulling it out of his right eyeball. Making a cup of Starbucks coffee vanish, only to appear in another cup.
"The problem with stage magic is that it looks really good, but everyone knows there's a trick box," said Flom, as he performed a trick in which he managed to link two Life Savers. "Things got a whole lot more interesting when we started doing magic with ordinary objects. It's just so much more pure."
Party all the time
Flom premieres a lot of these tricks at his annual Magic Block Party held — where else? — in his family's back yard.
Flom, who lives in Las Vegas but comes back to Eden Prairie every couple of months, works the lawn for hours, performing for three to 10 people at a time while hot dogs grill on the patio. The evening culminates with hangers-on throwing a giant dance party. This year's event, held two weeks ago, drew about 150 people and is expected to be viewed on YouTube more than 2 million times.
What makes the evening work is Flom's bottomless energy and enthusiasm.
"Weird, right?" he says with an impish grin after most tricks.
"You look at when David Copperfield goes out on stage now and you can tell he doesn't want to be there," said Kyle Marlett, who serves as Flom's magic consultant and has a road act of his own. "Justin is so passionate. He goes the extra mile. That really shows in his videos."
It also shows in his new series, "Wizard Wars," in which he's one of four " house pros" who go up against a new group of contestants every week. Pairs of magicians are given common objects — eyeglasses, mannequins, cards, even Spam — that they must incorporate into an act. Celebrity judges, including Penn & Teller, pronounce the winner.
While Flom is thrilled to have one of the most iconic teams in magic on board, he makes it clear that their approach is entirely different.
"Penn and Teller love the very intellectual side of magic," he said. "Me, I'm more fun than them. They never look like they're having fun. They look angry."
That giddiness explains why no one can leave Flom's presence without being inundated with magic. A recent visitor was heading for the car when Flom pulled out one more trick.
He tore off a corner of a playing card and then somehow reattached it.
"You can keep that," he said, handing over the card as if it were a gold ring.
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @NealJustin