By Amanda N. Wegner | Photo by Holly Leitnerr
Most people know Lake Geneva as a destination for its luxurious resorts, lovely beaches, natural beauty and, of course, the lake. But it’s also becoming known for its magic. The man behind that magic is master illusionist Tristan Crist, the owner and namesake of Lake Geneva’s Tristan Crist Magic Theatre. This Wisconsin native has put the city on the map for magic and larger-than-life illusions, performing multiple shows per week, all of which rival those found in Las Vegas.
“When you come to the Tristan Crist Magic Theatre, you are going to experience magic up close and personal like you never have before,” says Crist. “What I love is making grown adults have that child-like sense of wonder again when they see something that they can’t explain.”
SPARKING A PASSION
Sometimes a perfect storm of events can turn a spark into a passion. A native of Milwaukee, as a young child, Crist recalls his grandfather showing him a card trick, and then seeing a local magician perform at a festival. After that, his parents took him to the library, where he checked out every book on magic he could find. Crist says he started by reading everything from the history of magic to simple card tricks.
In support of this growing passion, Crist’s grandfather bought him a magic set. Crist says he worked hard to perfect the tricks. Once he had a handful of tricks up his sleeve, at age 13, he performed his first paying magic show gig for a Girl Scout troop. With that, he was hooked.
“I made $50 and realized I could do this as a job!” says Crist. “I spent my younger days performing for birthday parties, scouting events and VFW Christmas parties. Over time, I slowly moved up to performing in theaters.”
With this vision for his future, Crist recognized he needed to broaden his abilities, and develop his performance and showmanship skills. In his youth, he took classes at Milwaukee Ballet and participated in theatrical productions, which brought experience in what it’s like to perform in front of larger audiences.
Crist spent his early 20s touring the Midwest with a show, adding assistants to his act in order to perform bigger tricks. In 2005, he was hired to perform at Circus World Museum in Baraboo, and spent 10 years there developing the show.
Then, in 2015, Crist opened the first Tristan Crist Magic Theatre, renting space in downtown Lake Geneva. “I was looking for a tourist town that didn’t have a lot of evening entertainment options,” says Crist of his decision to put down roots in Lake Geneva. “The proximity to Chicago was a huge plus as well. We looked at several other locations in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota, but Lake Geneva always stood out as the perfect place.”
The original theater opened in December 2015 and was small, with just 50 seats. By 2017, it was clear that the show was so successful that he would need to expand, so he started looking at available buildings. “It was always my dream to own my own theatre, and it was the logical time to start making that happen,” says Crist.
However, Crist quickly discovered there wasn’t anything on the market that was large enough to accommodate what he wanted to achieve with the show. Another challenge was finding an existing building with a parking lot. After talking to his contractor, it became clear that a new building would cost about the same as buying and renovating something that already existed. At that point, he says, it “made sense to go all in on something new.”
Crist bought two acres of land across the street from the Lake Geneva Walmart in May of 2018. Construction began that summer, and the 175-seat Tristan Crist Magic Theatre opened in June, 2019.
“There are very few magicians who own their own theater,” Crist explains. “In fact, I’ve been told I’m the only magician who has actually built a theater from the ground up to house my show. The others who are doing it either bought existing venues or modified an existing building.”
Crist says there are benefits to building your own space. “Because the Tristan Crist Magic Theatre was brand-new construction, we were able to design it in a way that allows for the magic to be performed in a very intimate, up-close manner,” he says. “We perform very large illusions, and you will see things up close in a way you won’t be able to see anywhere else.”
Crist worked with the architect to ensure that there wouldn’t be a bad seat in the house, providing audience members with an unmatched experience. Highlights of the 90-minute show include dividing a lady in half, making a helicopter appear on stage, showgirls appearing out of thin air and a motorcycle vanishing.
BUILDING ON SUCCESS
Tristan Crist Magic Theatre has been Lake Geneva’s No. 1 “Thing to Do” on the travel website TripAdvisor for eight years running, and Crist was named the Master Illusionist of the Year in 2021 by the International Magicians Society. Still, he isn’t resting on his success.
When asked what magic trick or illusion is his favorite, Crist emphatically says, “The next one!”
“I am always working on something new for the show, so that is where my focus is. Once it gets in the show, I am searching for the next new thing to start working on. A few top favorites over the years are [a trick involving] making a helicopter appear and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle vanish.” Crist and his crew are constantly working on new routines for the show, and most new illusions, he says, take between six months to a year to develop.
“It starts with an idea. From there, I go to one of a handful of professional illusion builders who are located in Las Vegas or California. They will build the apparatus and then ship it to us in Lake Geneva. We rehearse the prop, figure out solutions to any challenges that pop up, choreograph the routine, design the lighting and music, and eventually get it in the show.”
When it comes to particularly complicated illusions, some things, he adds, take even longer. For instance, Crist and his crew are currently working on a brand-new routine that has never been done in the world of magic before. “It took our builder 18 months to complete the apparatus [for the illusion],” he explains, and adds that they are just starting the rehearsal process with the hope of adding the new illusion to the show in 2024.
“The number-one compliment we get is that people enjoy the show not just because of the amazing tricks but because they genuinely connect with me and enjoy my personality,” says Crist. “Even though I’ve performed the show hundreds of times, I try to make it new and fresh for every audience.”
Crist says that people often ask if the show is appropriate for kids; the magic, he says, is designed to fool adults, but children enjoy the visual aspect of it as well. “We design the show to have routines and music that will appeal to all ages. There are segments that young kids will enjoy, as well as parts that will appeal to teenagers and young adults. A large part of our audience is adults on date night, and we certainly have plenty of grandparents bringing grandchildren.” In that way, Crist’s show serves as a fitting tribute to the man who first inspired his lifelong passion for magic and his career as an illusionist: his grandfather.
Tricks of the Trade
Impress your friends with the floating cup trick!
The floating cup trick is one of Crist’s favorite tricks to teach. Here are instructions for amazing your friends at your next social gathering:
- Take a Styrofoam coffee cup (make sure to drink everything in it first) and poke a hole in the back with your thumb.
- Hold the cup with two hands and place your thumb in the hole, then slowly release all your other fingers.
- Your thumb poked through the hole in the back supports the cup, and from the front, it will look like it is floating in midair!
- Be careful to ensure your audience is directly in front of you, as the side angles can give away the trick.
For those interested in trying their hand at more complex magic and illusions, Crist recommends starting like he did — with your local library. “You can certainly find things on the internet or YouTube these days, but I think there is some value to looking at illustrations in a book, and slowly figuring out a card trick without the help of video,” he says. “It helps develop your spin on it rather than just copying someone else’s routine.”