Carrie Rengers

Designer Bill Gardner once performed magic for Muhammad Ali

Today, as the owner of Gardner Design, Bill Gardner is known for his design skills.

In college, though, he made extra money by performing magic and working for Wichita’s Stevens Magic Emporium.

Gardner and Emporium owner Joe Stevens regularly went to magic conventions and hung out with celebrities such as magician David Copperfield and performers Siegfried and Roy.

Often, he’d be called for private performances while at the conventions.

“It gave me a chance to meet Cary Grant and Bill Bixby and Pele – just all kinds of wonderful folks who loved magic and were involved in magic,” Gardner says.

While at a convention at the New Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in 1982, Stevens told Gardner, “There’s a guy down there in the executive suite that would just really love some magic but isn’t anxious to come down to the convention.”

So Gardner grabbed a few props and went to the room, where he was greeted at the door by a man he describes as being as big as the door.

He was security – and part of a larger entourage in the room – for Muhammad Ali, who was seated at a table waiting for Gardner.

“It was kind of an immediate, overwhelming, oh, gee, now I’ve got to perform, and here it’s Muhammad Ali.”

Ali, who died on Friday, was a magic fan, Gardner says.

“He would carry a little pocket trick or two with him. Just some pieces he’d love to pull out and just do a little magic for people,” he says. “A little scarf vanishing. … I think that was one of his favorite ones.”

Gardner says it’s easier to perform for a large crowd than in front of one person or a small group staring intently at you, but he says with enough practice it’s fairly easy to perform on demand.

“It’s kind of like drinking water. Then again, you put someone like Muhammad in front of you, the stutters can break out. You can choke on the water pretty easily.”

Gardner says he actually was more intimidated by the presence of fellow magician Tony Slydini, a master at close-at-hand work who also was there to perform.

“I’m not a great magical technician,” Gardner says. “I’m the guy that gets by with talking you through it and having fun while doing it.”

In the approximately half hour he was with Ali, Gardner did a number of tricks.

“I hate to admit that one of the things I did for him was the multiplying rabbits.”

He describes it as kind of a cheap novelty store trick with little yellow foam rabbits.

Gardner put a rabbit in Ali’s hand and closed Ali’s hand around it.

“OK, I’m actually handling the hand that’s just pummeled the crap out of a lot of people,” Gardner says he thought.

“But he was incredibly gentle.”

The trick went well, but Gardner says his multiplied rabbits looked a little different in Ali’s hand.

“His hand was a much larger stage that I was performing on than I was accustomed to.”

Gardner says Ali, who at one point ate some matzo ball soup as he watched the tricks, was “so gracious.”

“It was just a very relaxed, not rushed kind of situation,” he says.

Gardner says Ali uttered “Wowwwww” a lot.

Carrie Rengers: 316-268-6340, @CarrieRengers