Press Article in Road King Magazine
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Jerry Newton's wizardry charms the customers for Caterpillar.
By Bill Hudgins
Most magicians specialize in making things disappear. But when Jerry Newton takes the truck show stage for Caterpillar Engines, his most challenging trick is to make truckers, and especially potential engine purchasers, appear. His abracadabra works -- he's been conjuring for Cat for more than a decade and has developed a loyal following of truckers who come back again and again.
Because he knows so much about Cat's products and has been associated with the company so long, many people assume he's an employee. He isn't -- at 48, Newton is a self-employed sorcerer who combines comedy, business savvy and sleight of hand to charm customers for corporate clients.
Newton has become a major draw at truck shows such as Mid-America and ITS. As the starting time for a performance nears, the audience pushes to the front; everybody wants to try to figure out the tricks, and they've heard this guy makes you part of the act.
During his shows, Newton jokes with the crowd and often recognizes fans in the audience. "Some people come back year after year, so I feel I have to develop new material so they won't get bored. But a lot of them bring friends and tell me, 'Hey, do to him what you did to me last year.' It's like a radio DJ getting requests for dedications."
As part of his routine, Newton has developed the art of anticipation to perfection -- he starts a trick, like making a rubber ball appear and vanish inside an apparently hollow cup, and does it once or twice quickly. Then he invites a member of the audience to help him do it again. "Where are you from?" he asks a volunteer. "New Jersey," the suddenly bashful helper admits. "Ohhh, I'm sorry," Newton quips. As the audience laughs, he quickly adds, "No, really, just kidding," and asks the helper's name.
Eventually, the volunteer will try to guess where the ball is and fail, of course. Meanwhile, Newton outlines the features of Cat's newest engine. He asks the audience if they've seen it, what they think about it, if they have Cats in their rigs, and so on. A couple more tricks -- a seemingly spherical sponge squeezed in another volunteer's hands magically turns into a "1" as Newton says, "Cat Engines are ... Number 1!" -- and he wraps up the show by handing out a simple card trick kit. As the audience slowly dissolves, some look to see when the next show starts.
Even after more than 30 years as a magician, Newton still seems amazed to be earning his living from what started out as a childhood hobby. "I got interested in magic when I was 9 years old back in the early '60s -- it was a childhood aspiration, like collecting stamps. A friend of the family used to do a few tricks like pulling a quarter out of my ear, and he showed me how to do it."
That led to his ordering magic kits and catalogs from comics. He paid for it out of his paper route and the allowance he earned working in his parents' small restaurant in Chicago. "I credit my parents with my success," he says. "They survived the Holocaust and created a new life in America. Their determination and hard work instilled a strong work ethic in me."
Soon, he discovered junior magician clubs. These were usually based at magic stores, where veteran professional magicians demonstrated tricks and reminisced about working with great Vaudeville magicians like Houdini, Harry Blackstone and Harry Blackstone Jr.
One of these magicians, Tom Palmer, spotted Newton's genuine interest in the art. "He saw my interest and maybe a little bit of himself in me and took me under his wing. Through the years we maintained a friendship; he became my mentor and teacher."
In his early teens, Newton developed a 30-minute act he performed at birthday parties, finding jobs by advertising in the local paper. His brother Ed also had an interest in magic and occasionally they performed together.
High school friends good-naturedly called him "Merlin." But as he got older and graduation approached, Newton worried about careers. He started taking sales and marketing courses.
"Believe it or not, I was actually quite shy, and I wasn't sure I could make it in sales. So I thought maybe I'd go into something like advertising where I wouldn't have to deal with a lot of people. I was making money on weekends doing magic, and it helped to make me less shy off stage, but I never thought I'd do that for a living."
But after graduation, he found that magic could earn him a living. He worked clubs and restaurants performing tricks at customers' tables. Then he started performing at shopping malls around the Midwest and even as far away as Texas. After a couple of years, in 1973, an amateur magician who worked for a direct mail company suggested he try trade shows. "I researched it and found it was a bit of a niche. It looked great -- the companies fly you to the shows and put you up and treat you like a star."
He got his first major job, at a direct mail trade show in New Orleans, by offering to waive his fee if he couldn't draw a crowd. "I was only 21 or 22 and I thought later, 'What have I done?' but they took me up on it and I got the crowd into the booth."
That show led to several years of representing R.L. Polk, the vehicle registration giant, then Goodyear, whom he still works for at non-trucking automotive events. In the mid-1970s, he worked at a now-defunct fleet show called "Fleet Week," where he heard about a brand-new event in Louisville. He started working Mid-America and the International Trucking Show for Hawkinson Treads, then later for Ford's heavy truck division and finally for Caterpillar.
Pocket Full of Hare
Being a wandering wizard has had its humorous moments. "When they first installed security systems in airports, back when I was doing shopping malls and sometimes flying to one, I had a rabbit and two doves that I took along. So there I am, trying to get through the X-ray without its being obvious that I had live animals with me. I'd stuff them in my pockets until I got on the plane and then put them back in this little box they traveled in."
Sometimes he got dates by dazzling a girl with a bit of prestidigitation. Magic also proved a good way to get free meals and drinks in restaurants and bars. "I'd do a few tricks, and the head waiter or bartender would bring people around and pretty soon they're paying for your food and drinks. It's a great way to break the ice."
Turning Passersby into Purchasers
Breaking the ice by warming up customers is what Cat and other corporations hire Newton to do. Besides comedy and magic, his performances demand a thorough knowledge of the client's product. "What I try to do is to make the audience feel I'm talking with them directly and making them a part of the show. I try not to really embarrass anyone, and I never do any material you couldn't show your grandmother."
Newton spends long hours researching his clients' products. "I may know about something that is very secret and revolutionary. That's another reason I like to develop long-term relationships with my clients, and why I won't work for competing companies."
His client list includes major manufacturers such as Kohler Co., Alcoa, Black and Decker, Goodyear, Western Star's parts and service division, Fram, Nissan, Quaker State and United Airlines. Newton Productions, as he calls his business, has been profiled on "Entertainment Tonight" and in The Wall Street Journal.
After a show ends, Newton lingers to talk with audience members intrigued by his magic. "You never know who might turn out to be a potential customer, who was just walking by and came in to see the show." And, caught by Newton's spell, the passerby is magically transformed into a customer.
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