A little more than a year ago, T.J. Ketchmark was a teenager with an interest in magic, performing occasionally at local birthday parties and practicing his act inside his Brookfield home.
Now he’s a budding young star in magic circles, performing in front of hundreds of people and winning plaudits and encouragement from pros who know talent when they see it.
“This kid’s got a great future,” said Steve Daly, a magician, comedian, talent scout and producer who has worked with everyone from David Copperfield to Criss Angel. Daly learned of Ketchmark’s eye-opening performances at smaller Midwest conventions in 2011, and invited him to his own magic convention in May in Des Moines. “He’s a natural. For a  year old, he’s far, far ahead of everyone else.”
Part of Ketchmark’s appeal is his act. The main prop he uses are parasols – small red and white umbrellas that he makes appear with a flick of his wrist from similarly colored scarves.
The parasols burst from his hands in a shower of red and white confetti. The act begins with Ketchmark holding nothing in his hands and accompanied on stage by a small prop table and two thin racks where he places some of the umbrellas he makes appear.
By the end of his act there are more than a dozen parasols on stage, on the racks and strewn about on stage.
But it’s Ketchmark’s performance that has had experienced magicians talking.
“Charisma is a big part of it,” Daly said. “He’s graceful on stage, and his charisma sells it. When he walks out on stage, within 15 seconds, he’s got them in his hands.”
And Ketchmark is largely self-taught. He developed the techniques on his own and with the help of his parents, Kit and Kathleen, has built and modified most of the props he uses in his act.
Over the July 4 holiday, Ketchmark was in Norfolk, Va., performing his much-heralded parasol act as part of a “Catch the Rising Stars” show at the annual convention of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.
And on July 23, Ketchmark will be heading off to magic’s promised land – Las Vegas – where he’ll be one of six young magicians chosen from around the world to perform at the “Stars of Tomorrow” showcase at the convention for the Society of American Magicians at the Golden Nugget.
“I think it’s turning into more than a hobby,” Ketchmark said in an interview just before leaving for the convention in Norfolk. “With the help of some people I can turn it into something more.”
Ketchmark has been surprised at just how many helping hands he’s gotten along the way. In fact, it was a chance invitation to a small Michigan magic convention in April 2011 that set the wheels in motion.
He and his dad, Kit Ketchmark, were at a small convention in Springfield that month as visitors. One of the dealers there was in charge of Michigan Magic Day near Lansing. There was a spot open for a performer in the youth competition, but he needed a commitment in two days. Oh, and the event was happening in two weeks.
At the time, Ketchmark’s only stage experience was at the junior high talent show and he didn’t have an act. He was actually toying with a dove act, but changed his mind and invented his parasol routine.
“There’s really not any good parasol guy or umbrella guy in America, so I said maybe I’ll do that,” said Ketchmark. “You want to be a little different, because if everybody’s doing the same thing why would you go see him?”
Two weeks later, Ketchmark walked away with a first-place trophy at Michigan Magic Day, and his act got him an invitation to perform at the Meadow Brook Music Festival near Detroit in July 2011, where Ketchmark was suddenly performing before more than 1,000 spectators.
“I’ve always liked attention … so I was OK getting in front of people,” he said.
Mike Miller, past president of the Society of American Magicians, caught Ketchmark’s act in Detroit and encouraged him to send in a tape for the group’s 2012 convention – the one he’ll be performing in later this month – since the 2011 youth show was already booked.
In August 2011, he competed among adults at Abbott’s Magic Get Together in Colon, Mich., winning first place and the People’s Choice Award. That was followed by a second-place finish in St. Louis and a first-place finish and the Houdini Award of Excellence at a convention hosted by the Houdini Club in Green Bay – all before finishing his first two weeks of high school.
A couple of months later, he won the Riverside-Brookfield High School talent contest and got to perform at a pep rally in front of the whole school and during the annual telethon for the RB Educational Foundation on RBTV.
In early 2012 he was back on the convention circuit in Columbus and Canton, Ohio, made a return trip to Michigan Magic Day and was invited, sight unseen, by Daly to his Abra-Corn-Dabra event in Des Moines in May.
In an interview on the Penguin Magic blog in June, Daly said Ketchmark “will be a star.”
“Watch this kid! His act is very good (needs some polish which will come with time) and reminds me a lot of Thomas Ward’s act with parasols,” Daly told interviewer Chris Beason. “Very impressive work for a young man his age!”
Kit and Kathleen Ketchmark have patiently served as their son’s handler, travel agent through the whirlwind of the last year. There’s been lots of travel (and expense that goes along with it all), and it’s all come out of nowhere.
“All of this happens extremely fast,” Kit Ketchmark said. “What you realize with this is there’s a small window where he has these opportunities, and you can either take advantage of them or not. In three, four years he could simply be another magician.”
But with the mentoring of people like Daly, there might be a chance that Ketchmark can take advantage of the buzz surrounding his act.
“I want to be noticed now,” he said. “And with the help of all of them, I think I could become someone.”