People & Places

Iowa City teacher leaps back into magic, mentalism this year to make people laugh

Since Troy Peters of Iowa City has taken a year off from teaching at City High School, he's ramped up his artistry in me
Since Troy Peters of Iowa City has taken a year off from teaching at City High School, he’s ramped up his artistry in mentalism and magic. He’s available for private and corporate events and will be performing at 3 p.m. New Year’s Eve at Big Grove Brewery & Taphouse in Iowa City. (Courtesy of Troy Peters)
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Troy Peters describes his journey into magic as taking him “from sleight of hand to sleight of mind.”

He’s traded his interest with the “cheap, plastic props” of his youth for mentalism, “reading people’s thoughts, ideas and memories,” he said. But he still does some smaller magic, and will be doing both kinds of mind-blowing wizardry on New Year’s Eve, during a free, all-ages show beginning at 3 p.m. at Big Grove Brewery & Taproom in Iowa City.

His shows today are “more about the audience and their thoughts. It’s highly audience-centric,” he said.

“Magic is more about fooling people with cards, ropes, silks, but I like performing these Jedi mind tricks on people. The Force may be a little strong with me, but I’m not an actual Jedi. Just a regular geek that likes to have fun with this.

“That’s why I like doing this. There’s so many people under so much stress for the past 10 months with COVID. It involves both children and adults, so I just think we need some breaks from this weight of that isolation and loneliness.”

Most of his shows are virtual right now, but he can do smaller in-person shows outdoors when the weather allows or indoors where health and safety protocols can be put in place — like at the upcoming show at Big Grove, equipped with a large space in which to keep patrons physically distanced.

He’s booking a mix of online and in-person shows for small groups, families, corporate and nonprofit businesses. The events typically last 20 to 45 minutes and the price range is $125 to $300.

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“I’m not getting rich off this,” he said. “I like to make people laugh. When they do, it really ministers to them. I’m just trying to spread some joy during the holiday season — like a magic Santa, but mainly on Zoom.”

In the beginning

Now 55 and living with his wife and daughter in Iowa City, his fascination with magic began at age 8, when his parents would take him from their home in Belmond, north of Ames, to Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines. There, young Troy discovered a magic shop, which opened his mind to a whole new world of possibilities.

“I was just wide-eyed whenever I’d go there, and get some new tricks,” he said. “I just always loved it — there was always something amazing going on there.”

He especially loved when an elderly clerk would bring “some dusty old tricks” out of the backroom and show them to him.

“I was hooked,” he said. “Kind of like the theater bug, it bit me.”

When he was a little older, he did some shows for his friends and nieces and nephews.

“What’s fun now, is my nephews are hiring me to do magic shows for their kids,” he said, noting that they get “the family discount.”

But as the rest of his life evolved, he set magic aside. Sort of.

When the pandemic hit, he was an English teacher and drama director at City High in Iowa City. With COVID-19 spiking, however, he and his wife decided he should take the current school year off so he could help their 6-year-old first-grader navigate online learning.

Hollywood years

From the late 1980s to early 2000s, Peters worked as a props master or set decorator in the art department for TV shows and films in Los Angeles. He lived there for about 10 years, then commuted from Tipton when jobs popped up, so he could spend more time at home with his older son.

“I always gravitated toward the special effects crew,” he said, “learning from them and helping them.”

Peters worked on about 25 shows, including “Pleasantville,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Fight Club.” But “Catch Me If You Can,” directed by Steven Spielberg, and “The Bridges of Madison County,” starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, gave him his favorite memories.

“I was always in awe when I was speaking with (Spielberg). He’s trying to tell me something or request something, and all that’s going on in my head is, ‘Oh my God, it’s Steven Spielberg.’”

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During “Bridges of Madison County,” he said, “Meryl just came into the living room of that farmhouse, spouting Italian, sat on my lap put her arms around me, kissed me on the cheek, and then just left the room.”

He rubbed elbows with other high-profile stars. His website, Iowacitymagic.com, has a whole section of him posing with such other A-listers as John Travolta, Michael Douglas, Gary Marshall, Connie Chung, Billy Bob Thornton, Patrick Swayze, Forest Whitaker, Whoopi Goldberg, Mel Brooks and Robert Duvall.

“There’s some fun people,” he said, “because they spend 12 hours a day working on these film sets. They want to talk to people. Some of them are actually good people — and some not so.

“James Earl Jones — that was a highlight, as well. He’s just a fantastic man. He would always wonder how my family was back home and ask about that, and ask about my son,” Peters said.

They were working on the TV show “Gabriel’s Fire,” which aired from 1990-91. Had the stars aligned differently, they might have worked together in Iowa.

A University of Iowa alum, Peters interviewed for “Field of Dreams” while he was still in college. “I didn’t get that job,” he said, “so I went with this other low-budget film, ‘Zadar! Cow from Hell.’” It was shot around Iowa City, Solon, Tipton and Mount Vernon in 1987.

“So ‘Field of Dreams,’ that was an Oscar-nominated film, and I get ‘Zadar! Cow from Hell,’” he quipped. However, he recently spotted a “Zadar” T-shirt on a young female sales clerk in a downtown Iowa City record store. “It was probably mine from Goodwill,” he added.

That movie also was his springboard to Hollywood, when crew members urged him to move there. And when he moved back to Tipton in 1996, he brought a bit of Hollywood with him, starting Tipton’s Hardacre Film Festival in 1997.

Back to magic

In 2007, he earned a teaching certificate at the UI, and embarked on his teaching career. The following year, he joined the City High faculty. That’s where a play rekindled his interest in magic, just this year, with the pandemic giving him more time to get back to his roots and explore new realms.

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“I was looking at a musical called ‘Matilda.’ We were going to perform that last spring,” he said. “It had some special effects. The main character, Matilda, has some mind-reading powers. Planning some of the effects that we never actually got to do, it got my juices flowing. I started reading and getting into more magic and mentalism.”

He’s not into the dark arts, however.

“It’s all in fun,” he said. “I don’t do seances and raise people’s dead ancestors.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

At a glance

• What: Troy Peters, mentalist, magician

• Shows: Kids’ parties to corporate events, in-person or online

• Rates: $125 to $300

• Information: Iowacitymagic.com/

New Year’s Events

• Cedar Rapids Public Library: Virtual Noon Year’s Eve, 11:30 a.m. to noon Thursday, on the library’s YouTube channel. Grab your party hats, noisemakers and balloons, and get ready to count down to noon at home. Chad Elliott will lead viewers in song and celebration, as well as the countdown to the new year at noon on Youtube.com/c/cedarrapidspubliclibrary

• Big Grove Brewery & Taproom, 1225 S. Gilbert St., Iowa City: Kids’ Noon Year’s Eve, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., table cookie decorating and confetti poppers at noon, with a big-screen video of the ball drop; face coverings and social distancing required; Biggrovebrewery.com/iowa-city-taproom-events/ Mentalist Troy Peters, 3 p.m., followed by walk-around magic for the kids; all ages; free

• Riverside Casino, 3184 Highway 22, Riverside: New Year’s Eve: Guitarist and singer/songwriter Ana Popovic, 8 to 9:30 p.m. and 10:35 p.m. to 12:05 a.m., Show Lounge stage; ages 21 and over; $30, Casino Gift Shop or Riversidecasinoandresort.com/event/2020/dec/anapopovic.html

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