Casino File: Talking with Borgata-bound magician Justin Willman; Atlantic City Thanksgiving dinner specials
Justin Willman may be a talented magician, but he certainly couldn’t make the COVID-19 pandemic disappear. As such, he wasn’t able to perform in person for the better part of 18 months. But he was able to keep his career on track by embracing the pandemic-inspired “new normal:” Connecting with people remotely via Zoom.
“I was very hesitant even to do it at all,” admitted the 41-year-old St. Louis native during a recent phone call occasioned by his Nov. 19 appearance at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. “At first, I thought I was a late adopter; I didn't really hop on the Zoom train until like June or July of 2020. By then, in my head, I was a late adopter. But now people are like, ‘Oh man, you were one of the first.’”
Not that it was a seamless transition for Willman, who counts among his influences traditional wizards like David Copperfield and longtime Vegas stalwart Lance Burton, as well as those who incorporate large helpings of comedy into their acts such as another Vegas mainstay, Mac King, and show biz titans Penn & Teller.
“I discovered that you can't just do your stage act on Zoom,” he said. “There’s a different pace, different timing. I had to just kind of start from scratch. So it was just pivoting and thinking of a different way. And I'm glad I [did it] because I feel like certain parts of the world will always be a little virtual.”
Nonetheless, Willman couldn’t be happier to be back to IRL gigging, which he commenced a few months ago.
“My first weekend back was in early August and it was a comedy-club run, just kind of a soft launch. I had all this anxiety about it. It was five minutes into the first show and it was like I never left. It was just like you snap back into it. So all that fear and trepidation was for nothing. And I’ve got to say, that weekend the crowds were just electric. People are very, very, very amped and ready to just get back to normal.”
While Willman—who early in his career was billed as “Justin Kredible” (get it?)--is first and foremost a stage magician, he has forged a successful career as a television personality. Between 2009 and 2013, he was the host of the popular Food Network competition series, Cupcake Wars. He also emceed the channel’s Halloween Wars and Last Cake Standing (whose contestants showed off both cooking and engineering skills). And he has starred in three seasons of Magic For Humans, a Netflix series that, he explained, aims to be more than just a showcase for his talents.
“Ever since I got into magic, it was my dream to figure out what that perfect magic series is that checks the boxes for me: amazing, original magic and super, super funny, but also about something. I want to make you think about stuff afterwards, just because I think those are the types of programs that resonated with me the most.
“In Magic For Humans, I explore the human condition from an autobiographical point of view, with ridiculous magic and ridiculous comedy that hopefully by the end, leaves you thinking, ‘Oh, that was actually deeper than I thought.’”
Willman added that he accomplishes this with “psychological and social experiments and messing with people and studying human behavior and also just the facets of life: Self-control, fear, marriage, parenthood, that kind of thing. I’m really, really proud of the three seasons that we have up on Netflix, and I'm excited to do more.”
He likely takes most pride in the program’s pan-generational reach. “I love that it's somehow managed to connect with a very wide age demographic: I'll have young kids, 7-, 8-, 9-year-olds who love the show. And then there are young couples who [are fans] and seniors who like to watch with their grandchildren as well. So it's kind of like a Pixar movie that has something different for everybody.”
According to Willman, he’s not particularly surprised that magic—his and others’--is being embraced far-and-wide.
“I think it comes from the fact that these days, the news and topical stuff and just real life have gotten so divisive and stressful that we really are craving escapism that we can all enjoy together,” he reasoned. “Like ‘What can we watch with all of our different, politically [leaning] relatives at Thanksgiving?’ Well, I want to give people that show that reminds us how it feels to feel good again, to be together and laugh at the same thing and not have anything be divisive in the process.
“So it’s kind of a right place at the right time to give people magic, which I always thought is the perfect escape.”
For tickets, click here.
Talkin’ turkey (and other goodies)
Spending the holiday at a casino may not be the traditional way to celebrate Thanksgiving, but that doesn’t mean you can’t gobble up a Turkey Day feast in Atlantic City. Here’s a sampling of what’s being served:
A choice of pumpkin soup with marshmallow cream or baby gem salad topped with local apples, candied walnuts and pomegranate seeds and tossed in blue cheese; roasted turkey breast, smoked turkey sausage, cranberry compote, sausage stuffing, mashed potatoes and natural gravy; choice of maple pecan pie topped with cinnamon mascarpone and caramel or pumpkin pie topped with cinnamon whipped cream and bourbon caramel.
$42 per person.
Minestrone soup or classic Caesar salad; roasted turkey breast with fennel gravy, complemented by turkey confit stuffing with wild mushrooms, creamy polenta and cranberry chutney; choice of pumpkin tiramisu or a cannoli.
$42 per person.
Jersey fresh butternut squash topped with candied walnuts; spinach salad topped with Granny Smith apples, Texas pecans and feta tossed with maple cider vinaigrette; carved turkey breast with apple poppy and calvados stuffing, French green beans almondine, mashed sweet potatoes and marshmallows, cranberry sauce and giblet gravy; choice of country-style pecan pie or pumpkin pie.
$65 per person.
Caesars Atlantic City:
Five-spice butternut squash soup; roasted pear and stilton cheese salad; roasted turkey and candied sweet potatoes; choice of pumpkin pie or apple cider cheesecake.
$45 per person.
Sherry cream lobster bisque; Frisee-basil roasted heirloom salad; hand-carved turkey with stuffing, French beans and cranberry; pumpkin pie or apple cider cheesecake.
$45 per person.
Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City
Chef-selected amuse bouche of foie gras mousse, Jersey apple and crepe chip; butternut squash soup adorned with goat cheese and arugula; balsamic and prosciutto burrata; turkey dinner with croquettes, green bean casserole, turkey bacon, chive cornbread and cranberry compote; pumpkin lava cake.
$95 per person.
Creamy butternut squash-and-crab dip accompanied by sweet potato chips; beets and brown butter scallops with pumpkin ranch and Seckel pear; stuffed flounder with oyster stuffing and green bean casserole; banana rum cake.
$79 per person.
Tropicana Atlantic City
Choice of Caesar salad, Chelsea house salad or butternut squash soup; Nicholas Farm roasted turkey with herb gravy, cornbread and chorizo stuffing and Macaroni & Cheese, served with tangy-sweet Jersey cranberry sauce and either buttermilk or sweet mashed potatoes; choice of Meyer lemon cheesecake, pumpkin pie or apple crumb pie.
$39 per person.