He drops a handful of quarters on the back bar at Charlie's Pub and Grille. "Pick out four of 'em," he says, the sleeves of his white T-shirt rolled up to his elbows. "Now, if you see, all of these quarters have eagles on the back. And what do eagles do? "Right. They fly. So, I'm going to lay them here in my left hand like so. One, two, three, four. And hold my other hand over here, and you'll see." He gently shakes his hand, palm face up with the quarters in plain view. What were once four are now three, and he opens his right hand to reveal. "One has flown over here." Incredulous grins can't help but creep on the faces of those assembled at the bar.
Neil Donnelly is best known as the gatekeeper for one of the most frequented bars in Durham. You'll recognize him-the bearded man with the dream-catcher earring and the slicked-back black hair that stands between you and a good beer. But don't let the intimidating posture and the keen eye for fake IDs fool you. The former Marine (he fought in 'Nam) and police officer insists he's just doing his job. "There's nothing personal about it," he says of stopping fake ID-toting underagers at the door. "I don't get mad at them about it. It's just my job to catch them, and I think I'm pretty good at it."
For the past three and half years, the 58-year-old Donnelly has settled down in Durham, guarding the door at Charlie's and performing magic for its patrons on Wednesday nights. He hits the road to vacation destinations like Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, S.C., where he puts on his one-man show. He's more than "The Magic Man," as Duke students have dubbed him; he's a singer, a vocal impressionist, a stand-up comedian and a ventriloquist-acts he's been perfecting for almost 30 years. He's an old-school entertainer who has probably forgotten more stories about his life than most will ever dream of telling. And the more he talks about himself, the more mesmerized you become.
Donnelly pulls out a deck of cards, a quarter and his shimmering gold and black business card.
"I'm getting pretty good at this trick, so I'm willing to bet money that I'll be able to pick your card out. I'll bet you this shiny quarter and my reputation.. Deal?" He puts his card over the quarter and tells you to say stop as he shuffles through the cards.
"Take the card, remember what it is. Okay, put the card back in the deck, and shuffle it up good." He lays the deck down and picks up part of the deck. "Was it the 3 of clubs? No?" A bit embarrassed, he cuts the deck again. "It was the Queen of diamonds. No? Oh.
"Well, you know, I really don't like losing my reputation. So, if you'll let me keep my reputation, my business card, I'll let you keep the quarter. Is that a deal?" He picks up his card and uncovers the quarter, which has two holes cut out of it: the number 7 and a heart.
"But you know, if I really wanted to know it, I could've just done this," he says as he takes the deck and drops it onto the bar. All of the cards but one fall face down. You can guess which card was singled out.
Before Donnelly "just ran out of gas," as he jokes, and landed in Durham, he toured the country performing in hotels, lounges and cruise ships, mostly as a singer and vocal impressionist. Neil Diamond introduces Kenny Rogers, who then introduces Wayne Newton, who introduces Elvis-that's how he describes his solo act. When the song "We are the World" was released, he'd impersonate all 16 male voices featured on the track.
"I was just born with this mouth, and the voice just came out. Whereas with guitar and keyboards and magic tricks, those are things that I learned," he says with genuine humility. "So, I can't take credit for that."
He can adapt his voice from Johnny Cash-like depths to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons' falsetto highs, and Donnelly once upon a time was a serious Elvis impersonator. He still has the '70s white and pink polyester jumpsuits, the ones he decorated with rhinestones to look like Elvis' peacock suit and flame suit. They're hanging in his closet in almost-perfect condition, ready to be worn again at a moment's notice, and he has a photo album full of Elvis pictures-both real shots and images of Donnelly's version of the legend. But in some ways, Donnelly has become a legend in his own right around here.
The Magic Man opens the top of a salt shaker and pours a mound of salt into your hand. He makes a fist with his right hand and places it in your clean palm. "Pour the salt into my fist, and then swirl it around with your finger. Good." You can feel the grains; in fact, thousands are still stuck to your palm. He opens his fist, the one into which you poured the salt, and nothing is there. Not a single grain. He shows you his hands and his arms, and you're amazed. But it gets even better.
Donnelly makes a fist again, and voilà! He pours the salt that had vanished back into the palm of your hand. So, there you are, a few beers deep with two salty hands, no idea how he did that and a huge grin on your face. And you swear to yourself, I'm not that drunk.
"I like to do tricks when the lights are up and when people can see what's going on and have all their faculties about them," he says. "There are times when I do magic for some people who've. I mean, I could make an elephant disappear, and they wouldn't know the difference. They have no clue."
It's more fun for him when there's a challenge, when seven sober police officers make a circle around him and examine his act from every possible angle, and he can still pull off the trick without a hitch. But what's most fulfilling is when his audience is having fun, when he sees the smiles on their faces and hears the amazement from their mouths.
"I'm not losing anything by doing a trick for somebody," he says. "And, you know, they're getting some happiness. So why wouldn't I?"
He approaches a table of out-of-towners, probably from a big city where tableside entertainment doesn't come cheap. He asks if they'd like to see some magic, and they make it clear that they don't want to pay for a couple of card tricks. "That's not what I'm looking for," he says. "I don't do tricks to drive people to give me tips. I just want to make them happy."
He's most pleased to spread smiles on people's faces-that is, unless they're under 21 and trying, often unsuccessfully, to get into Charlie's.
Donnelly rubs his palms together furiously and somehow materializes a red foam ball between them. He then takes the ball and squeezes it in his right fist. "How many balls do I have? One?" But when he opens his hand, two fall out. "Okay, just so you know it's nothing I'm doing. Here, put my balls in your hand and squeeze them. but don't squeeze my balls too tight. Now how many are in there? Two? Open your hand." And three fall out. "Wow, you're really bad at this guessing game. Let's try this again." And then there were four, and you're laughing because you didn't feel a thing, and because the thought of four balls in your hand amuses you.
"Now squeeze them and make a wish, something you've always wanted, your secret heart's desire. Okay? Got it? Now, how many balls do you think you have now?" Five, you think, because that seems to be the pattern. But you open your hand and what falls out onto the bar. is a big red foam penis.
Just what you've always wanted.
It's one of his more risqué tricks, he says, only appropriate for those who-you guessed it-can get by him at the door.
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