Get local news delivered straight to your phone
Corporate magician Charles Greene III holds up the eight of clubs. “Remember that card,” he instructs his audience. Then, barely finished with the pick-a-card-any-card preliminaries, he launches into the mind-bending language of pharmaceutical sales: “Remember that card as well as you remember that Duragesic is Janssen’s new transdermal treatment system for chronic pain as seen in cancer patients.”
All across the country—and occasionally abroad—the Washington-based Greene performs his magic at trade shows and sales meetings, attempting to add razzle-dazzle to what are often the drabbest of products. His company, the Corporate Shuffle, boasts heavy-hitting clients such as 3M, Conoco, Johnson & Johnson, Monsanto, Sprint, and Westinghouse. To promote Exxon chemicals for pulp and paper mills, he melds short pieces of dental floss into a long one. For a corporate sales meeting-cum-pep rally, he encloses a volunteer in a box, which he then folds down to an impossibly small size and perforates with swords. When the volunteer emerges unscathed, Greene grandly repeats the meeting’s motto: “At Whitby Pharmaceuticals, the magic begins with you.”
Corporate aphorisms like that are Greene’s stock in trade, adapted to fit anything from plastic bags to arterial grafts. Just now, he is trying to glamorize a transdermal treatment system, and it’s no small task. He shuffles—a precision Duragesic shuffle, he says, his voice dripping with significance. He taps the deck and holds it up to display its side. Along the edge of the cards the word “Duragesic” is now wondrously written four times in squashed little felt-tip-marker letters. Four times, because the pain reliever is available in four different strengths.
We can't make City Paper without you
Greene continues to spiel, relentlessly embedding the medicine’s name and attributes in his audience’s cortices. After another shuffle and another tap, the side of the deck reveals the word “Duragesic” written only twice, the felt-tip letters now only half as squashed. More shuffles, more taps, and the word appears only once, the letters proudly expanding to the full height of the deck. Each magical occurrence unleashes a torrent of pharmaceutical praise.
When it seems that no more can possibly be said of Duragesic, Greene unleashes the trick’s apparent finale. He fans the deck, showing that the multitude of shuffles has amazingly left the cards in perfect order. They’re now arrayed in strict succession from the ace of spades down to the lowly deuce of clubs. Precision, he intones, à la you-know-what.
But wait: What about the chosen card? Greene beams a high-wattage smile. He has one more trick up his Hugo Boss sleeve. He snaps his fingers and voilà!—the word “Duragesic” changes before the audience’s eyes. The cards now spell out “8 of clubs.”
A minor miracle brought to you by corporate America. A spoonful of sugar to help the Duragesic go down.
Like his cards, Greene defies the laws that govern mere mortals. His perkiness never flags. His eyes sparkle as he relates the wonders of surfactants or the glories of printing on perforated plastic. Even when not performing, he remains elegant, unruffled, and unremittingly upbeat—a Stepford magician, a Mary Poppins of marketing.
He possesses approximately a half-million Continental Frequent-Flyer miles, but the incessant travel has taken no toll on him; he notes with satisfaction that his apartment offers a lovely view of National Airport. Pressed to complain, he confides, as if sharing a horrible secret, that he’s read all the magazines in business class.
He oozes the contentment of a man who does what he’s always wanted to do. When he was 7, his mother gave him a magic set. At 13, he started regular pilgrimages from New Jersey to New York, where he frequented a Manhattan magic shop, hung out with magicians in Times Square, and drew inspiration from a Doug Henning show on Broadway. Not surprisingly, he turned professional and drifted, as magicians do, from job to job. He snared a gig with the Six Flags amusement parks, first in New Jersey, then in Texas. He performed at hotels, restaurants, and private parties, edging into the business world by doing tricks in hospitality suites. “I thought about working the traditional cruise-ship and college circuits, but that’s not really me,” he says. “I’m not a top-hat kind of guy.”
Forget clip-on bow ties, goofy magic wands, and shiny tuxes; Greene goes pin stripes all the way. That corporate style has earned him a loyal following. Scott Jewell handles trade shows for Carolina Biological Supply, a company that sells teachers microscopes, CD-ROMs, and frogs in formaldehyde. “We were having a problem with traffic, not getting enough people into our booth,” Jewell remembers. But Greene’s first appearance wowed the teachers; a competitor groused that Carolina Biological had upped the ante for the industry. “He’s fantastic,” enthuses Jewell. “Tremendous.”
As the Corporate Shuffle grows, Greene depends less on his legerdemain than on his Filofax, which nestles next to a Dell laptop in his leather carry-on bag. In the past few years, he’s expanded past performing, and now books and organizes entire presentations. For a recent sales meeting in Dallas, Greene hired Harry Blackstone Jr., one of magic’s biggest stars, to make a drug company president appear out of thin air. For other business-oriented extravaganzas, he rounds up comedians, other corporate magicians, and even “illusionists,” such as Disney’s Imagineers, to design and construct large-scale wonderments.
Savvy salesman that he is, Greene knows how to tailor his act to his market. When performing for scientists, he avoids tricks that rely on chemical reactions; the odds are too high that someone watching keeps a vat of the secret ingredient back at the office. Surgeons, he says, particularly admire sleight of hand, since they’re obsessed with manual dexterity. And for a D.C. audience, he’s concocted a card trick involving a complicated story about a bullet, a gun, and a victim. (Of course, he notes sunnily, he hasn’t experienced any problem with crime in the three years he’s lived in the District. He adores Washington. He doesn’t even mind the humidity.)
In Capitol Grounds, a coffee shop north of Dupont Circle, he demonstrates the bullet/gun/victim trick for a reporter. Shane, a dishwater-blond 12-year-old, drifts over to the table. He is the toughest of audiences. When Greene transforms a normal deck of cards into one that is apparently all backs, no faces, Shane leans down to examine the underside of the cards.
“How’d you do that?” Shane asks.
“Can you keep a secret?” Greene replies.
The magician pauses theatrically. “So can I.”
Greene doesn’t get many chances to use that old setup. In the cutthroat environments where he usually performs, audiences rarely ask how his tricks work. Corporate executives understand trade secrets. And in their grim, competitive lives, they welcome the possibility of magic.