Wednesday, May 17, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Performing in a Las Vegas Strip showroom with his name over the door was never a goal for Mat Franco. For that matter, neither was winning America’s Got Talent and its $1 million prize. The 29-year-old magician was perfectly happy making a living by showing his stuff at small shows across the country before he landed on AGT’s ninth season and took the prize; he’s still the only magic act to do so.
His life is changing again this summer when his home on the Strip, the Linq Theater at the same-named hotel and casino, will be rechristened as the Mat Franco Theater in July. We caught up with the amicable, innovative star — winner of the Readers’ Choice Award for Best Strip Show in last year’s Las Vegas Weekly Best of Vegas — to talk about his fast rise and the state of magic in Las Vegas.
You’ve been performing at the Linq for almost two years now, around 600 shows. Still, does getting your name on the theater feel like an out-of-this-world experience? It’s really exciting and I’m really looking forward to it. When I was told [the Linq] was going to do that, I still didn’t really believe it. It was never something tangible. It never crossed my mind, but having my own show in Las Vegas never crossed my mind. I just didn’t think that would be an opportunity for me. In my mind, I was doing what I loved and made a full-time living and was very happy. And I guess as a result of passion and hard work, it exploded into something larger. It’s one of those things I could never take for granted for a single second if I wanted to, it’s really beyond any aspirations or dreams I had growing up. I mean, my goals were realistic, but even those would be considered crazy; saying you want to be a full-time magician sounds ridiculous.
You first performed in Las Vegas as a 15-year-old at the Riviera. What was that like? Yes, it was part of a young magicians showcase called the Stars of Tomorrow at the Riviera. I sent in an audition tape and they selected five of us from all over the country and it was an amazing opportunity, and probably somewhere in my subconscious it was something that made me aspire to do more. It was a big deal — I made the front page of the newspaper in my small hometown and all that stuff. But it allowed me to book some more shows and also gave me a little taste of what Las Vegas is about.
Was it your first time in Vegas? I had been once before when I was 12. I saved a bunch of money so I could come out and study with Jeff McBride, who was a big idol of mine growing up. He’s still living here in Las Vegas. I came out with a three-day class with Jeff, and I saw Lance Burton [perform], another idol of mine. I remember watching his TV specials as a kid.
It seems there used to be more magic shows, and more big magic-based productions, in previous eras on the Strip. What is your take on the magic landscape in Vegas today? I see magic on the up, actually. It’s quite strong. It certainly comes and goes in waves in the media and pop culture over the years, but with the mix of what you see on TV and a lot of success in Vegas, I think it’s really flourishing at this point. I’m not sure if the size of the production matters. Siegfried & Roy are no longer here and Lance is retired, but it’s not going away. The face of magic is just changing and I think that’s a good thing. It needs to evolve with the times and become more modern, and that’s what I aim to do. But [Las Vegas] is certainly still the magic capital of the world.
Your theater will have a new name but will there be big changes to the show? Right now I’m working on a new introduction to the show, what people see when they come in and the show begins. It’s been a slow process but I’m excited about the changes and they could be implemented before the name change.
Have you been performing recently beyond Las Vegas? I have. I just started touring a little this year. I did a few dates on the East Coast in Atlantic City and Connecticut and even in my hometown in Rhode Island, and it’s been a lot of fun bringing the show on the road.
How different are those shows from the Vegas show? It’s just a different setlist, really. It’s kind of the same way musicians look at it — there are certain staples I kind of have to keep in there, just like not playing hit songs would bother people. It’s kind of the same thing in magic. Maybe they saw a trick on TV and wondered if it was a camera trick, so they see it in person and know it’s real. But you also get to see different styles of venues. In Vegas, doing seven to 10 shows a week, the cool thing is you can play a smaller room. When you go on the road and play one show in one city, the venue tends to be bigger, some as big as 4,000 people. It’s really cool to play those big rooms, and it makes the intimacy in Vegas that much more special to come home to.
After two years, has Vegas become home for you? I think so. I thought I adjusted pretty quickly and easily but as each day goes by, I’m learning more things and discovering more things that make me wonder, How did I not know this was here? It’s so cool. Now I know a lot more, and it definitely feels like home. Vegas in many ways is kind of a hidden gem.
What was the last discovery that made you feel that way, that How did I not know this was here thing? Container Park! I heard a lot about it and walked by it so many times … There’s a restaurant near there that I love called VegeNation, and you have to walk by Container Park to get there, but you don’t really get the full effect just walking by. I finally stumbled in and couldn’t believe there was this whole district in there.
Mat Franco: Magic Reinvented Nightly is presented at the Linq Thursday through Tuesday at 7 p.m. with a 4 p.m. matinee show on Saturday. Find more info at 800-745-3000 or matfranco.com.