On the Job


Tricks of the Trade

Enter the world of Tristan Crist, which is where the magic happens

Jeanne Nagle | On the Job | July 2023

This is the story of a young performer, Milwaukee-born and -bred, who dreamed of becoming a professional magician. It is also the story of how that kid grew up to achieve his dream—emerging as a savvy and successful businessperson along the way.

Tristan Crist ’06 was introduced to sleight-of-hand wonders by his grandfather, who pulled off a card trick that enthralled the young boy. Soon the lad was performing deck manipulation of his own in front of audiences composed of family and friends. Mastering tricks from a magic kit he received as a gift gave his act more substance and extra panache.  

Magic, as it turns out, was not Crist’s only mode of performance. From ages 8 to 13, he often could be found dancing in shows staged by the Milwaukee Ballet Theatre, with whom he took classes, or trodding the boards in First Stage Milwaukee theatrical productions. It was while appearing as Christopher Robin in “Winnie the Pooh” for the latter that Crist underwent a transformation of sorts. 

“Although I was on stage during that time, I was fascinated by the behind-the-scenes tech, the lighting and scenery, and how it all moved and transitioned from scene to scene,” he says. “I built a theatre in my parent’s basement with bed sheets for curtains and spent hours designing shows in my head.”

Presto chango! Crist had segued from child performer in front of the proscenium to teenage lighting tech and designer behind it. He didn’t confine his skills to enhancing his own magic act, either. Crist offered his services to any pro, semi-pro and amateur performance venue in need of assistance.  

“Most kids my age were playing sports or in Scouts,” he recalls. “I was backstage at various theatres.” 

While he embraced being a stagehand and techie, magic was never far from Crist’s mind … or heart.  He continued to hone his prestidigitation and illusory skills while also studying the work of others. In particular, he says, he looked forward to seeing Milwaukee’s own David Seebach perform his annual Halloween magic show, which featured tons of eerie lighting and special effects.  

Soon Crist’s interests and passions seemed to jell into one big aspiration. “I realized as a magician I could do it all and be the guy in front of the curtain as well as the one to design the technical aspects of the show,” he says. 

Given his career goals, Crist approached his decision on where to attend college, and what exactly to study, with a boatload of pragmatism.  

“I already knew I wanted to become a professional magician, but unfortunately that wasn’t a career path in college,” he notes wryly.  

So he looked for a school that could ground him in the various components that made a magic act come together: lighting, set and prop design, costuming, etc. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point fit the bill, based largely on the strength of its highly rated theatre and dance program. While pursuing a BFA degree in theatre design and technology, Crist took classes  that helped him fine-tune a host of skills that would help him in his chosen field—right down to something that, at first blush, might seem a little mundane. 

“At UWSP, all the theatre students took a basic costuming class that included learning how to use a sewing machine,” he says. “I still use those skills today when working on illusions that might need a simple cloth or curtain, or perhaps a piece of Velcro in the exact right spot.  

He even had the opportunity to revisit his roots by taking ballet classes, “which help with movement on stage,” he says. 

Fittingly, Crist paid his way through college by performing as a magician. He even scheduled and booked a performance tour, taking his act on the road between academic semesters. He estimates that he played, on average, about 30 shows each summer at smaller theaters and private venues across the Midwest. The travel involved was fulfilling, if not always exciting.  

“People think life on the road is glamorous,” he says. “In reality it’s a lot of driving and hotel rooms. You don’t see much other than the road, the hotel and the venue!” 

In addition to helping him pay his tuition bill, touring provided Crist with keen insight into managing and marketing a business.   

“I created my first website, learned how to cold call venues, write contracts,” Crist relates. “And, of course, I was in the process of refining my style as a performer, and slowly building the show from the ground up.”  

During his senior year at UWSP, he submitted a video of his act to Circus World in Baraboo on the recommendation of a fellow student who had worked there as a children’s entertainer and understudy ringmaster. Immediately following graduation in 2006, the venue contracted with Crist to put on two magic shows daily for the duration of the summer.   

“That ended up turning into 10 years of contracts with Circus World,” he says, “where I continued to build my show up and refine the performance.”  

Over the course of his employment with the organization, Crist moved from performing within a single circus ring to working within a 450-seat theater on the museum grounds.  

As the tenth year of his contract with Circus World came to a close, Crist decided to strike out on his own, with the goal of creating a specialized venue that would host his now time-tested magic act. For his theater site he choose Lake Geneva, a resort town equidistant from Chicago and Milwaukee. To Crist, many of the year-round activities in town seemed geared toward daytime hours; the spot seemed ripe for an after-dusk entertainment extravaganza. 

Financed using $10,000 in cash and a personal credit card, the original Tristan Crist Magic Theatre opened in a leased Main Street storefront in December 2015. It seated 52 and boasted a 10-foot ceiling that could accommodate larger-scale illusions, such as making vehicles or, say, a helicopter appear on stage out of thin air.

Presenting large-scale illusions in such an intimate setting was a huge success with audiences right from the get-go.  

“Within six months we became the number one ‘Thing to Do’ in Lake Geneva on Tripadvisor,” says Crist. “By year number two we were doing 350 shows a year, with most of them selling out.” 

That level of success supported his decision to move to an expanded, custom-built venue. As the saying goes, it’s often not what you know, but who you know that makes the difference. Such was the case when Crist went to procure financing for his theater project. 

“I ended up finding a two-acre plot of land that was available,” says Crist. “I went to several banks to get a loan without much luck, until I stumbled on a small community bank that had hired me to do a holiday party magic show a few years earlier. I sat down with the president of the bank, and an hour later had a handshake deal to build the $1.6-million Tristan Crist Magic Theatre.” 

The 5,000-square-foot, 175-seat theater opened in June of 2019. The performance area remains intimate, but the new space has more room onstage for even grander illusions. Concessions, T-shirts and magic paraphernalia, including Tristan Crist-branded magic kits and wands, are available for purchase in the lobby. An additional 1,250 square feet was recently added to the building, providing more room for storage and offices.  

Currently, the theater employs seven, including front-of-house/box office staff and onstage assistants. Crist himself is, of course, the headliner of his namesake theater, but the venue recently started bringing in guest performers from time to time. In a full-circle moment, Crist’s childhood idol, David Seebach, performed three sets of his beloved “Illusions In the Night” Halloween show there in 2022. 

Crist divulges that he has a few tricks up his sleeve when it comes to attracting visitors to the theater and keeping the act fresh. In the works is the addition of video walls that that can be maneuvered across the stage to add flash and color. Several new, large-scale illusions are in the works as well.  

As one might imagine, wearing the hats of entrepreneur, business owner and performer is demanding. Yet that’s all part and parcel of the path Crist has set for himself. 

“Show business is two words,” he says, “and most people would agree the business part is the most challenging, and the part you spend the most time on. Many days doing the show at night seems easy to me compared to the business side during the day. Luckily, I love to work, so most days I just jump right in and tackle what needs to be done. There’s an endless list of projects that need to be completed, but I enjoy the challenge of it all.  

“The venture has been a great success, and everything I ever dreamed of as a young kid.”