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Feb. 13, 2006
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal

View video from this adventure at www.reviewjournal.com/video/fearandloafing.html.


Lance Burton gig not just for the birds

 click on the photos to enlarge them...

Geese threaten R-J reporter Corey Levitan as he tries to shovel their droppings backstage at the Lance Burton Theatre. Burton employs geese, pigeons, doves, a parakeet and a rooster in his long-running magic show at the Monte Carlo.
Photos by Jane Kalinowsky.

Lance Burton, center, gives Farmer Corey the thumbs-up as Randy "The Turtle" Williams, right, enjoys not having to perform his duties before a recent performance of "Lance Burton: Master Magician."

Before Levitan can clean the pigeon cage, he needs to remove its inhabitants, who scatter wildly in the light Levitan requires to perform the job.

R-J reporter Corey Levitan tries protecting his lungs from airborne feathers and dander as he hoses pigeon waste from the bird cage backstage at the Lance Burton Theatre.

Levitan, second from right, hams it up while performing the most prominent part of The Turtle’s job ­— singing with other supporting cast members at the end of a trick called "The Magic Zone." The dog is Burton’s Golden Retreiver, Monte.

Onstage, magician Lance Burton's birds pop out from nowhere.

Backstage, they poop everywhere.

Tonight I'm replacing Randy "The Turtle" Williams, 40, whose job it is to scoop that poop. The unofficial bird man of Monte Carlo looks after the 70 feathered stars -- doves, pigeons, ducks and geese, plus a parakeet and rooster -- of "Lance Burton: Master Magician."

"The Turtle's like Dr. Doolittle," says the 210-pound Las Vegas native who, like rapper Flavor Flav and "Seinfeld's" The Jimmy, enjoys referring to himself in the third person.

The Turtle claims his nickname came from drawing tortoises back at Twin Lakes Elementary School. If so, it seems suspiciously coincidental that, 30 years later, a bald, leathery head juts out of his shell-like body.

"I'm better off than my brother, Booger," The Turtle says.

The Turtle's workday begins in a 40-square-foot cage backstage at the Lance Burton Theatre, where dozens of white pigeons perch on metal bars, cooing and pooping in the dark. To clean the cage, he first herds them by hand into crates.

"Don't turn the light on or they'll freak out," The Turtle says.

Maybe The Turtle has some sort of reptilian night vision, but The Corey requires light to see.

"Don't say I didn't warn you," The Turtle says.

One switch flick transforms me into Tippi Hedren from Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds." The pigeons scatter wildly. Poop gels my hair.

As I bend to gather the animals, the right leg of my Lance Burton jumpsuit becomes a sponge for an unidentified fluid that I prefer remains that way. The mystery soak spreads to my boots.

I never would have chased pigeons as a kid if I knew how little fun there was in catching them.

"Come on, bro!" The Turtle shouts, amused by my retching.

The Turtle has shoveled dung since he was little. His dad, a rodeo bulldogger, raised 13 horses. (Booger raises animals, too.) But animal excrement and I were never close. Even when I walk my dog, I carry an expensive pooper-scooper that will be burned if the bag at the end ever fails.

"You're good at that," Burton teases me, having ascended from his dressing room to catch the pre-show show.

Influenced by prestidigitator Harry Collins -- whom the native Kentuckian caught at 5 years old -- Burton bought his first pair of white doves at age 13 and never stopped adding to his flock. When he moved to Las Vegas in 1982 to perform in "Folies Bergere" at the Tropicana, he had eight doves and a parakeet. By the time the theater bearing his name was built in 1996, Burton had an aviary for a backyard.

"It got out of hand," Burton admitted during an earlier interview.

Visits to the pet store and breeder are no longer required, as eggs are laid on a daily basis. In fact, Burton lends birds out like library books. (One duck is on loan to friends Penn & Teller.)

"Mmm, I love that smell!" The Turtle says.

Hosing pigeon poop off the walls and floor, a nasty job to begin with, is made nastier because all that flapping has stirred a snowstorm of feathers and dander. The Turtle instructs me to employ his Hoover first. Most of the vacuuming is done by my lungs, however.

"Whenever a bird gets sick, we take it to the vet," The Turtle tells me as I question him about diseases in between my hacking bronchial spasms.

"Believe me, we take good care of these birds."

So when I come down with the first American case of avian flu, it must be from some other magician's bird cage.

"Hissss!" go the geese in the next room. That's not the sound my old See 'n Say taught me they'd make. Then again, Fisher-Price didn't depict two alpha females enraged by a stranger's intrusion into their pen.

"Geese are pretty territorial," The Turtle says. I guess I should have realized. As a tyke, I was run off the sidewalk by a flock that stalked the Tackapausha duck pond in Seaford, Long Island, like the Crips.

Serrated orange bills threaten to slice as I shovel soiled pine shavings and change mucky brown water. But I'm interrupted before the geese can get more than a couple of nips in at my boots.

"We're running late!" The Turtle announces. This is both a relief and a problem, because there's no time to wash off the spritzed pigeon-poop water residue that still coats my face, hair and arms.

In my head, I keep a list of jobs I might apply for should this journalism thing not work out. The Turtle's -- which I'm told will be featured on an upcoming episode of the Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs" -- is low on that list. At least it was before I found out what it pays. The Turtle earns 25 percent more than I do. He also gets full benefits, 10 weeks paid vacation, and a workweek that's only 17 hours.

"Sometimes it's 20," The Turtle says.

Polly want a caretaker?

The Turtle isn't paid just to be a bird man, however. He's also a stagehand for an intricately wound production that I nearly unraveled a week earlier, when I tried shadowing my subject backstage.

"The Turtle moves fast," he explained, adding that "it's a ballet, and you don't want to be in the wrong place."

Every place I picked turned wrong, however, when prop-pushing stagehands, or Burton himself, scurried directly across it. Twice, one of 27 curtains plopped on my head.

"Damn it!" a female dancer screamed as she scraped the flag she carried against Burton's famous flying white Corvette, just to avoid me.

To atone, I decide to impress The Turtle with how well I learn by observation. Just like he did last week, I begin to wheel away one of a dozen props left onstage after a trick concludes, the curtain drops and The Turtle unhooks it from the floor. (Sorry, magic fans, I can't be specific because I signed a nondisclosure agreement. But standing in the wings, 2 feet behind Burton, still didn't help me figure out how most of his tricks work.)

"Who's pushing me?" someone asks. The voice is coming from inside the prop. Cast member Tommie Laing is supposed to exit before any wheeling transpires.

"I don't know," The Turtle replies as Laing de-props.

Flop sweat mixes with my poop odor as The Turtle and I stand there playing dumb (which, in my case, isn't playing).

"You don't know?" Laing snaps at The Turtle. "What do you mean, you don't know? This guy's standing right next to you!"

Later, The Turtle accepts my sincere apology.

Along with The Turtle's hefty paycheck and short workweek, he gets the bonus of actually appearing in the show he stagehands for. During a trick called "The Magic Zone," The Turtle strolls across stage in a scarf and winter coat, loiters on a street set for five minutes, then sings "Irish Eyes" as the curtain closes.

Sure, it's only a background role no one in the audience pays much attention to. And five other cast members are singing with him. But I'm still psyched. This is my chance to atone for Mrs. Berv's first-grade Thanksgiving play, in which I starred as a tree that scratched its nose every three seconds.

Dancer Joelle Jenson, my lovely strolling partner, introduces herself in the wings, then grasps my arm as she prepares to lead me out on cue.

"So how do you like it so far?" she asks about my experience. She scrunches her face before I can answer.

"Oh my God," she says. "Do you smell that?"


Fear and Loafing appears in the Living section every Monday. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at http://www.fearandloafing.com/.




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