The year was 2003, and a young Rick Smith Jr., having just broken the world records for fastest, highest, and furthest card throws, was faced with a life-changing decision.
The days directly after I broke the world record in front of countless video cameras and reporters in CSU’s Convocation Center were a blur; I found my face on the front of the local papers, and it seemed as if my unique talent had put me on track to be in the national spotlight before long. It had been a long journey since my days as a kid who put on magic tricks for the neighbors, but at that time I didn’t know how far I still had to go. It was only when I received offers to appear on national television from both The Tonight Show and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not that I was struck by a glimmer of what was to come in my future.
Years later, after performing on 29 national and international shows, I have had time to experience and reflect on how to seize a fleeting opportunity; while the prospect of appearing in front of the whole world on television still excites me, I have developed a business sense that allows me to know what is the right move for my career. A decade and a half ago, however, I was being thrust into the spotlight with very little guidance as to which show I should choose.
I would not be able to appear on both of these shows and make everyone happy, as they both wanted to be the first program to televise my card-throwing performance. With this in mind, I had little time to make a decision that could end up changing the direction of my entire career. Both of these shows were respected, well-rated, and widely viewed: how could a young magician decide between the two?
After speaking to just about everyone I was close to and doing quite a bit of thinking on my own, I decided that the best move for me would be to appear on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. While The Tonight Show had honored me greatly by asking me to perform on their live stage, the 15 minute segment that Ripley’s was offering me seemed to give me much more freedom than the 90 second debut I could have on The Tonight Show. Additionally, the high ratings that Ripley’s was earning in 2003 along with their placement on TBS would allow me to display my abilities in front of an audience larger than I ever could have hoped for. Still, the fact that I had to turn down an offer from The Tonight Show pained me greatly, as I knew how much I could have benefitted from appearing on the program.
Years later, when I had established myself more firmly as a magician and card-thrower, I met Chris Chelko and Jim Karol, a pair of magicians (the latter of whom was also a card-thrower) while they were working together on tour. I befriended both of these talented illusionists, unaware of how much they would help me later on in my career. Chris ended up becoming a talent coordinator for The Tonight Show, and he decided to advocate for me as a good prospect for appearing on the show. When I was scheduled to appear on The Tonight Show, it appeared that the decision I had to make early on in my career had ended up playing out more perfectly than I ever could have expected; I was going to get to be on The Tonight Show after all.
I was lucky enough to meet Jay Leno both before the taping and after the show was done. He was just as affable a guy off-camera as he was on the show, and I was amazed by how kind and respectful he and the rest of the green room/producing crew were to me and my associates. As shocking as it may be, stars like Jay Leno aren’t really different from you or I at all; the only real difference is that he appeared in front of a national audience for years.
I am forever grateful to Chris Chelko for getting me on The Tonight Show, and I have considered him a friend ever since we first met on his tour. He is still hard at work in the TV production business, and is doing the fantastic work that I have come to know is characteristic of him. Being on The Tonight Show was truly one of the most memorable experiences of my career, and it was one of the moments in my life that has reminded me most profoundly of why I love being a performer.