We meet at the Magic Castle—a private club for magicians, in a rambling mansion off Hollywood Boulevard. It’s Friday night, and the valet attendants are dealing with a line of cars disgorging sharp-dressed folks in suits and ties or cocktail dresses. This is old Hollywood—exclusive and a touch bizarre—and even if you wrangle an invite, you don’t get in looking like a bum. We’re here because this is Chuck Harris’s kind of joint, and because he knows the owner, naturally. And because Stoil & Ekaterina, one of Harris’s many, many incomparable acts, is headlining in the castle’s main theatre.
In the mansion’s entrance alcove, Harris points to a statue of a gilded owl sitting on a walled bookcase. “Say ‘open sesame,’ ” he says. With that, the bookcase swings wide, and we enter the buzz and chatter of the Grand Salon. That’s what Chuck Harris does: he opens doors.
Harris is an agent, just not a typical one. Oh, he’s got the cigar, and the patter; he’s got glasses the size of cruise ship portholes, some big-money clients and contacts around the world. It’s just that a significant portion of his client base is…way out there. “I am the conductor,” he has said, meaning it in the kindest possible way, “of a symphony of wackos.” You want a man who dances with four puppets and can do a one-man recreation of the Jackson Five? He’s got Christopher, who recently did a command performance for Mexico’s Carlos Slim, considered the world’s richest man. He’s got a one-armed juggler and a guy who balances a car on his head. You want Wolf Boy, Rubber Girl, or the world’s smallest Elvis imitator? He’ll have them on a plane the moment the contract is signed. The same with the Regurgitator, who swallows coins and brings them up in order. And he’s got Mr. Methane, who for safety reasons probably shouldn’t be double-billed with Electricity Girl.
It’s all a bit circus sideshow—or its modern equivalent, which is Leno and Letterman, Maury Povich, reality shows and insatiable freewheeling TV markets from Japan to Norway to Italy. So, the question is, how will Harris handle his new clients, two sweet, unworldly four-year-olds: Krista and Tatiana Hogan, the conjoined twins from Vernon, B.C.?
Very carefully, insists the twins’ protective mother, Felicia Simms. “He knows what we’re into doing and not into doing,” she says. “We told him we can do interviews and documentaries, and just get the word out,” she says. “They’re gorgeous girls. I just want people to understand that’s just what they are—they’re just little girls.”
Harris wants to star the twins, and their whole blended, impoverished family of 14, in a reality series. “I want to get a reality show for them so bad, for them to make big money,” he says. “For them, anything over $1,000 is big money.” He’d focus on Louise McKay, the twins’ grandmother and the family matriarch, who rules this chaotic household of grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, kids, cousins and hangers-on. “I think the conjoined twins, if we introduce them as I see them, they’re normal—forgetting that one thing. They’re members of the family, not treated any special,” he says. “I’ve slept there,” he says. “It’s a non-stop circus. That’s what the show is about.”
Meantime, he’s scored the twins an appearance on Entertainment Tonight, and flew them, Simms and the girls’ dad, Brendan Hogan, to Amsterdam for a TV talk show. He lived with the family for a week over Christmas, riding herd on a visiting Japanese film crew. Mention his name in the presence of the twins and their eyes light up. “I love my Chuck,” says Krista, with a beatific smile. “He’s a very nice man,” says McKay, who doesn’t suffer fools, “but the first thing you think of when you see him is Mr. Magoo.”
Harris has cornered a pretty select market. He also represents 49-year-old Lori and George Schappell, the world’s oldest living craniopagus twins, who, like the Hogan girls, are joined at the head. Harris met the Hogan girls when he accompanied the Schappells to Vancouver where the two sets of twins were filmed for a documentary two years ago. Harris offered his services. The family was impressed with how protective he was of the Schappells, but it was a year before Harris fielded a call from Vernon. The family, flat broke and facing increasing requests for the twins from television and other media, badly needed help. The family grilled him about his intentions. “During the interview he brought it up that he would not look for any work that would make them look exploited or embarrassed,” says Doug McKay, their grandfather. “If he got a contract that made the girls look foolish, or was out of place for their dignity, we wouldn’t see it. He’d just rip it up.”
Tonight, Harris wanders backstage at the Castle to see Stoil and Ekaterina, whose magic and quick-change act is one of the night’s big draws. They’re a delightful husband and wife team born in Bulgaria, their accents still thick 13 years after arriving in the States. “He’s the best agent in the world, not only this town,” gushes Ekaterina, giving Harris a hug. “He like to make money for everyone,” says Stoil. “If you look up hustler, this is the guy. But like in a positive way of hustling.”
Chuck is excited that they’ve graduated from work visas that kept them pinned to the U.S. to green cards, opening horizons for travel. Harris is an expert on visas and passports: three of his four ex-wives—the Canadian, the Russian and the Chinese—exited the marriage with American citizenship. “Yeah, I’m a magician,” he tells a guest at the Castle. “Made my wives disappear.”
Stoil and Ekaterina bring down the house. In 15 minutes of fast-paced magic, she whips through 12 costumes, each change taking maybe two seconds. Harris is smitten with the evening’s MC, Ken Scott, a young comic magician from Atlanta; more so when he finds he has no agent. Harris slips him a business card. Later, a young man, dramatically dressed in black, sidles up to Harris. “I’m a sword swallower,” he says. “You have a card?” asks Harris. Harris taps his windshield-sized glasses. “That’s how he knew me,” he says in an aside. “It’s called branding.”
The next day we’re at Harris’s house in West Hollywood. It’s jammed with showbiz and political memorabilia, with rare dolls and toys and carny games. There are vanity walls with letters and photos of Harris with every U.S. president since Gerald Ford, of Harris with Queen Elizabeth II, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, with certificates of appreciation for the military shows that Harris packaged for the USO in various hellholes.
It’s his birthday, his 38th, he says, though double that and you’ve about hit the truth. He’s in a reflective mood, recalling his early days in Wilmington, Del., when he went by Oaky Miller. His mother, Gertrude—they called her Fast Gertie From the East—gambled professionally. His dad, Chuck Miller, was a haberdasher by day who lived for the comedy and minstrel shows he’d stage in local synagogues and theatres. He had Oaky on stage by age five, sometimes in blackface, and craving the spotlight ever since. By the early 1960s, he was a top rock deejay in Philadelphia. From there, he worked vaudeville revival shows, and as a stand-up comic during the dying days of burlesque, touring with the likes of Busty Russell, Tempest Storm and Rose LaRose. At his dad’s urging, he moved to California, scoring bit parts in such 1960s shows as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, My Three Sons and That Girl. By the mid-1970s, approaching 50, the phone stopped ringing. He took to calling casting agents pretending to be Oaky Miller’s fictional agent, Chuck Harris. Seems he was better at finding gigs for others than for himself. So Oaky became Chuck, and Harris found a niche selling the novelties and oddities that the big agencies didn’t want.
We’re at his computer now, peering through cigar smoke at client videos on his computer: some with genuine talent, the “walking wounded,” and one-trick wonders, each one with a story. Then he punches up a clip of the Hogan twins on Japanese TV.
He’d like to get their mother on the lecture circuit. He likes how she’s raising the girls, how she doesn’t hide them because of their condition, how she doesn’t even see it as a handicap. “I could get her some real decent money,” he says. “I’m talking five, 10, $15,000 minimum to give an hour’s lecture, because she’s that good.” As for the twins, “so adorable, so sweet and so bright. I want to forget they’re conjoined,” he says. “Which you can’t forget, unfortunately. It’s there. It’s just there.”
So, why hide it? It’s not about displaying an oddity, he says, but about treating them respectfully as people. And, yes, some of that respect should be displayed financially. “Listen, I would love to represent Brad Pitt or George Clooney. They don’t need me,” he says. “My people need me.” On his desk is a sign: “Life is negotiable.” It’s true as far as it goes, see? But then, you get it in writing.