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“Terror at the Drive-In": A little magic amidst the madness of COVID-19

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University of Arizona dancers surround magician Michael Howell during "Terror at Drive In." Courtesy Luke Howell. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for a magic show, so when I heard that on Oct. 16, Tucson magician Michael Howell was putting on “Terror at the Drive-In,” a drive-in magic show in the Park Place Mall parking lot, I knew I had to be there. I drove into the show skeptical of what I was about to endure and left pleasantly surprised after an hour and a half of what I’d describe as flashy and fast entertainment. 

Upon entering the parking lot behind the LA Fitness gym, my car was guided to its designated parking spot from which I would be viewing the show. A big stage sat front and center and two large projection screens were set up to the right and left, providing a live-stream of the stage for cars that had an obscured view. 

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The show began with a Tucson comedian by the name of Monte Benjamin. In the comedy act's best moments, I found myself in fits of laughter, and at its worst, I sat uncomfortably as awkward jokes flew over the heads of the child-packed audience. 

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The magic show itself began shortly after the comedian left the stage and featured performances from fire breathers, glass walkers, aerialists, vocalists, dancers from the University of Arizona dance program and the headlining magician Michael Howell. 

Howell is a Tucson native whose family owns the Arizona Rose Theater Company. 

Howell mentioned how he first got into magic at the early age of 2 when he saw a magician perform the corn stalk illusion, a trick which he performed at "Terror at the Drive-in." The trick consisted of him meticulously rolling and ripping volumes of newspapers, which turned into an ever-growing “corn stalk." The trick reached its climax after Howell produced a live dove out of the stock of newspaper, something that I found myself extremely baffled by. 

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The whole show had so much happening in such quick succession that I was left whiplashed. Much of the show lacked cohesion from act to act and I was acutely aware of the use of distraction to aid the various illusions. The use of the dancers, aerialists, vocalists and pyrotechnics as distractions sometimes felt frustrating, but I realized after that, while it may have taken away from the magic, I was left completely entertained. 

The most show-stopping moment was when Jerrica Stewart, Howell's magician's assistant and fiancé, was placed on top of a spike and then plunged through it. With a large metal spike poking menacingly out of her abdomen, Stewart was rotated around and around as the audience watched in horror. While watching this trick, I truly thought there must have been a terrible mistake and Howell had accidentally impaled her.  

“People always love when they can't figure something out, and that's basically what magic fully is, trying to figure something out,” Stewart said. 

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Howell said he got the idea for a drive-in magic show out of necessity under the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“As a performer, if you're not performing, there's a piece of you missing, so I wanted to give an opportunity for all of the artists I work with to just go out there and perform," Howell said. "Plus, I was worried about Halloween for children, so I wanted to give a family option for kids to come and have fun."

According to Kristy Ingebo, a Phoenix-based aerialist who performed in "Terror at the Drive-In," they hope to make the drive-in magic show a monthly Tucson event. 

“It's one way to socially distance and be able to see a great show,” Ingebo said. 

Howell also discussed the relevance of a magic show during trying times.

“It's about putting out a positive vibe in the world," Howell said. "There's so much negativity. There's too much politics and too many people unhappy, and we need to put positivity out there in the world. Honestly, that's why I do it. I like making people happy.” 

I left the night feeling immensely pleased. "Terror at the Drive-In" was the first live performance I've seen since March and I didn't realize how much I've missed it. It's inspiring to see Tucson performers like Howell getting creative during COVID-19 and bringing live performance back to the Tucson community.


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UA COVID-19 Test Tracker

Daily (9/17)
1,335 23 1.7%
Total (8/2)
22,564 434 1.9%
Includes tests since August 2, 2021
Data from https://covid19.arizona.edu/updates
Updated September 18, 2021