It’s a rainy October day in Manhattan, and Jon Jacques is in Grand Central Terminal scanning the crowd for his next mark.
“Excuse me, guys,” he says, approaching a trio of travelers with a smile, “can I interest you in a little magic?”
Out comes a deck of cards and some inventive sleight of hand. Smiles light the faces of the three as they follow his movements. The real trick here, however, is that there are also thousands of people watching this live right now on their phones.
Jacques (pronounced “Jakes”), a magician since he was 6, is one of the biggest stars on Periscope, the growing live video broadcasting app that lets you share what your camera sees with anyone in the world.
Watch a Periscope of Jacques performing in Grand Central Terminal.Source YouTube
Jacques does it because he loves entertaining people. But he also broadcasts his magic for a greater purpose, donating the bulk of his earnings to people who need help.
And the money has come pouring in too, with more than $10,000 contributed so far. Jacques also broadcasts the #MagicMoment when he surprises people with a life-changing gift.
“I scope to make people smile,” Jacques says.
It began with a surprising gift
On Christmas morning in 1996, 6-year-old Jon Jacques unwrapped a present beneath the tree: a magic kit.
"It was a random gift. No one in my family was a magician, or anything like that," he explains.
He fell in love with it, eventually putting on shows at family gatherings, performing small tricks—like making a handkerchief float—that would put his family in hysterics.
“I was that kid who would break out his magic case and start doing shows.”
A teenage Jacques (left) was performing 250 magic shows a year by the time he was 12.
A few years later, his parents surprised him with a $1,000 loan to buy magic supplies and build a show.
"And at 9 years old, a thousand is a million," Jacques says, adding that he began performing at birthday parties to pay them back, which he eventually did. By age 12, he was doing more than 200 shows a year.
Sharing the spotlight
That same year, his dad took him to Las Vegas to see some of the biggest names in magic. Before the trip, Jacques wrote each magician a letter explaining his desire to master the craft.
In the middle of magician Rick Thomas' show, the lights suddenly dimmed. He told the audience about a letter he had received from a 12-year-old virtuoso and his big plans for the stage.
"He said, 'Is Jonathan Jacques in the house?' All of a sudden … the spotlights went around, and they had me stand up and everyone's clapping. It was the coolest thing."
This gesture shaped and inspired Jacques for years to come.
“It still chokes me up … to have your idol do that is really cool.”
Rise of a ’scope star
When Jacques did his first smartphone broadcast just months after the Periscope app launched in 2015, he was no stranger to having an audience.
"I found that magic is great for Periscope because it's something where people want to figure it out. They'll try to watch it and re-watch it."
Jacques continued to build a Periscope audience through the spring. One day in June, he took it a step further by putting on a show in the middle of Times Square.
"I had this sign printed that said 100 percent of proceeds are donated," Jacques says. "I started doing street magic and built a crowd of 80 to 100 people. What that crowd didn't know was that there were about six times that amount watching on Periscope."
People in the virtual audience sent in comments asking how they could help, and suggested Jacques create a GoFundMe campaign. He did, and 24 hours later people from all over the world had pledged $700.
“It’s the audience that shaped this entire experience.”
Jacques promised followers he'd make the donations to individuals, not organizations, and he'd personally get to know each one. He vowed to broadcast every surprise gift on Periscope so the audience could see its impact.
"And I even let them pick some causes that we were going to help," Jacques says. "All these people started to align, and thousands became attracted to this mission."
It’s now mid-afternoon, and Jacques has left Grand Central and is heading to a salon near Gramercy Park.
"She thinks I'm going in for styling consultation," he says of the young hairdresser he's about to surprise with a gift live on Periscope. The woman was a tireless volunteer after Hurricane Sandy hit the area in 2012.
In the hallway, just before he opens the salon door, Jacques taps Periscope on his phone and hits Broadcast. A hundred thousand people all over the world get alerts on their devices and begin to join the broadcast.
"Jon Jacques is live! Surprising a Sandy volunteer."
Watch Jacques surprise the stylist/Sandy volunteer.Source YouTube
The hairdresser's class tuition is one of dozens of #MagicMoments he's given out so far. When asked about his most memorable gifts, Jacques shakes his head and smiles as if there are too many to remember.
He tells the story of a 60-year-old man who-while walking across America to raise awareness for homelessness-was struck by an 18-wheeler. In the year it took him to recover from near total paralysis, he vowed to never take his body for granted again. The man built his body back and set a goal to become a personal trainer. Jacques surprised him with $280, the exact amount needed to take the personal trainer certification test.
"The man just broke down in tears," he says. "Someone who's so tough, been through so much. And to see something like that, it's just life-changing. It's a moment that will always stay with me."
Jacques doesn't give out huge sums of money, but enough to make a difference in someone's life. He recalls a hard-working, charismatic shoe shiner who'd been a New York Jets fan his whole life but hadn't ever been to a game. Jacques got him tickets.
He also remembers a young homeless girl he met. After talking to her and hearing her story, he asked what he could do. All she wanted was a clean bed sheet to lay on. Jacques made that happen.
Connection is vital
As the day wanes, Jacques is back at his apartment, a minimalist one-bedroom on New York's East Village. The altruistic magician's mad plans are scribbled on whiteboard wallpaper in his living room.
Asked about the role connectivity plays in his mission, he says, "As someone who has quit his job to Periscope full-time, this is now what I do. And I take it very seriously."
That includes making sure he’s using the right equipment.
"I've invested thousands of dollars in microphones, lenses, cases and all sorts of things to make sure that the Periscope experience is smooth, and that the production is as high-quality as possible," he explains. "Part of that is a Verizon phone plan to make sure that the connection is strong throughout the experience."
Not being adequately prepared can spell disaster, he adds.
“It’s like if you’re a professional singer and you’re on stage in front of a thousand people and your microphone cuts out … it’s a terrible experience for the audience,” he says.
The magic continues
Jacques has come a long way from the days of performing at birthday parties as a kid. He now has 100,000 followers and broadcasts to millions of people from his phone. He hosts a weekly Periscope variety show called #ScopeStars that introduces his audience to other great talents to follow.
And in the summer of 2015, an email came from The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
“That was a pretty cool moment … I didn’t really see it coming,” says Jacques, who is producing a 10-episode series for Ellen called #MagicMoments.
One segment featured Marni Rothman, who, with a full-time job and a baby on the way, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In 2010, she founded MSquared: Music Against Multiple Sclerosis to raise money and awareness for the disease.
"We know you don't get a lot of time for yourself," Jacques told Rothman during the segment. "And with a baby on the way, we're sending you to the Waldorf Astoria for a very special prenatal massage."
But Jacques continues to perform and broadcast his bread and butter: street magic. It's something he's still passionate about.
"To me, it's fun-it's a challenge: Can you go up to a total stranger and turn them into a friend? Or turn them into someone who's excited, smiling and laughing?"
"I went back to when I was 6, and why I got into magic. And the reason is not because … you think you're going to be rich because of it; you don't think about fame. It was the audience reaction. And just the ability to make people smile and make people laugh."
“And that became my motto: I ’scope to make you smile.”