SEPTEMBER 04, 2003 . THE VILLAGE TIMES HERALD . PAGE A5

How did you do that? It's magic

Volunteer Director at University Hospital volunteers himself to entertain young patients with his tricks

BY EVONNE GAMBRELL

Six-year-old Michael sat in Stony Brook University Hospital with a bandaged leg and a surly expression. In came magician Mike Maione, passing a mysterious red light between his fingers, around his body, through a little girl's ears. Michael's face transformed as it traced the glow, first to wide-eyed amazement, then laughter. "Let me have it!" he demanded, renewed. In an environment many children find strange or scary, at a time they may feel pain or discomfort, such responses are priceless to Maione. He remembered one girl's parents telling him, "That's the first time we've seen her smile in a week."

Maione works his magic every Thursday in pediatrics, but his colleagues at the hospital know him better as the director of customer relations and volunteer services. Just as Maione uses his position "to pair volunteers with what they enjoy doing," placing foreigners in the gift shop to exercise language skills or the elderly where they will be around children, he said, "I like doing magic, so if I can make people happy by doing magic, great." Now Maione spends one lunch break each week going room to room, offering mini-performances to young patients and their families.

"I carry in my pocket lots of different things that will appeal to different age groups," he said. "Each show is going to be an individualized show." While a five year old girl gasped as red sponge balls multiplied in her hand, a teenager was more impressed when Maione rubbed apart a tangle of rubber bands. As for repeat customers, Maione said, "They're always a challenge." For a girl he had seen last week, Maione pulled out a new trick - he swung her mother's ring on a rope until it disappeared and reappeared on his finger.

Outside the hospital, he said, it's nice to see familiar faces. "It's a wonderful thing when someone comes back to see you," said Maione, who performs Tuesdays at Steak Port in Northport as well as entertaining parties as the Silly Magician (www.sillymagician.com) and volunteering for Make-A-Wish Foundation, WLIW's reading program and church benefits.

But Maione's hospital work differs greatly from his stage work. Besides reducing the scale from rabbit productions to "close-up, in-the-hand tricks" for patient rooms, Maione must be sensitive to what's going on around him. "When we're upstairs, we're very cognizant that the nurses have to do their jobs." explained Maione. "Sometimes we sit back and let them do their jobs. Sometimes they sit and enjoy it with the kids." One nurse, though her two-year-old patient was too young to appreciate the magic, exclaimed, "That is so cool" as the sourceless red light danced across the magician's hands.

Something common to Maione's shows, whether in a hospital room or at a birthday party, is their target audience. "Kids are fun," said Maione of his preferred spectators. "As many times as you use the same material, they'll always throw something different at you." Maione remembered one performance in which he tore up a piece of paper, clenched his fist and told a two-year-old, "blow," in order to restore the paper. The child then blew his nose on Maione's hand. "You never know what to expect," said Maione. "Kids give the greatest reactions." Particularly if they come from his three daughters, Samantha, age 15, and twins Amanda and Victoria, age 12.

Maione "made a habit of it when the kids were in grammar schools to go to their birthdays" and perform. But now that his kids are older, Maione finds new ways to involve them, picking Samantha's brain for a teenage perspective or levitating the girls at shows. It's a "great opportunity to spend some time with my kids and do my thing," said Maione.

Maione got his start at Samantha's fifth birthday party when his wife urged him to try out some pocket tricks he had been given by a dinner guest. Maione has a history of obsessive phases, among them canoeing and skiing, but somehow this one stuck. His wife observed one day, as he described plans for a new illusion, "You're not going to grow out of this one, are you." Perhaps Maione would have cottoned to magic even earlier if not for a traumatic childhood incident involving a magic coin he bought for "a bit of money." He "had a taste for ice cream," and after accidentally spending his magic coin on some, he joked, "I vowed not to do magic again until I could control my appetite." But magic and Maione eventually reunited, and he fused his latent interest with his current work at the hospital.

Maione's weekly traveling show through pediatrics is part of the Child Life Services program that caters to junior patients' "emotional and psychological needs while in the hospital," said Child Life Specialist Paulette Walter, because "children that have Child Life intervention do better healing." Maione and other visitors, such as puppeteers, a clown, the New York Islanders and pet-therapy dogs, complement the program's in-house activities to alleviate stress, the most popular of which include Nintendo, arts and crafts, Pretty Pretty Princess and a play kitchen.

Maione has sent many volunteers her way, Walter noted, but surmised that "he wanted a little more patient contact" himself, and pediatrics was a natural choice. "There's nothing too much better than hearing kids' laughs," said Maione. Sounds like he's placed another satisfied volunteer.



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