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"A doctor is standing at the gates of heaven," Strong recounted, "and tells St. Peter, 'I saved hundreds of lives.' St. Peter says, 'OK, you're through.' A lawyer arrives next and says, 'I helped free hundreds of innocent people.' St. Peter says, 'Go ahead.'

Ekin magically linked and unlinked rings, made a handkerchief change colors and did a classic trick known as "What's Next": Every time he flipped a jumbo playing card, it had more dots four became six, and six became eight.

As with tricks, it's part of the magician's code to never reveal what one is paid, for fear of pigeonholing another performer. But Strong said it's generally several thousand dollars per show, suggesting an annual income well into six figures.

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to supporting the troops and baby Jesus.

On the spot, Strong decided to become a magician.

Strong quickly located Starr Piner, who booked him, to introduce himself, ask for additional company details and find out who would make a good volunteer for a particular act. She pointed him to Donovan Balsley, a young man with a shaven Nike Womens Tracksuits

Businesses, which often spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a single event, don't want a self important artiste who only will do Nike Sweatshirts Gray

The exact performance price is determined by the amount of customization required. Strong offers to tweak his act to the specific needs of a business, whether it's making a CEO magically appear, cracking jokes at a competitor's expense or highlighting a new product's features.

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Reining in artistic id

Strong next unpacked his rolling crates, pulling out Nike Windrunner Red And Black bowling balls, scarves, juggling knives, a balance board and paper shredder. Once everything was in place, he walked among the audience looking for loose watches and wallets for his pickpocket act and clues to how he should position the show.

"He really got a group of strangers to work together, have a really good time and lose track of time," Strong said. "It was, 'Wow, one person can do that?'"

Strong, 34, of Oakland, always seems to have a joke on the tip of his tongue, a talent that has served him well. Readers of the San Francisco Bay Guardian voted him Best Comedian in its 2006 Best of the Bay poll, and he is among the Bay Area's most successful young corporate performers, a lucrative niche in the entertainment world.

his own act, audience reactions be damned. They want someone who will show up for the gig on time, employ reliable material and adapt as needed to ensure everyone's having a good time.

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Strong led him into the lobby and walked him through a routine. Balsley, who was the butt of a performer's joke during a previous corporate event, was reluctant. But Strong assured him he would get the biggest laugh of the night, one not at his expense, and he grudgingly relented.

From there, he traveled the standard magician route: birthday parties, park and rec events, county fairs and festivals, comedy clubs and cruise ships. Along the way, he trained at Tannen's Magic School in New York, attended countless workshops and played apprentice to Ringling Bros. clowns and other performers.

"This is actually what he enjoys," said Strong's pal Frank Brazile. "He's the opposite of the brooding, dramatic artist."

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"A comedy magician walks up to the Pearly Gates and says, 'I entertained millions of people and made them laugh.' St. Peter replies, 'OK, go around back and through the kitchen.'"

Livermore based Orco Construction Supply has booked Strong about 10 times for a variety of events. He has strolled trade show floors doing close up magic and drawing potential customers to the company's booth. He also hosted Orco's annual party, clad in the company colors and employing its "Bring It On" slogan.

By 30, Strong had decided to focus almost exclusively on corporate work.

There were several young children in attendance, and Piner began dinner with a prayer, replete with references Nike Jacket Sale

Comedy magician Robert Strong arrived early for his holiday gig at the Napa Valley Embassy Suites. He pulled his prop packed Toyota RAV4 around to the rear doors, which were flanked by Dumpsters and wedged open with a jagged concrete block.

The next weekend, at the summer camp's talent show, Strong performed the few illusions that Ekin had revealed, as well as a "needle in the thumb" trick he learned from a book.

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A truly Strong combination

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"This will be the most G rated version," he announced. "Cheery and positive."

Strong juggles, jokes and performs magic as often as eight times a month during much of the year and double that during the holidays. He has performed for Fortune 500 companies such as AT Chevron Corp. and Toys "R" Us, as well Congress and the White House, during the first Bush and Clinton administrations.

"He was a hit," said Jason Minsky, the company's events manager. "He commands the audience. He's not just funny and he's not just a magician; he's a funny magician."

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Corporate entertainment requires a personality trait that not every performer has: a willingness to bridle the artistic id.

Strong's Napa gig was the holiday and employee awards party for Piner's, a family run amalgamation of businesses: nursing home, ambulance service and bicycle shop, among others.

It reminded him of an old joke, often told among entertainers:

Strong grew up in Frederick, Md., outside Baltimore. When he was 12 his summer camp counselors arranged a field trip to the city's Inner Harbor. Walking along the pavilion, the group came upon a street magician, John Ekin, performing in full tux before a captivated crowd.

Strong is not just willing to do that, but sees it as an intellectual and artistic challenge in its own right, according to performers, promoters and friends.

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