The game was stump the magician. We all knew how it was going to end.
But we played along as Roland Sarlot handed markers and letter-sized white boards to the five older men volunteering from the audience. Draw the face of your ideal sweetheart, he told them.
As the men scribbled away, Sarlot's stage partner and wife, Susan Eyed, pirouetted around the tiny stage tucked into a corner room in the DoubleTree hotel lounge. Her dance took her down the tight aisle separating the 10 rows of chairs, every one of them filled on this Friday night in early March.
Time up, the men handed Sarlot the boards. He mixed them up. He shuffled them. Then he flipped them, one by one, setting each on an easel. He studied each crudely drawn picture, his chin cupped in his hand as if in deep concentration.
He took the first picture and walked over to the guy on the far end. This is yours, he told him, and the man blushed and nodded.
The audience of 35 or so clapped and the man's wife laughed at the idea that the cartoonish woman in the drawing might just resemble her.
So is this magic or magical?
At Sarlot and Eyed's Carnival of Illusion, it's a little bit of both.
"We call it an evening of Old World magic with international flair that takes you around the world on a magical journey in 80 minutes," Sarlot said.
The couple does not do tricks; they do magical compositions that combine Middle Eastern-style movement with vaudeville-style showmanship and now-you-see-it-now-you-don't illusions.
"We do a silly piece, a serious piece, a dangerous piece," said Eyed, who brings a lifetime of modern dance to the duo. "They are stories based on our travels around the world. Each piece is based on a country or a place that we've been."
Next month, Sarlot and Eyed will celebrate their 250th Carnival of Illusion show, which they have been performing alternating weekends in Tucson and Phoenix for four years.
"Carnival of Illusion is really the only game in town for a regularly appearing (magic) show," said longtime Tucson magician Michael DeSchalit, former president of the Tucson assembly of the Society of American Magicians.
This is not like the magic shows you see occasionally at Gaslight Theatre, with big, flashy tricks that often elicit oohs and ahhs of amazement.
"This is parlor magic, where people would entertain in their parlors and hire ... entertainers to entertain their exclusive guests," Eyed explained. "We kind of wanted to create that same ... experience. And people love that."
Eyed and Sarlot started doing magic together 11 years ago as a way to marry his magic act with her non-traditional belly dance. They called their act Dance of Illusion, and they played fairs, festivals and theaters.
"We started from ground zero building a show, and we did that by experimenting and working and building pieces," said Sarlot, who grew up in California in the shadow of Hollywood's famed Magic Castle.
Eyed grew up in the Midwest, and her only brush with magic came from watching magicians on TV. She arrived in Tucson with a background in land and apartment management, and a passion for Middle Eastern dance that led her to form her own ethno-modern troupe.
"I really wanted to change my life," Eyed said.
Sarlot came to Tucson for graduate school at the University of Arizona 15 years ago and landed a job in adaptive optics with the UA Steward Observatory.
Four years ago, the couple tweaked the formula for their act and rebranded it as Carnival of Illusion. They quit their day jobs and focused all their energies on the act.
"I've seen way too many people dabble in hobbies. It was jump in the deep end and just swim," Sarlot said. "There was no backup plan. You just do it and give it all you got."
On that Friday night in March, the audience included accidental tourists Lynda and Don Foote from Topeka, Kan., who were passing through Tucson as part of a three-month American road trip; and Kathy Breuer from Buffalo, N.Y., who was in town visiting her friend Pat Wygant.
Phoenix couple Bryce Kuhlman and Jenny Pauls were on their third show.
"It's about coming and being part of the experience," said Kuhlman, who was once a professional magician. "I spent a long time in the magic industry, and this is one of the best magic shows in the country. It's so much fun. It's so entertaining."
Magic on the big screen
• Now playing: "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone." A magician (Steve Carell) and his assistant (Steve Buscemi) try to salvage their careers after a street magician upstages them.
• Coming soon: "Now You See Me." A troupe of illusionists (Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Caine) pulls off bank heists during performances, then gives some of the cash to its audiences. To be released May 31.
If you go
• What: Carnival of Illusion 250th show celebration.
• When: 6 p.m. April 12 and 13.
• Where: DoubleTree by Hilton Tucson, 445 S. Alvernon Way, near Reid Park..
• Tickets: $40 front row, $29 general; $26 for seniors through www.carnivalofillusion.com
• Details: 615-5299.
• Other upcoming Carnival of Illusion shows at DoubleTree: 6 p.m. Friday and 3 and 6 p.m. Saturday; 6 p.m. April 26 and 27; and 6 p.m. May 3 and 4.
Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch@azstarnet.com or 573-4642.