The Reality of Illusion

At 71 years old, André Kole still amazes college students.

By Chris Lawrence   |  07/10/2008
andre-kole-performance-465x280.jpg Photo by: Guy Gerrard

The light catches the glittering sequins on the magician's coat as he appears out of the wispy smoke. When the red curtain opened a moment earlier, André Kole was nowhere to be seen. But now he stands atop a large fan, which moments before was blowing into the audience.

"Tonight I will be contrasting the world of illusion with the world of reality," says André, as two assistants help him off the fan onto the stage. André will be performing such feats as levitation and even making the Statue of Liberty disappear -- a trick he consulted on with famed illusionist David Copperfield.

Renowned worldwide for his illusions, André's show offers a twist: a spiritual message, which he incorporates throughout the performance. He has served as a traveling illusionist with Campus Crusade for Christ for the past 44 years.

Dazzling College Students

On this particular Tuesday night, at Eastern Washington University, André dazzles a crowd of more than 300 people -- mostly college students. These leaders of tomorrow are André's favorite audience.

seasoned performer, the 71-year-old has perfected his craft over the years by giving nearly 4,000 shows in 79 different countries—and he still travels with a crew up to 20 days each month.

As a young magician, he would not sleep until he invented three new tricks per day. Inventing illusions has become André's forte. In 1999, the International Magicians Society named him "The Magical Inventor of the Decade." He still creates illusions today, including, "Walking on Water," where he appears to stroll across a large lake as a way to refute skeptics' claims that Jesus simply performed magic tricks.

While André is constantly developing new tricks, he still relies on a few classics.

"And now for my next miracle," André jokes, as his assistants wheel a guillotine onto the stage. The worn prop has been around for many years.

And so has André.

André's History

Born in 1936 during the Depression, his real name is Robert Gurtler. With dark locks and a diffusing stare, André doesn't look his age, though the creases on his face reveal a man who has done a lot of living. He keeps his body lean and in good shape, and he can still conjure cutting-edge illusions.

Mystical music pours out of the speakers as he sits cross-legged under a circle of eerie lights. Squeezing his eyes shut in concentration, André begins to lift into the air, rising higher and higher, until he levitates six feet off the ground.

The audience murmurs in wonderment.   
 
 "I want to make it clear that I do not possess any supernatural powers," André told the audience before the illusion.

A skeptic and investigator of the supernatural, André has written several books debunking the idea that people can possess magical powers. He maintains that there is only one person who actually performed miracles: Jesus Christ.

The past few years, he has even attended atheism conferences to communicate his viewpoint about the existence of God, based on his studies.

Over the years, his levitation trick has raised controversy. At a few shows, some disturbed audience members have stood up and tried to cast demons out of him.

But André has grown accustomed to the controversy. Using magic as a ministry has not always been well received.

 In December of 2003, Christian leaders in Jamaica printed articles in the local newspaper, warning people not to see his show because they thought André had satanic powers.

When André first talked with members of Campus Crusade in 1961 about the potential of using his illusions as a way to relate the gospel to people, many rejected the idea. But the founder, Bill Bright, insisted that God could use this magician.

And so André began helping to communicate the message of Jesus to college students, and to other audiences. He has been seen on more campuses worldwide than any other program in history—more than 3,000.

Magic and the Gospel on Campus

On many campuses, more than twice as many students surrender their lives to Christ at André's performances as do through all other strategies.

"André Kole is our top college evangelist today," says Larry Stephens, Campus Crusade's national evangelism coordinator. "I've never seen anyone as passionate as he to reach people for Christ."

Throughout his show, André weaves in much of his own personal story, like struggling with atheism for years.

This past year, a show at Miami University in Ohio drew more than 2,800 people, and 416 of them indicated decisions to receive Christ.

For Ye Xiang, a 21-year-old accounting student at Miami, André's show proved to be more than good entertainment. "I was so confused about Christianity," says Ye, who had looked into Christianity for several months. "[After] seeing the show and the illusions, I really understood how God took away my sin."

It's a message André wants many more to comprehend, too. "There are millions of more students who need to be reached with the gospel," André says. "We need to get the gospel to as many as possible."

Runs in the Family

André continues to strive for relevance. Recently he added another premiere magician to his show -- his son.   
 
A man resembling a young André (except with an earring and a bit larger frame) walks onto the stage to perform. Tim Kole, 45, has spent much of his career working as a performer for Las Vegas-style productions, including one at one of the world's largest resorts in Malaysia.

Living as a traveling magician, André still has found time for a family. His first wife died of a brain tumor 30 years ago, and he remarried about a year later to Kathy. Besides Tim, he also has a daughter, Stacey, who was a Christian speaker and Miss USA finalist, and another daughter, Robyn, who works in public relations.

When he's not with his family, André focuses on his performances.

What Happened at Eastern Washington University

Soon the show at EWU reaches André's favorite part. Using three colored orbs, he explains that just like the green ball is separated from the yellow ball by the purple one, we are all separated from God because of our sin. But God helped us access Himself by sending His Son, Jesus, to die on the cross. André makes the middle purple ball disappear and suddenly the green and yellow are touching.

Evangelists all over the world use this same illustration. Among the EWU crowd, 66 people out of the 300 indicate that they began a relationship with God after comprehending the gospel during the show.

Soon the show reaches the grand finale.

"This is an exact replica," says André, standing next to a 10-foot- tall Statue of Liberty. "It is not a hologram. I am about to make it disappear -- in slow motion."

Two assistants raise a large cloth to cover the freedom icon, then they drop the cloth. Nothing is there but shining lights. André waves his hand to where the statue was, and then walks back to where it stood. Nothing.

André has performed this illusion hundreds of times, and when he looks ahead to the future, he hopes to keep performing.

André doesn't believe in retirement, and he often repeats Billy Graham's quote, "I have no intention of retiring until God chooses to retire me."

The reality is that all good shows come to an end. But until that day, André and his crew will continue traveling the world, telling the most intriguing story of all -- the gospel -- through the art of illusion.

André and his assistants bow a few times as the audience applauds, still reeling from the statue's disappearance. André walks beneath the large cloth, says, "Thank you, and good night," and then, he, too, vanishes.

The red curtain closes.

Editor's note: Earlier this year, André caught a life-threatening case of pneumonia, missing his first performance in 44 years. However, rather than cancel the tour, André's son, Tim, was able to continue with a condensed version of the show, and as a result, more than 800 people indicated they received Christ. Since then, André has recovered and is continuing to perform.