Playing the grandfatherly yet mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer in Gwinnett Ballet Theatre's 2007 production of "The Nutcracker," professional magician Bill Kress will perform five minutes of on-stage magic - in 90 seconds.
Calling on his formidable skills, Kress will use silks and canes, vanishing cages that suddenly reappear, five doves and a cockatoo to produce illusions that have wowed "Nutcracker" audiences for the past decade. His annual expeditious act is no small feat - it takes hundreds of hours of preparation, on and off stage.
"My goal for every performance is to do a perfect performance," Kress said. "I can't do it, of course, but I try. I always see a little improvement I can make. I rehearse with my birds for hours and hours at home. In fact, I spend more hours rehearsing the minute and a half I spend onstage with my birds than I spend rehearsing the rest of the show."
Now 58, Kress said he's performed magic for as long as he can remember.
"I had a pro baseball player tell me as a kid, 'Billy, if you think you are green, you will grow. But the minute you think you've grown ripe, you can only go rotten.' That was very wise advice," he said.
Always a high achiever, Kress earned a degree in drama and theatrical stage lighting from the University of Miami, and then began touring the East Coast as a professional magician, often using birds as he performed in hotels, night clubs and on cruise ships. He also studied under Al Delage, the same master magician who trained David Copperfield.
"Al is gone now, but in his day he was known as one of the world's fastest magicians," Kress said. "If he could see me in 'Nutcracker,' I think he would be very proud."
In between magic gigs, Kress ran a costume shop that also carried stage props, makeup, lighting and rigging. Today, that little shop has become Georgia Stage Inc., a full-service theatrical drapery manufacturer. The company operates in a 25,000-square-foot warehouse in Lilburn and custom fabricates and installs curtains for stages, studios, auditoriums and sports arenas all over the world.
Georgia Stage curtains can be found as far away as Kuwait, and in places like Las Vegas' MGM Grand, Atlanta's Fox Theatre and the Aurora Theatre, right here in Gwinnett County.
"Anthony Rodriguez wanted a very spectacular curtain for the Aurora, so I designed a unique double-tabbed curtain for them with 10-inch French fringe and a five-tier valance. It's gorgeous. We display a copy of it at our trade shows," Kress said.
The success of Georgia Stage allows Kress to indulge in his passion for exotic birds. In addition to the doves and Bugsy, the 15-year-old cockatoo that performs with him in "The Nutcracker," Kress owns Hyacinth Macaws and Golden Conures, two rare - and endangered - South American breeds of parrots. To properly care for the birds (the macaw has a six-foot wingspan), Kress built a 2,000-square-foot climate controlled aviary near his home in Commerce, where the birds are allowed to fly freely.
He admits that caring for the birds takes at least three hours every day.
"Owning these birds is like having a bunch of 2-year-olds," he laughs. "I don't own them, they own me. They are so smart. They analyze and they remember."
When traveling with his doves, Kress always brings their artificial tree for roosting backstage. When it's time to perform, he asks them if they are ready.
"They know what I'm saying. If they want to perform, they fly to me. If they don't, they stay in the tree," he said. "I don't force them to perform. They perform because they want to, because they love it."
Kress said he's looking forward to celebrating his 10th anniversary with "The Nutcracker." Together, he and Bugsy have performed in all 158 Gwinnett Ballet Theatre "Nutcracker" shows.
In developing the Herr Drosselmeyer role over the past decade with "Nutcracker" director Lisa Sheppard Robson, Kress said he enjoys the precision of his speedy party scene.
"There is no room for error," he said. "I must execute it exactly, then boom, I'm done."
SideBar: If You Go
What: Gwinnett Ballet Theatre's 26th annual production of "The Nutcracker"
When: Friday through Dec. 16. Showtimes are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays.
Where: Performing Arts Center at Gwinnett Center, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth
Cost: For live music performances, tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. For recorded music performances, tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for recorded music performances. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 404-249-6400 or visit the Gwinnett Center Box Office.
Info: Gwinnett Ballet Theatre Orchestra, under the direction of Predrag Gosta, will perform during the final seven performances. Call 770-978-0188 or visit www.gwinnettballet.org.