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'Abracadabra' brings magic to life

CHARLESTON, W.Va.--Dr. Michael Adelman pulled out an umbrella and, watching him, 8-year-old Destiny Belcher turned to her friend.

"He's going to make it rain," she said. "I think it's going to rain in here."

Lydia Comer, also 8 and a third grader at Holz Elementary School, looked up at the ceiling of the school's all-purpose room, where they were seated with a crowd of their classmates, and agreed.

"It's going to rain," she squealed.

Lydia and Destiny weren't the only ones who took the umbrella as a sign of rain to come -- indoors. Around the auditorium students were looking to the ceiling; a few raised their sweatshirts' hoods to cover their heads as a precautionary measure.

Given the situation, it wasn't as absurd an idea as it might seem: after 30 minutes in the all-purpose room with Adelman, a magician and ventriloquist, the students were almost thoroughly convinced the magic was real.

He didn't make it rain in Holz Elementary that afternoon, but he did do a number on that umbrella -- it jumped from place to place, turned into a handkerchief and a flag and then back into an umbrella. The crowd of elementary school students squealed with delight at each twist and turn.

Adelman has a varied resume: he's a magician and ventriloquist as well as a surgeon and the president of the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine.

He's also the star and lead developer of the Abracadabra television series, a children's show that airs on West Virginia Public Broadcasting every day at 8:30 a.m. Through that show, now in its third season, Adelman and his team use magic tricks, comedy and music to teach children about health and nutrition, science and safety, as part of the school's Healthy Children's Initiative. 

Next, the team is going to start a more permanent community program in public schools around the state, in an effort to be a more steady presence in some schools and better measure outcomes.

Abracadabra started as a local access show, before West Virginia Public Broadcasting approached Adelman and the School of Osteopathic Medicine about taking it statewide. The idea is to use Adelman's tricks, his magic and his puppet Joey as a smokescreen, so kids don't even realize that they're watching an educational program.

"If you can get the kids' attention then you can teach them something," Adelman said in the hallway at Holz after his presentation Tuesday. "And if you can do it by role model then you have a better chance of kids following that. So if you use Joey and the other characters on the show it works. It just makes sense to try to do that for health and nutrition."

As he spoke, a student approached Adelman as his class filed out of the auditorium.

"Is it real magic?" he asked.

Adelman laughed and told him that it was magic and some was science, and the kid walked back to class.

He didn't ask about the nutritional facts of a hamburger, but the Abracadabra team covered that too, between card tricks and lessons about counterweights and gravity -- and they hope students picked up on that message.

On Tuesday they played a few rounds of the "make a healthy choice game" with the kids. Students were asked to choose between a hamburger, fried fish sandwich and a grilled chicken sandwich -- not which one they like the best, but which is healthiest.

The majority of kids chose correctly -- the grilled chicken has the fewest calories and less fat than the other options -- and when Adelman held up a plate with a hunk of fat on it, showing them how much fat that hamburger contains and asking the kids if they'd like to eat that part alone, they grimaced and groaned and shouted no.

That's a victory for the Abracadabra team, in a time of skyrocketing childhood obesity rates. Adelman hopes the students will take that small lesson about nutrition home with them, and maybe pass some of it along to their parents.

In this way, he likens the Abracadabra approach to the public service campaigns mounted around seatbelt safety and tobacco products over the last several decades.

"When they tried to change adults and they couldn't do it, they used kids," he said. "When they got kids saying 'Mom, don't kill me' or 'I want you to live a long time' suddenly people were putting on seatbelts and not smoking. This is a similar idea. Start with the health of our kids and have the kids tell the parents they want some green beans or something like that."

Contact writer Shay Maunz at or 304-348-4886.


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