A lot of people with a deep knowledge of video games know of Randy Pitchford. If they don't, they're probably at least familiar with games that his studio, Gearbox Software, has developed.
Fewer people know that before he had a hand in hit games such as Borderlands, Pitchford was a professional magician in Hollywood, performing at places like the famed Magic Castle. (I guess his Twitter handle, @DuvalMagic, doesn't give it away.) In recent years he's talked at length about how his history performing illusions in front of a crowd has actually informed the way he thinks about video games. Earlier this year he went on stage with Penn Jillette (of the Penn & Teller fame) at the game development conference D.I.C.E. to talk about that very thing.
Currently, though, his passion project is a little different: He wants to cultivate a local variety arts scene in his home town of Frisco. He's doing so by hosting shows in his newly-built Peacock Theater, which comfortably seats a small audience of less than 100 people.
The catch: The Peacock Theater is actually in his house.
I mean, the house is really, really nice. From the outside you can probably assume that there's some cool stuff in there. But it also just looks like a house. You wouldn't know, walking down the sidewalk, that once you walk upstairs and pass a full bar (where a kind server will give you a Dr. Pepper if you don't want anything stronger), you'll walk into a cozy little theater that's certainly smaller than most you'd buy a ticket for, but also bigger than even your above-average media room.
"There's a different kind of experience you have when you experience live entertainment versus the kinds of media we tend to consume most of, when we're watching television or films or reading books," Pitchford says. "Live entertainment is a whole different beast."
He invited me to his Frisco home in late May for the third-ever show at the Peacock Theater (including an early "test" performance that was smaller than the others). There I saw world-class magicians Rob Zabrecky and Handsome Jack (not to be confused with an antagonist in Gearbox's Borderlands series) put on a wonderful show of illusions and humor, often including members of the small audience in their tricks.
"When you experience something like you experienced at the Peacock Theater you realize that no one else in the world will get that experience," Pitchford told me. "That was a one time thing. Yeah, the acts can develop their material, and they'll re-use their material, but there's also a live, dynamic nature to it that makes it one of a kind. Every show is different, and that's special."
He adds, "There's also a connection, a relationship between the audience and the performer that's very rare, that only exists with this kind of live entertainment. And I love it. I think I would not be who I am if I did not have experience both as an audience and as a performer in those early days of my career. It taught me what entertainment is all about."
Pitchford's goal with the Peacock Theater is to give the D-FW area the same experience that influenced him so much when he was younger in Hollywood.
"I want to make sure that people with talents, who want to perform or to develop their act, know that the Peacock Theater exists and to reach out to us and know that there's a safe and fun place for them to develop their material." He's working on a website that should serve that purpose, but for now he has an email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
The premise for the Peacock Theater isn't unique. It's modeled after the Brookledge theater in Los Angeles, which served as a sort of secret theater where the early Hollywood era elite could go to enjoy live entertainment without the need to worry about being hounded by paparazzi or fans. Brookledge was the home of Floyd Thayer, a famous magician around the turn of the century, before transferring to hands of the Larsen family of magicians. The theater has hosted performances by the likes of Orson Welles and Johnny Carson, and today it's where you can find the monthly variety show Brookledge Follies.
Obviously, Pitchford isn't keeping the Peacock Theater secret, but he's still trying to find the right balance between keeping the doors shut and swinging them wide open.
"It is in my home, so it's not a business," he says. "It's not something I intend to monetize. That said, I don't want it to be so exclusive that it's impossible to get in." He's hoping to create a path for people to get an invitation to the theater without needing to be a friend of the family or a local celebrity, but he says, "it's something we're still figuring out."
Thankfully, he has people he can turn to for advice. Pitchford is good friends with Erika Larsen, a descendant of Larsen family and producer of the aforementioned Brookledge Follies. The Larsens founded the Academy of Magical Arts as well as Genii magazine, a publication for magicians that, incidentally, Pitchford now owns. "[Larsen] has taught me a lot about how to do it," he says. "I don't have the good fortune of starting from a legacy. I'm starting from scratch. But the environment she has at Brookledge is one where lots of incredible performers are eager to be a part of it and try their material on really discerning, private crowds."
Currently the Peacock Theater is hosting one show a month. Eventually, Pitchford would like to increase the frequency of performances to every two weeks, alternating between professional shows (featuring guests that are already well-known) and shows where aspiring local acts can invite their friends, family and fellow performers so they can feel free to take risks and try out new material.
And if you were wondering: No, the theater is not the only bit of magic in Pitchford's home. Alongside the "normal" items you might expect to see in anybody's residence (like the copy of Hamilton: The Revolution that sat on the coffee table) and the video game memorabilia that comes as part of his work with Gearbox, Pitchford also has a "Dematerialization Chamber" upstairs. He sends someone into the closet-sized chamber (the two times I saw it, the willing participant was his son), fiddles with some knobs and switches on a nearby panel, and then the person in the chamber fades out of existence, Star Trek teleportation style, only to re-appear elsewhere in the room.
Considering all the other toys and high-tech gadgets lying around, I asked Pitchford if he also has a Batcave under his house. He claims he doesn't (I'm not sure if I buy that), but he does have a sizable basement, which can be just as rare in North Texas.
If you have a variety act of your own and you're interested in performing at the Peacock Theater, the Pitchford family invites you to send them an e-mail.