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Magician Stephen Bargatze ‘realizing how great God is’

NASHVILLE (BP) – When Stephen Bargatze was named the International Brotherhood of Magicians’ closeup magic champion in 2000, he didn’t know it at the time, but the nuns who’d taught him as a child had helped him win.

A few years later, when Bargatze was called back to help judge the competition, he was told to watch the contestants sign their entry waivers. When he asked why, organizers told him it would allow him to find out whether a contestant was right- or left-handed. Then he would know which hand to watch during their sleight-of-hand tricks.

A lightbulb went off for Bargatze.

“I was born left-handed,” he told Baptist Press in an interview earlier this month. “I went to a school that wouldn’t let you be left-handed. Those nuns made me a champion, because all my magic is left-handed, but I signed my paper right-handed. So during the contest [the judges] were looking at the wrong hand.”

It wasn’t the first – or the last – time God would show Bargatze how He redeems hard things.

Pair of jokers

Nowadays, a lot of people know the name Bargatze from Stephen’s famous son, Nate, a standup comedian whose meteoric career has made its own magic the last few years. But the elder Bargatze is no grabber of coattails, though he may wear them from time to time. In fact, he was the original comedian in the family.

Stephen Bargatze has made a 40-plus-year career out of his quirky blend of magic and comedy, playing theaters, churches, schools, corporate functions and a longstanding gig at Nashville’s Opryland theme park before it closed down. 

Now, he’s opening for Nate in huge arenas and concert venues. Not bad for a kid who didn’t think he’d amount to anything.

Dealt a hard hand

“I had a bad speech problem when I was young,” said Bargatze, who’s now 68. “I was attacked by a bulldog in my face. So I had like six years of plastic surgery. … I talk funny. I stuttered and stammered. I stammered more than stuttered. No confidence or anything like that. But I had a teacher that did magic.”

The teacher used magic to inspire kids to read and to learn.

“And that was my motivation that I needed just to be able to do something,” Bargatze said.

“I wasn’t doing school well at all. … When you struggle with school, it’s hard not to notice that. … I know that I’m not as smart as everybody else, and I wasn’t as smart as my family. My brother and sisters were all real smart, and I knew that I didn’t have that.

“… [Magic] was something that I could do that no one else could. You know, it gave me the little confidence that I needed to be something or be somebody.”

Some lovely assistance

Turns out, it wasn’t that Bargatze was dumb. He just needed a little help.

After a troubled childhood and youth, he married his middle school sweetheart, Carol, and made his way to Nashville. A relative helped him enroll in Trevecca Nazarene College (now University), and Carol and his teachers helped him get through his classes. He graduated college 10 years after high school.

He needed help understanding the Gospel too.

“I wasn’t a believer,” he said. “I didn’t grow up in a [Christian] home or anything like that.”

One day he attended a Presbyterian church, just because he wanted to play on its softball team.

“I heard the Holy Spirit, and I went forward, but no one shared the Gospel,” he said. “So I spent a long time just trying to earn God’s love.”

At Trevecca, he first studied to be a preacher, because that’s what he thought all Christians were supposed to be. But a professor told him God couldn’t be calling him because of his speech impediment.

“I didn’t know about Moses,” Bargatze said, laughing. “I’m sure he wore a veil to keep from spitting on people.”

A change of hearts

It wasn’t until he was on a mission trip in Texas that the Gospel became clear to him. He was writing down a list of reasons he knew he was going to heaven.

“The list was all about me,” he realized. “I don’t cuss. I don’t drink. … There was a whole lot of I’s on there. … God said, ‘Now you understand it’s grace. It’s about grace. … You didn’t need me. Now you need me.’”

Years after he finally learned it, Bargatze shared this same lesson of grace with his mother, whom he hadn’t spoken to in 12 years.

Their relationship was always strained. Bargatze’s children – Nate, Derek (who is in ministry) and Abigail (who helps in the family business) – never even met their grandmother, something the father regrets.

“Even though she was very mean to me at times and I didn’t want her to do that to my kids, I should have put them around her, and she should have experienced my family,” he said. “And I didn’t do that.”

Bargatze went to visit his mother as she was dying of COVID. He went intending to tell her the Gospel one more time. Instead, he found himself apologizing.

“When I was young and a teenager, I was a punk,” he said. “I did things wrong. She had such a hard life, a hard, terrible life. And I made it harder. And I just needed her to hear that I’m sorry. And it just softened her. And then it went right into the Gospel.” His mother couldn’t talk; she could only blink. But, he said: “… as far as I know, I think I’ll have eternity to get to know her.”

No king of clubs

Bargatze, a longtime member of Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., is quick to talk about how his faith has influenced his career. Night clubs and comedy clubs aren’t exactly known for being family friendly.

“I just don’t do ‘em,” he said, though he does play clubs on occasion as a favor, but only if he can bring his own opening act.

A few weeks ago, he went to a show to support some aspiring comics.

“They were terrible,” he said. “I mean, they were filthy. They were wrong. And I was so ashamed.”

He has a personal rule.

“Would I be embarrassed if my pastor walked in, and I was on this show, even though I’m 100 percent clean?” If the answer is yes, he doesn’t do it.

“I know you don’t have to be dirty to be funny,” he said. “And I don’t like that kind of laugh. … I just don’t want to be a part of it.”

Queen of diamonds

When he’s not on the road, you’re likely to find Bargatze on the golf course or the pickleball court. Or taking care of household chores – something he learned how to do only a few years ago when Carol was diagnosed with kidney cancer.

“It’s all in God’s hand,” he said. “I always believe that I’m not going to die one second before I’m supposed to. And I’m not afraid of dying. He can take me anytime.”

But with Carol, it was different. They’d known the news for a while, but they hadn’t talked about it. He came home from a work trip two days before her scheduled surgery.

“I asked her where she wants to go, and she said she don’t care,” Bargatze recounted. “I said, ‘Look, we’re going Mexican. If you’re not gonna make up your mind, I’m picking.’

“And she goes, ‘Well, I have cancer.’ And we laughed. It was the first time she played that card.” They went to O’Charley’s.

“It just showed that we had to laugh. We had to get to the point where we laughed. And then we went and we talked for the first time. And it changed my life.”

It changed his life because he realized if Carol died, he would have no idea how to live.

“I couldn’t have gone to the bank,” he said. “I’m not sure I knew what bank we went to. … I don’t know where pots and pans are. I’ve never done laundry. I didn’t do any of that stuff.

“But I took it all over, and it’s been four and a half years. She’s a lot better now. She should take some of this back,” he said with a laugh.

Blessings in spades

While he may be scrubbing toilets and unloading the dishwasher at home, Bargatze is killing it on the road, getting two standing ovations at every show.

“I get a standing ovation just for walking out and being [Nate’s] dad,” he said. “Nathan’s got a really good fan group. These are people that want clean comedy, no politics, no sex, just fun. And he makes fun of his father, which is great. There’s a lot there to make fun of. But I don’t have to do anything. And they love that I’m there ’cause they know it’s kind of special.”

And the second standing ovation? Bargatze said he gets that one “for not being terrible.”

Almost every night after his opening act, when he introduces Nate, he starts to cry.

“Because of realizing how great God is,” he said. “We know as a family, and I believe Nathan believes this in all of his heart that we can’t take any credit for this success. I mean, come on. We’re just regular people talking about our family. … We just know it’s a God thing.”