For Mat Franco, magic has always been less about the tricks and more about fun and a connection with the audience.
And whether the audience was a few friends gathered around a table, hundreds of freshmen at URI orientation sessions, thousands watching at Radio City Music Hall or millions watching on television, the University of Rhode Island alumnus always made you feel like you were the only one in the room.
That charisma, charm, energy and mastery of movement and deception led him to being chosen winner of this year’s America’s Got Talent and recipient of a $1 million prize and headline show in Las Vegas.
Right through his final performance on NBC Tuesday night and the Wednesday night announcement that he had won the entire contest, Franco was one of the few performers to never be scolded or criticized by the judges. From the show’s start in June, Franco stood tall after each judging segment, eventually topping 47 other acts.
And he did it all with simple card tricks, a flaming giant card, a cell phone hidden in a theater seat, some fast moving ping-pong-sized balls, a few cups and a trick that combined a traditional deck of cards with giant cards held by audience members.
Tuesday night, hundreds of URI students gathered for a viewing party in Rhody Market to watch. Even fellow America’s Got Talent performer, Hannah Ritchie, a URI freshman pharmacy student from California, was in attendance at the party. A member of the Hart Dance Team that was eliminated earlier in the season, Ritchie nevertheless cheered in true Rhody Pride fashion for Franco when he finished his first performance.
Two students were so energized by the viewing party that they ran around campus with a huge photo cutout of Franco. They went to every residence hall banging on doors, telling students to “vote for Mat.”
Peg Boyd, assistant dean of the College of Business Administration, said there’s been a buzz around the college all week as faculty and students rally behind Franco, who graduated from URI in 2010 with a degree in marketing.
“We can all relate to Mat,” Boyd said. “Our pride comes from knowing that Mat is a home grown Rhode Islander, and that he chose Rhode Island’s flagship public university for his education. He is Keaney Blue through and through. URI gave him the foundation to put his dream into place. This is what return on investment and thinking big are all about.”
Franco, who started doing magic when he was 4, has said it was URI that gave him the tools to become a businessman, whether it was marketing classes or working as a freshman orientation leader.
“As a student, Mat was the very first winner of Rhody’s Got Talent in 2009,” Boyd said. “He won airline tickets and went to Vegas to perform.”
Boyd said Franco, who grew up in Johnston and now resides in Newport, set himself apart by his level of preparation. “His extensive research, his practice and his depth all played a role in his success. And I agree with so many others, in that he didn’t have to win last night to have benefited from the experience and become a household name in Rhode Island and beyond.”