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Damien James: making his mark in magic and ventriloquism

Former NB resident appears on Penn and Teller: Fool Us Monday

Those who live in the Battlefords know by now that the community is full of talented people.

A lot of the time, that talent stays close to home, but a few have been able to take their ability to entertain to the outside world.

One of those is Damien James, which is the stage name used by former North Battleford resident Jamie Swettenham.

It was as a kid in North Battleford that James first started performing as a ventriloquist and magician.

Now based out of British Columbia, James is active as both an entertainer and as a make-up artist on various TV series shot in Vancouver and area. 

James’ talents had the widest audience yet this summer as he was selected to appear on the TV show Penn and Teller: Fool Us.

As he describes it, the show features magicians who perform their magic tricks in front of Penn and Teller.  

“It’s basically done as a game show, really,” said James. “The rules are kind of the same in that Penn and Teller have no idea who’s on the show, so they’re surprised at whoever comes up. Magicians go up and do a routine hoping to ‘fool’ Penn and Teller. And then Penn and Teller, after the routine is done, have a chance to try and guess as to how it’s done.”

It’s a tough task for the performers. Less than a quarter of those appearing on the show have been able to “fool” the famous magicians during its five-season run.

If Penn and Teller are successfully stumped, the performer wins a trip to Las Vegas to open for Penn and Teller’s show at the Rio Hotel and Casino.

At the end of the day, the show really isn’t so much about fooling Penn and Teller or winning a chance to perform for them.

“It’s more about putting unique magic and good magic on the air,” said James.

The show featuring James aired Aug. 13 on the CW.

It’s been an interesting journey for James, who was born and raised in North Battleford and spent the first 19 years of his life there. His dad, Jim, actually worked for the News-Optimistfor a period of time and later spent several years as a firefighter, while his mom worked at the SAAN store in Frontier Mall.

James caught the magic-and-ventriloquism bug early, as his parents bought him a Mickey Mouse magic book and a Tommy Talker dummy out of the Sears Christmas catalogue.

“That became my childhood friend. I used to practice in front of the mirror,” said James. His first show, he recalls, was his own seventh birthday party.

He put his performing skills to use early. From the time he was seven years old, James would perform at shows, birthday parties and events throughout the Battlefords and area. He remembers going to the library to get books about magic. 

After graduating from North Battleford Comprehensive High School, James moved to Maidstone where he lived for a couple of years, and afterwards moved to Calgary.

By then, “I was pretty much performing full time,” he said.

An opportunity came to move to Toronto to pursue a six-month course on special-effects makeup. James initially enrolled because he saw it as an opportunity to gain skills in making his own puppets, instead of the ones he would buy, but it eventually became a side passion for him.

“I ended up really enjoying the makeup side of it because it’s, in a way, like a magic trick. You’re creating an illusion on somebody’s face. changing their appearance with three-dimensional material,” said James.

Afterwards, he got accepted as a student of the legendary Dick Smith, known in Hollywood as the “godfather of special effects makeup” for his work on The Exorcist and Amadeus. And it progressed from there, said James.      

Now, James works full time in special effects makeup in the Vancouver area on various TV shows. He’s been working there since 2005.

When the News-Optimist interviewed James, he was in Burnaby, where he had been working for a network pilot as well as for Supergirl, which is shot in British Columbia.

In fact, he’s regularly done work for a number of the superhero shows filmed in the lower mainland.

“At the shop where I work, we do all the superhero shows like Flash and Arrow, and Legends of Tomorrow and all those.” 

When things slow down with TV production, James pursues his magic and ventriloquism gigs, working numerous corporate events and shows. 

As for the performers who inspired him, he points to Jim Henson and the Muppets.

“When I was growing up I was also kind of a fan of the monsters and all that kind of stuff.”

But he said his interest had been strictly as an audience member.    

On the magic side, he was a fan of David Copperfield and also admired Penn and Teller.     

These days, James has mainly concentrated on ventriloquism, with signature puppets such as a crotchety-looking old man character who comes with his own walker.

He’s also built puppets for other performers from his workshop at home. Having the ability to build puppets allows James the opportunity to change things up occasionally for his shows, he said.

Right now, he’s working on a Donald Trump puppet. “I couldn’t resist,” he said.

James lives in Gibsons, made famous by the Beachcombers TV show, from where he commutes to his Vancouver-area gigs.

He has a wife and two young kids. Needless to say the kids are amused by their dad’s line of work.

The oldest, age five, is really into the puppets and the makeup.

“He loves coming to dad’s workshop and seeing all the creepy, spooky things,” said James.

But the youngest one, age three, is “a little scared of things. So I don’t push the monsters on him just yet.”


Following this interview, the show featuring James aired Aug. 13 on the CW. His act included puppets that were likenesses of Penn and Teller. As anyone who tuned in knows, James did successfully “fool” Penn and Teller, earning James a piece of TV notoriety.