Friday evening after Thanksgiving, when we were all sick of turkey and stuffing and yet somehow hungry again, we ventured to the local burger and beer restaurant near the house. As we were enjoying our last night together with stories and loud laughter, Magic Dave, who works the room every Friday night at this place, wandered over. He played card tricks and mind tricks, turned his wallet into a flaming mass and entertained us with a flowing comedic patter for a good long session of old-fashioned illusions. Dave is a seasoned pro and we were a willing audience.
Magic is something that has always fascinated me- that combination of performance and audience buy-in that just does not happen in other types of entertainment (except maybe professional wrestling). When you are watching a good magician, part of you automatically becomes a small child again; because although you know in your adult brain that what you are seeing is just an illusion, your reptilian brain is making your hands clap and your eyes all big and shiny and your mouth yell for more. You cannot help sounding like a five-year-old as you look around at your companions in complete confoundment and ask each other, “How did he do that?” In every crowd there is at least one skeptic who tries to trip up the magician or follow his hands with driven precision, and claims to have seen the solution. I love to watch that person’s face when the magician, who is highly aware of that cynic in the crowd, does something flawlessly. I think a true magician lives to impress the doubters.
When I was a seventh grader at Hunter College High School, one of my good friends was really into magic. She carried her wares in her backpack and would practice on me whenever she could. She taught me about the importance of patter, and she showed me the sponge ball tricks and she took me to the secret haven of NYC magicians of the seventies: Tannen’s located on Times Square. We would open the barely marked door in the middle of the then-filthy and x-rated 42nd Street area, and climb a narrow staircase and walk into another world. Sometimes she would buy stuff but mostly we would just watch and listen to the adults sharing trade secrets and looking for the latest materials for tricks and illusions. At Hunter we had no Gym so we left the building to do our Physical Education, and my friend and I took swim class at the Hunter College building on 68th Street. After swim class, dripping wet and looking every bit of our thirteen-year-old selves, we would stand inside the lobby of the college’s main building and perform for the students. She was a consummate performer and so much fun to watch. I did try a trick or two in public myself. Safe to say there is a reason I pursued a different career. But what fond memories.
Aside from the stream of patter that is essential to performing magic, there are the physical requirements. The sleight of hand, card and coin manipulations and illusions require lightning quick finger movements and agility. In the discipline and art of magic, which takes years of study and practice to perfect, the magician manipulates the environment to create an illusion using a variety of skills including (love these two words, just because) prestidigitation and legerdemain. Even knowing some of the secrets from my own “training” as a teenager, I am entranced by disappearing balls, coins that move from one hand to another or change size in front of my nose, cards that show up at the top of the deck. When a table-side magician such as Dave pulls one over on me, I am beyond delighted. On my birthday, Magic Dave gave me a small sealed wooden box and had me put it far away from him. Then he asked me to write my name on a playing card which kept appearing and disappearing for the next fifteen minutes. At one point he ripped it into pieces and it showed up whole. He did a variety of fun tricks and at the end told me to open my present. Inside the box was the card I had written my name on. Fabulous!
Magicians who perform on stage must necessarily aim for big illusions due to their distance from the audience, and the need to deceive a large number of people at the same time. How do they saw someone in half, make a live tiger disappear, cause items to float in the air, and turn rabbits into doves? How do they escape from shackles while hanging upside down, and change places with an assistant who is tied up and locked inside a trunk? I don’t actually want an answer to that question, and I never watch those reveal shows and videos that spoil the trick. When I am watching I want to be fooled- I want that performer to amaze me. Magic is the type of entertainment where you must suspend belief and let the inner child come all the way out.
Back in the day, no one did it better than Doug Henning. This one is for you, Rrrrrr. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFtV69i36Pg