Patrick Terry has been performing magic for over 20 years, but it’s his work as an actor, filmmaker, and producer that fuel a new show called MAGIC HOUR debuting in New York City next week. Terry won’t take the stage as a magician, but will rather play the role of host as he interviews each act about their creative processes, their inspirations, and their journeys through making a career and crafting a life in the arts. The four shows will take place in May and June at the Triad Theater, a legendary New York stage that has for decades cultivated rising stars of acting, comedy, music, and now magic.
Andrew Goldenhersh will be the first guest of MAGIC HOUR on May 23rd, followed by Tina Lenert and Mike Caveney on June 6th, Eric Dittelman on June 20th, and Harrison Greenbaum on June 27th. After five years producing Wondershow, his vaudeville-style variety arts project, MAGIC HOUR is an opportunity for Terry to double down on his personal passion for magic and strip away the spectacle. He’s betting that New York City audiences will be interested to see behind the curtain of this art form that remains, by definition, mysterious. We sat down with Terry to talk about turning his conversations with magicians into performance art, the imbalance inherent in a performer’s lifestyle, and the differences between performing and producing magic.
GENIIONLINE: What inspired you to create MAGIC HOUR?
PATRICK TERRY: I started toying with the idea of MAGIC HOUR around 2011 at the Players Club, which is a social club here in New York. At first, it was my 60-minute parlor show where I would invite people into the clubhouse and in an intimate drawing room setting, 30 or 40 people would experience this kind of interactive magic. The idea of a parlor show is one that I think works very well for magic.
As the show evolved, I wanted to think about artists that I really admire and respect, and to showcase their work and their material. I’m almost approaching it like James Lipton and Inside the Actors Studio. An artist performs a headlining set, maybe 45 minutes, and then I will interview them for 10 or 15 minutes. We can go a little deeper and also every week we can feature a new artist. I want to understand their choices, their creative process, and also their inspirations and influences. I think there’s a curiosity about that for audiences, to look behind the curtain. The world of magic is very fascinating, but to understand the human element behind it, that’s also very interesting.
The term ‘magic hour’ is inspired by cinema, that time at dusk or sunrise where the sun is just so, and photographers call that magic hour because the light is very compelling and very cool to capture. I always liked the idea of that, this special time when special things happen. We apply those same rules to MAGIC HOUR, where for the next 60 minutes, special, interesting, magical things will happen.
GO: On a show like Inside the Actors Studio, you can peek behind the curtain and not see anything you’re not supposed to see. How do you plan on getting into some of those questions like process and inspiration and still make the conversation accessible and relatable for a lay audience?
PT: Certainly we’re not going to discuss methods and how they do magic, but the more interesting questions are why do they do magic and how did they came to be attracted to this art form. Whenever someone talks to me at a gig they want to know how I got into magic. It’s such a unique craft that there’s an inherent curiosity to it, not just in the exchange between performer and audience but also between audience and the craft itself. We are all exposed to magic at a young age, whether it’s a birthday party or Harry Potter or an uncle pulling coins out of your ear. The real practitioners remain in that world, but most people just let it go. Then as adults they wonder who are those people that really stayed with it? What compelled them to remain in that way of thinking? After you see a magic show usually it’s just applause, curtain call, good night. But this will allow people to process what they experienced and then also connect with the artist.
GO: It sounds like the concept really seeks to cultivate an appreciation of magic as an art form, as a respectable craft that people will want to learn more about.
PT: That’s right. We’re also revealing all of the discipline that goes into a show and the choices that a magician makes over their career or their life. I’ve curated artists that I’m fascinated by. The interview element is a small but important part of the show. I love magic, I care about it. And I also love the artists that pursue it, and sacrifice so much in order to share these wonders. I think that’s a very noble cause. I’m eager to understand it for myself, in addition to sharing it with the audience.
GO: How do you plan to approach the interview portion of the show? Beyond the typical “how’d you do that”, there’s so much meat to the art and theory of magic that it seems intimidating to have to squeeze that kind of conversation into 15 minutes.
PT: I’m a student of magic. I work with a lot of magicians and understand the vocabulary in a way that I think I’m part of that world. I’m not an objective observer. But for me, I love the idea of what a magician is doing when they’re not doing magic. The human element. One of my mentors is David Oliver, a wonderful magician based in Boston. I met him through Monday Night Magic many years ago and he kind of took me under his wing, which is not a dove pun. One of the lessons I really took away from him, just watching him as a professional full-time worker, was demystifying the business stuff. He told me that all in all, he’s really only performing about 5% of the time. The other 95% is the traffic, the follow up calls, the emails, and the client relationships. Pursuing opportunities and maintaining them.
There’s all of this stuff outside of the actual creative, so you have to love the creative so much that you’re able to manage all of the bullshit around it. I’m fascinated by the people that can manage that love in such an unbalanced equation. You’ve got to love that 5% in such a pure way that you can deal with all those other things. It’ll be fun to think about how magicians live, not just how they perform.
Any artist surviving in the world, but especially in the world of New York, it’s a physical game. Just the survival factor—not only do you have to be brilliant but you have to be really savvy. I’m fascinated by how they navigate all of the ups and downs of a career in the arts, specifically a career in magic. Everyone has a different story, obviously there’s no one story or trajectory. I’m very curious about people’s stories, as a filmmaker and as a magician too. I think the material and the magic is almost surface level. Getting under that and knowing why they decided to maintain this life when perhaps there are more traditional or more structured options—like, why didn’t they go to law school? What kept them in it? Like David Oliver said, you have to love this to be able to survive it. I’m interested in that.
GO: How did you go about selecting the four acts for MAGIC HOUR?
PT: I’m lucky enough to be in the orbit of so many great artists. I started building a list of people that I would like to talk to and whose material would also fit into a venue that is also aligned with my goals. This is not a big stage illusion show. The Triad is an elegant setting, an intimate space, so I was able to find artists that are also engaged by that sense of intimacy. As a producer you only have so much time and so many resources, so I was trying to find artists who don’t require so much, shall we say, smoke and mirrors, or so much production value. You can really strip it down and just connect with them. Finding this theater and then finding the artists that really complement it, that’s been a process, but one that I think is going to serve us all quite well.
I think Andrew Goldenhersh is the perfect guest. He’s known as a minimalist magician, and I think that is a really perfect description because he walks on stage and he is magic. You’re watching an artist perform, you’re not watching a technician play with technology. I would say he’s my favorite magician working today, not just as a performer but also as a craftsman and a philosopher. He’s a poet of magic. When you meet a magician usually, there’s sort of a measuring up phase, we’re going to see where we stand. When I first met Andrew, that didn’t exist. We didn’t need to impress each other with our chops. We just connected as humans who happen to be very passionate about the practice and the performance of magic. Music is a really important part of his act, not only does he perform exquisite sleight of hand but he also plays classical guitar in an exquisite way. He’s as dedicated to that instrument as he is to a pack of cards. You’re dealing with an artist who can really express the power of a moment through an instrument, it can be a guitar or a coin. I think Andrew really embodies that.
Tina Lenert and Mike Caveney don’t work in New York much, so it will be a fun opportunity for magicians here on the East Coast to really enjoy that performance. We’re also showcasing different genres within magic, so Eric Dittelman will be performing on June 20th, he’s a mentalist that is becoming more nationally recognized. Harrison Greenbaum is another great friend I’ve known since Tannen’s Camp. A lot of these performers I do know on something of a social level. But talking to them as an interviewer does change the context a little bit. I’m really thinking about the perceptions of their philosophies.
GO: How do you hope audiences will feel walking out of a MAGIC HOUR show?
PT: I hope the audience leaves with a sense of wonder, of course, but also with a different understanding of magic, an elevated perception of the art form. It’s not just some guy doing tricks but almost a reverence, like a classical musician has to have such discipline for that craft and I’m trying to draw the parallels between classical music and modern magic. The more audiences are exposed to quality magic the better it is for magic over all. Derek DelGaudio is such a perfect example of that; his show In & Of Itself has really raised the bar. Steve Cohen is another one of my mentors, I worked for him at Chamber Magic for many years. I want to honor people that I’ve been lucky enough to be in their orbit. I care about magic so much, I want to honor all of the influences that I’ve had. I think of this show as an opportunity to do that.
And for me, I just want to keep the lights on and keep the budget reasonable. I always think of producing as reconciling the big picture and the bottom line. The big picture is all of these creative goals and ideas, but ultimately there is the business element as well, so I have to keep my eye on all of those figures, not just the creative but also the logistics. But my heart beats with the artists.
GO: The concepts you reference when talking about producing magic are very similar to the way you talk about performing magic. Do you see producing and performing as two sides of the same coin or are they very separate entries for you?
PT: Yes, I do use the same vocabulary. I consider myself a creative producer. It’s my job to know what the narrative is and how we want the audience to feel. I also love collaborating, I love working with other creatives to answer these questions or at least consider them. I think in some ways they are different sides of the same coin because they both need each other. One thing I’ve recognized over the years is that a lot of wonderful artists need a producer. Or at least need someone to help them realize their goals. Sometimes I joke that a producer is a quarterback, a head coach, and a cheerleader all rolled into one. You have to execute plans, and you have to motivate, and you have to be that positive force.
A lot of artists can get really down on themselves and become really self-conscious or self-loathing, so I think as a producer if I can give an artist some sense of hope then that’s a little beyond just “show up here, here’s your call time, here’s the lights, here’s the staff.” I care about the art so much and the artists so much, that I want to share my enthusiasm, if it’s needed, so that they can do their best work. I take the role very seriously, and perhaps it is a role. The role of producer is not just a job. I like acting, I like performing, but I love producing because it speaks directly to the collaboration. And that’s my main goal, to collaborate with artists that I respect and admire.
While many of New York’s newest magic shows are shiny and polished, some underground shows trade in buzzwords like “experiential” and “immersive” for the experimental and the intentionally imperfect. As a professional mind-reader and a comedian based in New York, Eric Dittelman wanted a way to test out and refine new material in front of a live audience, without the pressure of having to his very best for paying clients. “My main goal was to have a place to be bad and try things out,” Dittelman tells GeniiOnline. “A lot of people only test out stuff during their paid show, but I always felt guilty doing that. I want to put my best stuff out there if I’m doing a paid show.” He needed a different way to work out the kinks of what’s new and unfinished on a friendly stage.
Dittelman came up with the idea for Amazeballs, a homegrown experimental magic and comedy show that runs once a month at The Creek & The Cave in Long Island City. Dittelman originally conceived of the show as a “playground” where he could test out new material he’d eventually put in his stage show, but he typically shares the stage with three other performers also working out their newest routines, jokes, and inventions. At last month’s Amazeballs, magician Mark Calabrese opened, Dittelman’s set was next, followed by comedian Meaghan Strickland (host of A Late Night Show that is Also Live at The Brooklyn Comedy Colective), and a closing set by magician David Schwartz.
Dittelman started doing improv in middle school, and his fascination for comedy led him to want to use it as the premise for his magic and mental effects. The element of surprise is what draws magic and comedy together for him: “They both set up an expectation and then go somewhere unexpected, whether it’s to a punchline or to an amazing impossibility, whether it’s a trick or a demonstration of mind reading,” he says. Dittelman has been on Ellen and America’s Got Talent, and regularly performs at Monday Night Magic when he’s not traveling the world with his comedy mind-reading act.
Accolades aside, Amazeballs is as laid back as a show gets. Dittelman’s no-stress approach stems from its function as more of a passion project than a job, but he’s also intentional about Amazeballs’ casual, unpredictable feel. “I want it to have an underground feel, like an if you know about it, you know about it kind of thing,” Dittelman says. “I don’t want it to be this big production show.” The location at The Creek & The Cave also contributes to the vibe, since Long Island City keeps it removed from the Manhattan mainstream (but still accessible by subway). And because The Creek is a known comedy spot, Amazeballs benefits from lingering comedy fans that stick around after the 7pm or 8pm show on a Thursday night, wondering what this magic stuff is all about.
Dittelman says he also wanted Amazeballs to be a little more R rated. “Magic has this wholesome feel to it now. Magic is an art form and there’s lots of ways to express yourself using that art form, so I wanted to be able to explore that kind of edgier, raunchier side as well.” Performers call out to Dittelman from the stage asking if they can curse at Amazeballs. Dittelman says at the first ever show, Calabrese was trying something new and the spectator he picked ended up stripping on stage. Todd Robbins fired a gun once (“but they were blanks”) when Dittelman was out of town. There’s also been fire juggling, which may or may not have been legal at the venue.
Dittelman considers the show a booked open mic, which gives him a little more control over performance quality than would a standard open mic where anyone can show up. When he first started Amazeballs, he was reaching out to friends in the New York area, but as the show has grown, performers reach out when they’re hungry for a longer slot to try out something new. “I try to find people that are going to be good for the venue and for that kind of crowd,” Dittelman says. “I only give three performers a shot on each month’s show because I want to give them ample time to try stuff out.” Typically, Dittelman and two other magicians will each get 20 minutes and one standup act will get a 10 minute set, “to break things up a bit and keep it in the comedy world,” Dittelman says.
The longer time slots are just one of the ways Dittelman gifts from the comedy world to the magic world. “In comedy, you can go to an open mic and try out stuff, in magic, there’s not as many places to do that,” he says. “I tried going to open mics when I was just starting out, but you only get a couple minutes and that’s not enough time to do pretty much anything in magic.” In aiming to recreate the alt scenes, friendly venues, and workout rooms where comedians went to break in new material, Dittelman says Amazeballs was largely inspired by Whiplash, a beloved NYC standup show. “There isn’t really isn’t a community like that in magic where all the fans can go, and people geeking out in magic who want to be part of the process.
It’s not by accident that Amazeballs is a friendly room, either. Dittelman makes it very clear to audiences that everyone on stage is talented and highly professional, and is also going to be risking their own egos to try out new things that may not work. “Don’t be an asshole” is the general guiding advice, but Dittelman says audiences are usually on board from the get go. That opportunity to be a part of the process is exciting for an open-minded audience; Amazeballs is free, and they get to see material in its infancy that will one day be a part of the high-paying shows that are par for the course in NYC. “Usually when you go see a magic show, you expect everything to work,” he says. “At my show, if half the things work that’s amazing.”
Some performers focus on a single new effect at Amazeballs, while others power through all their best new ideas. When something doesn’t go according to plan, Amazeballs magicians are experienced enough to seamlessly switch into A material if they need to. David Schwartz says that at last month’s show, he was working out the details of a routine he planned to perform at the FFFF Convention. “It was material that I had done for a while, but I was making changes to it so I wanted to work it out a little bit,” Schwartz says. “I’m always making changes, we’re all always making changes.” Mark Calabrese says he usually aims to present a full 20 minutes of new and in-the-works ideas when he’s at Amazeballs. “I’m working on new material all the time, every day, every breathing moment,” Calabrese says. “But I don’t really have the venue to perform in front of an actual live audience. I need something like Amazeballs that allows me to do real material in front of a real audience and work out the kinks of those pieces.”
At last month’s Amazeballs, the audience seemed to be happily along for the ride. The comedy environment keeps the show light-hearted even when a trick doesn’t work, and hecklers are rare. Dittelman packs his own sets with new material, putting his money where his mouth is and setting an example for the community. Beyond the comedy fans who stick around for the free late night show, Dittelman hopes Amazeballs will become more of hangout for that magic community, from fans to amateurs and enthusiasts to professionals. “I want more magic people to come because I think they can get a lot out of it, and learn that there’s more than one way to do magic.”
You can catch Amazeballs’ three-year anniversary show this month at The Creek & The Cave on May 17. It breaks all the rules as Dittelman invites every past Amazeballs performer to return to do one trick or two minutes of standup.
Four magicians took the stage of the Dweck Cultural Center last month, brightening the basement of the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch with a sampling of the magic and history of one of the borough’s favorite gems: Coney Island. Established as a panel discussion, “The Magicians of Coney Island” was a part of the Library’s School of Magic series that is slated to continue throughout 2018. Herb Scher served as moderator, with George Schindler, Richard Cohn, and Mark Mitton joining on stage to discuss history, trace legacy, and recreate some of the best-known effects from Coney Island in its heyday.
The panelists presented a largely chronological historical survey, in what was clearly a race to cover as much material as possible in a very limiting 90 minutes. Since the turn of the century, some of America’s and indeed the world’s greatest magicians have popped up in this entertainment oasis at the edge of Brooklyn. The panel set the stage for decades of magic by outlining Coney Island’s main stages, starting with parks like Sea Lion Park, Steeplechase, and Dreamland, all pioneering in their day and often packed with magic. When Sea Lion Park eventually became Luna Park (not to be confused with the Luna Park of Coney Island today), its new owners also happened to be magicians and creators. “[Frederic] Thompson and [Elmer] Dundy were magic nuts, so magicians always got work at Luna Park,” said Richard Cohn on stage.
When Dreamland opened in 1904, American magician Henry Roltair presented intricate illusions and effects like Spidora (a woman’s head grafted onto the body of a spider), Arabian Nights Up to Date, and Creation, Roltair’s illusion ride based on the bible story of Genesis that debuted at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. At institutions like Henderson’s Music Hall, magicians from Harry Jansen to Horace Goldin graced the stage alongside entertainment treasures like the Marx Brothers. Harry Houdini performed at Henderson’s in 1915, which was just one of many ways he and his family were enamored and entangled with Coney Island at the time. Apparently, Harry’s brother Hardeen was one of the first to dub Coney Island “Sodom by the Sea.”
Many magicians still revered in contemporary circles today once appeared at Coney Island, from Dai Vernon’s early days cutting silhouettes to Jean Hugard’s decade of performance from 1919-1929, which included illusions like Birth of a Pearl and The Fairy Fountains. Why were so many magicians performing at Coney Island at the turn of the century? “For money,” said Schindler. “A dollar a day was a lot of money back then.” But he added that the atmosphere would have been an equally important draw. There was something magical about Coney Island—it’s an otherworldly experience that still draws crowds and captures imaginations today, even long after Coney Island’s glory days.
Moderator Herb Scher says Coney Island’s ability to transport visitors today back to a golden age of Brooklyn magic is part of what caught his interest in the first place. Scher is an active member of the SAM Parent Assembly and often performs as Myron the Magnificent, a character he describes as “a worn out, frumpy Vegas magician.” During the panel, he performed a rope routine without going full Myron. After moving to New York from Miami, Scher ended up at Coney Island on a whim and stuck around for the photography. It wasn’t until later that Scher took on magic professionally and his many passions crossed. “I’m infatuated with Coney Island,” he tells GeniiOnline. “Part of what fascinates me is the continuity of magic at Coney Island. The fact that you can look back to 1880 or even earlier and then to today, people are still enacting these amazing feats, these miracles of conjuring. Obviously things have changed, Coney Island has gone up and down, but it’s still there, it’s still alive.”
Scher says he immediately wanted to originate a panel topic that would be relevant to the Brooklyn audience when Barbara Wansbrough, curator of the School of Magic events, asked if he had any ideas. Wansbrough conceived of the series while trying to develop a fresh take on library programming and special events. Her young son had gotten hooked on magic, and through him Wansbrough caught a bit of the bug herself. She saw the power of magic to amaze and inspire, and set out to curate a series of events that could both educate and entertain audiences.
Scher’s interest in inviting other members of the SAM Parent Assembly to the panel led him to George Schindler, now the ninth magician to be named Dean of the SAM since the club began in 1902. At the panel, Schindler performed a quick Houdini handcuff escape and a version of Horace Goldin’s 1920s sawing a lady using a jigsaw. From the performances to the historical content, Schindler says the pressures of a 90-minute time limit informed many of their decisions. “We tried to boil it down so that the public and the magicians who were there would be interested,” Schindler says. “Those tricks are still being done today, and Coney Island magicians did them 60, 70 years ago. So the information was accurate and the magic was accurate.”
Schindler grew up in Brooklyn and saw his first magician at Coney Island. “I got hooked,” he says. “I wanted to figure out how he did it, so I went back every Saturday from then on.” Schindler became a professional magician after college, specializing in trade show events. Listening to Schindler talk about his trade show days, I noticed that it all sounded very similar to the Coney Island outside talkers and street performers charged with drawing in their own crowds and selling tickets to passersby. Schindler agreed: “It’s very similar, just trade shows are a higher level, more sophisticated. Coney Island was very broad: you can see the half a man and half a woman and for 25 cents, we’ll sell you the pictures. Trade shows are very much like the old sideshow barker, come to think of it.”
It was Schindler who recommended a magician named Mark Mitton when the Coney Island history conversation inevitably led to Al Flosso. Most magicians agree that any history of magic at Coney Island would be incomplete without mention of Flosso, the Coney Island Fakir. Mark Mitton performed a sort of tribute with his Miser’s Dream, one of Flosso’s trademark pieces. Mitton embodied Flosso’s brash performance style with an adult audience volunteer presented as a stand-in for a young boy—all the children in the room were a little too young for Flosso’s handsy, in-your-face presentation. Mitton also performed Houdini’s Needles trick, swallowing a handful of needles and a spool of thread before pulling them from his mouth strung together one-by-one. He dug into a good deal of historical research with the Houdini community in order to present the Needles as faithfully as possible to Houdini’s original presentation.
Scher also credits Mitton with the decision to include more of the sideshow element of Coney Island performance. In the sideshow section, they delved into Coney Island’s claims to performers like Bobby Reynolds, Melvin Burkhart, and Todd Robbins. But Mitton sees that segmented approach separating magic and sideshow as a layperson’s fallacy: “It gets into carnie traditions, and who’s an insider and who’s an outsider,” Mitton says. “To people outside the profession, it doesn’t make sense that magicians are escape artists and hypnotists and ventriloquists. To a magician, it’s completely normal that those categories are fluid. It’s only when you get away from the actual people and into the modern Coney Island with more of the university educated Coney Island people that you don’t get the blurred categories.”
Richard Cohn bolstered the scholarly side of the panel—I’ve lost count of how many magicians have referred to Cohn as a walking encyclopedia of New York’s magic history. Cohn and Schindler conducted research at the Conjuring Arts Library and the Parent Assembly’s historical collection, of which Cohn is the official archivist. They spent a couple of months preparing, and through their discovery of pieces of Coney Island history that they’d never uncovered before, Schindler remains convinced that there are still more gems hidden in the archive.
In addition to his work as a performing magician, Cohn also consults on the history of magic for all kinds of events. At the event, he performed a torn-and-restored newspaper routine and magic with silks in homage to Jean Hugard’s book, Silken Sorcery. Hugard spent many seasons performing on Coney Island, and is also one of the eight SAM deans that came before Schindler. Cohn says he was passionate about including Brooklyn’s magical dynasties in the presentation, like the Zancigs, the Bambergs, and the Herrmanns. David Bamberg was better known to the public as Fu Manchu, but according to Cohn, he grew up in Flatbush.
Breaking up the long string of white men that dominate, well, most popular histories, the panel made sure to include women and people of color who performed at Coney Island in their day. Adelaide Herrmann become a magician in her own right after the death of her husband Alexander, also known as Herrmann the Great. As the Queen of Magic, Adelaide spent a season at Coney Island performing illusions as a headline magician instead of a magician’s assistant. And Jamaican magician Wilmont Barclay performed at Coney Island between the 1920s and the 1940s, taking on a character called Professor Maharajah. Panelists pointed to Barclay’s “exotic” Indian character as evidence of how hard it was to perform as a black magician back then.
The School of Magic series will continue at the Brooklyn Public Library throughout the year, including a performance later in April by mentalist Eric Walton. To get straight to the source, there’s also still plenty of magic making its home at Coney Island today. One of the magicians in the audience at the panel last month was Gary Dreifus, the producer behind Coney Island USA’s weekly show, Magic at Coney. Every Sunday, Dreifus presents all kinds of magicians in a rotating cast of some of Brooklyn’s best.
When Sam Sandler won Close Up Magician of the Year at his local Society of American Magicians chapter, he couldn’t figure out why everyone was pushing him towards the stage to collect the trophy he had been dreaming about just moments before. They had called his name from the stage, but he hadn’t been able to hear it. For almost ten years, Sandler has been completely deaf.
Sandler is a full-time magician based in Philadelphia. He came to magic through juggling and then clowning and by his senior year in high school, Sandler had solidified his act as Gizmo the Magic Clown. After touring for two years with illusionist Toby Travis, Sandler became enamored with stage illusions. “That was my training,” Sandler tells GeniiOnline. “When I came home I lost the clown outfit and started developing my character as a magician.” Sandler performed for a mix of audiences, from birthday parties and kids shows to live performances in churches. But when Sandler lost his hearing in 2009, all of that changed.
Sandler has a hereditary hearing loss condition that caused him to become completely deaf quite unexpectedly. He began to lose his hearing in 2007, but hearing aids helped him for a time. Two years later, while waiting the three weeks for a new set of hearing aids that would address a more serious level of hearing loss, Sandler became profoundly deaf. “That first year and a half, I didn’t handle it well. I withdrew from magic, I withdrew from everything. I was a full-time single dad at the time. That year and a half, I wasn’t making enough money to pay my bills. At one point I was selling furniture to buy food, to provide for my daughter. I ended up losing my house to foreclosure, and being homeless all of a sudden, and being a single dad, that was pretty much the lowest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Fortunately, hitting rock bottom inspired Sandler to rebuild his life. “The moment I lost my house was when I said enough is enough. I’m not going to let deafness control me, I’m going to control it. I also knew God had a better plan for me than what I was allowing to happen,” Sandler says. He set to work creating an entirely new stage show that he now calls Deafinitely Magic. In the show, Sandler embraces his own deafness and hopes to inspire others, both with the story of his struggle and with his magic. When he lost his hearing, Sandler says he didn’t think his life had value. Diving back into magic allowed him to rediscover his own worth and to commit himself to magic in a whole new way.
In revisiting magic after that low point in his life, Sandler focused on close-up magic almost exclusively. He entered several Philadelphia competitions to start rebuilding his confidence, and just two years after losing his hearing Sandler started winning first place awards. At the end-of-year meeting for his local Society of American Magicians chapter, Sandler was announced as the close-up magician of the year—and he didn’t even know he was in the running. “I know it’s only a local club, but it meant so much to me,” Sandler says. “It showed me that I still had value.” Winning close to home gave Sandler the encouragement he needed to press on in developing a new show that dealt head on with his experience of deafness. He created custom illusions and developed new routines, and set them all to the story of his own personal journey.
On his first US tour with Deafinitely Magic, Sandler performed 400 shows in 45 states to a quarter of a million students. He says he had to work harder than he ever had in his life to create the new show, but still attributes his success to a fundamental shift in mindset: “I changed my attitude from ‘oh, I’m deaf, I can’t do anything’, to ‘I’m deaf, so what?’”
Simple as it seems, Sandler had his work cut out for him. He had to redevelop many of the illusions he was used to performing, and much of his show had to change to make it work for a newly deaf person. Sandler says the process made him more creative because many of the performance elements that hearing magicians take for granted were no longer available to him. “You can’t hear the music cues, you can’t hear the roar of the crowd, you can’t hear applause or laughter, you can’t hear if there is a problem backstage.”
Sandler came up with a number of new techniques to get the information he needs on stage. First, his hearing aids allow him to hear more sound (if not a better quality of sound), and certain styles of music have clear enough stops and starts that he can still rely on the distinction between silence and sound as a musical cue. Sometimes Sandler uses a timer on his iPad that cues him to his memorized marks in routines that are paired to music even though he can’t hear the songs. In his stage show, Sandler’s assistant uses the angle of her foot to indicate when it’s his turn to speak or take a certain action. To the audience, it might look like she’s just shifting her weight, but for Sandler, it’s what keeps the showing rolling forward as planned. In the effects that Sandler performs without his hearing aids, “completely deaf,” as he says, he gets his cues from vibrations coming out of the monitors he now places on the floor around the stage.
These are just some of the examples of how Sandler now refuses to let his deafness deter him from his passions again. When interacting with audience volunteers, Sandler plays into his comedy instincts to cover for the extra steps he has to take. “When I’m doing a stage show and somebody says their name, I pull out the American Sign Language alphabet and make them finger spell. I usually choose a woman first, she finger spells her name, and I will say ‘everyone, please welcome, Larry!’ The next time I bring a guy up, when he finger spells his name I call him the woman’s name that was up before him. The audience loves it.”
Now that Sandler has adopted a “so what” attitude to his deafness and settled into his new approach to magic, he hopes to be an advocate for more accessibility in the international magic community, which is mostly made up of hearing people. Sandler says there are about 300 deaf magicians around the world, and the Society for World Deaf Magicians, founded in 1986, still holds an annual International Festival for Deaf Magicians every two years. “While we can’t hear music cues or laughter in the audience, or even do question and answer the tricks the same way hearing magicians would, we’re certainly capable, we just have to come up with a way to make them work.”
Sandler points to the lack of closed caption videos as one of the main problems for deaf and hard of hearing performers in the mostly hearing magic community. Recently, he says he bought a lecture video, downloaded it, and was disappointed to discover that it didn’t have any closed captioning. “The technology’s there, it’s not that expensive anymore to add a closed caption,” Sandler says. Sandler is currently in the process of adding closed captions to his DVD and to all the videos he features on his website, because he knows first hand the struggle of not having access to these kinds of resources.
One of Sandler’s main goals is to use magic to inspire others, as much they are inspired by his willingness to be vulnerable and open about what he calls his own brokenness. “Magic allows me something that no other job allows me, and that is to take people out of the world of whatever they’re going through, the world of brokenness and struggle, and for a little while, they forget all that.” And while he’s at it, he’s going to change public perception about what it means to be a deaf magician, in the same way he changed his own perception almost ten years ago. “The only thing a deaf magician can’t do is hear.”
Before Bobby Torkova debuted his new one-man show A Hanky and A T-T-T-Top Hat, he’d spent most of his career as a professional magician performing a completely silent stage act. Torkova’s devotion to the classics informs the new show, but so does his life as a young magician growing up on Long Island and his early years as a young man growing up with a stutter. As a magic-obsessed kid growing up in New York City, I had seen Torkova’s silent stage act countless times. But until I headed out to Coney Island USA on a Friday night in January to see A Hanky and a T-T-T-Top Hat, I had never heard Torkova speak.
Torkova’s childhood interest in magic and his stuttering are inextricably linked. When he was about seven years old, Torkova’s father and uncle piqued his interest by showing him a few tricks. He had started to stutter just a few years before and as his shyness grew, practicing magic gave young Torkova something to work on when he retreated to his bedroom. At the same time, Torkova had started speech therapy in school. “The next year, my mother had taken me out of it,” Torkova tells GeniiOnline. “I think that was a mistake because I’m stuttering still, but the best part was that my speech therapist gave me a top hat for my magic.”
It’s the very same top hat that headlines Torkova’s new show. In A Hanky and A T-T-T-Top Hat, Torkova abandons his silent act to tell a version of his own life story, falling in love with magic, struggling with his stutter, and hours spent at Al Flosso’s magic shop. Torkova’s tale is charming and gentle, and the show is a clear example of how magic can work to support a story, instead of the other way around. “I wanted the tricks to serve the story first,” Torkova says. “When I started to write the show, I realized the only tricks that served the story were the actual ones I had when I was a child, or the tricks that I always wanted when I was a child but never got.”
Torkova is a dedicated classicist, so it fits to see how he has altered and adapted what would otherwise be dusty tricks from decades ago. “The trick adds to the story and the story adds to the trick,” Torkova says, because the content of the show is all true. When he was 11, Torkova met Al Flosso in his Manhattan shop. “He sold me what I consider to be my first real, professional trick, an Easy Hat Loader, which is my favorite and is featured in my new show.” If anything, the show is proof that it’s possible to create theatrical magic that resonates as true, touching, and relatable instead of gimmicky and contrived.
It’s a hard balance to strike: “In the past, magical storytelling has been tried and sometimes it has worked and sometimes it hasn’t. I mean as far back as the 20s and 30s,” Torkova says. In response to the current movement of more theatrical magic and using magic as a tool to support storytelling, Torkova says the trend is “refreshing and inspiring”.
This isn’t Torkova’s first foray into theatrical magic, either. In Thought Prints, a show he created for the New York Fringe Festival in 2006, Torkova wove a story about a postal worker who suddenly discovered he had developed clairvoyant powers. “While the show itself was light-hearted, I was actually a nervous wreck in doing it. It was the first time I would be speaking on stage for a full hour, and my stuttering being an issue…” The director Torkova was working with on Thought Prints encouraged him to announce that he stuttered at the very beginning of the show, and to instruct the audience not to worry about it. “This would make the audience feel less uncomfortable when I did stutter, and I stuttered quite a bit in the show, but it was still well received.”
Almost a decade later, Torkova started thinking about writing a new show. He was inspired by ventriloquist Jay Johnson’s Broadway show The Two And Only, and decided it was time to move from fiction to fact. “That was the key thing that took me from writing about other magicians’ lives to writing about my own life,” Torkova says. With his improv and theater group, Artistic New Directions, Torkova wrote out one act at a time and workshopped each one on stage. “They give you ten minutes to work out anything or perform, so I would slowly work on each piece, one every few months. It took me a long time.” Every week for three years, Torkova improved his skills in writing for the stage, acting, and public speaking. A Hanky and A T-T-T-Top Hat debuted at Artistic New Directions’ 2017 festival for new works called Go Solo.
A Hanky and A T-T-T-Top Hat has Torkova speaking on stage for 75 minutes, dealing with material that is inherently more personal and intimate than, say, a fictional tale about a mentalist postal worker. The vulnerability presented a new challenge for Torkova. “The more emotionally involved I got, I would tend to stutter more.” One of the ways he prepared for the show was to write his stuttering into the script itself—the title is a nod to that practice. “There’s a lot of shame associated with stuttering growing up. Being bullied by kids, being made fun of, some of my teachers had made fun of my stutter in class. So it was very hard to commit to doing this show that a large part of it was about my stuttering.”
According to Torkova, one of the most difficult exercises stutterers take on in speech therapy is to stutter on purpose. “It’s so incredibly painful to stutter at all that to do it on purpose seems impossible. It was only doing that exercise that I was able to relax more with the show and get through it. Otherwise it would be too challenging for me to do.”
And yet despite the huge challenge, or perhaps because of it, Torkova says the transition from a silent act to a speaking one was unexpectedly rewarding. “I think while many people enjoy my silent act, it doesn’t have the emotional appeal that telling one’s own story does,” he says. “I’m interacting with the audience more, really relating to the audience and not being up on stage alone, performing manipulation to the black void.”
For new and young magicians, including those who stutter, Torkova says building up stage time and performances in front of live audiences is the most important kind of practice. “Kids that are doing magic today, they don’t aspire to become magicians on stage, they just want to be stars online. While having a big presence online is great, it’s the wave of the future and all that, they’re not entertainers, per se.” He takes issue with the lack of audience communication, and young magicians’ inability to perform their magic for real people, for strangers. Considering Torkova has always been inspired by performing magicians, including historical greats like Al Flosso and Karl Germain, it’s no surprise that mastering live performance is both one of his top priorities and one of his highest aspirations. “That’s the only way you’re going to get better, performing for real folks.”
For more information on Bobby Torkova’s work and to find out about upcoming shows, visit torkova.com.
Cynthia von Buhler is one of the most hyphenated multi-hyphenates I’ve ever encountered. She was already an artist, performer, playwright, and author before adding comic book creator and illustrator to her list with the release of Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini. The series is published by the Hard Case Crime imprint of Titan Comics, and is slated for four issues and a graphic novel finale. Minky Woodcock plays on von Buhler’s habit of producing theatrical experiences centered around prohibition-era murders, combining her deep dive into the styles and stories of the 1920s and 1930s with another of her life’s passions: magic.
The murder that started it all remains close to von Buhler’s heart. “Shortly after prohibition ended, my grandfather was shot on the streets of New York,” von Buhler tells GeniiOnline. “Nobody in my family knew why he was murdered, and my mother was born the day he died. We know he was involved in bootlegging, but that’s all. It was a strange mystery in my family, so I started investigating.” Her research into grandfather von Buhler’s murder resulted in a 2011 play called Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning, which ran for many years and still pops up occasionally in New York City.
After The Bloody Beginning she produced the Midnight Frolic, a play about Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas’ mysterious death in Paris in 1920. Elbow-deep in the search for the next prohibition-era murder to hang her hat on, von Buhler came across none other than Harry Houdini. “I’ve always been interested in magic, I actually do magic myself,” von Buhler says. “I can make doves appear and disappear. I was shocked by what I found out about Houdini because there are so many loopholes and mysteries about how he died.”
Von Buhler says she was already hard at work on a new play about Houdini’s death when a publisher from Hard Case Crime contacted her. “He said he was starting a comic book line and asked if I had any ideas for pulpy comics. I said, ‘well, I’ve been doing this series, and any one of these stories could work.’” The idea for a private investigator character came up when von Buhler realized she’d need to thread together all the deaths she wanted to include in her narrative, and Minky Woodcock was born. “I came up with the name Minky Woodcock many years ago,” Buhler admits. “I’ve been using it as my pseudonym. She’s kind of me, but not me. She’s a part of me.”
The comic opens on Woodcock & Son, a private investigator firm that Minky’s father started with hopes of roping her brother Bennie into the business. But Bennie has no interest in investigating, he’s more interested in becoming a showgirl. Let the gender politics begin. Minky explains that she wants to be a private detective, but her father will only permit her to be his secretary. “Later on, you’ll find that part of the reason Minky’s father doesn’t want her to be a private investigator is because she’s actually really good at it,” von Buhler teases. “He doesn’t want her to find out some things he has been hiding.”
While the challenge to traditional gender roles was an intentional theme in the story, von Buhler says that the comic’s release coinciding with the #MeToo movement was a happy accident. I asked von Buhler about the “mature readers” rating on the comic, and about including scenes that are sexually explicit and that depict sexual assault. “I’ve been working this for a few years, so before the whole #MeToo thing started,” she says. “We’ve come so far but we have so far to go. I like showing that we have made progress, but things are still bad. The times and how Minky is treated as a woman are definitely a big part of the story. I’ve had to deal with a lot of sexism in my life. I’ve buried a lot of it, but it’s there. It’s in our minds, it comes out in our art.”
As much as elements of early 20th century sexism that feature into the comic are based on fact, von Buhler says most of the comic’s narrative is actually the truth. “That’s what intrigues me,” she says, “the facts are so bizarre you wouldn’t imagine they could be real. On my website I have a section called ‘Evidence’ where you can actually look at the documents I dug up as proof.” Von Buhler discovered that female private investigators working undercover during prohibition was actually something of a trend: “It became popular that women could manipulate situations and they wouldn’t be suspected so they made better spies.”
In the Minky Woodcock story, we catch up with Houdini when he was rallying hard against the spiritualist movement. “A lot of people didn’t know that Houdini was trying to debunk spiritualism,” von Buhler says. It’s one of the elements that caught von Buhler’s eye when she dove into the historical archive of work written both by Houdini and about Houdini. Von Buhler is quick to recommend Wild About Houdini as a source for anyone interested to learn more about Houdini’s life, and says that her favorite book in all her research on the project was The Man Who Killed Houdini, by Don Bell. “He actually went up to Canada to interview people about Houdini’s death,” says von Buhler. “The fact that the man who punched him was a spiritualist was groundbreaking, in my opinion.”
Of course, Houdini’s death fits perfectly into von Buhler’s already well-tested obsession with mysterious murders of the age. “If you ask most people how Houdini died, they’ll say, ‘oh, he died during his trick,’ because there’s a movie where he died during a trick. Or they’ll say ‘oh, he was punched,” but they don’t really know much about it. I’m really delving into what that punch meant, and what else was going on around him. A lot of people didn’t like him. He was a very opinionated person and he had a lot of enemies. People wanted him dead.”
Houdini’s spiritualist adventures also captured von Buhler’s imagination because of the contextual difference between spiritualism and magic. “It’s funny that Houdini was debunking spiritualism, because what he was doing was sort of the same thing. But he was calling it entertainment, and they were preying on people who had lost loved ones. What’s interesting about this is that Houdini really wanted to believe. He loved his mother so much that when she died, he really wanted to reach her. He wanted someone to prove him wrong.”
Most of von Buhler’s theatrical productions qualify more as immersive experiences than as straight plays. Breaking down the traditional barriers of performance and of art are crucial to her ethos, and venturing into comic book creation has been a project inspired by that approach. “I was trained as a painter, that you should be able to show something in a single image without words. I always thought comics were cheating because you’re adding words and panels,” she confessed. “I hadn’t thought about it as a storyboard, I hadn’t realized it was a whole other way of storytelling that I hadn’t explored yet. I find that comics bring a lot of people to reading who wouldn’t normally pick up books, because they like the pictures and that helps them.”
That’s just one of the ways that von Buhler hopes MInky Woodcock will inspire readers to do more and explore on their own. Whether it’s the comic book form encouraging the passion of a new reader or Minky’s adventures with Houdini inspiring people to learn more about good ol’ Harry, von Buhler considers that kind of personal connection with a piece of art to be the ultimate goal. “I find that people relate better to art when they actually interact with it. If you’re looking at a painting on the wall you may get something out of it, but if that painting starts talking to you or you have to interact with it, to touch it or look at it from a different angle, then it becomes partially yours. That’s what I try to do with my art. I want people to go to the website and read through the evidence, asking, ‘did that actually happen? This is amazing, but is this real?’ I want people to do that with Minky too.”
Kids’ magic is an established genre of performance, but teaching magic to kids is another animal entirely. Discover Magic is an educational magic company taking the idea of magic for kids in an inventive new direction by focusing on building life skills through magic tricks. It’s a magic curriculum that can be adapted to any situation, anywhere: a summer camp, an after school program, even activity time on a cruise.
Discover Magic students may never pursue magic professionally or take the tricks they learn beyond their summer camp days, but building young magicians isn’t the primary goal. The team behind Discover Magic is willing to bet that kids who learn to be respectful, creative, authentic, and humble will carry those traits with them for the rest of their lives. And if they fall in love with magic along the way, well that’s worth bonus points.
Michael Ammar was the first of three Discover Magic founders. Ammar is known around the world as a prestigious performer and inventor, with a legendary wealth of knowledge about the art and history of magic. Ammar brought his original idea to Brian South, a professional magician who had experience with the business side of the industry through successful companies like Creative Magic and Teach by Magic. “I loved the idea,” South tells GeniiOnline. “With social media and smartphones, people are disengaging. Ironically, social media is killing social skills, specifically the skill of caring about others. We’re more connected than we’ve ever been, we have more relationships than we’ve ever had, but those relationships don’t go as deep.”
Together, Ammar and South decided to focus on a younger demographic, tackling this social skills gap where they saw a market need—with summer camps and after school programs for kids aged 8-12. “Magic is an empathetic art. It forces you to think about others, what they’re experiencing, what they’re understanding, and it builds communication skills and confidence naturally.” There are plenty of magic camps and classes dedicated to making lifelong magicians, where the tendency to teach magic skills first, and let the life skills unfold as a natural byproduct. Confidence and communication skills were being treated as a side effect of magic education, not the goal. “What if we started there, that the focus is to build these life skills, and wrap the magic around that?”
In tailoring their magic curriculum for kids, Ammar and South decided to bring on magician and actor Michael Rosander as their third partner. With over a decade of experience teaching kids magic at his North Carolina summer camp, No Sleeves Magic Camp, Rosander rounded out the tripod of Discover Magic’s expertise: magic, business, and kids. These days, South and Rosander steer the business, with Ammar on board as a trusted friend and advisor taking a less active role in the day to day.
Ammar, South, and Rosander first announced Discover Magic to the wider magic community in spring 2015, when they were still incubating the idea. Over 400 people signed up for the waitlist to buy a license to teach the curriculum, and the curriculum didn’t even exist yet. “We started testing things with kids and creating the final content,” says South. “By the end of 2015, we rolled out our first course and the company has been growing more and more ever since.”
Practically, the Discover Magic curriculum is divided into a series of standalone courses, identified by the wands kids receive upon completion. “We’ve created it like karate, where kids advance in colored wands. At the end of each course, they get their purple, green, orange, or blue wand. But unlike karate, there’s not a sequence you have to follow,” says South. To earn their wands, students learn and perform magic tricks using custom-designed props. Bonuses like online video content and “top secret file folders” get kids excited about the world of magic by making them feel like they belong to a private club that’s full of mysteries to unlock.
The most important technology underlying the curriculum is that each wand teaches a selection of Discover Magic’s eight traits of a true magician. “We started with a huge list of traits and characteristics,” says South. They pulled from other educational life skills programs, like the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, and Eagle Scouts before settling on: respectful, prepared, enthusiastic, confident, humble, authentic, creative, and giving. The idea is that any number of life skills can be packed into these traits: kindness, honesty, and teamwork, for example.
Kids are aware of the eight traits, but they’re presented more as a pathway to becoming a true magician than as a list of life skills to learn. Laying a foundation for respect ensures that kids interact with each other and with instructors in a positive way moving forward—they’re taught to look each other (and look the audience) in the eye, introduce themselves, and address others by name. Teaching kids to be prepared ensures they’re ready for magic class and ready for their performances, and establishing enthusiasm that’s powerful but not disruptive tunes kids into their surrounding environment.
And although the Discover Magic courses don’t have to be presented in a set order, each trait does lead to the next, in a way. Teach kids to be respectful, prepared, and enthusiastic, and a certain sense of confidence just follows suit. “I’ve never once questioned our eight traits—what they are, what order they’re in,” says South. “There was some divine intervention in coming up with those eight traits, and they’ve affected me personally. I’ve seen the influence on my life.”
Of course, all of that is wrapped into the tricks. Discover Magic’s trick development process involves updating simple, well-known gimmicks to make them relevant and exciting for a young audience today. “Whenever we come up with a magic trick, the first thing I start thinking about is what will make this fun for a kid,” says Rosander. One of their recent releases is called Mind Trip. It’s based on a gimmick called Mind Control: “It was a cool trick, but the problem is magicians had been doing that for over 50 years at least. Nobody had ever changed it. It needed a story.”
The original trick is a multiple-out setup that lets the magician predict whether the spectator would choose a yellow, red, or blue dot on a piece of paper. “Instead of three dots, we made postcards to crazy destinations that any kid could travel to,” Rosander explains. “There’s the coral castle, where you can play go fish against a crab to win sunken treasure; the jungle treehouse, where birds deliver pizza all night long; or the moon, where martians are having a disco pool party. They can’t find the pool but it doesn’t stop them from getting funky.”
Discover Magic’s update leans into Rosander’s belief that every trick needs a story to make it come alive for a kid. “Without a story, it’s just a magic trick, but look at the difference we can make for a kid. If they’re excited and laughing, they know that somebody else is going to laugh about it. They want to share that, and magic only exists if you share it with others.” South swears Rosander thinks like a kid. “Even my wife says I’m just a big kid,” Rosander admits.
Mind Tripis also an example of how Discover Magic sets the bar high for quality in everything they produce. The artwork on each postcard mirrors the patter kids are expected to learn, so the storytelling is supported by the props themselves. And the props are designed to last: “It’s important to us that we give kids a good first impression of magic,” says South. “We want kids to have a good experience, so we force ourselves to be on the extreme of not cutting corners. We’re in a position to have a whole generation that expects more detailed instructions, better illustrations, better videos, higher quality.”
Most Discover Magic tricks are simple gimmicks, making them easier to learn and more adaptable for all ability levels and age groups. Across the country and around the world, presenters, as Discover Magic licensees are known, craft their own approaches to teaching the curriculum to best suit their local communities. Some presenters teach weeks-long summer camps where the curriculum progresses every day, others teach one after school classes one afternoon per week, breaking up the curriculum into smaller chunks. South and Rosander actively support presenters in building successful businesses in their local markets.
“All they have to do is call and we’re there,” says Rosander. “I spent two or three hours out of my day with presenters yesterday. Somebody wanted to talk about grants, somebody wanted to talk about pricing, another presenter asked about how to manage kids better during class time.” The support presenters receive sets them up for success with their programs, and also gives Discover Magic a communication avenue to ensure that their curriculum is being honored and taught as designed.
The Discover Magic business model is built on a licensing agreement. “It’s not a franchise, it’s a license to teach our curriculum,” says South. He likens the structure to buying a Costco membership: buy a license in order to purchase student kits, swag, games, puzzles, and more from the Discover Magic store. Whereas franchisees typically expect a fully formed product that can (and must) be modeled perfectly anywhere, the licensing format gives Discover Magic freedom to grow the curriculum organically and incorporate feedback, ideas, and requests from the presenter community.
“Discover Magic is a living, breathing curriculum,” says South. “When we opened it up to the first 50 presenters, we were very transparent about the fact that we’re not saying the program is perfect. Part of being a presenter and a licensee is that you’re on that journey with us and you’re helping us figure it out.”
Individual presenters all come to Discover Magic with varying backgrounds in business and in magic. Some presenters have been involved with the magic community for decades, some are burgeoning entrepreneurs at just barely 18-years-old. Some presenters grow their programs so extensively that they train non-magician assistants to teach more classes to more kids. “I would say that it does not matter at all what level of magic experience you have,” says Rosander. “If you have a passion to make a difference in a kid’s life and you want to leave a legacy, Discover Magic is a great tool for you to use.”
Todd Robbins is a venerable king of variety arts. He has inherited sideshow skills from legacy masters of variety arts, hosted the Coney Island Sideshow in the 1990s, and performed as ringmaster of the Big Apple Circus. But if you’ve never wondered where your favorite sideshow acts come from—the regurgitators, light bulb eaters, and sword swallowers—it’s precisely those legacy stories that hooked Robbins in the first place. Robbins describes his specialties as “arcane forms of popular entertainment, offbeat amusements, and intriguing deceptions,” which all point to his love for anything with a history and his commitment to leaving audiences with a new sense of what’s possible.
Robbins fell in love with magic as a kid growing up in Southern California, primarily at the B&H School of Magic run by Bessie and Herb Feedler. Robbins describes it as a “run down, seedy, dusty and cluttered” shop, where Herb sold Robbins his first svengali deck (which he still has). As a pre-teen, Robbins auditioned for the infamous Long Beach Mystics and was accepted into their ranks. Soon after, he became one of the first junior members of the Academy of Magical Arts. As it turned out, the quaint California town where Robbins grew up was perfectly positioned for his magical future, from the Castle in Hollywood to B&H and the Mystics in Long Beach. “You couldn’t ask for anything more if you wanted an introduction to magic, than to be in that place at that time.”
While he’s still deeply involved in the international magic community, performing regularly across the country and both MCing and co-producing Monday Night Magic in New York City, at a certain point Robbins’ focus shifted over to the sideshow. He remembers seeing his first carnival sideshow when he was 12 or 13 years old, back in Long Beach: “I went in to see a magic act, but it was a person swallowing swords and eating fire. There was a person lying down on a bed of nails with someone standing on top of him. These were the kinds of things that really captured my imagination because it was all real,” Robbins says. After the carnival, Robbins enlisted legendary California magician Ralph McAbee to teach him the repertoire of sideshow skills that would later become his bread and butter—but only much later.
In the 1990s, Robbins answered an ad in the Village Voice written in what he describes as carnival language, placed by Coney Island’s longstanding unofficial mayor, Dick Zigun. Robbins worked a few full seasons as a full-time fixture of the Coney Island sideshow, and later focused on filling in with specific skills he had mastered over the years, like eating light bulbs or hammering a nail into his nose. This last piece, affectionately known as the Human Blockhead, is a trick Robbins performs regularly to this day. You won’t find Robbins performing at the Coney Island sideshow much these days, but pay attention at the entrance and the recording you’ll hear beckoning curious passersby inside is none other than the voice of Robbins.
As to the gross factor inherent in some of what he does best, Robbins knows his sideshow skills won’t please every audience. Before launching into the Human Blockhead or another dangerous act, Robbins always gives the audience a choice of what they want to see next. Something vile and disgusting, for example, or a card trick. “Not everyone likes this stuff,” Robbins says. “I’ve done it long enough to know that it’s not right for every audience. And yet those that appreciate it have a tendency to appreciate on a very deep and profound level. That’s why I do it.”
Robbins knows everything there is to know about the history that surrounds him. But the thinking he does on what makes a good performance, why stories matter, and why it’s the darkest, most deadly experiences that capture the human imagination best are significant, if not also important. We’ll let him tell you himself.
GENIIONLINE: How did a kid growing up surrounded by a picture-perfect postwar lifestyle end up so attracted to anything imbued with story and character?
TODD ROBBINS: My dad was a corporate guy who worked his way up from the accounting pool to being the Senior Vice President of a multinational corporation. My mother was a schoolteacher who retired when I came along and became a stay-at-home mom. It doesn’t get much more American Dream-esque than that. My dad always made certain that we were well taken care of, so it just seems like I wouldn’t head in that direction. Early on in my childhood, I developed bronchial problems. I had bronchitis quite a bit—I’m going to cough right now (Robbins coughs). I had an immune deficiency that caused me to become very susceptible to a number of illnesses going around. Anything that was going around, I got, and then I stayed home a lot. I ended up reading and watching TV. Afternoon options were game shows, soap operas, and on the independent stations, old movies. I started watching old Hollywood movies, those midday matinees, the million dollar movie, things like that. They would show old silent movies that had music added in, sometimes narration and sound effects. There were a number of classic Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton films done like this. And I thought they were great. I got it. They appealed to me the same way they did the original generation that encountered these films.
When I was a kid, I could tell you the stats of Charlie Chaplin’s career the same way that many of my contemporaries could tell you a baseball player or a football player. I just gravitated towards that—it became kind of second nature. When I got involved in magic, I wanted to know where did this stuff come from? Who were these people? I knew some of the old Vaudevillians that were still around. One of my heroes is Milt Larsen, and Milt, besides the Magic Castle, has a great collection of variety arts material that he has been collecting since was a kid. He always had an appreciation of variety arts and I kind of picked up on that. I saw all these wonderful people that were in their twilight years talking about things they’d done before. Some of them were still doing what they had been doing for 50 years or more, and it still worked. A lot of people will look upon it as nostalgia but I stripped all that away and got x-ray vision to look at the core of what they were doing and see why it still worked.
In addition to your work as a magician and sideshow artist, you’ve also created some wonderfully terrifying theater around ghost stories, murder mysteries, and the like. How does your interest in the spookshow fit in with some of these others arts?
I have an appreciation of honesty when it comes to performing, and I also have a fascination with real dishonesty. There are two levels that I’m very attracted to. One are the con artists—I mean even the phrase “con artist” has a certain sophistication to it that implies that there’s something more to it than just your thug with a gun, and it’s true. So much of what’s done by con artists is done with finesse instead of brute force. So much of it is done with psychology and understanding why people act the way they do. When you’re making a profit based on lying to people, it’s because you understand not only what they want, but if you really want to get your hooks in deep, what they need. If you can do that and deceive them, there’s something almost admirable about that.
The other side of the family is, of course, the spiritualists, who have just played upon, again, the need that people have. When you lose someone it creates a wound that never heals. And they understand that, and they manipulate that and throw in a little trickery because you’re not looking for trickery, and even if you suspect there might be trickery, the desire for it to be real will override that and you will embrace it, against your better nature and better judgment, as reality. I like that.
And then there’s a darkness to all of that. Dealing with the ultimate mystery of mystery, which is death, and is there anything that comes after. Because you’re dealing with death, there’s such fear involved. That gets us into the kind of dark stories and horror side of things. It ties into something that I wrote and that we put into Play Dead, the show I wrote with Teller: “You’re never so alive as when you’re scared to death.” That’s something I certainly know from my background being out in Coney Island, and the simulated near-death experience of riding on the rides out there. The Cyclone is a perfect example of that. People walk off and they feel exhilarated because they’ve been pushed to the limits of their endurance and experience.
You talk about being impressed and inspired by your first-ever sideshow, but it wasn’t until much later that you incorporated those skills into your own act. Why the slow burn?
I was reflecting a while back on why I didn’t really want to perform the sideshow stuff when I first learned how to do it, and then it hit me. I had forgotten about this. I came upon a book on fire eating that was sold at the magic shop. The pictures in it were of this guy named Bruno from Australia who did a living statue act with fire, and Bruno was a pompadoured bodybuilder in a little tiny g-string who stood there and ate fire as he posed like Greek statues. I thought, this is what you’re supposed to do with this stuff? Because I don’t want to do that. I remember just this kind of revulsion, being a teenger, thinking, ‘look at that thing!’ It just turned me off of it.
It took forgetting about that book and then in the early 80s, I got a call to do something unusual on an MTV show. I worked on sticking my hand into an animal trap, and the trap shuts on my hand and does no harm. I put that into a magic act and said, ‘well that card trick I just did was obviously a trick, but this is the real thing.’ People came back afterwards and said, ‘that can’t be real! You can’t really do that. And if you can, how is it possible that you don’t just end up being called Stumpy for the rest of your life?’ I went, ‘oh! That’s an interesting dynamic, a very profound sense of amazement.’ That’s what set me off on the trajectory of all the sideshow stuff.
It’s easy to frame sideshow skills as the real deal compared to the deception and trickery in magic. Is that part of what compelled you to switch over?
It’s not that it was just ‘real’, it was something beyond the scope of normal life. It was extraordinary. Extraordinary ability is not the kind of thing you see very often. I think all entertainment should be that. It should not be more of the same, but something that expands the boundaries of existence and and experience. The idea that the impossible might just be possible is a very powerful one. It’s what motivates people to go on and do great things with their lives. And I think it all begins with amazement. When you see something you don’t understand and you’re amazed, you begin to wonder. How can you eat glass? How can you hammer a nail into your nose? And that means you’re thinking, and that’s the greatest thing of all. We’ve got too much fear in our world and not enough rational thought.
I do whatever I can to make sure that people accept that what they’re seeing is real, that I’m not just doing a bunch of cheap tricks and lying to them, which all magicians do. Yet there’s a difference between a theatrical reality and a false reality. When you see a magician perform, you enter into a contract with that performer that what you’re seeing is not real. And yet, because it goes beyond that and fools you as to how it’s done, it can create a sense of childlike fantasy and wonder. That’s a glorious thing, even when done on a very sophisticated level, with context. Derek Delgaudio, or Ricky Jay, or Penn & Teller, or any of the people that are adding context into what they do, it still has that baseline of wonderment. I think that’s the real power of magic.
Why do you think this difference between lying and deceiving is so crucial?
I think it’s a very powerful thing. It’s creating a theatrical suspension of disbelief as opposed to embracing a false reality. It’s Banachek versus Uri Geller. Geller is saying ‘I can do this for real,’ and Banachek is saying ‘I can’t do this, no one can, but we can create the illusion. Let’s have some fun with this.’
How do you want to be seen is really the question. If you go for a kind of generic answer, ‘I just want to entertain them, I want to fool them,’ that’s fine. Yet, one size does not fit all. The more you tailor this experience that you’re giving to the audience, the more powerful and significant it can be. I almost said ‘important,’ but I’m not sure it’s important. I do think it can be significant. The most important thing for an entertainer is to understand that people have invested their time in what you’re doing. Regardless of what your philosophical, religious, or spiritual beliefs are, the reality that we are sure of is that life is finite. What you’re presenting better be worthwhile. And ideally, it will be an experience that is the best use of the time. Not just a good use of the time, or an excellent use of the time, but the best use of that time. That’s a challenge. That’s the goal that I think every entertainer should strive for.
Do you think that your conceptual approach to magic and performance comes from the multi-disciplinary training you’ve had in so many different arts? Is it more from decades of experience?
I think it came from always having that appreciation of the past and history, and really a fascination with older people and their experience. And knowing early on that this too shall pass, that all of this will be gone one day. It’s important to make this significant and not to waste it. The other side of it is that looking at the history of so many things including entertainment, show business, performing arts, we find that we are in a very disposable world. That there is a great deal of profit to be made in the idea of new and improved. Latest and greatest. And the only way to do that, to really sell that, is to discount everything that’s come before. You have to say that was that, but this is what you need right here and right now. In doing that, we often cast aside that which still has a great deal of merit and value.
New York has long been a thriving hub for the development of American magic. You can chalk it up to the city’s reputation for entertainment and theater, or write it off as just another feature of the modern metropolis. But zoom in a little closer on Brooklyn, and the very first spark of New York’s magic scene unfolds all the way out in Coney Island over 100 years ago. Coney Island was one of the first places in the United States that audiences could regularly see and appreciate magic, but Brooklyn wasn’t exactly the seat of glamor. In fact, East Coast magic’s gritty reputation—as compared to the glitz of the West Coast, Vegas world—traces all the way back to Coney Island at the turn of the century.
It’s said that in New York’s early days, back in the days of New Amsterdam, the strip of undeveloped land we now know as Coney Island was overrun with rabbits. The island was named for konijn, the Dutch word for rabbits and probably the only future early New Yorkers saw for an island way out there at the edge of nowhere. But by the late 1800s, Brooklyn had become a whole new world. Coney Island was a burgeoning destination, a beach escape for local residents and even the brave Manhattanites who would take the ferries or later the overground train out to Brooklyn. Clam bars lined the beach, three independent music halls drew huge crowds, and the Elephant Hotel stood tall.
In the late 1800s, standalone rides like the carousel and the Razzle Dazzle paved the way for the full amusement parks that solidified Coney Island’s reputation. Sea Lion Park started it all in 1895, followed by Steeplechase Park in 1897. By 1903, Luna Park revived the land and attractions where Sea Lion Park once stood. By 1904, Dreamland was up and running with a mission to compete with the glory and appeal of the sparkly new Luna Park. Both on the stages of these early major theme parks and in the space created by the conversation they started, magic flourished.
When Sea Lion Park opened in 1895, it was the first enclosed amusement park in North America. Founder Paul Boyton (occasionally seen as Boynton) built a fence around the park and charged an entrance fee, establishing his intentions to create a permanent space in contrast with the one at a time, pay-as-you-go attraction booths that were more popular at the time. Boyton worked hard to keep up with the changing times of Coney Island by adding rides like the Water Chute and a rollercoaster called the Flip Flap Railway, which was closed down when its upside-down loop was deemed too dangerous for riders. Boyton even acquired a well-loved Elephant named Topsy in the hopes of boosting attendance, but much like Sea Lion Park itself, Topsy’s enduring fame was mostly born of her untimely death.
Eventually, Boyton admitted he couldn’t keep up and sold Sea Lion Park to new owners, who quickly reopened the newly renovated park as Luna Park. And although Sea Lion Park didn’t last, all the amusement parks that followed managed to incorporate magic effects and illusion shows into their success. Luna Park co-owner Elmer “Skip” Dundy got his start as a magician while working as an assistant to Frederick Eugene Powell. Illusion shows like “Trip to the Moon” made Dundy’s name as a magician, and were all founded by his Luna Park partner, Frederick Thompson. Branching out from their rapid magical success in Luna Park, Dundy and Thompson later went on to found the New York Hippodrome, where Houdini would go on to make his 10,000 pound elephant disappear, among other world-famous illusions.
Dreamland Park was an idea with magic at its very core. British magician Roltaire created the park, promoted it widely, and also performed his own illusions on the main stages of the park. Roltaire’s illusions included acts called “Pharaoh’s Daughter” and “The Creation”, complex theatrical presentations that would hold audiences for half-hour long seated magic shows. Positioning himself as a headliner, Roltaire’s auditorium shows stood under the spotlight in contrast with Dreamland’s Temple of Illusions, where spectators would walk through a series of booths or rooms, each displaying a single illusion. “Those who know say that the amount of plate glass and mirror glass used was measured in acres,” wrote Arthur Leroy of the Temple of Illusions in the August 1950 issue of The Sphinx. The “Midget Village” in Dreamland Park also featured magic, where at the “Midget Magic Theatre” a “Midget Kellar” and his fellow “midget” assistants presented their own takes on famous illusions and popular tricks of the day.
Beyond the enclosed amusement parks that featured magic as mere aspects of their overall alure, the Illusion Palace on Surf Avenue offered a rotating cast of illusions as the main event. As many as 40 illusions featured at a time, on a roster that was updated every season to reflect new technologies and spotlight talented performers. Pepper’s Ghost was on display, groundbreaking as it was at the time, and big-stage classics like the Sword Box, levitations, and the Blue Room drew huge crowds. Meanwhile, appearances by the Four-Legged Girl and the Two-Headed Girl heralded the golden age of the sideshow.
While a “Midget Village” certainly wouldn’t pass muster today and the sideshows that do still exist are met with plenty of external resistance, this kind of entertainment was par for the course in Coney Island. Take Martin Couney, for example, who struggled to raise funds to finance his commitment to nurturing and caring for babies born premature. Forced to find another way to realize his vision, Couney’s Infant Incubator operation ran from 1903 to 1943 as just another Coney Island attraction. Audiences paid 25 cents to enter the facility and coo over the tiny, fragile babies encased in cutting-edge incubators that Couney imported from Europe. The “attraction” was so successful, not a single family had to pay for the neonatal care their premature babies wouldn’t have been able to access anywhere else.
While “Midget Villages” and “Infant Incubators” were the amusements audiences craved at the turn of the century, magicians were forced in many ways to adapt to the demands of the times. Coney Island was quickly becoming a haven for magic, serving performers and fans alike. But what must it have been like to entertain an audience that smelled bad? How could magicians pull crowds when preemies and bearded ladies were the dominant trends?
Certainly no history either of magic or of Coney Island would be complete without Al Flosso, who played a crucial role in shaping the New York City magic world both in Brooklyn and beyond. It was in Coney Island’s seedy underbelly environment that Flosso got his start, blossoming in front of audiences who wanted to see horrific, disturbing, just-plain-wrong experiences and converting those crowds into magic-lovers.
Flosso worked the sideshows and performed the hugely popular Punch and Judy puppet shows of the day, touring his acts all over New York. For his magic act, Flosso was first known as “The Boy Magician”, and later, when his world-famous Miser’s Dream routine put him on the map, as “The King of Koins”. But it was the almost accidental moniker of the “Coney Island Fakir” that stuck—an MC introduced him with the name before a performance at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, and from then on, it became his identity. Flosso had become famous as much for his quirks as for his strict magical skill, quirks like his brash attitude, handsy approach to volunteers, and penchant for eating lunch while performing on stage. While less polished than the white-gloved stage spectacles of the day, Flosso’s grittier, straight-to-the-point style of magic won over audiences of laymen and impressed generations of magicians. Perhaps it was precisely this roughness that allowed Flosso such incredible mastery over randomly selected audience members and enabled him to draw huge crowds (and a following of devoted magicians that has far outlived him) during the darkest, seediest days of magic at Coney Island.
“By the 1920s, magic was a bedrock part of Coney Island,” said Richard Cohn in the New York Sun. As a popular summer retreat dedicated to entertainment, Coney Island touched the up-and-coming careers of plenty of early magicians whose names today are legend. David Bamberg (perhaps better known by his stage name, Fu Man Chu) appeared in Coney Island, as did Louis “Pop” Krieger and the “Queen of Magic,” Adelaide Herrmann. Dai Vernon was cutting silhouettes on the Coney Island boardwalk for 50 cents a piece in the 1920s (two silhouettes would cost you a whopping 75 cents), when he met his wife Jeanne Hayes. Jeanne herself was in Coney Island that summer after being recruited by an outside talker to work in Jean Hugard’s illusion show as part of his Sawing a Woman in Half act, so in a way, it was magic that brought them together.
Harry Houdini’s love for Coney Island has also been well documented. His brother Hardeen lived near Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue at the time, just a short distance away from the magic and wonder in the neighborhood’s amusement parks and attraction tents. The Brothers Houdini were playing Coney Island in 1894, the same year that a young woman named Bess was performing with a singing and dancing troupe called The Floral Sisters. After Harry and Bess were married, it’s said that they visited Coney Island every year on their anniversary to walk the Boardwalk or pose for a photograph on the beach.
Today, Coney Island’s farflung location feels like a mere echo of its rambunctious past. It’s no longer an island, first of all, and the subway makes a day trip or even an afternoon at the beach an easy adventure. Although many reminders of Coney Island’s magical history remain, much has changed. The smiling cartoon face of Tilley that hangs over the entrance to Luna Park these days is a stylized caricature of George C. Tilyou, who first founded Steeplechase Park more than a century ago. Performers of all kinds stalk the boardwalk—some even use shills to sell souvenirs and draw crowds. In homage to the history of the place, Coney Island USA hosts regular magic shows in their upstairs museum space. And if you listen closely, if you wander the side streets and alleys of Coney Island and squint just right, you might even glimpse the shadow of the giants who paved the way for the magic of today.
Passing solid steel through solid steel is an incredible feat, but most people, audiences and magicians both, groan when they see a set of linking rings. The linking rings trigger memories of every amateur, kid, and stage performer that’s ever underwhelmed us with mediocre magic. Perhaps the collective cringe is a function of the act’s longevity; with as many as 250 years of history on world stages, the linking rings have certainly fallen victim to the hands of a few flop performers.
And yet, the linking rings have endured, both as act and as legend. The true origins of the linking rings have never been nailed down, although magicians who perform the act today tend to have their own opinions on its history. Legend has it that touring performers from China introduced the linking rings to the Western world, and while the history to support this claim is weak, popular attachment to the classically “oriental” story lingers.
Contemporary consensus around the Ancient Chinese Linking Rings admits that they are probably neither Chinese nor particularly ancient. Ching Ling Foo, a popular Chinese magician in the 19th and 20th centuries, performed a version of the linking rings while touring internationally. Of course, plenty of non-Chinese magicians performed the linking rings on tour throughout the 1800s and 1900s, including Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, one of the fathers of modern magic.
Throughout decades of investigation and research, magician historians have latched on to series of rings appearing in art, performance, and public record, seeking to support the legend with fact. Like a hunt for the Holy Grail, each seeker crafts his own path to the history of the rings with or without evidence or corroboration beyond their own beliefs and discoveries. One of the oldest confirmed records of the linking rings appears in Hokasen, Hirase Hose’s 1764 treatise on street performance.
Magician Max Maven presented Hokasen in a 2016 issue of Genii magazine, interpreting and analyzing the work alongside an English translation of Hose’s description of “The Iron Rings,” a clear account of a performance of what we know as the linking rings today. While Hokasen does not secure the origins of the rings in China, Japan, or the West, it does give us a confirmed written record of the linking rings as a performance piece dating back to the mid-1700s.
The performance of the linking rings detailed in Hokasen utilized up to five rings, introducing another debate that has existed amongst magicians for centuries. Acts over the years have included anywhere between two and 11 rings. Dai Vernon, known to many in magic circles as The Professor, solidified a six-ring routine. Chris Capehart is renowned as a master of the linking rings, and for him, there’s nothing to debate when it comes to the correct number of rings in an act.
“The right number is very simple,” says Capehart, “it’s three. It used to be when people would do these ring routines, that’s when people would get up and go to the bathroom. They’d say, ‘oh, I’ll be right back.’ No you won’t.” Needless to say, Capehart uses three rings in his act. When he first started doing magic, Capehart had no interest in the linking rings. “I hated it. I hated all the clanking noise, and instead of just proving that the metal would go through metal, they would make these designs. I used to think to myself, ‘what is the point of all that?’ Usually, when I saw the linking rings, I walked out the door,” he says.
When Capehart was asked to perform the linking rings at a club performance, he had to bone up on it. “I had to learn it, so I set out to do the shortest version I could and just get rid of it,” Capehart says. “It came with eight rings, so I threw away five and only kept three.” Drawing inspiration from the way karate practitioners break boards, Capehart pioneered a crashing motion that focuses on what, to him, the linking rings are really all about: metal passing through metal. Gone were the patterns and designs, butterflies and Dolly Parton jokes. A trademark of Capehart’s act is its simplicity—he passes metal through metal, the singular impossible feat, over and over again, mere inches away from the audience’s eyes.
Classics of magic like the linking rings present an enduring question of presentation. What is magic? Or rather, what part of an act or a show is the magic moment? Is it patter and performance? The way the audience feels? What they remember when they leave the theater? Or is magic the momentary act of accomplishing something impossible? “Linking rings is not supposed to happen,” Capehart says. “Putting steel through steel makes people go, ‘whoa, you can’t do that.’”
For almost 100 years, the official magazine of the International Brotherhood of Magicians has been called The Linking Ring. Among the classics of magic, the linking rings stands out with a history that is integral to our understanding of magic as an art that has developed over the course of centuries. Magicians hate the linking rings and magicians love the linking rings, mirroring the conflicting groans and gasps of audience members. “Some tricks, if they’re performed right, they’re fantastic,” says Capehart. “But you get the wrong performer, and that’s it.”
In this sense, the enduring success of magic, or of a particular trick, does rest in the hands of the performer. In the words of magician Jamy Ian Swiss: “Magic is largely an interpretive art, and it is invariably the singer, not the song, that makes for beautiful and effective art.” Today’s young professional magicians work diligently to distinguish themselves from the classical image of a stage magician. They forego the reputation of stodgy old men in top hats and tails for a more contemporary take on magic—focusing on attraction and charisma, ushering even classical illusions into the digital age with technology, regardless of whether or not the audience can see it. But performers developing their own takes on classics like the linking rings don’t stray too far from the work of their predecessors.
Is this a result of the limitations of conjuring? Is it out of some kind of veneration of magic’s heritage as an art form? Possibly both. Sometimes, the metal shrinks down to smaller rounds like in Shoot Ogawa’s Japanese Ninja Rings. Joshua Messado ditched the popular shiny steel look for a matte black finish in creating his own Messado Rings. Performers invent pretty new moves and, to the chagrin of seasoned professionals like Capehart, invent new shapes and patterns. But through these subtle tweaks and new takes over the course of at least 250 years, and probably more, the actual feat of the act remains unchanged: metal cannot pass through metal. Steel cannot melt through steel.