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.”