Thursday, May 17, 2012

It Started with a Book...

For those who lived through it, 1969 was a memorable year for a remarkable diversity of reasons ranging from the exhilarating to the truly terrifying. Unimaginable scientific achievements such as the Apollo 11 moon landing and iconic cultural events like the Woodstock festival stood in stark contrast to the Manson family murders, Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick scandal and the continuing horrors in Southeast Asia that seemed destined to never end.

Personally, 1969 goes to the top of the list of years for which I would prefer a do-over, mostly because of an accident and subsequent injury that would forever change my life. I was 12 years old at the time and it was the week before Halloween. It was a crisp autumn evening and my family and I had just returned from a trip to the grocery store. I went back outside to get the last few bags of groceries from the car and, as was my custom and right as a kid, I jumped down the two cement steps to the front walk rather than taking them one at a time.

However, on this particular evening, my foot got stuck under one of the wrought iron railings that bordered the stoop as I made the leap. As I realized that my foot was caught, I instinctively turned to try and catch the rail to stop my fall. The unfortunate result of this maneuver was that because the foot was caught fast, the lower part of my leg couldn’t move while the rest of my body had turned almost completely around in a desperate attempt to arrest my inevitable fall.

I guess my foot must have come loose at some point because I hit the ground pretty hard and immediately felt a searing pain in my right leg. I called for help and my parents came running out. Helping me to my feet, it soon became apparent that I couldn’t put any weight on my right leg at all. The scary part was that the leg no longer had any stability whatsoever.

After being helped into the back seat of the car, we hightailed it to the nearest hospital and, after being fitted with an inflatable cast by a nurse to give the injured leg some support, I was wheeled into the emergency room for a battery of diagnostic tests to discover the extent of the injuries. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, the ER doctor came into the treatment room to tell us that he wasn’t really going to be able to determine anything conclusively until the orthopedist they had called arrived to take a look. I remember my mother asking, “Can’t you tell us something?”

“It’s quite a mess,” he said and walked out.

Eventually, the orthopedist, bearing an armful of x-rays, came in to speak with us. In what can only be described as a late 60’s version of a PowerPoint presentation, he stuck the films that showed my right knee onto the light box and began to describe exactly what “quite a mess” meant in graphic detail. As it turned out, I had torn just about everything in the knee joint and when my parents asked what the treatment was – up until this point, the assumption was that I had simply broken my leg – I heard the doctor utter a word that sent a chill up my 12-year-old spine.

“Surgery. I’ve already scheduled it for first thing in the morning,” he said and then began having my parents sign the necessary form.

Needless to say, I was petrified since the most traumatic medical treatment I had ever received up to that point was a vaccination. I was taken to the children’s ward – I would have been spared that indignity if I was but a year older – and was given something to help me sleep. It apparently wasn’t nearly strong enough because I remained awake, alone and afraid until dawn. Finally, a nurse appeared and preparation for the surgery began.

Fortunately, the pre-surgery medication must have worked because I remember waking up with my parents by my bed and a huge plaster cast from thigh to ankle on my right leg. The orthopedic surgeon showed up shortly after to deliver more thrilling news. The surgery was successful though it took significant amounts of metal – plates, pins and screws – to put everything back together again. However, it was going to be about three weeks before I could go home (it was1969, after all) as the knee had to heal sufficiently enough to undergo the rigors of learning how to walk with crutches. This was necessary because the cast was going to have to stay on well past the Christmas holidays.

My parents were happy that I was going to be OK but I was devastated by the news that I was going to have to stay in a hospital bed for three weeks. When I was a kid, I used to go stir crazy when I had a cold and was stuck in a bed for just a day or two. Three weeks sounded like a life sentence. I was also going to miss Halloween.

The first few days were, indeed, interminable. The other kids on the ward were much younger and came and went quickly due to much simpler maladies such as tonsillitis, usully in a day or two. My parents visited just about every day, sometimes separately, sometimes together, and one day, my mother brought a couple of books she thought I might like to help pass the time. One was a history of the space program which was a hot topic due to the first lunar landing that past July. In fact, just a couple of months earlier, my family and I made the trek into New York City to watch the ticker tape parade that feted Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins after their return from the moon.

With all due apologies to NASA, the other book was much more interesting as it was a magic book. Magic was a strong interest of mine, having been introduced to it by a pitchman named Dan Tsukalas at a local fair a couple years earlier (interested readers can read more about this wonderful man here.) However, most of the magic that I had managed to acquire in those days was the kind you either bought from joke shops or from magic pitchmen. I had a Svengali deck, a Nickels To Dimes set, a Color Vision box – plenty of magic tricks – but no real honest-to-goodness magic books.

The book had a bright red dust jacket and the title was boldly printed at the top: Scarne’s Magic Tricks. I was actually impatient for my mother’s visit to end so that I could dive into its contents. After all, the cover promised that inside awaited “famous tricks of the world’s foremost magicians selected by John Scarne as best for performance with simple props and without sleight-of-hand.”

After she left, I hurriedly opened the book to the table of contents and was excited to learn that there were 201 tricks described. This was going to be great! I turned the pages past the Publisher’s Note and the Foreword – kids didn’t read that stuff – and began reading the first trick. The title was intriguing – “The Talking Mirror” – and the effect’s description sounded promising. I was disappointed, though, as I read through the description and discovered that I had to paint the reverse side of a small mirror white. That would have to wait at least until I got out of the hospital.

The next trick, “Coin Through Handkerchief,” seemed workable even under the circumstances and I made a mental note to borrow a handkerchief and a coin from my father on his next visit. The next trick, however, stopped me in my tracks. “Smoking Sleeve” it was called and was accompanied by an illustration of a man blowing cigarette smoke up one of his sleeves and the smoke traveling out of the other sleeve. The piece of rubber tubing that was used to do the dirty work was indicated by a dotted line.

Clearly knowing the limitations of being 12 – and in a hospital – I skipped over that trick, also, and began to open the book at random places. Tricks involving goldfish, bananas, cigars and matches quickly convinced me that this book was a waste of time and I tossed it on the side table and buried myself in the astronaut book. Later that day, one of the nurses was making her rounds and after asking me if I wanted yet another glass of ginger ale (I still can’t drink the stuff to this day!), she noticed the Scarne book and asked, “Do you do magic?”

“A little,” I replied sheepishly.

“Do you do any of the tricks in this book?” she asked. I told her that I had just started reading it.

“See if you can learn one and show me tomorrow.”

I thought, “Oh sure, honey, just lend me a cigar and a bowler hat,” but only managed to say, “OK.” As she left, I picked up the book again and started to comb through the contents a little more carefully. Finally, after some time had passed, I came across Trick #74, “Scarne’s Think of a Number.” I pulled out a sheet of paper and a pencil and weaved my way through the mathematical effect and was amazed that it worked. I did it again and it worked again. By the time the next day dawned and the same nurse happened by, I was ready.

“Do you have a trick to show me?” she asked and I replied that I did. To say I performed the trick would be an overstatement but I managed to somehow stumble through it to a successful conclusion. To my delight, she uttered the words that are music to the ears of any neophyte magician.

“How did you do that?” she asked. I ecstatically replied that I couldn’t tell her. She then told me that she was going to be off the next day but upon her return, she expected to see another trick. And that’s how it went for the remaining time I was in the hospital. I would learn any trick from the Scarne book that was performable from a hospital bed with things that were to hand and I was rewarded with an enthusiastic spectator who sometimes brought other staff over to see the latest miracle.

I got out of the hospital just before Thanksgiving and I hobbled around on crutches until the cast eventually came off shortly after the new decade began. It would be years later, though, until I would figure out that while Mr. Scarne was very generous about mentioning that the book contained “famous tricks of the world’s foremost magicians,” he was less so when it came to actually mentioning their names or their specific creations in the book itself.

Still, however, I can’t help but remember this book fondly – that same volume sits on my shelf to this day – as it pinpoints where, in my understanding, magic stopped being about magic tricks you could buy at the local joke shop and started to be about actually learning how to be a magician, a pursuit that continues to this day.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Calm Before the Storm

November was a reasonably busy month with shows in some interesting venues, including a very posh fund-raising show that included a holiday tree lighting ceremony complete with artificial snow!

Sandy and I also traveled to Peabody, MA for the SAMCON magic convention where both of us were dealers (Sandy displays and sells her cloth props for variety entertainers and I do the same with my books and original effects.) Conventions are always fun and we get to meet up with some old friends like Jeff McBride, who was the headliner at the event.

I received a pleasant surprise via e-mail from Tim Coffey, one of the best photographers in the Northeast. He sends out a newsletter for the bar and bat mitzvah markets and thought enough of my work to publicize it. Tim really has a knack for taking great shots (I love the expression on the face of the kid to my left!) and he's really someone you should consider if you're looking for a top-notch photographer for any kind of event.

As the title of this post implies, things are quiet around here right now but in a few days, the madness will begin as I start criss-crossing several states to do holiday shows. There are still a few open dates here and there on my calendar, though, so if you're looking for some entertainment for your holiday party, get in touch soon and we'll see if we can't squeeze you in somewhere!

Have a safe and happy holiday season!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In My "In" Box...

It's e-mails like this that make me feel very fortunate to be able to do what I do for a living:

"We saw your magic show at Quassy on September 26th. You were kind enough to notice my daughter when she was upset at the end of the show to have not been picked to participate in one of your tricks. We were very grateful when you offered to do a trick just for her at the next show (last one of the day) and pick her to assist. I have attached one of the photos I took. She absolutely loved your show and was on cloud nine to have been up on stage assisting in a trick. I cannot tell you how surprised her father and I were that she was so eager and willing to be a volunteer. She is not necessarily a shy girl, but has never been inclined to participate in something so public before, especially up on a stage. She must have been very taken with your tricks, as she shot her hand up to participate for every trick, in both shows. We know it helped boost her confidence immensely as well. After your show, she wanted to go on some rides by herself, which she usually does not. In any case, I have been meaning to contact you to let you know how much she enjoyed your show and assisting in the trick and to thank you for making her feel so special."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Better (Very) Late Than Never...

I know...long time no hear. I can't tell you how many times I've sat down at the keyboard fully intending to update this blog. However, the phone always rings or an e-mail comes in that needs to be answered right know what I'm talking about. However, I'm going to certainly try to get back into the habit of updating this once a month at the very least, perhaps even more frequently if I can get the mobile blogging application on my iPhone to behave itself.

So, where do we start? I guess a quick highlight recap of the months since my last post would be in order. In late January, Sandy and I had the opportunity to perform for our first rock star. Jamey Jasta, lead singer of the metalcore band Hatebreed, hired us to entertain at his daughter's birthday party.

We had a great time with his family and friends. What's more, Jamey was extremely generous, giving us a large assortment of Hatebreed merchandise for my stepson (a hoodie, CDs, DVDs, posters, etc. - all autographed!), who was very impressed when he found out we were going to be hanging out with one of his heroes.

Most of my stand-up work is for private clients, but in March, I was on a comedy club bill that was part of a fundraising event for a conservation group. It was a large and enthusiastic audience (overly enthusiastic if you count the one drunk biker chick...) Also in March, my newest book for magicians was published, this one on the subject of restaurant magic.

In April, I had the honor of making special appearances at all of the branches of the Sikorsky Financial Credit Union as part of a special promotion for National Credit Union Youth Week. Themed "The Magic of Saving," the promotion was used to encourage the children of credit union customers to open savings accounts and begin to learn how to manage their money. Customers were encouraged to bring their kids as I performed close-up magic in the lobbies of six of their branch offices, making sure to also hit all of the talking points for the promotion while performing.

Sandy and I started back at Quassy Amusement Park for our seventh season at the end of April and continued there through July 4th. Shortly after the holiday, we left for the beautiful shores of Lake Tahoe, California, where I worked with mentalist Richard Osterlind, my friend and business partner, on a set of instructional DVDs on the subject of mentalism. Pictured at right are Richard and I on the set during the shoot.

We returned to Quassy on Labor Day and will finish out the season with eight shows this coming weekend. Just last week, I lectured for a magician's group in Ashland, MA on the subject of restaurant magic and we are also busily preparing for our shows at the Harwinton Fair (this will make it 18 years that I've been performing at this delightful country fair in northwestern Connecticut.) I also just signed on to do a series of Halloween-themed shows at the Beardsley Zoo for their Howl A Ween event. Watch their website for dates and times. I'm also still performing close-up magic at Ginza in Bloomfield every Sunday night from 6 to 8 PM so if you like great Japanese food seasoned with a little magic, stop by! (And, I should also mention that Sandy's there on Friday nights making outrageous balloon sculptures.)

Whew! I guess that's it for now. More sooner than later...I promise!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Ringing Out The Old

I know that many, if not most, are happy to see 2008 as just a fading image in the rear-view mirror, but it ended on a relatively positive note for Sandy and I. The number of holiday shows was down slightly this year no doubt due to the economic downturn of recent months (in fact, a couple of companies that had booked holiday parties in the fall cancelled their events entirely due to layoffs, etc.) but I did receive a number of last-minute bookings which turned December into at least a respectable month.

We ended the year by working First Night Danbury - two shows for very appreciative audiences who braved a snowstorm to attend (said snowstorm also doubled for us what normally would have been a 45-minute ride!)

Our two shows bookended two shows by Pete Mamos, a good friend and very funny hypnotist, and then it was off to a private show for two hours of walk-around magic before walking in the door fifteen minutes before midnight to watch the ball drop in Times Square.

Other notable shows during the holiday season were at the new MGM Grand Hotel at Foxwoods and a show in New York City for the Metropolitan Dog Club, hosted by Charlotte Reed, an international pet expert who has had numerous segments on The View. I also performed at the world headquaters of Subway for their holiday celebration this year. All in all, it was an interesting and productive month.

Those who know me know that music has always been a big part of my life so I was particularly happy to find a 10-CD box set celebrating the 50th anniversary of Motown under the tree this year. Entitled Motown: The Complete No. 1's, this set comes packaged in a box that looks like the original Motown studios and includes an amazing 191 tracks featuring the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the list goes on and on. I grew up with this music and also spent 12 years playing a lot of these songs in my previous life as a broadcaster. They've all been remastered - these songs have never sounded this good - and it's great to have them all in one place.

Happy 2009 to one and all...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

New Adventures

It's been almost three months since I've had the chance to add an update so while I have a few moments, I thought I'd fill you in on what's been going on since the last time we spoke.

The most exciting thing is that I've signed on to perform close-up magic every Sunday night at Ginza, a beautiful restaurant in Bloomfield specializing in Japanese cuisine. They have a number of Hibachi stations and wonderful sushi selections - and now there's magic every Sunday evening from 5:30 PM to 7:30 PM. Ginza is truly a destination restaurant worth the trip from just about anywhere and I've been having a great time there. Make sure to stop by and say hello.

In September, Sandy and I wrapped up our season at Quassy Amusement Park and started off October with two days at the Harwinton Fair. We've been there for 15 years now and always have a lot of fun. Later on in the month, I performed on two comedy club bills and did some walk-around magic at the Waterbury branch of the University of Connecticut. Speaking of schools, I was also the guest speaker for two psychology classes at Masuk High School in Monroe. We discussed the science of deception and why magic works. I also had the opportunity to bust out a couple of tricks for the appreciative students.

Another show of note, mostly because of the unusual venue, was doing some walk-around magic for the Rockbestos-Surprenant Cable Corporation as part of their awards dinner. The event was held at the New England Air Museum and it was very exciting to be performing while literally surrounded by history. Military planes and helicopters are all beautifully preserved and on display and the affair was held right in the middle of it all. It was quite a memorable event.

Despite the economic downturn, holiday shows are still coming in. The stock market might go up and down but the holidays still arrive despite it all. There are still some open dates, however, so if you're in the market for some entertainment for your holiday get-together, get in touch soon!