"Gratitude is the memory of the heart." - Italian proverb
Because of the unique quality of my profession, I am often asked in off moments how I became interested in magic. One of my favorite magicians, Peter Samelson, has a very clever response to this question ("I was tricked into it...") but I usually just say something very non-committal about getting started when I was a kid. While this is essentially true, my first real exposure to magic - particularly close-up magic - was the result of crossing paths with a fascinating man named Dan Tsukalas when I was about 10 years old.
Dan was a magic pitchman; he made his living selling small magic tricks to passers-by. For literally decades, he would spend the holiday season plying his trade at Macy's Department Store in New York City. When the weather broke, he would head down to Atlantic City for the summer season. Then, in the autumn, Dan would wend his way up through New England, making stops at a good number of the state and agricultural fairs that dot the fall calendar in these parts. Following that, he would head back to Macy's and begin the cycle again.
I first saw Dan at the Danbury State Fair, once one of the largest fairs in the Northeast. I always looked forward to the fair, not only because it was an amazing event but also because my parents, who loved the fair but hated traffic, allowed me to miss school so we could go on a weekday and beat the weekend bumper-to-bumper hassle. The fair is gone now because, Lord knows, we needed another shopping mall. However, in its day, it was an incredible attraction that drew attendance from all over New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.
Dan stood behind a demonstration counter that sat on a small wooden platform which allowed him to be about a half-foot above the crowd. Like so many other pitchmen at the fair who were selling various gizmos such as Ginsu knives and juicers, Dan had a bent coat hanger around his neck that held a small microphone which allowed him to be heard over the din of the fair.
I saw the crowd surrounding his stand and wanted to see what was going on. My parents obliged and we stood there for several moments until my parents had decided enough time had passed. Trouble was, I didn't want to go. I was seeing miracles performed, not on television, but right before my eyes - and from just a few feet away, too! I elbowed my way to the front of the crowd and stood there, awe-struck, through several demonstrations.
Each year, I was allowed to pick out one souvenir from the fair and usually, I would wait until we had seen just about everything before making my choice. I didn't want to pick out something too early, only to see something even better later on in our explorations. However, this year was different. Dan was demonstrating wonders with a deck of cards that he promised any one in the audience could do, too - even kids! To prove it, he picked out the nearest kid; it happened to be me. He had me riffle the cards to show that they were all different. Then, he had me riffle them again but this time, they had magically all changed to the same card! I didn't know how I did it but that didn't matter. I had performed this miracle myself. It also didn't matter that we had only been at the fair for about a half-hour. I had found what I wanted to bring home.
In the years that followed, Dan's stand would be my first stop at the fair, and from year to year, being the gracious man that he was, he always pretended to remember me. He would always ask me what I bought last year and then he would show me a new trick he thought I was ready for. What's more, he would always take a few moments out to personally coach me on the method of this new miracle between his demonstrations.
When the magic bug bit, it bit hard and a year was a long time to wait to learn a new trick. So, I eventually turned to the public library for magic books. (There were five; I know because I took them all out several times each over a summer.) I then discovered that there were magic shops that had catalogs and they would send you tricks and magic books in the mail if you sent them money first. Shortly after, my father became ill (and that's another story) and we stopped going to the fair. Nevertheless, my magical education had begun.
That's why I am always more than happy to help youngsters who ask about getting started in magic when I perform for them in a restaurant or when they watch Sandy and I work at the amusement park. For better or worse, it was one man's encouragement - a personal interest that went far beyond selling a kid a magic trick - that started me off on the road to where I am today. I'm not a wealthy person, but I have a wonderful family, I live comfortably, and I love what I do for a living. And, as my father always used to say, if you love what you do for a living, you never have to go to work!
There's a postscript to this story. Almost twenty years would pass before I saw Dan again. I had been performing professionally for about a year and had discovered that a chapter (or "Rings," as they're called) of the International Brotherhood of Magicians met in a nearby town. I showed up at one of their meetings and there, sitting on the other side of the room, was Dan Tsukalas. As it turned out, he traveled all over the Northeast but lived just a half-hour away from me.
I immediately went over to him and, as would be expected, he didn't know me from Adam. He informed me that he was now retired and I shared with him that I was now a professional magician and that he had sold me my first magic trick. He nodded and smiled and then said, "I sold David Copperfield his first magic trick, too!" I returned the nod and smile, but was somewhat disappointed that this man I had held in such high regard would spin a tale like that to impress a stranger. We parted company and that was the last I ever saw of him.
Several months passed and I was watching The Arsenio Hall Show (which would date this to about 1989 or so.) David Copperfield was one of the guests and Arsenio asked him how he gotten his start. My eyes widened as he began to tell a story about being in Macy's Department Store in New York City when he was a young boy and his mother buying him his first magic trick from a pitchman there...
Dan Tsukalas passed away in 1999 but he will always be someone very close to my heart.
Thanks for everything, Dan...