March 10, 2008

Recovering from a bad spectator

What if when you are doing magic with some people what if they don’t do what you tell them and they mess the trick up?

Audience control is part of being a good magician. The old saying that “you have to know when to hold them, know when to fold them” might be adapted to magic as “you have to know when to guide them, know when to smack them in the face and just call it a day.”

I must admit that in my youth, while I was still learning the fine points of my trade, there were many occasions when I had an effect ruined by an over-zealous, under-intelligent, or just plain annoying spectator. I quickly found that, in most cases, if a spectator was trying to (for example) choose and return a card at the wrong time (say, in the middle of my cups and balls routine), chances were that I was not being understood.

With that in mind, here are a few tips for making sure that your spectators know what you want from them:

  • Speak in an audible, clear tone, and make sure that the person you are addressing is neither facing away from you nor deaf.
  • Don’t perform for an unwilling audience (people who say “Magic is dumb” or try to knock you over and run away, for example.)
  • If the person you are speaking to is answering but what they are answering doesn’t make sense, check to see if they are actually having a hands-free cell phone conversation and don’t even realize you are talking to them.
  • Don’t perform effects that have complex instructions for people who don’t speak the same language you do.
  • Make sure that your effect is appropriate for your audience (for example, don’t do complex mathematical tricks at a five-year-old’s birthday party, or perform your detailed ambitious card routine during a visit to a home for the blind).
  • Never ask someone with Alzheimer’s to choose a card an remember it. (It just gets embarrassing. I know. I’ve been there. Twice.)
  • Don’t ask someone to assist you with a trick if they look like they might be trouble (if they are a teenage boy, for example)

Even if you follow these tips to the letter, you may run into a spectator who is more interested in ruining your effect than being part of the magic. In that case, you can either be belligerent and risk turning everyone against you, or try and tailor the effect to the troublesome individual by saying something like, “I’m sorry, is this too difficult for you? Here, let me make you a balloon animal doggy.” The choice is up to you!

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March 4, 2008

Jay Sankey magic now free!

It is with mixed emotions that I learned today that Jay Sankey is no longer charging magicians an annual fee for the right to purchase magic through his Web site. I suppose that this is fine for young magicians and those who do not have a large magic “war chest,” but to those of us who have spent decades trying to keep our secrets safe from the undeserving, it feels like Sankey has thrown the gates of heaven open and let the golden clouds pour out upon the heads of those below.

Sankey was nice enough to send me a $20 gift certificate to help make up for the annual dues I paid some time ago. This was a fine gesture, but the fact of the matter is that I paid more than $12,000 for the right to purchase merchandise through his site. I was assured that this was a deeply discounted price by Gerald, my local Web access guy (he works in an abandoned crack house two blocks from my mansion and is the same guy who sold me a license to shop at for only $4,000), and I still remember the difficulty in getting the funds together because Gerald says that Web access fees can only be paid in cash.

Not that I feel ripped off in the slightest. Sankey is a hero amongst magicians — possibly the only magician in the history of magic who could have possibly showed David Copperfield how he could make the Statue of Liberty disappear using only a paper clip and sly misdirection. I’ll certainly continue to purchase products from Sankey and write about him at, but it will be with a tear in my eye and a remembrance of the day when only those who were willing to pony up big bucks could be part of the Sankey-DVD-purchasing fraternity.

March 3, 2008

Vanishing an animal

How can I make an animal like a dog disappear and make people think it really disappeared?

The easiest way to make people think that an animal has disappeared is to make it actually disappear. Many household animals (particularly cats) will run away if you just open the front door a little. Other animals can be hidden in basements, tied up in bags, sold to disreputable pet stores, or surreptitiously given to a small child on the street.

The problem with these methods is that they a) can get you in trouble with animal protection agencies, and b) may make life difficult if you want the animal to reappear on cue at a later date. But if you just want an animal to disappear, they work fine.

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February 25, 2008

Alternative coin bending

Is there another solution for coin bending, because I think it would be a little difficult to back over it with a car and no one noticing?

The coin bending method I discuss — which does indeed involve the use of an automobile — is considered the classic method. You might think that it is difficult to run over a coin with a car without anyone noticing, but this is where the art of misdirection comes in! You would be amazed at what a good magician can get away with by using a little misdirection. For example, David Copperfield once so thoroughly distracted an entire audience with snappy patter and hand gestures that not one of them noticed the Great Wall of China being hastily dismantled in the background.

But what if you are not particularly confident in your ability to distract your audience? Don’t worry — coin bending is still within your grasp! Magicians usually have more than one way of performing a particular effect, and the coin bend is no exception. If a car is not to your liking, then you can bend a coin with a truck, a large motorcycle, or even a freight train! If you’d like to avoid motor vehicles entirely (for environmental reasons of what have you), you can take the easy way out and just bend the coin with your fingers — it’s actually much easier than you’d imagine, and people just assume it’s hard to bend a coin because they’ve never tried!

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February 19, 2008

Site additions

I thought that so long as I have this blog, I might as well use it to announce new additions to the main site as well. I added a bunch of stuff today, namely:

  • An incredibly unbiased review of Ellusionist’s incredible, fabulous, must-buy, Shadow Masters Deck, which I think you should go out and buy a case of right now
  • Complete details of how Criss Angel makes a lit light bulb levitate (with bonus information on how he floated above the light at the Luxor hotel)
  • Explanations of two classic stage effects: the Chinese Rice Bowls and Milk to Newspaper

Be sure to write to me if you have any requests for magic effects, methods, secrets, rumors, or spelling words you need explained!

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February 18, 2008

Skinny assistants

What percentage of flesh coverage for an assistant provides the optimum distraction for the audience?

The answer varies, depending on who your audience is. If you’re playing to a room full of drunks, it’s not going to matter because they’ll see what they want to see. If it’s a late-night Vegas show, then your assistant is going to have to be pretty darned close to naked to make any impression at all, since the audience is all set for serious nudity. But at a kid’s birthday party, even a flash of leg is out of the question, unless you’re trying to distract the kids’ parents while you secretly load your suit jacket with their valuables.

Your selection of assistant will also have an impact on the answer to this question. It is considered far more acceptable to have a gorgeous young woman show some cleavage than it is to have a big, hairy old man run around in his undershorts. Particularly if it’s a dinner show.

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September 18, 2007

The absent assistant

I have been a professional illusionist for more than 20 years, and am lucky enough to be married to a wonderful young woman who is not only my third wife but also my third assistant. My problem is that about two months ago one of our neighbors, a friendly young man in his early 20s, has taken an interest in magic. He says that he would like to be a stage illusionist, even though he already has a successful career as a personal trainer.Normally, I would say, “good for you.” The problem is that when I said I didn’t have time to train him in the art, my wife offered to give him lessons. Now, she knows almost as much about this subject as I do, but it bothered me that she stepped in without asking me first.

Anyway, the guy now practices quite a bit, and my wife is there the whole time acting as his assistant. I’m not quite sure what routines they are working on, but she spends three or four hours over there a night and it’s cutting into our rehearsal time. Do you think this may impact my performance?

Presto guesses that if your performance was all it could be, your assistant wouldn’t be spending so much time with a younger magician. I suggest that you think about whether your routine has become “too routine” and try adding a little spice to your act, or you might end up doing nothing but slight of hand.

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August 18, 2007

Great magic books

Can you recommend some good, general books on magic?

Presto has quite a library of magic tomes. Some of his favorites are:

  1. Card Collage. A tapestry of divergent magic techniques all thrown together in an attractive way.
  2. The Barbell Course in Magic. A huge, multivolume overview of the entire magic profession, bound in sheets of lead so that you can build up your arms while you build up your knowledge.
  3. Ant Man’s Complete One Ant Mental and Psychic Routine. A complete routine, absolutely timeless, and as classic as the super hero who wrote it.
  4. The Expert with a Card Table. A classic treatise on magic that can be done anywhere, any time, with just a deck of cards and a folding table.
  5. The Royale Road to Magic: Another classic, this one named after what they call a hamburger in France.
  6. A Magician Among Spirits. How you, too, can see magical things if you just drink enough.
  7. Art of Astonishment. Three volumes of innovative (and, sometimes, weirdly rambling) magic by some guy named Art who seems to think that everything in his house is a magic prop.
  8. 101 Tricks with a Stripper. A treatise on effects that are particularly appropriate for stag parties.
  9. The Encyclopedia of Cards for Tricks. An exhaustive discussion of all aspects of each card in a deck, starting with the ace of spades and working its way through the king of diamonds in just under 700 pages.
  10. 13 Steps to a Migraine. The #1 book on mentalism, with a focus on heavy, brain-numbing memorization.
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July 18, 2007

Grabby spectators

What should I do if, during a trick, a spectator grabs the deck and shuffles it?

Presto recommends punching him in the face. If there are too many witnesses or the police are present, a kick in the shins will do.

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June 18, 2007

Scripting a routine

I remember hearing that a good routine of magic should be scripted. How do I go about writing a script?

Presto is a firm believer in leveraging the work of others, right up to (but not crossing) the line of violating their intellectual property rights. When Presto wishes to script a routine, Presto generally thinks of a movie that has a theme similar to the routine he wants to put together, sends away for a copy of the movie script, and uses it as a template for his act.

For example, let’s say that Presto is putting together a linking rings routine. Lord of the Rings might be an obvious choice for script inspiration, but Presto thinks it would be better to go with something less obvious like Rocky. After rewriting the srcipt to suit Presto’s purpose, Presto could start out with dull but functional rings, do some simple linking and unlinking, and then, after a spectacular polishing of the rings set to energetic montage music, do some exceptionally spectacular stuff with the shining rings gleaming in the stage lights until, exhausted, Presto just can’t go on any longer.

This was a speculative example, but Presto has put this theory into practice many times. Presto has a thrilling illusion show based on Jurassic Park (including a tooth-lined cabinet into which assistants violently disappear and are never seen again), a dove production routine that is an amalgam of John Woo films, and an exceptionally difficult bullet-catch routine inspired by Scarface.

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