When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a magician.
I loved magic tricks of all kinds, from the grand-scale spectacles with stages and showgirls, to the swift sleight-of-hand of lone street performers.
To nurse my growing fascination with magic (and perhaps to wean me from my harrowing Nintendo addiction — which at the time was a rampant epidemic), my parents bought me dozens of how-to books, in addition to magic sets.
Most of the books were intended for children, with depictions of simplified card tricks. Others illustrated illusions you could perform with everyday items.
One book in particular stands out in my memory, because the success of its tricks relied on the performer having an ignorant audience.
Take, for example, its proprietary version of the disappearing quarter:
“Hold the quarter in your palm,” the book instructed in a matter-of-fact tone. “Curl your fingers into a fist and tap on your knuckles with your faux magic wand.” (As opposed, I presumed, to the genuine magic wand included in the more-expensive magic set — the one my parents didn’t buy me.)
The book continued: “Show the audience your balled fist with the quarter inside. Then, when no one is looking, slide the quarter into your pocket. Show the audience your fist, and when you uncurl your fingers, the quarter will be gone — as if by magic!”
Sounds easy enough, I thought, nodding. Visions of fame and riches swirled through my head.
Another trick involved cutting a piece of ribbon in half and reassembling it with magic.
“To perform this trick,” the book said, “you’ll need a piece of ribbon.”
Wow, I thought. What an informative opening sentence. What other spellbinding insights did this magnanimous tome have to offer?
“Show your ribbon to the audience,” the book continued. “Then, ask an adult to cut it in half with a pair of scissors.” (Such overcautious overtones defined my Millennial upbringing. To this day, I can’t touch a pair of scissors without my mother’s say-so.)
The book continued: “Hold both pieces of the cut ribbon for everyone to see. Announce to your audience that you’re going to combine the two ribbons back into one.
“Then, when no one is looking, slide the two halves up your sleeve and pull out a second piece of ribbon hidden in your pocket. Open your hand to show your audience the ‘reassembled’ ribbon.
“It must have been magic!” the book concluded with a self-satisfied, exclamatory finish.
Wait a minute, I thought, rereading the instructions. I was no Dick Tracy, but I was starting to detect a pattern. To perform either of the tricks successfully, you not only needed repurposed household props – you required an oblivious audience.
“When no one’s looking…” I mean, wow. Even as a kid, I was stunned by the laziness. (And remember, this is coming from someone who was addicted to Nintendo.)
Did all professional magicians depend on their audience members to simultaneously look away at an opportune moment? Was this one of the enduring secrets of the enigmatic conjuring community?
I began to doubt that veteran performers like Lance Burton and David Copperfield had learned their craft using the books I was reading.
What if a large-scale illusion hinged on the entire audience looking away at the same time? I imagine the instructions would sound something like this:
“How to hover in front of an audience of 14,000.
“First, walk onto stage and greet audience. Introduce a scantily clad assistant to keep the bored husbands and fathers entertained.
“Announce to the audience that you’re going to hover using your ‘magical’ powers. Dance around for no reason to upbeat techno music, waving your cape and seductively clutching the scantily clad assistant.
“Then, when no one is looking, strap on a harness with invisible wires. Have a backstage assistant hoist you into the air, to give the illusion of flight. Wave and blow kisses as you ‘soar’ across the stage with your arms outspread.
“Then, land back onstage and bow to thunderous applause. Proceed to collect millions for your amazing ‘magical’ abilities.”
I never did become a professional magician — and with my so-called schooling, it’s no wonder. Instead of practicing my sleight-of-hand skills, I was waiting for that elusive moment when “no one was looking.”
Sort of makes me wish I’d stuck with Nintendo.