Tag Archives: Personal History

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Today’s post and yesterday’s entry are all about moments with family. Yesterday’s was about performing for that family that hopefully we all have –the people we love and choose as members of our personal tribe that time and miles might make it harder to see, but when together, it’s like the moments in between weren’t as long because we find ourselves in those people, same as we did when they became part of our family.

And tonight’s entry goes to direct blood relations. In this case, my niece, Whitney, in particular and how she helped me on Easter Sunday.

A little background, first. I’m sure I mentioned her and her friend’s reaction when I first did the sponge ball routine for them. They hounded me over and over to “do it again.” Well, we had enough fun that I bought her a magic set for Christmas. Annoyingly enough, I didn’t realize until I got a phone call from my sister, Jennifer, a week later asking for help. Yeah, I picked the one set that didn’t have an instructional DVD to it, so Jen was helping Whitney work through the tricks to compensate for Whitney’s reading level vs. the level of the instructions. (For the record, the next magic set I get for Whitney, and there will be another one, will have a DVD. Plus, I will buy two of them and work through as much as I can before Whitney gets her so I can teach her while we’re together.)

OK, Whitney’s strongest virtue is by no means patience, but if she’s getting into this enough that Jen’s being press-ganged to help her learn, I may have finally hit on my connection with her. I know that her lack of patience will add to her increased frustration when it comes to learning and practicing hours of manipulation, so they’ll need to be easy tricks that build fundamentals. Dammit, though, I’ve got her hooked.

And, I digress.

Whitney’s seen most of my show, though. In the time between Friday night at Lex’s and Sunday, I was able to make a replacement prop for the Reggie routine, so I was able to do it and it did get her surprise and approval. She assisted me with a card trick and then, for giggles, I did a vanishing silk routine.

The Vanishing Silk is pretty standard. In my routine, I use Alexander DeCova’s method, which is different than the most standard vanish. The problem is, I don’t like leaving the silk vanished without some sort of restoration. DeCova has a beautiful routine, but where I like his method, the routine doesn’t completely feel right for me. He’s a master and his routine shows it in the most basic of tricks, but I have to add some stoopid to the whole mix. I want the feeling of magic, but I also want the laughs and the smiles to come along with it.

Well, I had had some ideas, but never really got a good feel for where I wanted the trick to go. I love John Shryock’s plot, but it won’t work on the street. So I had a routine that felt just incomplete, but I performed what I had for Whitney. Bless her, I know I’m by no means the first person to pull a vanished silk out of someone’s ear, and that’s the finish she wanted to see. It was one of the things I considered, but she nailed it into the routine for me.

Yeah, it’s such a little thing, but that little bit of validation for my eight year old niece helped me solve the problem I’ve been trying to solve for so long. Ok, it’s a trick that most magicians know how to do, but it’s fun to do and gets a good reaction. And for any routine I do, no matter how goofy it is, I really do put quite a bit of thought into it. It’s all scripted out, so even when there’s extraneous stuff spewing out of my mouth because I was able to latch onto something going on and fling my limited wit in its direction, I’ve still got a script that I’m ad-libbing against. Hell, it’s what pretty much all the top magicians recommend, and I so know where their coming from even with my experience. So, even a little trick as small and basic as a silk vanish gets quite a bit of thought put into it.

Following a day of Whitney running me through every trick I had with or on me, a walk in my Dad’s woods, and she playing teacher while she gave me spelling tests, getting a five minute hug from her just topped the day before we had to leave.

Yep, I’ve got an eight year old magic adviser, and I’m quite okay with that.

Me and my favorite assistant

Me and my favorite assistant

Personal Performance Review Notes – Shriners Children’s Hospital , St. Louis 15JAN2014 and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Family Fun Day, 26JAN2014

Admittedly, both of these shows were two different types of shows, but in both cases, I learned quite a bit about my act from each show.

Starting with the Children’s Hospital show, I prepped beforehand to keep my act to 12-15 minutes with additional stuff on deck in case I needed to fill a time gap. I kind of learned this from prior experiences, but considering I was performing with Terry Richison, who I highly respect and gotten great advice from.  This time around, my act was scaled back to the Linking Rings, my sponge ball routine, and my Reggie the Rabbit routine.

I’ve been reworking my Linking Rings during the winter months, and I have to admit that watching Dick Stoner’s routine, I had some ideas on more that I wanted to do. It helps that Dick’s routine is not a silent act, which is a break from most versions I see. For the little bit that I had added, it looked like I had a positive response. As opposed to before, because I’m in close enough quarters with my audience, having them handle the rings is not a problem. The only thing that I might want to work on is getting the people more to the front. Don’t know why I did it, but I worked with what I think were a mother and daughter who were at the extreme stage left of the crowd. It’s definitely something I need to work a bit on. In my typical half-circle show, it’s not a problem, but when I’m dealing with an audience where half the group is in wheelchairs or traction frame, it’s something to consider. As I’m working on taking my act to retirement homes, that’s a serious consideration.

My sponge ball routine got the reactions that I love to get, but I need to work on it a bit more, just for my own personal benefit. I want to expand it a bit more but in a way that will translate well whether I’m on stage or busking. I’m back into a bit of research mode, I think, but more will be added when I’m ready.

And now we get to Reggie the Rabbit. Everything technically went well, but I’m going to listen to some of the notes I got from Terry on it. First, I need to remember to display the empty production box more visibly so it’s clearer that the box is empty. Next, in handling Reggie, I need to work on my handling him so I don’t unconsciously handle him the neck (oops) and look like I’m strangling the poor puppet rabbit. I didn’t realize I was doing that, and those unconscious moments are the ones that it’s always good to get feedback on.

Finally, in the other trips I’ve made to the hospital, we’ve never put much of a focus on teaching magic. When David Copperfield put out the guidelines for doing Project Magic, that was to be a focus considering part of this is learning magic as therapy. I think the Impossible Knot that Terry taught was a bit over their heads, but then again, it pushed them in learning the manipulation, so that was probably part of the point. When I go out to the hospital again in April, this is certainly something I’ll keep in mind.

Now, to yesterday’s performances at the JDRF Family Fun Day.

I ended up basically doing what would be a busking grind act, the only difference was, if I didn’t have a crowd, I would reset my show and try to get a group before starting again. I think with busking, there is so much involved with patter and rhythm that it took me about 45 minutes before I felt like I was in the flow of things. It was also at that point that the crowd became a steady flow of people coming in and out from my little area where I had my table and case set up.

Normally, either with a rope or some other sort of boundary marker, I would try to delineate what was my “stage area,” but the kids were pretty up close and personal. When I handed a sponge ball to one child to examine, you can believe that the kid next to them would grab it and check it, too, so I had some crowd management to deal with there. For the stuff I threw in my case and pockets, about the only thing I didn’t do was my Vanishing Silk routine. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been working on my Linking Rings, and I finally got validation for the changes I’ve made. I actually had kids ask me to do them again. That felt like a major score for me. I tend to lead off my routine with the Rings, but it’s kinda always been more for me than for them, and with kids, they’ve been interested, but usually not seemed impressed until the final chain. I finally found a routine that seems to work well for me.

If there was a routine that I did that I am rethinking, it’s probably the Chinese Sticks. I’m still not satisfied with them, and while today in the shower, I did have one of those “ah-ha” moments on one of the things that I think I need to change. I’m still thinking about dropping them in favor of the Ali Bongo Pom-Pom Stick, and for my style of performance, I still think that might be a better way to go.

On a lark, I tossed my Rocky Raccoon into my case after I found out the night before how nicely he fit into a Crown Royal bag. This killed on such a level, I couldn’t believe it. Yeah, I used some of David Williamson’s material, but not really the impersonation parts. I found once I brought out Rocky, I kind of was able to do some improvisational jazz with him. This was some serious fun for me. I don’t care if maybe only some of the parents caught the reference, but my favorite Rocky impression is going to be “…and from ‘Big Trouble in Little China,’ David Lo-Pan.” It makes me giggle, so I’m keeping it. I ended up doing my card routine that I worked out for Reggie the Rabbit, and it worked out to the delighted squeals of the kids, so I think if I’m going to include a rabbit production I’ll use Reggie, otherwise, Rocky is on deck for the routine. I’m pretty sure Rocky’s coming out with me for busking.

If there is a take-away lesson from yesterday, though, it’s back into crowd management. I was at the inner corner of a T-intersection directly on the way to where the dinner was going to be served, so at one point, there was a serious crowd-press. At one point, I pretty was working inches away from the crowd. The kids were pretty grabby, and if I went into my case, they could see inside. I could keep them from grabbing, but they were going to look. The big issue with this was, as soon as some of them saw the Rings, they wanted to see the routine. Kinda hard at this point.  I need less than five seconds to reset the Rings, but that was a hard five seconds to get. Considering my location and the crowd that was moving through, it was difficult to get space, but somehow I still got it. Definitely a lesson in both crowd management and location.

I did end up with one little girl, Anastasia, crying because she said I never chose her to help me with a trick. For the life of me, I thought I had. I know I was interplaying with her quite a bit. Man, that stung a bit, but I’ve seen the hurt looks from kids who were upset from not getting picked to help before with some of the other people I’ve performed with, so I do know that when I work with kids, that’s going to be a possible hazard, but this is the first time it’s happened to me. It may be unavoidable, but my goal is to make the act fun enough that that is a minimal issue and in general, everybody has a good time.

All things considered, that was an exhausting experience, but great overall and it has my juices flowing for what’s to come this year.

Doing the Sponge Balls (photo by Columbus Smith)

Doing the Sponge Balls (photo by Columbus Smith)

Working the Linking Rings (photo by Columbus Smith)

Working the Linking Rings (photo by Columbus Smith)

The Greatest Magician I’ve Ever Known

Two little blackbirds sitting on a hill,
One named Jack,
One named Jill.
Fly away, Jack!
Fly away, Jill!
Come back, Jack!
Come back, Jill!”

This little rhyme and bit of finger manipulation is very old and a variation on an older rhyme you can read about at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_Little_Dickie_Birds. This was really the first bit of magic I ever saw, performed for me and my sister and cousins by my grandfather. As I think about it, it is probably the strongest bit of magic I ever saw, but not because of the complexity of the trick, but rather, because of the fact that I saw something impossible for the first time and it filled me with wonder.

I don’t come from a family of magicians, and as far as I know, this is the only trick my grandfather performed for us, but man, did it kill every time. I’m pretty sure that the other kids cottoned on to what the trick was long before I did. I was kept in wonder until I found it in the first magic book I ever bought and, sadly, once I knew the secret, all the wonder was gone.

I posted a link to a short film called “The Magic Box” (http://jasonstackmagician.com/?p=60) , and when I first watched it,  it took me back to my childhood, watching my grandfather, maybe the kindest man I’ve ever known, do this little trick. It sent us into hysterics as kids, asking how he did it. Given the fact he wouldn’t tell, we’d scream for him to do it again, climbing all over him, trying to find the birds. I was always convinced he somehow hid them behind his ears, even when I watched and didn’t see anything there.

Honestly, as I watched that film, I had tears in my eyes.

My wife and I don’t have kids of our own, but we have nieces and a nephew, compliments of my sister, Jennifer. My nephew is 17 and concerned with teenage things, but the girls are far younger. I am remiss at this point for not performing this trick for them, but I’ve gotten the reaction I want from little Whitney by doing my sponge ball routine. Each time the one sponge ball disappears from my hand and she sees she’s holding not one, but two, she squeals and, barring the fact I won’t tell her how it’s done, holds me hostage until I “do it again, just one more time.”

When I started doing magic and started deciding what tricks I was going to do, I decided that whenever I do the sponge balls, it would be in honor or my grandfather because it’s something that always makes the audience smile and laugh. I didn’t even think about the “Two Little Blackbirds,” but maybe that was niggling around there somewhere I hadn’t looked back in my mind.

I dread the day when I lose my grandfather. To me, he is the Greatest Magician I’ve Ever Known. And all because of one trick, maybe the only trick he knew. To me, though, it made all the difference.

I love you, Grandpa.

My Grandpa, Willet Schaefer, surrounded by his grandsons and great grandsons.

My Grandpa, Willet Schaefer, surrounded by his grandsons and great grandsons. Christmas 2012

Accessibility in the Magic Community

One of the cool things I’ve found in the magic community in the short time I’ve been involved is how accessible the top-ranking guys generally are to those of us in the lower ranks. There’s something to the name of one of the major organizations, the International Brotherhood of Magicians, which rings true. Admittedly, the name doesn’t reflect the number of women in the group, which is admittedly small, but it does reflect the camaraderie within the ranks.

I’m not saying I’ll have David Copperfield on my speed-dial any time soon, but in general, I’ve found that, as time and schedules allow, the top guys are willing to respond to emails within a reasonable time and help if you have questions.

Yeah, there are a slew of egos involved, but you have to have a good amount of that to perform this stuff in front of a crowd. And face it, as far as the performing arts are concerned, magicians are held in regard not that far above street mimes. I mean, people know our art is fooling them and messing with their perceptions, so it does take a bit of ego to step out there and perform.

But, unlike other areas of the performing arts, like with actors or musicians, the top people are willing to give time to those of us who are trying to chew our way up.

In a prior post, I mentioned the warm welcomes I received when I first came to the local meetings, in particular by Harry Monti and Dan Todd, but it didn’t just end with those guys. It started with them. Within a short time, I was welcomed in by a lot of the members and was encouraged to keep learning, practicing, and performing in order to get better. Within the first meeting or two, I was invited to hang out after the meetings with this group of friends in arms and meet up on Saturday afternoons for lunch and to hang out at their informal Round Table meetings.

As I listened to the conversations flying around me, I kept noticing that people talked about various other top stage magicians as though friends. And not just one or two names, but a lot of them.

You know, there is quite a bit of truth in that. I’ve been only to one convention so far, and that was due to it being in St. Louis, truth be told, but in that time, I got to meet and talk with the top magicians who were there, and it was more than just in the sense of meet and greet and shuffle along. Now, I was working the convention and was working for them, so I may have had additional exposure, but I also know that these guys were in the dealer room, in the lounge area and just hanging out with everybody else.

At other conventions, it’s pretty much the same. And most of the performers come through doing lectures, where, once again, they’re accessible and generally happy to chat, exchange stories, give advice, and just generally socialize.

It’s great knowing that there is a camaraderie between the artists and performers and hobbyists. I may not be hanging with the highest echelon of the entertainment industry (David Copperfield, aside), but I think I’m definitely in the coolest.

(Then again, I wear a bow tie and either a derby or Panama hat, so my idea of cool might be a bit skewed from everyone else’s.)

Round Table, sometime in June 2013

Just one of the collections of friends getting together at the weekly Saturday Round Table

My Backstory, Part 2, and Finally Getting Around to Why I’m Writing This Blog

Last November (in the event that this blog lasts long enough, I mean in 2012), my wife and I ventured into Gibbol’s. Being from Ft. Wayne, IN, she had never been there, though she had taken me to Stoner’s Funstore, which we later found Gibbol’s is modeled off of, as the owners of the two stores are related. Suddenly, I found myself immersed in magic again. The seal was broken. I walked out with a new Hot Rod set and another bit of close-up magic closely related, and she was entranced with a prop item for doing an Ambitious Card routine. Okay, why they recommended that to her as something to start off with, I have no idea, seeing how there’s an awful lot of fundamental work that needs to be learned before doing it, but that’s a whole different story. She was happy with her item, so that was all that mattered.

On my way out, I grabbed a card for the local Society of American Magicians (S.A.M.) chapter, Assembly 8, and went to their website as soon as I got home. This led me to a link to the local International Brother of Magicians (I.B.M.) chapter, Ring 1, website and I found out about a lecture Ring 1 was hosting given by Dan Fleschman, a local magician who has been working the restaurant scene in Colorado. We misunderstood who was all invited to the lecture and ended up crashing. While we were there, the first person to approach me was Harry Monti. Harry (and I’ll probably rave a bit more about this man, later. Hell, it’s not just likely, but more like inevitable) was warm in welcoming me in, and had I known more about him at the time, I would have probably been way too much of a fanboy and gotten flustered. But, as it was, we just talked together like two fans of magic. Combine that with the few other new people I met, I felt welcomed in and was looking forward to my first meeting with Assembly 8, which was, due to the way the calendar fell, the next night. Now, if anything, Dan’s lecture was pretty inspiring to me.

Now, for those who aren’t part of the magic scene, when guest lecturers come in, typically the lecturers are not just magicians who do a series of tricks, but they’re working performers. Most of the time, they’re selling tricks and lecture notes, but they also give advice from their perspective about working both from a technical and performance perspective. Most of the advice you’ll find in books or on video, but seeing it life with the chance to do some Q & A brings it all to the forefront and you see it in a very practical way. Dan’s lecture was no different, and seeing this all in practice just pulled me in deeper. I already had the magic bug, but now I was getting hooked deeper.

So, now the next night, I headed to my first Assembly 8 meeting. The tone here was a lot different. After the business meeting portion of things, we got into magic. At that point, basically there was a theme for the evening and anybody who wanted to perform that night could. I probably saw as many tricks backfire as worked that night and found a new appreciation with this group. Even if you went up and the trick failed, the group was with you. They might laugh, but they have all been there, so they are laughing with you. I got a good sense that this is a nurturing group. The majority of the members (and this applies to both clubs, which share a large amount of the same members) are hobbyists. There’s a smaller group of semi-pros who still keep day jobs and a handful of pros that do this stuff as their sole income. Once again, I saw Harry, but this time, the warmest welcome was from the assembly’s Vice President, Dan Todd. Like me, he works in databases and we hit it off. Seriously, Dan’s one of the nicest guys you’ll meet and any organization that has him as a representative has a serious asset.

What I found at that meeting, and later when I went to a regular Ring 1 meeting, was a group of people who had, in general, been doing this a long time and loved to help build new people up. In a future blog post, I’ll discuss what I see as the differences between what the two local clubs offer their members, but for now, I’ll just say I’m now a proud member of both clubs and their respective national organizations, and the past ten months dealing with these people has been a great source of joy for me.

What I can finally get to, though, is what I’ll probably discuss the most in this blog (or at least for a while in the beginning).

When I toyed around with magic as a kid, I learned a few tricks and worked the hell out of them. In the case of the Hot Rod, I had the moves down pat, but then, it really is an introductory trick into this stuff. Now I’m older and pretty much starting out again, I see so much available out there. Add in the availability of tricks, books, videos, etc., that the Internet makes available, and it becomes too easy to get caught up in buying the new shiny or learning a new move just enough before getting distracted by the next in a never-ending line-up.

In just the ten months I’ve been doing this, now, I’ve started trying my hand at busking magic and also competed in my first competition. (I didn’t place, but the experience was worth it!) What I found in this time, though, was that there’s so much out there available, but the stuff that I see working best, either for me or for the performances I watch, works because of a lot of fundamentals that aren’t necessarily pushed by the vendors, even though, when you watch the lectures or read articles by the pros, are absolutely necessary for the best work. Uh, that is why they’re called fundamentals, after all.

I’ve started back in with a magic course that was offered as a correspondence course in 1928, The Tarbell Course in Magic. I’m starting back with the course doing it as it was originally intended. As it was a correspondence course, you had seven to ten days between the arrival of each new lesson. Now, in 1941, the course was restructured as a set of books that is a serious library of magic, and I’ve got those, also. The beauty of the original course, though, is that the lessons and the amount of time given for each lesson make a pretty solid base for all sorts of magic as you develop the methods and sleight of hand and performance skills.

As I’m writing this, I’m into lesson four, and intend to proceed through the 61 originally intended weeks developing my skill. I’m probably going to discuss a good amount of what I find along the way, but for those who aren’t part of the magic community, I’m going to try to do this without giving anything away. A couple of reasons for this. First, I’m not going to give any of the secrets away because as a magician, that’s just bad form. Secondly, I find that sometimes if I know how something is done, some of the mystique is lost, and I don’t want to take that away from anybody else. I still like to be amazed, and I like it when the people around me still have that “Wow” moment.

So, now I’ve got the initial preliminaries to this blog out of the way, I’m ready to start focusing on the next topics. Sorry that I didn’t take the short way around to get here, but if you’ve ever talked with me, you’ll know that’s typical of me.

My Backstory – Part 1

Well, this is the first post, and welcome to it.  I’ll admit, I’m beginning this blog before this site’s theme is complete, and parts of it I like so far, and parts need either to be reworked or scrapped and replaced with something else.

Kinda like my act right now.

Now, initially, I expect that most of the people who might read this blog are people I know or have met along my way through life. Probably the most traffic will be from announcing the blog posts on Facebook or Google+, so we’re talking mostly friends. In the case of those who I’ve friended after meeting them either at magic club meetings or the one magic convention I’ve been to, the 2013 Midwest Magic Jubilee, maybe this will keep me from being compelled to tell my life’s story and we can just talk about the beautiful now.

For this blog, I’ll talk mainly about the magic world, what I observe in it, and my own place in it. I’m going to attempt to discuss without giving anything away to those who don’t perform. First, because that’s kinda what we try not to do, although there’s plenty on YouTube that can give most secrets away. Secondly, because even as my wife learned, sometimes it’s better not to know so you can just enjoy the routine. Even when you can admire the skill of some sleight of hand, knowing sometimes can remove you away from some of the “Wow” moments that you get when you just don’t know how it’s done.

As I’m writing this, the photo (admittedly, a bit manipulated in GIMP) in the banner is of Burg (Castle) Frankenstein. It’s a bit symbolic for what I’m doing in magic and learning to perform. I’m assembling bits and pieces from those that came before me to try to make my own creature. Like learning to draw, you start out by tracing other peoples’ work before you start drawing freehand.

I’ve loved magic ever since I saw Doug Henning on TV as a kid. The first magic trick I ever owned would have either been one of the Adam’s magic tricks sold on a rack at a Kay-Bee Toys (man, the hours of fun I had with “Smoke From Your Fingertips”) or the Goofy Card Magic set my Aunt Marti bought me, where I learned my first card trick.

Growing up in Centralia, IL didn’t leave me with many options to learn more magic, and it some of the trips later on, I picked up a couple of magic books and prior to getting the “magic bug” as my mid-life crisis, the only time I performed anything that could be, even by the shakiest of definitions, was on a rainy day to my very patient grandparents. Man, what love and patience they had. I think I may have done a torn and restored cigarette paper trick and “Thieves and Sheep,” but what else I submitted them to is lost to my memory.

My first trip to an actual magic shop was in high school when my friend, Kad Day, took me with him to Gibbol’s in St. Louis. I ended up with a couple of sponge ball tricks and my first Hot Rod. The store magician, Bob Cole, was great in getting me excited in the little bit of sleight of hand that he showed me, but distance to St. Louis kept me from getting too caught up (not to mention all the hormones that ruled my life, then). Being involved with theater, there were plenty of other things to provide that rush that comes with performing on stage, so theater also took the foreground.

And so, despite the number of times I told myself I should make a trip to Gibbol’s and revisit that rush of learning some new (to me) magic, I didn’t go back for many years.

I’ll end this little overview here and continue in the next post. I should get a bit more to the point of where my intent is to go with this blog then. Yeah, I know that you should put the thesis statement in the beginning, and I have done that to a certain extent, but maybe it’ll be a bit clearer then.