Back in the day, I was one of the 100% of kids who, for at least a minute or two, wanted to be a magician, or at least do a magic trick. We had a couple of cheesy tricks from the bottom of cereal boxes or a magic set gift box. I remember my older sister being the one who attempted to put together a whole show (I doubt I was even allowed the assistant role, I think I collected the tickets and introduced her.) I was more determined to master some slight of hand involving a deck of cards, though it was only after months of practice that I could even manage to cut a deck with one hand. My future career as a dealer in Vegas was doomed so I doubled down on my engineering studies.
A few weeks ago, I went to visit my sister in Washington and, while there, we met a new associate of hers who is a bona fide professional magician. After a full day of just making conversation and getting to know him and his wife a bit, and hearing how they currently work mostly with an educational, anti-bullying program (Magic and the Golden Rule), and us being all nonchalant, his wife asked, “Wouldn’t you like to see Steffan do some magic?” The sister and I immediately replied, “Well, of course!! We just didn’t think it was polite to ask…kind of like asking a dentist friend over for dinner and then asking him to examine your sore tooth.” My niece had gone to bed early that night, so Steffan said he’d do something in the morning after breakfast when everyone was around.
So a couple of new decks of cards accompanied him to breakfast and, needless to say, the three of us were spellbound. And it’s not that he put on a new persona, but it was so interesting for me to see that his banter and presentation were a huge part of the act. The sleight of hand was jaw dropping to we three who haven’t ever seen anything that good, that close up, but when I tried to make some “intelligent” comment or observation, he would just take my attitude and agree with it and then spin it out into something more amazing. I think I played into his routine even more that the niece (the 28ish year old niece mind you) who was just dumbfounded. Later in the day, unbidden, when we were all standing on a beach in a state park, he pulled five $1 bills out of his pocket and turned them into five $100 bills. The niece was questioning whether it would be legal for him to spend them. I was questioning his sanity in carrying around $500 dollars. There was certainly no chance we could ever figure out how he did it.
Somewhere between the “I can read your mind and tell you what card you picked” and the “this is how to always win at poker,” the conversation took a bookish turn and Steffan recommend HIDING THE ELEPHANT: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear by Jim Steinmeyer. I just finished it the other night and, wow, what a great book.
It’s mostly the story of how magic became popular, focusing on the golden age of magic which ran from the later half of the 1800s thru the 1930s. Steinmeyer doesn’t call himself a magician, but he is a master illusion designer and also a student of the history of the magic. Does he give away secrets? No, not really, Does he explain how some illusions work? Definitely. And he does an excellent job of conveying how important the act and the show and the magician’s performance are to convincing the audience that magic is really happening before their eyes. In Steinmeyer’s own words, “The story of Hiding the Elephant is a small slice of magic’s history, the story of optical conjuring, and how a series of ingenious magicians and curious characters developed their art by refining, inventing, and adapting.”
Early magic “tricks” were often presented as scientific accomplishments at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in London. Later, the highest quality magic in London was worked into acts with plots and story lines while lesser magicians toured at English music halls and on the American vaudeville circuit.
Steinmeyer briefly touches on the effect that TV has had on magic, and the grand scale of so much of today’s magic. I have to agree with him when he says,”Ultimately, there’s no substitute for sitting with a group of people, just several feet away from a really skilled magician, agreeing to surrender a measured amount of logic, being led through some fascinating impossibility, watching closely.”
Best of all, Steinmeyer weaves it all into a well-written narrative. It was a joy to read and, yes, even more so now, I do believe in magic.