In the Lions’ den

While most performers have a lot in common with each other, magicians are in a class of their own.

Let’s say you’re a vocalist giving a recital and you hit the wrong note. If your audience notices, it’s no big deal. They’ll give you a pass, and you’re still a singer.

Or how about if you’re a brain surgeon and, in the midst of a delicate procedure, you suddenly sneeze and jerk your hand? And in the process you slash through enough grey matter to completely sever the concopeal lobe from the rendororyex, which in turn severed the patient from this mortal coil. Megabummer, dude, but that’s what malpractice insurance is all about. Besides, you’re still a surgeon (maybe not a premier one, but a surgeon nonetheless).

Now let’s assume you’re a magician. You’re onstage, wowing the multitudes when, in the middle of your last trick, due to moist palms, you drop a prop and everyone immediately knows how the trick is done. Guess what? I’ll tell you: You’re no longer a magician — just a schmuck in a tux.

Am I being too harsh? Not at all. Magic is unlike every other performing art, and magicians are unlike other performers — except faith healers, clairvoyants, weight-loss gurus and similar hustlers. The magician’s stock in trade is deception, so their methods are secret and what you see is definitely not what you get.

The secret is everything. In fact, revealing a secret to an outsider calls for immediate and permanent expulsion from all magic societies.

So now that you have an idea how and why magicians are so guarded about their secrets, you might understand why flawless performance is vital to us. This might also let you know why cloaca-clenching fear is a given for any magician who suffers from stage fright — like me.

I don’t know why I have stage fright; I only know I’ll never get rid of it. All I can do is not let it paralyze me. Audiences are more or less amenable, and of course the more amenable ones tend to diminish my stage fright. The audience for my first gig was almost enough to make me burn my top hat and take up stamp collecting instead.

An offer I was too naive to refuse

It was almost 40 years ago, and the setting was the Algonquin Restaurant (where the Humane Society is now). I think it was a Thursday, and I was there to be the star attraction for the Lions Club weekly meeting-cum-cocktail party.

How did I get there? The same way every guest of honor at any service club does — I was asked by a member of the club, a guy I worked with named Trowbridge Harris. For years, I’d been doing magic for my friends, informally, maybe at a bar or a diner or, in Trow’s case, during breaks at work, but I had no plans to actually do it in front of a group. Trow changed all that.

One day he sidled up to me and, dispensing with the usual pleasantries, said, “So, how’d ya like to do a magic show for the Lions Club? You’ve gotten really good at it, and I know they’d love it.”

I was completely taken aback. I was also flattered. So out of the goodness of my heart, not to mention the vastness of my ego, I agreed.

Never having done a show before, I had no idea what to expect. And good thing I didn’t, or I either would’ve canceled the gig or started eating Valium for breakfast.

Today, service organizations hold their meetings at the break of dawn, so they can then greet their business day refreshed and renewed and all that. But in the Good Old Days, they knew how to hold a meeting. It was in the early evening, and they all showed up an hour early to have a nice stiff drinkie or two or three. So when I got in the Algonquin and was setting up my stuff, the boys (and they were all boys — like Tubby’s clubhouse, no girls were allowed) were all bellied up to the bar.

After I had everything arranged on my table in the dining room, I went in to join them.

I was not only young, I was also pretty naive. I thought I was there because Trow had vetted me as The Second Coming of Houdini. I didn’t understand the selection process for guests of honor/speakers with those groups. Every week it’s one member’s job to find a speaker. Who they get is irrelevant, just as long as someone shows up and fills the allotted slot. It could be an entertainer, a scholar or an explorer, or if none of them are available, then the village idiot or some kid showing slides of his pet rooster at the Malone fair will do. This leads to the clubs’ members having expectations that might charitably be called “diminished.”

So my rep as a stellar performer was not only unknown to the boys; they didn’t give a tiddly-doo about it. Yeah, sure, I was going to do magic, and they were gonna watch it. But they were less than thrilled about it, for sure.

However, what they were thrilled about was bustin’ my hump. In all fairness, I’m sure they didn’t think they were being abrasive, so much as just givin’ me a good ole-fashioned jostling. But jostling to them was unnerving to me. And remember what I said about me and stage fright? My nerves were already shot before I ever pulled in the parking lot.

Finally, I made a decision: If they kept up the banter during the show, I’d do a trick or two and then stop. Then I’d tell them that obviously they could entertain each other better than I could, so I’d leave them to do just that. Since I worked with small props that I carried in a case, I could pack all my stuff and be out the door before they even realized it. That alone got me through the cocktail hour and dinner and on center stage.

Smoke but no mirrors

As I said, it was my first gig, but it wasn’t like I hadn’t planned my bits and practiced them endlessly. I also knew the first trick is the most important one and everything hinges on it. The sad truth is almost no one watches magic for magic’s sake. Nope, they only want to catch the magician. So they follow every move with total intensity. Then if they get fooled, they relax the scrutiny, think the magician’s smarter than they are, and start to enjoy the show.

Knowing that, I figured I had a solid opener.

I had my table covered with a sheet and I told them I wanted to talk a little before I began the show. And what I wanted to talk about was smoking.

At that point, Ray LaRose yelled out, “Don’t tell me you’re gonna tell me to quit smoking.”

“Oh no,” I said. “I’d never consider interfering with your right to kill yourself.”

That got a laugh from them, and I figured a point or two for me.

“No,” I said. “I know you guys do all kinds of service. Well, I used to smoke, but I quit, and I’d like to show you how I did it. That’s all.”

It seemed reasonable, and I got a bunch of nods. It didn’t seem like a set-up, but of course it was.

Next, I borrowed a handkerchief from one of the guys and a lit cigarette from another (Jerry Gillmett, as I recall).

I held the handkerchief in one hand, the cigarette in the other, and then, in the slowest of slow motions, I pushed the cigarette into the handkerchief and ground it out in there. Then, as slowly as I’d pushed the cigarette in, I pulled my hand out. And after that, I held up the handkerchief, showing first one side, then the other.

And lo and behold! No cigarette, no scorch marks on the handkerchief, no clue among the audience. And The Boy Wonder had ’em in the palm of his hand — then, and for the rest of the gig.

That gig, and the start of my illustrious stage career, could not have started off worse. It also could not have ended better.

One of the more popular “quotes” from the Bible is, “and the lion will lie down with the lamb.” It’s from Isaiah and is rarely quoted accurately. So essentially, while most people understand the gist of the quote, they don’t know the quote itself. They also don’t know exactly who wrote it.

I don’t know who wrote it, either, but I do know this about him: If he was a magician, his first gig was not at the Saranac Lake Lions Club.