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They aren’t required to register like sex offenders. In fact, you pass them on the street every day and never know it. Some hold public office and others may be beloved celebrities. You may well even be related to one. After all, once reformed, there is nothing specific to set them apart, no tattoo or scar. It’s just something they did. Shit happens. I know, because I myself was once a magician.
It was the sixth grade and my friend Phillip McCane was about the coolest kid I knew – handsome, self-assured, and accomplished.1 To top it off he was already making money as a magician. He even had business cards printed with his stage name, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” So when he pulled out a mail order magic catalog one morning at school, I eagerly pushed aside my self-guided work on pie-shape fractions (Thank you, Maria Montessori!) and began to devour the pages. Now, I had long coveted the chazerie I saw on the back covers of Marvel comic books and hawked on WGN Channel 9 by TV Magic’s Marshall Brodien2, but the stuff in this catalog was on a whole other level. Sure, there were some simple novelty gags: disappearing ink and the old cup and ball trick. But as I flipped through I discovered wands that made flowers bloom, canes that vanished in a cloud of silk scarves, and a golden chalice that would miraculously fill with liquid of any color in the rainbow, over and over again. There were even full-sized stage rigs involving levitation, multiplication, and death-defying escape. Aside from these breathlessly described offerings, there was a a host of magical accoutrement – flash paper, “life-like” fake thumb tips, paper flowers, and magic books. I wanted it all. And why not? The descriptions promised easy-to-follow instructions and instant success. Within minutes I would be conjuring like Houdini. I quivered with anticipation of my future fame.
I placed an order under Phillip’s guidance as soon as I could. I’d start simple with some close-up illusions (if I was going to do this right I would need to use the correct terminology, as every serious magician knows that “tricks” are for whores and Halloween). He put me down for some multiplying balls, the Miracle Coin, and the old standby, interlocking silver rings. Once they arrived I set to work, only to make a bitter realization: “instant success,” my ass, this crap was hard! I lacked dexterity, I lacked finesse. I had no patter. There was clearly a long road ahead. Normally this would be enough for me to dump everything on the floor and head directly to the nearest TV for succor. But instead, perhaps for the first time in my life, I applied myself with some seriousness.3
It wasn’t long before I was obsessive about the whole thing.4 I dug out a magic set I had ignored from a previous birthday (no doubt in favor of some less demanding superhero action figures) and mined what I felt was the most impressive material. I also began to bone up on the master practitioners, learning that Houdini got his name from the great 19th Century French conjurer, Robert Houdin, and that early magic practice had religious roots with Hindu fakirs. You know, shit no one else my age cared about. Hell, it should have been a red flag that one of the top names in the business at the time was the bucktoothed and bedazzled Doug Henning, who touted his show as a metaphor for Transcendentalism. Oy vey. But let’s remember that at the heart of it all was the allure of being amazing. What could be more interesting than someone who could do something you couldn’t explain? My father and mother were both remarkably encouraging, no doubt delighted that I showed interest in something that didn’t involve a cathode ray tube. So they indulged me. My mother schlepped me all the way to the source of one of the best catalogs, a stock-crowded storefront on Chicago’s north side called Magic, Inc. Closer to home was the terrific magic counter at Marshall Field’s.5 I can still picture the poor bastard who manned it: heavyset and dour, his thinning hair heavily Brylcreemed above a sweaty face that sat behind thick horn-rimmed glasses. He clearly hated kids and was constantly admonishing some brat to not touch the merchandise. But he lit up when demonstrating the wares for even the smallest crowd. Looking back, I imagine he was someone who never made the big time, so rather than subject himself to the kid’s party circuit, he fell back on the steady work that Field’s provided him. In other words, I was blissfully unaware that I was looking at what could well have been my future if I continued down this path.
Resolute, my short-term goal was clear: like Phillip, I wanted to turn magic into cash. After making some additional acquisitions and putting in a bit more practice, I figured I had a solid 20 minutes of material. I could pad that with some patter and audience interaction and – abra-ca-fucking-dabra – I was good to go. My act well in hand, I needed a professional name. “The Magician” was definitive, but seemed a little obvious. So I landed on the very next thing that came to my head, “The Wizard.” I felt it had a whiff of the exotic. Taking another cue from Philip, I had it printed on business cards and then worked up a flyer that I hung in the front hall of my school. It was now just a matter of time.
A few weeks later someone called our house asking for me. It was a mother who had been referred by the already engaged Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Was I available for her son’s birthday party the following week? Oh, yes? We worked out the terms and I wrote down the details. Hanging up the phone my head almost exploded with the realization that I was going pro.
1Phillip was also the driving force behind what may well have been the only gang to roam the halls of Ancona Montessori: the Falcons. An homage to Fonzi’s eponymous gang on Happy Days, it consisted of Phillip, myself, Paul Farachi, Alex Gordon, and Herman Torry. While a short-lived endeavor, we lasted long enough to compose a self-laudatory poem that we recited during share time with the rest of the grouped fifth and sixth grade classes. I can still remember the lines, “The Falcons are cool./The Falcons are great./When we got to a party/We are very rarely late.” We may have been streetwise, tough and exclusionary, but that didn’t mean we didn’t have some semblance of manners. Membership was dissolved when parents of other kids complained. Go Back To Reading
2Marshall Brodien loomed large in my childhood, not only as a nimble-fingered pitchman, but as Wizzo the Wizard on Bozo’s Circus, a role that relegated him to that most loathed segment of the population for me: clowns. But we will tackle that topic anon. Go Back To Reading
3Years earlier I had already given up the piano after not mastering it in the first lesson and had similar success with the study of ballet. That didn’t keep me from feeling it was unfair that I was left out of my siblings’ subsequent dance recital, which should give you some idea of how fucked up my conception of how life works is. Go Back To Reading
4As was the case with secret girl crushes a couple of years later. And then record collecting a couple of years after that. And now with my mortgage. Go Back To Reading
5This was back when there was almost an entire floor devoted to toys at Field’s. Among the wonders on display was an alcove of Steiff animals of all species and size, a robust offering of Corgi die cast cars, and a vast scale model landscape navigated by a mind-blowing electric train. If provided access to a time machine today, that floor would be my first stop. No fucking question. Go Back To Reading
Special thanks to Paul Farachi, Pamela Monk and Gabriel Sheridan for being fact-checking cuzes.