Saturday, March 20, 2010

My magic biography, and why it matters

As a magician, I have been extremely lucky throughout my life. I first got into magic while living overseas, when my dad bought me a magic set as a gift. Shortly thereafter, on a return visit to the U.S. he stopped into Tannen's and picked up a bunch of starter tricks on their recommendation, tricks which just happened to include two very good effects (Hot Rod & Svengali Deck) and one flat-out masterpiece (Invisible Deck). More trips back to the U.S., and more visits to Tannen's and some other magic shops, stocked my drawers with enough material that I was able to start doing kid shows at the ripe old age of 10 or so. The following year, I met Doug Henning backstage at The Magic Show and got a mention in the New York Times.

When I moved back to the Washington DC area in 1977, I was delighted to find a magical co-conspirator named Greg living right down the street from me. We began hanging around Al’s Magic Shop, which (lucky me!) turned out to be one of the greatest magic shops in the nation. We made ourselves enough of a pest that Al soon hired us as weekend demonstrators; throughout my junior high and high school years I attended the parallel school of Al’s Magic, where my teachers included not only Al and the other talented folks who worked there but also people like Tim Conover, Harvey Rosenthal, Larry Davidson, Jack Birnman, Scotty York, Bob Kohler, and David Williamson. In our spare time, Greg and I worked at Dream Wizards, a legendary D&D supply place (never my thing) with a separate magic section, right when they were releasing the brilliant John Kennedy’s first great effects – Floating Bill (which kick-started the IT craze), Impossible Matrix and his Card Stab routine. I still remember having throwing card battles in the parking lot with a 14-year-old Alain Nu.

My affiliation with Al's was fortuitous for another reason as well; my downtime was inevitably spent perusing the ample “library” Al called his stock, and working on new material with my colleagues and magical friends who stopped by the shop. I bought plenty of books in those days, too; my personal library contains some of the classic books of the day (Lorayne, Ammar, and a lot of Kaufman titles). But my great blessing was in the unusual combination of access to material, access to great minds and a place to hone my craft day in and day out.

In my high school years, Bob Sheets and Steve Spill opened up the Brook Farm Inn of Magic in my neighborhood, so naturally I used to hang out there and watch lots of great magic. Not only did I see their excellent regular dinner show on several occasions, I also caught Ricky Jay’s one-man show there long before Jay became a darling of the David Mamet/NY theater/film intelligentsia crowd. In short, the Washington, DC area was a mecca for great magicians in the late 70s and early 80s, and I was lucky enough to become plugged into the zeitgeist and to mine a particularly rich vein of talent.

These same years, my family would vacation in Sarasota, Florida where, (synchronicity, anyone?) there happened to be an excellent magic-themed restaurant called The Magic Moment (sadly, it closed in 1991). I showed up one day, auditioned for owner Chris Moore, and wound up with a regular Christmas season gig table-hopping alongside some excellent pros, including the very gentlemanly Paul Cummins.

By the time I graduated college and moved to L.A., I had put in my 10,000 hours. I promptly became a regular at the Magic Castle, performing in the close-up room at least once a year. I hung out there 2 or 3 times a week for 6 years, doing a ton of magic around the Castle for delighted overflow crowds, and also became a regular denizen of the extensive Castle library. During this time, the list of colleagues and mentors I hung out with is almost embarrassingly extravagant: Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller, Bruce Cervon, Larry Jennings, Billy McComb, Bob Jardine, Bill Goodwyn, Ray Cosby, Alfonso, T.A. Waters, Franz Harary, John Carney, Kevin James, Nicholas Knight, Tony Clark, Christopher Hart, Mickey O'Connor, Dan Sylvester, Joe Monte, Paul Harris, Jerry Andrus…

I left LA to wander Europe and ended up spending two and a half years in Prague, that most magical of cities. In that time, I became a mini-celebrity in the Praha magic scene, one of the only really top notch close-up performers in the area (another being my good friend Petr Kasnar). I hung out with the magic club (which consisted of a lot of drinking, except I don't drink), lectured at their conventions, and just generally enjoyed my status as the King of the Lilliputians.

Back in the U.S., I spent a couple years in the DC area largely out of magic (what with a wife and a new baby). I still checked in with Al's now and then, and I may have even filled in behind the counters once or twice. A move to Chicago put me in touch with a whole new group centered around the regular Saturday gathering at another legendary shop, Magic Inc., where the great Jay Marshall held forth in all his bawdy glory. I was never able to hang out there as often as I would have liked but I did nevertheless make one more talented magical friend and, all too briefly, another great friend, the husband and co-conspirator of a delightful puppeteer (R.I.P. Lon).

A move to Silicon Valley put me in touch with my latest, perhaps greatest magical community, one blessed with a disproportionate number of extremely talented young magicians (a post-David Blaine generation, you might say). I am honored to consider myself something of a mentor to one or two of them, and just as thrilled to consider every one of them my teachers as well. Examples of these rising young talents are Chris "Orbit" Brown, about whom I wrote this;, a hyper-talented contact juggler named Chris Bruner, who also happens to be one of the most naturally gifted close-up artists I've seen in a long time; Michael Feldman, who's now a semi-regular performer at Jamy Ian Swiss' Monday Night Magic; Theron Schaub; Josh Logan; the becoming-legendary Ricky Smith; Brian Hart; and my good friend John Bodine, whose reputation is beginning to precede him. This is also the community that, slightly before I got there, birthed the extraordinary Buck Twins.

Within this same amazing community, I have a bunch of magical friends roughly my own age and generation, including people like Kim Silverman, another magician of fast-growing reputation who I'm pretty certain does the best versions of Ninja Rings and Ring on Cord done by anyone, anywhere; Kent Gunn, who has done some truly pioneering work on the Cups and Balls; Scott Emo of Sacred fame; and Will Chandler, proprietor of our own Magic Castle North, The Magic Garage.

The point of this brief biography is that I have been extremely lucky to find myself immersed in such a diverse series of magical communities and have always been honored to be both the giver and receiver of magical wisdom. I have been the recipient and beneficiary of an extraordinary amount of generosity and knowledge, freely given by mentors and peers. Magic, like most arts, grows through this free exchange. The art of magic has evolved enormously in the past dozen or so years for reasons I will go into in my next post, but the upshot is that all the power in the art, all the potential and wonder, springs from the open sharing that governs this and any other art. Magic grows when creative people give freely of their time and energy.

Next: Why it matters, or The Elephant in the Room


Al Cohen said...

Hi Jonathan
It was a real treat reading your blog. You were always one of my favorite demonstrators at the shop. I think we learned a lot from each other.
Your second article is really frightening but that's the future. We have to live with it. As a performer, I don't think one has to worry too much. Alway remember, presentation is the thing. They can't put that on paper. (yet)
Always nice to hear from you so do keep in touch.
My very best, Al

PeaceLove said...

Gosh, thanks...humbled...

Al, you were one of my greatest magic mentors, a living example of "presentation is the thing."