After Tom’s appear­ance on our show regard­ing magic and his mag­i­cal career we had so many lis­tener ques­tions come flood­ing in that we didnt even get to half of them.  Tom was gra­cious enough to answer the remain­ing ques­tions we’d col­lected by email.  Here are his responses:


First, let me thank your lis­ten­ers for tun­ing in to lis­ten to my bab­blings. Their inquiries are really insight­ful, and they run the gamut from ques­tions about the­ory to performance.

What are your thoughts on men­tal­ists? Are they con­sid­ered magicians?

Whether you believe that men­tal­ists have real pow­ers or are doing illu­sions depends upon whether or not you’re a magi­cian. The term “men­tal­ist” is magician’s jar­gon and was cre­ated to dif­fer­en­ti­ate the per­form­ers from actual psy­chics and mind reader. “Men­tal­ism” is a per­for­mance art in which prac­ti­tion­ers, known as “men­tal­ists,” appear to have spe­cial men­tal abil­i­ties, includ­ing var­i­ous forms of mind-reading (such pre­mo­ni­tion, clair­voy­ance, pre­cog­ni­tion, telepa­thy), mind con­trol, and unusual phys­i­cal phe­nom­ena such as psy­choki­ne­sis and telekine­sis. Some also per­form the allied fields of hyp­no­sis or being a spirit medium. But bot­tom line: men­tal­ists are psy­chic entertainers.

Who his­tor­i­cally was your favorite magician?

I hate to name a cliché, but Harry Hou­dini, both as an enter­tainer and a self-promoter, is end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing. Just when you think you’ve heard every story there is about him, you find out a new tid­bit that makes you reeval­u­ate all you know.

Is there any eti­quette in using bought tricks? Do you have to cus­tomize them?

There’s noth­ing wrong with per­form­ing a trick right out of the box, exactly as the instruc­tions are writ­ten and using the sug­gested pat­ter that comes with it. For exam­ple, part-time pro magi­cian Gene Ander­son invented and pub­lished the method for the most pop­u­lar con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of rip­ping a news­pa­per to shreds and restor­ing it. When Doug Hen­ning did the trick on Broad­way in “The Magic Show” in 1974, he per­formed Anderson’s rou­tine word-for-word. As do I today. I’ve seen other pre­sen­ta­tions for the trick: they were dif­fer­ent, but none have bet­tered Gene’s orig­i­nal. Ide­ally, how­ever, magi­cians should come up with a new “take” on stan­dard effects to make them unique. When an audi­ence hears a singer per­form “Over the Rain­bow,” they want to hear the per­former bring some­thing fresh to the Judy Gar­land clas­sic. Magi­cians often put their stamp on mar­keted effects with their pat­ter (the words magi­cian say while per­form­ing) or by adding back­ground music. Some change the entire premise of the trick. As an exam­ple, there’s a magi­cians’ stan­dard that uses three dif­fer­ent lengths of rope. The magi­cians then stretches the ropes to become the same length. The trick’s orig­i­nal pat­ter was about a math­e­mat­ics teacher who became obsessed with the geo­met­ric prin­ci­ple that all par­al­lel lines are equal if stretched to infin­ity. The trick was mar­keted under the name “The Professor’s Night­mare.” Although the trick is still sold with that nae, very few (if any) magi­cians still the title as the pre­fer for their routines.

Is “Trick poach­ing” a com­mon thing? Do you have to worry about some­one steal­ing an orig­i­nal trick?

Unfor­tu­nately, yes, theft in magic is a com­mon prac­tice, and there’s very lit­tle that can be done about it. It’s next to impos­si­ble to patent the method of an illu­sion or copy­right its pre­sen­ta­tion, and even if either one is secured, they’re dif­fi­cult (and expen­sive) to defend in a court of law. A few magi­cians have been suc­cess­ful in this regard. David Cop­per­field intro­duced a new a self-levitation effect over a decade ago that he called “Fly­ing.” Although the trick’s method relied on ear­lier tech­niques, it was orig­i­nal enough that the cre­ator was able to secure a patent. The patent was moot, how­ever, because the trick’s exe­cu­tion required a full stage and major resources to pro­duce. Plus, it put an enor­mous phys­i­cal strain on the per­former. Even if peo­ple wanted to steal the trick, they would prob­a­bly be unable to per­form it. Teller, the silent half of the duo Penn & Teller, sued a Euro­pean magi­cian in inter­na­tional court over one of Teller’s sig­na­ture tricks. Not only had the other magi­cian begun to per­form Teller’s orig­i­nal rou­tine, he was adver­tis­ing online that he would sell the props to other per­form­ers. After much time and expense, the court ruled in Teller’s favor. A magi­cian in Thai­land ripped off the entire act of Vegas per­former Jeff McBride move for move. I’ve had two of my own rou­tines lifted over the years. This type of “acqui­si­tion” has been going on for cen­turies. In the 1870s, French magi­cian Buatier De Kolta invented an arti­fi­cial flower that he would pro­duce onstage by the hun­dreds. Other magi­cians had no idea how he did it—until one day a breeze acci­den­tally blew one of the fflow­ers into the audi­ence. A magi­cian who was at the show scooped up the fake flower and ran with it out of the the­ater. Soon every­one in the magic world knew how the trick was done and was imi­tat­ing it. More often, magi­cians don’t steal an entire act or rou­tine. They just “adopt” a joke, phrase or pat­ter. I should men­tion that pil­fer­ing of intel­lec­tual prop­erty is also being done by some magic deal­ers, the folks who man­u­fac­ture and sell magic props. There is a major prob­lem with knock-offs com­ing into the U.S. from coun­tries such as India and espe­cially China. Besides the eth­i­cal and legal issues, the equip­ment is sel­dom as well pro­duced as it is here, but because of labor costs it’s usu­ally much cheaper.

Is some­one like Uri Geller who tricked the peo­ple on pur­pose doing an effect or is he doing a hoax?

Magi­cians use the term “effect” as jar­gon to mean “what the audi­ence thinks hap­pens or what it thinks it sees” (i.e., what “effect” it had on the spec­ta­tor). The word “hoax” isn’t used in magician’s jar­gon at all, so it can mean any­thing from a prac­ti­cal joke to a mali­cious act used to take money unscrupu­lously. I won’t enter the Geller debate (which has resulted in major cross law­suits between “debunker” James Randi and “psy­chic” Uri Geller) except to say that every phe­nom­e­non Geller has pro­duced can be achieved by mag­i­cal meth­ods. It’s up to indi­vid­u­als to decide whether Uri has real psy­chic abil­i­ties, whether they are vic­tims of a hoax, or whether they’re just see­ing novel pre­sen­ta­tions to unfa­mil­iar magic tricks being per­formed by a very con­vinc­ing entertainer.

When you go see a magic show, do you find your­self enjoy­ing the show or critiquing?

Gen­er­ally, I do both. Because I’ve been per­form­ing pro­fes­sion­ally for forty years and sel­dom make changes to my basic reper­toire, I sel­dom try to fig­ure out the “method” of tricks (i.e., how they’re done). Instead, I try to watch like a non-magician, to just enjoy the show. If I’m crit­i­cal, I gen­er­ally find it has noth­ing to do with the tricks. It has to do with act­ing or stage tech­niques: Did the per­former roam back and forth for no rea­son? Were they audi­ble? Were they cour­te­ous to vol­un­teers from the audi­ence? And so on. A magi­cian can always defend why he or she tells a par­tic­u­lar joke, does a par­tic­u­lar trick or places it at a par­tic­u­lar point in the show. There’s sim­ply no excuse for bad showmanship.

Is there one trick you always wanted to do or try that you didn’t because it was too com­pli­cated or dangerous?

Dan­ger has never been an issue, but they’ve been of inter­est to me. I’m a comedic per­former. My show has never been about build­ing ten­sion or pos­si­ble phys­i­cal dan­ger. Even when I per­form pseudo-dangerous effects (such as putting some­one in a guil­lo­tine or stick­ing a sword through an audi­ence member’s throat), no one believes that they could get hurt. Because they can’t. I will con­fess that there are some tricks I decided not to work on because of their dif­fi­culty. Among these would be pro­duc­ing dozens of play­ing cards from an empty hand. I learned the tech­nique but decided that I didn’t want to ded­i­cate the hun­dreds of hours it would take to per­fect it. More often I rule out tricks because they are messy (tricks with water), take a lot of time and prepa­ra­tion off stage (own­ing birds or a rab­bit), or tricks with fire. (I’m not wor­ried about fire dan­ger, but licenses are required for its use in many venues.)

What is the most dan­ger­ous trick; and, if so, it really the bul­let catch?

His­tor­i­cally, yes, the bul­let catch is prob­a­bly the trick that has been doc­u­mented as harm­ing the most magi­cians. In fact magician/author/historian Ben Robin­son wrote an entire book about the trick called Twelve Who Died. Much more mun­dane injuries are paper cuts while open­ing a deck of play­ing cards, snip­ping a fin­ger while try­ing to cut a rope in half, or strain­ing an ankle while jump­ing off a box and yelling “Ta da.”

My son loves illu­sions but he gets frus­trated with most of the magic kits avail­able. Which books or web­sites can he look in to (he’s 10)?

I hate to sound self-serving—but I will be. Both of my instruc­tional magic books are good for begin­ners, young and old. The Com­plete Idiot’s Guide to Magic Tricks is out-of-print but still avail­able online as a used book. (Most of the used books will have the gim­micked cards that came with the book removed. Check before buy­ing it.) My Com­plete Idiot’s Guide to Street Magic has more con­tem­po­rary items and is aimed at a slightly older reader, but many of the tricks are still per­fect for a ten-year old. Magic for Dum­mies is also a great stand-by. I highly rec­om­mend you take your son to your town’s library. Magic books are found at 798.6 in the Dewey Dec­i­mal sys­tem. As an eleven-year old I lost myself at the library and read every magic book on the shelves. Even though I wound up not doing most of the tricks, learn­ing about them pro­vided a breadth of knowl­edge that’s been invalu­able over the years. For­give me if I don’t rec­om­mend any web­sites. I per­son­ally dis­ap­prove of most of the so-called instruc­tional videos that are posted online. The magi­cians who post them­selves range dra­mat­i­cally in abil­ity, and most free “how to” videos on YouTube and else­where do lit­tle more than expose the meth­ods with­out hav­ing any instruc­tional value.

What is your opin­ion on the “shock” magi­cians like Criss Angel?

I think there’s room for every style of per­former in every genre of enter­tain­ment. Criss’s wardrobe, groom­ing, music, and choice of effects appeal to a very spe­cific demo­graphic, and he has many ardent fol­low­ers. And shock sells. Dan Sperry, whose make-up is a goth/emo mash-up, is cur­rently tour­ing inter­na­tion­ally with a multi-magician show called “The Illu­sion­ists.” Penn Gillette (of Penn & Teller) has been at the Rio in Las Vegas for almost two decades and is known for being bom­bas­tic. And until his retire­ment last year, The Amaz­ing Johnathan was a Vegas fix­ture. He was famous for his loud, caus­tic humor.

What is the biggest thing you’ve made disappear?

My lunch? I’d have to go back to when I per­form­ing “illu­sions” – magi­cian jar­gon for the “big boxes”– in a tented cir­cus. I raised a girl in a cage high above the cen­ter ring. She pulled up a cur­tain around the cage; I fired a pis­tol; the cur­tain fell, and the girl was gone. I then pointed to a locked steamer trunk in one of the other cir­cus rings. The box was opened, and the same girl popped out, none the worse for wear. The trick was a fea­ture in Howard Thurston’s show in the 1930s and was later sold as the “Girl Cab­i­net Tabouret” by Abbott’s Magic Company.

What is your favorite type of effect to do?

My act is a parade of well-known effects, from the cut-and-restored rope trick to the Link­ing Rings. I pre­fer to work the clas­sics for many rea­sons. First of all, audi­ences have loved them for gen­er­a­tions, and if I can bring some­thing fresh to them it’s as if I rein­vented the trick. I have also been doing those tricks the longest, which means I don’t have to worry that some­thing will go wrong: the tricks will work. Also, by know­ing the tricks like the back of my hand, I’m free to impro­vise com­edy pat­ter and ad-lib with the audience.

What are your thoughts on shows like Penn & Teller’s BS or Magic’s Biggest Secrets Revealed? Does giv­ing away the secrets ruin the illusion?

Your two exam­ples are very dif­fer­ent. Although Penn & Teller became famous by adver­tis­ing them­selves as “the Bad Boys of Magic,” very few of the minor tricks they exposed were of any con­se­quence. In fact, most of the secrets were already well known by laypeo­ple. In the case of their TV show BS, I think Penn & Teller are pro­vid­ing a valu­able ser­vice. They’re using enter­tain­ment to warn peo­ple about frauds and cheats. Shows like The Masked Magi­cian and Magic’s Biggest Secrets Revealed have caused no per­ma­nent dam­age. Sure, the magi­cians who were per­form­ing those par­tic­u­lar tricks when the shows first aired were a bit miffed, but peo­ple have noto­ri­ously short mem­o­ries. And as Penn & Teller proved, you can fool peo­ple even if they know how the tricks are done. They showed audi­ences how the clas­sic Cups and Balls trick worked by slowly explain­ing it while using clear plas­tic cups. Then they imme­di­ately repeated the trick at reg­u­lar speed AND STILL FOOLED EVERYONE. Expo­sure of magic tricks has been going on for mil­len­nia. Writ­ing in Automata in the first cen­tury A.D., Horace of Alexan­dria (in Egypt) showed how priests used secret pneu­mat­ics to open the large tem­ple doors – which wor­ship­pers believed was being done by the gods. In 1584, Regi­nald Scot wrote The Dis­cov­erie of Witch­craft to con­vince read­ers dur­ing the reign of James II in Eng­land that witch­craft didn’t exist. To prove his case, he explained how the most com­mon magic tricks of the day were done. He argued that the peo­ple per­form­ing them weren’t witches. They were merely street magi­cians. In the 1920s, Horace Goldin was per­form­ing his ver­sion of Saw­ing a Woman in Half, at the time a brand-new illu­sion. When Camel cig­a­rettes revealed how he did it on the back of their cig­a­rette boxes (as part of a series “It’s fun to be fooled, it’s more fun to know”), Goldin sued – unsuc­cess­fully. My con­cern isn’t about tele­vi­sion expo­sure. It’s about tele­vi­sion magi­cians who cre­ate tricks that only work on tele­vi­sion. Some of the tricks are done by trick pho­tog­ra­phy, care­ful edit­ing or by using actors who pre­tend to be ordi­nary mem­bers of the audi­ence. Unfor­tu­nately, view­ers at home believe all the tricks they see on TV can be per­formed live, when they can’t.


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