He was chosen by Caesars Palace to be one of the acts to open the $60 million Magical Empire at the Las Vegas Resort. Whit performs regularly on the most prestigious cruise ships including the Queen Elizabeth II, the Norway and the Westerdam. He has opened for Jerry Seinfeld, Loretta Lynn and Gallagher. He consulted and contributed to the Discovery Channel’s documentary, “Houdini – They Came to See Him Die.”
Whit will also appear in a 30-part series on magic for the Canadian Discovery Channel called “Grand Illusions,” and in the PAX Television series “Masters of Illusion.” Speaking of television and film, he has consulted on David Copperfield’s television specials, was the chief magic consultant for the Norman Jewison film “Bogus,” starring Whoopie Goldberg, Gerard Depardieu and Haley Joel Osment.
You may also have enjoyed and learned from Whit’s lecture notes, videotapes and lectures. He is a featured performer and lecturer at conventions and seminars around the world. In his spare time, Whit teaches a popular ‘masters’ course known as the “School for Scoundrels” for magician members of the Magic Castle. This course concerns the famous street swindles the Shell Game, Three-Card Monte, and the Endless Chain—the subject of Whit’s forthcoming book, Unfair Advantage.
I first met Whit while my wife and I were vacationing on the last voyage of the Queen Odyssey. The ship had just been bought by Seaborn from Royal Cruise Lines and the cruise was the transition to the new company. Seaborn was trying to impress the loyal Royal Cruise Line passengers that the new owners could keep up the fine reputation the ship had earned. They hired Whit as the only non-musical act to appear in the main theater and obviously had great confidence in his abilities to impress the crowd they hoped to retain for future voyages. We attended his show and as luck would have it, my wife was invited to join him on stage to perform the Four Ring Routine.
I have seen Whit perform several times since that cruise and have always been impressed by his very natural approach to handling and sleights. When he holds a deck of cards, he holds it as if he is doing only that. He isn’t holding the deck to set up a bottom palm or a second deal. When he displays a knife in his fantastic “The Intricate Web of Distraction,” and explains the history of the term “pen knife,” he looks and acts as if he is doing only that – not setting up a vanish or a change.
Q: How did you get introduced to magic?
My first real experience with magic was watching a Methodist minister perform at a summer camp when I was very young, maybe seven or eight years old. He did standard magic like the rings, cut and restored rope, etc. At one point, he pushed a silk into a pink cone (Abbott’s Bang-Gone) with a wand. When the cone was popped open, the silk was gone.
The kids yelled that the silk was in the wand. After playing with the hecklers for a few moments, he snapped the wand in half and threw the broken dowel pieces to the audience. I was stunned. I would have given my eyeteeth, which were practically new, to own a magic wand, and he broke it just to show the kids were wrong.
I stayed up all night thinking about magic. I wondered what it would mean if you could do real magic, and also, knowing there was no such thing, tried to figure out how he did the tricks. It was probably the first time in my life that I had such a concentrated session of creative thinking. The next morning I awoke in love with all things magic.
Q: Is it true that you learned from a gambler and that the gambler told you to go into magic rather than working as a card mechanic or a cheat?
When I grew up in Clarkesville, Tennessee, there was an eighty year-old man who lived next door in an apartment building. He used to do puppet shows for the neighborhood kids using cut out apples and potatoes and handkerchiefs. He claimed to have been a professional gambler and to have known Wyatt Earp in Los Angeles. I was a preacher’s kid, and this stuff was fascinating.
He showed me some stuff with cards and the shell game, but he told me I wasn’t going to be much of a gambler because I was too much of a showoff. Whenever I learned something clever, I had to go out and show it to everyone I knew. Gamblers have to keep to themselves and never show people what they can do. He said I should be a magician or something, and stay away from gambling.
I still don’t know how much he meant that, or whether he was just trying to keep a young kid away from gambling. I was too young then to have learned much that was very useful from him, but I have been fascinated by the shell game ever since. I was interested to learn just in the past six years that Wyatt Earp lived until the thirties and for many of his last years in Los Angeles. So maybe the old guy really did know him.
Q: How did this advice influence you and your style?
Well, I am still a show-off, and I did become a magician.
Q: Did magic or performing run in your family? I have heard your father and brother were in the Episcopal Priesthood, is that accurate?
Yes. Both my late father and brother were Episcopal ministers. My undergraduate degree in Philosophy was from Lynchburg College in Virginia (not the Jerry Fallwell school). I studied for the Episcopal ministry for more than two years at Virginia Theological Seminary, and then dropped out to do magic full time. I didn’t want to have the same 400 people in my audience every week.
Q: Where did you learn your craft; including your skills in manipulation and stage presence?
Most everything I know about magic came from my two mentors in North Carolina, Bill Tadlock and the late Dick Snavely. They took a great interest in me, and taught me many of the tricks which have become the backbone of my repertoire, including the linking rings, cut and restored rope, color-changing knives, cups and balls, chop cup, billiard balls and doves. Bill and Dick introduced me to Monk Watson, Duke Stern, and Senator Crandall at Colon, and to locals like Bill Spooner, Ellison Poland, Rick Johnson, and Hersey Basham, as well as to Wallace Lee who was retired and living in Durham. By the time I was sixteen, I had a pretty solid education from these two extremely competent and generous magicians and their friends.
Later, Eddie Fechtor heavily influenced my close-up magic. Brian Gillis was the first really dynamite close-up worker that I ever saw. I met him in Knoxville, TN in the 1974 where he was working at a bar called Barney Googles. He taught me my first advanced close-up, and he was a student of Eddie’s. I taught Brian my standup act, including the Four Ring Routine. I think he was the first magician to ever learn it, and he has always used it since.
Brian took me up to meet Eddie at the Forks Hotel, and it was truly a life-changing experience. I still think Eddie was the best all around close-up performer I have ever seen. All the guys from the Forks, Brian Gillis, Bill Okal, Harry Carroll, Karl Norman, Allen Hayden and the rest were all great performers who were heavily influenced by Eddie’s work and approach to magic, and all of whom I admire greatly.
In California, in the late seventies, I was influenced heavily in my close-up magic again by Gene Alberti, (The Great Alberti) who put my wife and I up at his place, and got me my first jobs, and also by Jason Randall with whom I worked at Gladstone’s and RJ’s restaurants. Jason was and is one of the best.
Q: Were you at one time a street magician?
Whit – Street Magician, 1973
Yes. After some time working in the Civil Rights movement in North Carolina, I dropped out of East Carolina University in the late sixties to challenge the draft. I was the first Conscientious Objector ever from my county. I was assigned to New York University Hospital as an inhalation therapist, but when I was called for a physical I failed because of my eyesight, and was fired from my job at the hospital. They didn’t want to take anyone that was not a CO.
I began doing card tricks on the street to support myself, and lived and worked as a volunteer for a time at the Catholic Worker down on 1st Street and 2nd Ave. Eventually I had a fairly complete street act, and developed my routines the Mongolian Pop-Knot and the Four Ring Routine. I did some juggling, fire-eating, billiard balls, cups and balls, and of course, cards.
I occasionally played with three-card monte and the shell game, but only understood these things from magic books. I didn’t know how to use shills or to make any real money. Though I made about as much money as I did passing the hat for my magic show. I also performed on the streets in DC and Europe, even after I returned to college and seminary. This period of my life is pretty well covered in my book Street Magic.
Q: How did you meet Dai Vernon (the Professor)? What was that relationship like?
I met Vernon at the Castle in 1977. I was too afraid to approach him. He was on the membership committee when I had to take my entrance exam. I was terrified, but passed. He and Joe Cossari used to come into my show in the Palace (of Mystery at the Magic Castle), and I had heard that they loved my ring routine, but I was still nervous about talking to him.
Finally, one night, as I entered the Castle, Vernon called me from his regular table next to the Close-Up Gallery, and yelled “Whit, Hey, Whit!” pretty loud. As I got to the table he said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “You hold the egg wrong.” I sat down and he helped me with the silk to egg routine I had been doing in the Palace. He loved my rings, he said, and insisted that I should publish it before someone stole the “first original comedy premise I have seen in magic in thirty years.” After that, I spoke with Vernon many times, and he was always helpful and generous.
Billy McComb was the emcee at the Castle one of those weeks in the early days. He always stumbled over my name, which at the time was still Whitney Hadden. Whit Hadden was just too hard to pronounce for him. One night he asked me if I would join him and Joe Cossari and the Professor at the Copper Kettle for some late night food. I was really thrilled.
Once I got there, they all turned on me and insisted that I should change my name. Whit Hayden would be much easier to say, Billy claimed. Vernon insisted that I should spell it different from Pat Haden or Tom Hayden. He thought Haydn would be great. No one would ever spell it right the first time, but then they would never forget it. Besides, Vernon said, four letters over five would look great on a marquee.
I got home at 4:00 am, and my wife was up, frantic. “Where have you been? Why didn’t you call? I thought you were dead on the highway.”
I explained what had happened and how I had gotten so carried away with meeting with all these great men of magic who had been heroes of mine for so long, and had just forgotten to call. I told her how my career was going to change, and how they had convinced me to change my name and eventually she settled down.
A few nights later my wife was sitting alone at the Palace Bar, when McComb stumbled out of the Palace and walked right up next to her (whom he hadn’t met) and turned to Big Ed the bartender and said, “That Walt Whitman has the finest linking ring routine I’ve ever seen.”
Q: Were you at one time a street magician?
Whit – 1979 Magic Castle Stage Magician of the Year
Two seconds later she burst through my dressing room door yelling, “Billy McComb doesn’t know you from Adam. Where were you the other night until 4 in the morning?” I had to go get Vernon and Joe and Billy lined up to convince her everything was as I had said.
No one has ever spelled my name right since, and Ron Wilson still berates Billy for changing my good Scottish name into a “German” one. Billy McComb has since become my dearest friend and mentor, and was one of the most important influences on my comedy stage act. He is still my favorite magician to watch, and since we performers have so little usually in the way of retirement saved up, it is an inspiration to see him still working and knocking young crowds dead in Vegas, and other places at eighty years old. I think his birdcage vanish is still the best I’ve ever seen.
Q: What did Dai teach you that you hadn’t already learned in your career?
I had read Vernon’s books, and he gave me occasional advice and help, but I was never a student of his, like say, Bruce Cervon.
What influenced me the most was watching him work. I admired his directness, naturalness, and simplicity.
But the single most important lesson I got from the Professor came from his three-card monte routine. At the moment that everyone saw the bent corner and were ready to pounce, and before anyone could say anything or bite the hook, he matter of factly noticed the bent corner and picked up the card so that it faced the crowd and unbent it. “It wouldn’t be fair to play with a card bent like that.” To me, this was extremely powerful.
He never let on that he knew he had fooled them. He didn’t hit them in the face with his beating them, but let them off the hook. I felt that he beat them twice. He fooled them with the cards, and he was more of a gentleman than they would have been had they been in his place.
This was an important and valuable lesson about the art of magic, and about how a man of power should behave.
Q: Why do you think so many magicians avoid following Dai’s teaching to be natural and not a show-off when doing sleights?
Too many magicians seek to get approval from their audience. By showing skill, instead of hiding the art, they can gain something from the audience. But performers should not be asking the audience for anything, especially not approval. They should be giving something to the audience instead.
If the audience senses that the performer wants their approval, they sit back like critics and watch as if judging an Olympic event. The performer’s attitude is “I’m the best you’ve ever seen.” The audience either decides he is the best and gives some grudging applause, “I have to admit, the kid is good.” Or if they don’t think he is great, they will rip him apart.
If the performer goes on stage with the idea he is going to share something with the audience, to scare them, to make them laugh, to share something that means something to him, to play with them, to pull their legs-anything-and he accomplishes it, the audience will respond with true enthusiasm-with thanks for what he has given them: “Gee, that was really scary! This guy is great!”
The problem with flourishes is when they are presented in a show-off way. The performer then seems to be asking for approval. A flourish that is hidden in a joke or in a needful maneuver (a fancy fan so that the spectator can pick a card) can add more to the audience’s respect without pushing them into the role of critics-without asking for approval.
I do not believe that displays of skill are necessarily hurtful to the impression of magic, as some have claimed; it’s just that I believe all craft should be hidden. Artifice in art should not be apparent.
Q: Explain your perception of the difference between performing in a natural style versus a more ostentatious or show-off move; say, with the double-lift.
To me, a natural style simply means that the performer is actually doing the things he is supposed to be doing. It is simply good acting. The way a performer picks up and handles cards is going to be different from the way a non-magician might do the same things. But he still needs to be natural. That is the timing and motion of the sleight, the attitude and level of relaxation of the hands, and the performer’s emotional affect all have to testify to the fact that he is only doing one thing-say showing the top card.
He can spin it around in a fancy move to show it, or simply pick it up and turn it over. The naturalness comes from the ease of the movement. The performer doesn’t seem to be doing more than he pretends to be doing.
A double-lift can be effective with a fancy, flourish-y move, but it is much harder to make it work. The flourish has to look like nothing more than a flourish move to show one card, but because a flourish calls attention to itself, any element of preparation, any tension, any hesitation, any lack of registration in the cards will spoil the move. That is why flourish-y moves are usually not a good idea.
They call attention to the move instead of retiring the move to the background of the spectator’s consciousness. To be successful, they must be three times as “natural”-that is effortless and guileless-than a more modest move. Secondly, what is the point of a flourish-y move?
Making It Look Natural
To keep from seeming like a show-off move, the move has to seem like an efficient and natural way for an “expert” to accomplish something-to fan the deck for a choice of a card, to shuffle without a table, to show the deck has no breaks, to turn over the top card of the deck. All these things can be accomplished by pretty, difficult, and impressive maneuvers. But to be really effective, I think all these maneuvers should simply appear to be the simplest and most direct way for an “expert at cards” to achieve the desired result.
Q: What should a young magician learn? What are the basics in sleights, audience/volunteer control and stage presence necessary to go from doing birthday parties to the Magic Castle.
Actually, you will make more money at birthday parties than at the Magic Castle. But it is fun to work at the Castle. Wherever he or she wants to work eventually, I think a young magician should focus on the classics of magic: cups and balls, linking rings, cut and restored rope, egg bag-all of the standard stuff. These are not only the practical tricks which can be done surrounded and are easy to carry and present, but they are the ones that teach the basics of both presentation and deception.
The young magician should seek to learn more than one routine with these classics. There are many routines available with the cups and balls, egg bag, and linking rings. He or she should master two or more routines with each of these classic premises. He should try to emulate or copy the delivery of an accomplished performer until he understands the timing of the lines and the misdirection inside out. It is even better to imitate two or more different performers either in different effects or different routines with the same effect. Mimicry is essential to learning the peculiar timing and presentation of magic. Originality should be suppressed in the beginning student; that is, self-suppressed. The beginning student should have the patience to learn step-by-step from the masters.
By understanding two different approaches to the same classic effect, the student will be learning how to think around a magic premise. Then he can develop a sense of routining and timing that will help him to create his own routines later. You don’t hand a beginner a guitar and tell him to make up his own original chords.
Sleights are like tools. Whenever I have a project around the house that calls for a tool I don’t have, I buy the tool. I don’t go out and outfit my garage with every tool I might ever need. The beginner should learn the sleights he needs to do the routines he wants to do. Start with the simplest sleights that enable you to perform the trick, and then as you become more comfortable with the routine, you try to replace the simpler sleights with more effective ones-the pass might replace the double undercut for example.
A good card routine can be presented with very simple moves and be nearly as effective to non-magicians as the same routine with more advanced moves. Magicians as a whole have over valued moves and subtleties which can add a little to the effect, but not as much to the total effect as we sometimes imagine-because a weaker move well-shaded is as invisible to the non-magically trained as the most perfect invisible move.
Magic happens in the mind of the spectator. It is learning to assemble the argument of the trick in the spectator’s mind that is the true art of magic. The simplicity and clarity, the huge amount of thought and study that has been devoted to them, and the versatility and appeal of the classics all make them the obvious first study for any magician. Learn from where the most and greatest minds have done the most work.
Q: How did you develop your famous “Four Ring Routine?”
When first working with the rings as a kid, I learned the Jack Miller Routine and the Vernon Symphony of the Rings. I also read Rings in Your Fingers. These became the basis for my Four Ring Routine. When working on the street much later, I wanted to have a way to pass all the rings out for examination at the end, since inevitably when I finished my show people would walk up and ask to see them.
I could switch out the key ring in by bag easily enough, but I found people were too unsure of how many rings had been used. They wanted to know if this was all of them. I figured that if there were only four rings used, instead of five or six, the audience would remember how many, so a switch out of the key for another single would be effective. There was a four ring segment of the Miller routine which fit this perfectly, and which I practically lifted whole. I added some moves from Vernon and the Fitzkee book and came up with a couple of original moves, and had a pretty complete routine, much as it is now.
As soon as I finished the routine I would slip the rings into the leather bag, release the key, and pick up another single as I pulled them back out to lay half way out of the bag. Later, when someone asked to see the rings, I would absentmindedly reach down and pick up the rings and hand them to them. When they discovered two were linked, I looked surprised and congratulated them. “You must have got it figured out…”
This worked great and gave me a fairly short and direct routine with plenty of room for byplay with a spectator. It was several years later that I discovered the bit about turning around and discovering that the spectator was keeping up with me. This arose naturally out of the routine and the situation in one performance with a particularly feisty and clever girl. I kept it in and expanded on it as the basic premise of the routine.
Giving spectators room to respond and play is also good for the performer. I have stolen more from my spectators than from other performers.
Q: Why did you choose to do a “ring routine” when so many others were performing the generic Linking Rings already?
As a street worker back in the sixties, I never felt that magic was overexposed. Most of the people I worked for had never seen a magician live before. The rings were originated as a street effect in China. They were perfect for the street-packing small and playing big, loud enough to draw a crowd, capable of being performed surrounded, mysterious, with an easy to understand premise. What more could you possibly want?
Besides which, I believed in the rings. It was one of the first tricks that I had ever seen, and at seven it had kept me up all night thinking up engineering miracles that might make them work.
Besides, the tricks are not as important as the performer. The whole goal of magic for me, was to take the classic effects that had such an impact on me, and share my love for them with others. To make an audience like the rings or the egg bag one more time.
Q: What do you look for in a good volunteer for this or other effects?
Generally, someone who is happy and interested. Not loud or boisterous. I rarely try to get someone up who is not immediately willing.
For the rings, I usually take the first to volunteer regardless of other concerns. That is partly because I like the challenge, and partly because I have so much control that it doesn’t really matter who I get. I have used 4 year old kids, beautiful women, little old ladies, football players and one of the best turned out to be a kid with Down’s Syndrome in Bristol, England. He brought down the house with his warmth and joy.
Q: Why do you enjoy performing the Gene Anderson News Paper Tear?
I like a lot of newspaper tears, and some I consider to be superior to Gene’s magically. Ron Wilson has one of the most effective and magical I think. But none have the quality that the Gene Anderson tear has of such finality and surprise. The fact that it is a full size, four-sheet section of a paper is important. That gives it more size so it can play well in a bigger house, and also makes the hiding of the pieces more improbable. Like using a very long piece of rope in my rope routine, which whips around and draws the eye on even a very large stage, the big newspaper and the way that it is handled from one side to another seems to fill the performing space.
Fire, liquid, and movement are the things that most replace equipment size and live animals on stage. Working cruise ships, where livestock are always difficult, I find that tricks that involve eggs, fruit, and liquid, or a lot of movement tend to fill up the stage and hold the attention of the audience.
Gene’s tear is foolproof, and dependable and can be done surrounded if you know how. It fits well with my act’s premise, and it gives me the ending I need. The restoration is so fast and so powerful that it leaves the audience breathless. If Gene’s directions are followed closely, something I rarely see in other performers of the effect, the paper can be handled easily and lightly as it is shown page by page. Making the paper look lightweight is an important part of the illusion, and takes quite a bit of practice. Gene’s suggestions for handling the paper are brilliant.
When I perform this, I usually begin by removing my tie, coat and vest, and rolling up my sleeves. This gives some room for comedic byplay with the audience (Someone whistles as I take off my coat: “Thanks, buddy.”), but also sets up that this is my last routine. Further, it makes it impossible for there to be any place on my body that the pieces could be hidden.
It is always my closing piece, because it ends on such a climatic and surprising note.
Q: As in your other effects, you seem to have almost scripted this routine to allow the audience to feel either sympathetic or amused until you show the paper restored. Is this something you think to be essential to the routine? Many magicians using similar patter present it in the manner of Doug Henning; “this is truly an illusion.” You play it, I think as if you think the audience is disbelieving. Does this question make sense?
I play it as if the audience doubts me because that is the way my act has been proceeding.
In my stage act, I play a sort of substitute teacher with an unruly class. I am way out of my depth, teaching a course that I know very little about-magic. So I make up my explanations as best I can, while the magic seems to happen by itself or in spite of me.
The audience is encouraged to heckle and question me, and the more put upon I am the funnier the routine. Most of the humor in the routine is reactive; it comes from my reaction to the heckling and laughter of the “students.”
Also, because I get the audience to think that the paper is really torn, and that I didn’t really mean to tear it-the first tear appears to be an accident-they think that I am bluffing my way through and will not actually put it back together. This increases the surprise and amazement when I finally do snap it back to its original condition.
Q: The Mongolian Pop Knots is an outstanding routine. How did you develop this routine? Where did you get the wonderful staring and uttering “sim, sala bim” at the ropes?
The Famous Mongolian Pop Knots Routine
The routine itself came from my street performing days. Ed Mishell had taught me a standard rope routine that went from cut and restored to Professor’s Nightmare, and then to a restoration. In this version, the knots just disappeared, and the performer was left holding two pieces of rope together between his thumb and finger-apparently one restored piece of rope. I found this difficult on the street, because immediately someone always asked to see the rope. I decided that the best thing to do was to find a way to throw the knots into the audience. If the knots were out there, they seemed to lose interest in the rope. I liked the idea of using Pixie dust to steal something rather than to dump something. So that is basically how the routine was born.
Sim Sala Bim are nonsense syllables from a Danish nursery rhyme. Dante used them in his show, saying they meant “A thousand thanks.” He said that the more applause, the bigger the bow, and the more thanks that the Sim Sala Bim would mean. Soon after moving to LA in the seventies, I bought a set of Dante’s rings from Ken Leckvold, who had bought them from Dante’s son. I really enjoyed performing with these rings, and eventually added Dante’s line as a magic word in my rope routine and silk to egg, sort of a tribute thing. I liked the Ali Baba/Alladin kind of sound of the words. The staring and seriousness with which I said the words became a source of humor and fun in the routine, especially with the line “You have to say these words with a certain amount of conviction,” which comes from a somewhat nervous and slightly unconvincing teacher.
Q: Have you ever used animals or assistants? Why or why not?
When I was 12-18, I always had doves. I got rid of them when I went to college. At one time I had 12 doves and four rabbits that I used in a three-person illusion show in amusement parks in the seventies. My wife and male assistant and I all lived and worked together, day in day out. It was very close and confining, and a lot of stuff to keep together, and the doves were loud all night long. Soon after moving to Los Angeles I got rid of the illusions and the doves.
Doves and rabbits are very hard to travel with on the ships. There have to be vet checks every time the animals are brought on or off, cleanup and travel are made difficult.
I much prefer now working alone. No assistants to keep sober and on time, and that need to be constantly separated to keep from killing each other; No doves to clean up after, feed, and keep constantly separated to keep from killing each other: Just me my Halliburton and a tuxedo. It is a much calmer, simpler life.
Q: Do you have a set circuit through the year; i.e., time at the Magic Castle, corporate engagements and cruise ships?
I do about a third of the year on cruise ships; it varies, but usually two weeks on, then a month or two off. I work for Seabourn, Cunard, Princess, and P & O. Most of the ships want performers on for longer periods of time, so I have to work several different lines.
Most of my work is corporate banquets, although I still do occasional trade shows, and work some nightclubs from time to time.
Q: How did the School for Scoundrels develop?
Chef Anton was a pool hustler and trick shot artist. In 1994 he asked me to help him work out some magic for his trick shot show. In the process we became good friends and shared a love for hustling and con games.
When Mark Wilson asked me to teach a course at the Magic University at Magic Castle, I suggested a four week course on scams. Chef and I taught it together, and have taught it every year since 1996. We will be teaching again this November. During the course of trying to come up with decent notes and props for performing these scams for our students, we began the School for Scoundrels Store online.
Gazzo is an old friend of mine, and he gave us a lot of info on the Three-Card Monte mobs of London and on his original moves and subtleties in the short con. He comes in occasionally to help teach the course, and we have broadened our mission to include street and restaurant magic, and pool hustling.
Our slogan says it all: “We Inspire Confidence Worldwide.”
Q: How important is the rehearsal of patter? Your patter seems so natural and impromptu – every time I see it.
I am very slow to add new material to my act, either close-up or stage. But I usually work out the routine and patter first. Then I practice the moves until I have them perfect. Afterwards, I write out a script and memorize it until I have it down backward and forwards.
The rehearsal then can begin, and in rehearsal I will try to explore gestures and patter as thoroughly as possible to look for ways to get it to work with my character and strengthen the performance elements. I look for applause cues, cut anything that is not essential, look for misdirection and “magic moments” (when does the magic actually happen and what causes it), and work for clarity and a sense of integrity in the premise.
Then I begin playing with the patter and gestures to see what nuances I might add. That is when I use the technique you mentioned. I will perform the trick in rehearsal doing an impression of Jimmy Stewart, then Peter Lorre, then Jack Nickolson, WC Fields and so on. These impressions don’t have to be good. It is the hearing of the other actor’s delivery in my head that counts.
This allows me to see the material in a fresh way and discover gestures, pauses, vocal inflections and other things that might be carried over into my character.
I will also do the patter in dialects–as in a Cockney, French (Inspector Clouseau or Charles Boyer), German or Southern accent. Again, these don’t have to be good. No one is ever going to hear them. But the new ways to look at the lines and gestures is very helpful.
At this point, I usually begin adding some new lines and ideas that have come from the exercise.
I also try out some improv exercises, like doing the whole routine in Gibberish (nonsense syllables like a fake foreign language), so that I can discover how to use my body language and gestures alone to make each point clear. It is like trying to explain something to someone who does not understand your language.
Another good exercise is “Hidden Problem.” In this you go through the whole routine as if in front of an audience, but with some little problem going on that you don’t want the audience to notice–someone has lit you a hotfoot, your fly is open, you need to go to the bathroom, you are still angry from a fight with your wife. Lot’s of potential comedic elements can come from doing this, it really gets the juices flowing–I highly recommend trying it.
All of these exercises help make rehearsal more interesting, and also get those ideas coming. I love to practice–which is repetition of the moves, but always find rehearsal (where you actually add the patter) more difficult to get started. Talking to the mirror or the wall can still make me feel like an idiot. Having a theater game that can make it more interesting or fun is a help.
More such games can be found in Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater and Theater Games for the Lone Actor.
The important thing is to really listen to the patter and try to understand each line and what it means. Some lines only come alive when you discover more than one implication for them. A lot of times, you find a straightforward line that could also be taken a funny way. The patter develops a rhythm and a particular line of thought.
I have been working this way recently on a new shell game routine, which incorporates authentic rhyming patter from the nineteenth century. I worked with a Southern accent first, since it is my native tongue, but then found it was a natural for the cockney dialect. I also worked out with WC Fields, and Robert Preston as the Music Man. None of these would have been impressive as impressions to anyone listening, but they were a huge help to me.
Different rhythms helped to tone down the rhymes and make it sound like more natural speech. Poetry is the hardest thing to make come alive on stage. I am not fond of story magic in general, and don’t like poetry magic in particular. But there are valid reasons that the conmen of the street use rhyming patter, and I felt it would be a necessary part of the presentation.
These exercises help make it more understandable to the audience and more like common speech. I have decided to do the routine in character as a Southern gambler from the period, but I hope the exercises helped me to avoid broad acting and stereotypes.
The Chicago Surprise and Street Magic are the two most important books I have published for understanding my approach to magic. The School for Scoundrels Notes on Three Card Monte contains many of the major ideas that underpin my philosophy.
Q: If your patter is memorized, how can you keep it sounding so fresh? How do you anticipate the audience response in your rehearsal and performance?
The real secret of keeping patter fresh-and all my patter, adlibs, and various sub-routines are memorized-is to give yourself time to think of a line before saying it. Don’t fire off memorized patter too glibly. Learn to pause. Each line should follow the last for a reason. It is good to say a line, and then repeat it quickly in your head before you say the next line, the way you often repeat someone’s question in your head before you answer it. This creates the semblance of creation, mimicking the thought process and timing of thinking up a line. This is especially important for adlibs and comebacks.
Too many performers have a good comeback ready, but fire it off so fast that it is obvious that they had it memorized-that it was a stock line. If the performer would just absorb the comment from the spectator, think about it for a split second, and let his eyes look up and to the left for a millisecond just before replying, the answer would seem more like a true ad-lib. The audience responds much better to a line that it perceives was created for the situation off the cuff.
I often set up heckles from the audience. In the Mongolian Pop-Knot, I will at one point be sprinkling Pixie Dust on the two knots as I ask “Any questions so far?” The timing with the previous use of Pixie dust and explanation is such that almost invariably someone will ask, “Where do you get the Pixie Dust?” I act like I am really thrown slightly by this, “That’s a good question…” which usually provokes another spectator to yell out “From his pocket!” or “From a Pixie!” I snatch on this remark like a life-saver, “And that’s a good answer…” and then turn on the helpful second spectator wagging my finger, “But a little flippant, I think.” Turning to the first spectator, I say quite seriously, “I grind my own. If I were you, I would send the kids out of the house, ’cause Pixies can make a heck of a noise in a blender, and it can be distressing for the very young…Any other stupid questions? (pause) Because it is the only way we’re going to learn…”
Well, this whole interlude depends on a spectator asking the question. Because of the way the act is ordered, I almost always get the responses I want. I would rather leave out the joke than force it. If it looks like a setup in any way, it isn’t funny. It has to seem like I am ad-libbing for it to be funny. If someone in the audience knows the joke and tries to help me out by yelling the question too early (usually it is another magician) the timing is ruined and the whole thing smells like a set up. I keep sprinkling dust until the question comes up in everyone’s mind, and then one spectator speaks for the rest. If no one asks the question, I go on with the routine without it.
Making the act seem spontaneous and fresh is the real secret. I think that timing and pacing can only be learned from experience, but you have to apply yourself to make it come out the right way. Doing the act with the exact same patter over and over can make the patter sound even more rote and mechanical. To constantly repeat the patter and make it fresh, you have to really work at the patter as you do it, looking for new ways to present the same line, new meanings and applications for each line, new nuances and pauses. I have done the same act for thirty years, and hardly changed a line of it. But since I am constantly working on and improving the performance and presentation of the lines, they never seem mechanical or rote to me. There is always something new hidden in the line or between the lines. And I never get bored or tired with the act.
Pauses themselves are very powerful in humor. I had lunch with Milton Berle once at the Friar’s Club. He was very helpful and interested in the inner workings of performance. I told him I was a huge fan of Jack Benny’s, and he said something extremely interesting. “Benny, you know, always thought through those pauses. No matter how long the pause went, it had to stop when he ran out of his internal argument. It was never arbitrary.”
Something has to be visibly going on in that quiet head for it to be interesting to an audience. It can’t just be blank. So he let the audience watch his face as he struggled with his internal questions of what he should say or do next. The robber comes up to Benny, “Your money or your life!” and Benny pauses. Silently in his head this is going on: “If I give him the money, he won’t shoot me, but then I won’t have any money. If I don’t give him the money, he will shoot me, and then the money won’t do me any good. Maybe I could make a deal with him for half. If I try to cut a deal with him, will he just shoot me? Wonder what he would say if…” Robber: “Come on, Come on!” Benny, frustrated: “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”
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