As a teenager, I had the usual odd-jobs for earning money. I mowed lawns. I worked as a busser at a local restaurant. I worked as a general handyman a couple of times, helping elderly neighbors with whatever odd chore was needed to be done around the house. But I also had a more unsual job: I was a magician.
My interest in magic started at about age seven, when I received a copy of 101 Best Magic Tricks by Guy Frederick. The book was an older book even when I first read it: it came from a time when people wore trilby hats and children could be expected to be able to readily acquire cigarettes in order to perform magic tricks with them. But the effects described in the book were enough to keep me entertained, and I didn’t stop practicing them, much to the torment of my family. Eventually – possibly to help further my interest, and possibly to just get fresh material in my repertoire – my parents took me to The Cuckoo’s Nest, a magic shop on Carson Street in Pittsburgh. There I got a few more magic books – Marc Wilson’s Complete Course in Magic was a notable purchase – as well as a selection of various classic magic paraphernalia: a dove pan, a changing bag, a few prop decks of cards, and the like. I got the materials home and then sat down to practice.
I’m not sure how long it took for me to earn my first gig. I preferred street magic, so I worked different street fairs and carnivals and the like. I do recall a birthday party or two, and I was hired to perform at a Cub Scout Blue and Gold banquet, but being a wandering magician had its benefits. Unlike a party where I had a captive audience, if somebody wasn’t interested they could just wander off. (I know that this doesn’t sound like a benefit, but once your captive audience contains one or two uninterested eight-year-olds, you will appreciate this more and more.) Places I worked that stand out in my mind were the Wheeling July 4th festival one year, at the Ebeneezer Bridge during the Washington and Greene Counties Covered Bridge Festival for a couple of years, at a craft festival in Hendersonville a couple of times, and at a community day in Peter’s Township.
I never did anything ground-breaking in the world of magic, although I did create a few tricks of my own. Nothing very complex, mind you – certainly nothing that an experienced magician couldn’t recreate easily. I did build my own appearing cabinet – you know, the stage illusion where the magician shows the cabinet to be empty, closes the doors, and then opens them again, revealing the “beautiful assistant.” However, I was working street magic and birthday parties; full-scale stage illusions are not appropriate effects for those venues. So my appearing cabinet was much smaller – a table-top version – designed to make a stuffed rabbit appear. This is more difficult than it sounds, as having a human assistant means that the assistant can move of their own volition, something that is not true of a stuffed animal.
Perhaps the first trick I ever designed on my own was a parody of an old Cheer laundry detergent advertising campaign, where a proper butler-type would soil various linens and things, and then wash them on-screen and show that the dirt was gone. You can see a sample here:
I, unfortunately, don’t have any video of myself performing my own version of Magic Suds from that time period. However, I still have most of the equipment needed. Here is a video of me performing this effect in 2018. The graphics used are updated a little bit (after 25 years, the originals were a bit worn and in need of replacing), and I have re-mastered the sound. I originally edited the sound myself – recording various segments of the music onto cassette tape from an LP and then playing the cassette in a portable tape player while I performed. I found the original cassette I used (I never throw anything out, it seems) and then recreated the edit using digital means.
Fair warning to classical music lovers out there. The edit used for my performance is really butchered. When I first did the soundtrack for the effect, I had some odd and sudden jumps in the music. But I am not correcting those now; it’s the same odd and sudden jumps as I had 25 years ago, just better sound quality. Also, since I have no idea which performance I used 25 years ago, the new edit is 5 seconds longer, due to a difference in performance tempo. As such, that adds 5 whole seconds to my performance time (taking me to a nice round 90 seconds); this has allowed me to slip in a more modern reference that would not have been in the original.