Richard Nisley

So You Want to be a Magician
History - World Released - May 09, 2015

You want to be a magician. Correction: you want to be the world’s greatest magician. You purchase several how-to magic books. You join the local magic ring and learn from fellow enthusiasts who for decades have been performing at birthday parties and in local restaurants. You go to Vegas and catch all the great ones—Penn and Teller, Lance Burton, Jeff McBride and, if he’s in town, David Copperfield. You get out to L.A. and talk your way into the Magic Castle and meet many of the legendary magicians, the guys who’ve written books and have routines named after them: Dai Vernon, Larry Jennings, Harry Lorayne, Max Mavin, these guys. You take classes by a master card manipulator like Bill Malone, and by an artist who specializes in linking rings, zombie ball and other illusions, like Jeff McBride. At first it’s fun impressing your friends by knowing which card they have picked randomly from your deck. After a while, you realize there isn’t much to it. While there are literally thousands of magic tricks, they’re mostly variations of perhaps a dozen routines that have been around for ever. Every magician has a version of the standards: Ambitious Card, Cups and Balls, Three-Card Monte, Coins Across, Cut and Restore, Card Through the Handkerchief, and The Ring, Watch and Wallet Routine.

You realize there’s nothing “magic” about being a magician. It’s about manipulation and misdirection. And, like everything else in life, to be good requires a lot of work. It takes time and dedication to be really good. Despite your best efforts, it can be demeaning. There’s always some smart guy who’s on to you, or a heckler out to make your presentation a living hell. And that perpetual grin on your face cannot disguise the fear in your eyes. It’s hard to find a gig, and when you do, you get paid next to nothing, or nothing at all. In restaurants you work for tips. At birthday parties, you get paid almost enough to cover expenses. You sense something’s wrong. The tricks you’re performing are as good as anything being performed nightly in Las Vegas, and those guys are making six and sometimes seven figures annually. What do they know you don’t?

You order a DVD of the late Tommy Wonder, the Dutch magician whom other magicians study. He would get a standing ovation for a routine as basic as “Ambitious Card.” You perform the same trick and the audience sits on its hands. Why? The differences are subtle. Tommy Wonder took classes in mime and acting. He made a study of great speakers like Winston Churchill. He learned the power of words and how to use them, of how to use pauses for effect, and of how to read an audience. He didn’t think of himself as a magician, but as an entertainer. Like an actor, he developed a character that he assumed while performing, a role he rehearsed down to the smallest gesture. His lines sounded spontaneous but were carefully scripted. His every word and movement had an express purpose. He was the very model of poise and precision. He had been heckled by the best the world over and never missed a beat. While he performed the same illusions tens-of-thousands of times, every performance was fresh, as if being performed for the first time.

Some of the illusions Tommy Wonder performed were so much a part of his DNA that even he could no longer explain exactly what he did. On the DVD, in which Wonder reveals his secrets, he is joined by another magician who asks questions to keep him honest, and sometimes makes him perform a routine over again, slower this time, so viewers can see exactly what he’s doing. The camera focuses in on his hands to show what it is he does. Even then, he’s so smooth, so practiced, it’s difficult to fully grasp exactly how he maneuvers the cards.

At some point, you realize the amount of time and effort required to perform as well as Tommy Wonder would make anyone a success, at whatever they did. Dedication, practice, outworking others, never being discouraged, and never giving up. Isn’t that always the key to success? Tommy Wonder and magicians like him in Vegas got where they were by dedication and hard work and, yes, by luck, the residue of hard work. Wonder literally knew every trick in the book. Did he ever feel the slightest bit jaded? Not at all. Every performance, however scripted, was for him always fresh and new, yet another opportunity to improve. After thirty years in the arena, Wonder still possessed a sense of curiosity, a childlike sense of wonder. No longer conscious of his hidden maneuvers, it seemed even to him that what he was doing was magic. His real name was Jacobus Bemelman, but he will always be remembered as Tommy Wonder. If it’s done well, that’s the secret of magic—the sense of wonder it instills, to audiences and to magicians alike.

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