MORE THAN SMOKE AND MIRRORS
A look at Eugene's magic scene
BY DANNY CROSS
Lee Asher sat down for a dinner at Café Lucky Noodle with David Stone, France's best close-up magician. Stone decided to have a little fun with the waitress and pulled out his deck of cards. He told her they had met in his dream and he could prove it because one card in the deck was reversed and she was the only person in the world who knew what it was. Asher says Stone was laying it on pretty thick.
|Matthew "Ditto" Depew|
She reluctantly guessed a card. Stone spread the deck on the table and, sure enough, that card was the only one facing the now completely unnerved waitress. "She just was like 'I'm done,'" Asher says. "She couldn't serve us our food. It was crazy. We had to get another server. She would walk past the table and not even give us eye contact."
Such is the power that magicians have at their fingertips. Close-up or sleight-of-hand magic, as Asher and Stone are best known for, is a well-planned tightrope walk between the magician's skill and the volunteer's psyche. The trick is done while an individual or small audience watches the very hands that fool them. In most cases the magician's goal isn't to belittle or humiliate people; it's to entertain them. But there's a delicate mind game played as the magician sets up each precise maneuver for the finale.
"It's a performing art like acting," says Ben Jaques, a 25-year-old UO student and aspiring magician. "Everything we do as a performer is to impress you. We basically write scripts and do them over and over again until we can do them in our sleep blindfolded."
The magicians that you'll find working at restaurants or private events are usually experienced enough to guide you through a trick without letting you stray from the script. "It's much more of a challenge and interaction with the spectator," says Hart Keene, a 24-year-old magician who performs weekly at Wyatt's Eatery in Albany and biweekly at Applebee's in Springfield. "You want them to be involved in the magic and you want it to happen in their hand."
Incorporating the audience is essential to the success of a close-up magician. But for every little kid who believes in magic, there's a raving skeptic ready to pounce on the first sign of trickery. "They say it's like walking through a lion safari with a hamburger suit on," says Darric Martinez, a local 26-year-old magician. "Everyone's trying to bust you, like 'Let's figure out how this guy works.' And you're getting paid big bucks to walk in there and fool everyone."
Asher says that while magic's popularity is on the rise worldwide, Americans are regarded as one of the most confrontational and challenging audiences magicians face. "In Europe, they love performance art. They'll watch a mime," Asher says. "Here, forget about it. It's dead. You can't even mime down at the Saturday market. They'll kill you."
Keene says that close-up performers have it a little rougher than stage magicians. Stage magic is a bigger production — large props, lighting and trap doors — that allows the magician a safety zone separating him or her from the loudmouth who thinks "Make my wife disappear!" is an original request. Kids' magicians face even less heat. "When Copperfield's way up on stage you're not going to be like, 'Hey Copperfield, make an elephant disappear, asshole!'" Keene says.
But don't get the impression that magicians are frustrated with what they do. Most close-up magicians are semi-professionals who may earn a little money on the side but perform for their love of the art — and Eugene is an ideal setting for them. "People in Eugene do have a definite interest in magic," says Matthew "Ditto" Depew, 23, a John Henry's bartender who has been practicing magic locally for two years. "It's a very recreational town and the people are entertained by more personal settings. Magic brings out that childlike wonder in people because it's something that they can't understand, and people love that. Eugene is a town of old little kids."
Two years ago, Depew was the manager of Journey's Shoe Store in the Valley River Center when Tony Diaz opened Harvey's Magic Emporium, a most mysterious kiosk right outside his door. Diaz frequently manipulated a floating playing card with his hands to attract attention from potential customers. "It was just getting at me and I went out there and started talking to him and expressed an actual interest in learning," says Depew, who often practices his tricks while tending bar at John Henry's. "I didn't even ask him how that trick was done because I know he was sick of it."
You may have heard that magicians never reveal their tricks. Well, that's only partly true. Magicians don't want jerks asking for their tricks without an honest interest in the art. "Once they know the secret it loses everything and it takes away that magic moment," Depew says. "I spent hours reading a book and playing cards and you want me to break it down for you in two seconds? It's not gonna happen."
Depew kept going back to the kiosk for material and instructions, and to this day still visits Diaz's 7th Avenue store, where he moved the business last year. "I've turned a lot of kids onto magic since I've been here," Diaz says. "It's kind of neat to see them get better and better."
Another local magician, Kip Pascal, took on a similar philosophy while teaching Spanish at Churchill High School in Eugene from 1995 to 2000. Pascal, the author of Coin Snatching: The Reputation Builder, used magic tricks to impress his students and hold their attention. There was one particularly uninterested student who, in 1996, was forever changed by one simple demonstration. "He starts doing magic one day and I'm like 'What the fuck's going on here?'" says Keene, who was in Pascal's class as a sophomore at Churchill. "He started doing some crazy card trick and I'm like, 'Man, I have to learn that.'"
Pascal made a deal with Keene, his student: If Keene improved his grade in Pascal's Spanish class, Pascal would train Keene in his magic club. Then, in a Miagi-esque display of education trickery, Pascal trained his magic students, including Keene and Jaques, to be successful magicians in the long run by learning the building blocks of magic first. "I wanted to give them tools so they wouldn't just get the move on page 56," he says. "I would teach them a move and then a trick and then combine moves for a bigger trick."
Keene complied, improving his Spanish grade in exchange for the opportunity to immerse himself in the world of magic.
KEENE ON THE JOB
One of the first things that patrons notice when walking into Wyatt's Eatery in Albany is the 40-foot-high ceiling covered with playing cards. For the last five years, Wyatt's has employed a magician for weekly shows, and the "Card on Ceiling" trick has become somewhat of a trademark.
Keene, who took over the gig about two years ago, has a volunteer choose one card and write his or her name on it. He slides the card in the middle of the deck, puts a rubber band around it and hurls the whole deck against the ceiling. The signed card sticks while the deck falls back down. "It's entertainment that first-time customers cannot believe we have here in Albany, Oregon," says Wyatt's owner Mike Tudor.
During his shift, Keene strolls from table to table and performs while patrons wait for their food. He spends a few minutes with each table, reeling off three or four tricks. "People want to come out and celebrate a special occasion, so they say, 'Let's go here because they have a magician,'" he says.
Thursdays, the night Keene works, have gone from one of the slower nights to one of the most anticipated since Tudor hired magicians. Regulars travel from as far as Portland to catch the show. Tudor says the entire restaurant staff eagerly awaits Keene's shifts. "In the restaurant you're kind of a superstar," Keene says. "Everyone wants to see you. People cheer for you and it makes you feel good. It's nice to be a superhuman for a little while."
GETTING YOUR BRAIN TRICKED
Jerry Andrus, an 87-year-old man with fluffy white hair and thin-rimmed gold glasses, opens the back door to his three-bedroom Victorian home. The house has been deemed the Castle of Chaos out of respect for the masterful illusions he produces within it. Andrus' cramped kitchen is packed with old mechanical parts, electrical equipment, stacks of books and a wood-burning stove. A treadmill with a computer monitor at the top blocks the doorway to the next room. He steps onto the treadmill, straps himself in and wraps a metal wire around his arm. Now he can write free-verse poetry while getting his daily exercise. "I have to ground myself or the friction shorts out the computer," he explains.
Andrus, a former electrician and consummate tinkerer, houses his keyboard in a metal casing that holds additional switches, buttons and movable palm holders that he added to increase efficiency. "To hit backspace you have to reach way over here. So I moved it here," he says, pointing to a metal wire bent from the backspace key toward the enter key.
Andrus' keyboard is one of many day-to-day modifications that the sleight-of-hand expert and internationally renowned illusionist has made in his home for more than 70 years. He says it's not difficult for him to invent things.
One of his most famous inventions is a an illusion called Box Impossible, a large wooden box frame that looks like two of the vertical two-by-fours are behind perpendicular boards that they should be in front of. Your brain cannot distinguish the difference between Box Impossible and an ordinary box frame, so Andrus stands inside the box only to walk casually "through" the side and out.
"We all live in a very wonderful, real world among our manufactured images of it," he wrote in the October 1989 issue of Genii: The International Conjurers Magazine, which featured Box Impossible on the cover. "These manufactured images become our reality, and that is one reason magic works … That's what permits us to survive!"
Andrus frequently attends International Brotherhood of Magicians meetings, which take place the third Sunday of every month in Albany. His interest in illusions is somewhat philosophical, and he believes that by knowing how the brain can misinterpret information, people can be more skeptical of things they see in the world around them. "I don't think illusions are important to magic itself," he says. "They're important to human beings — to realize that they can hold something in their own hand that they know what it is and their mind beneath the conscious level will overpower what they think it is."
Dr. Ray Hyman, a 77-year-old UO psychology professor, magician and friend of Andrus', agrees that performing illusions is a masterful way of studying the human brain. But there's a flip side, one that advertisers and politicians understand quite well. Both Dr. Hyman and Andrus recognize the possibilities for fraud and scams because of our natural tendency to believe our brains. "The key component is just being human," Hyman says. "The brain cannot be absolutely perfect. It works very well in situations to which it's adapted, and works automatically most of the time. But put in the situation in which it's not adept, then it can misfire."
Dr. Hyman spent time during the 1970s disproving popular psychics and mentalists who started making big bucks off people who believed their powers were real. Mind tricks were as simple as the famous Uri Geller asking volunteers to think of two geometric shapes, one inside the other, but not to think of a square. Nine times out of 10 the person would choose a triangle inside a circle.
"These are the easiest geometric designs people can think of anyway," Hyman says.
Hyman and Andrus began "The Mysticians" meetings for magic enthusiasts during the 1960s and continue to meet in the community room of the EWEB building the final Monday of every month.
Asher and Stone's waitress-terrorizing dinner transpired during the final stage of last year's X-elent Lecture Series — a bi-monthly, eight-city lecture tour organized by Asher, which has attracted some of the best magicians in the world to the Pacific Northwest during its two-year existence. Having made connections with world renowned magicians such as Stone during his performing career, Asher decided to start something new in the region. "When I first moved up here, the magic scene was in shambles," Asher says. "All of these cities, and there was just nobody dealing with any of them."
|Lee Asher, founder of the X-elent Lecture Series, demonstrates a trick.|
After inventing "The Asher Twist," a sleight-of-hand card trick that made an international name for him as a 17-year-old, Asher spent the better part of 10 years traveling the world and performing his own brand of cutting-edge magic. Now a 29-year-old American magic legend hanging out in Eugene, Asher sells his tricks over the Internet (www.leeasher.com)."I get a bigger thrill selling to other magicians and teaching other magicians how to do it [than performing]," he says.
Asher's art is now specialized. He has to design more complicated tricks to impress magicians than those he invented for common folk in Las Vegas casinos, a gig that paid his way through college at UNLV. But Asher is also bringing accountability to a century-old industry that has been plagued by idea theft and invention crediting since its start. When big magic companies see a vulnerable young magician's trick, it becomes easy money for them to sell it themselves. "We're not selling a product per se; we're selling a concept," Asher says. "Once I tell you the concept, you can't get a refund and I can't get my product back. The transaction's happened."
Asher's business is exploring new grounds in honesty and accountability. "When Lee puts something out he will show the entire history and derivation of the trick," says Pascal, who works with Asher to produce instructional videos. "We're taking the stance of, 'Be informed. Know who you're buying from and if the company is reputable.'"
The nonprofit X-elent Series has inspired magic enthusiasts all over the region. Asher's first lecture in Eugene drew a crowd of 18. That number nearly tripled by the second year of the series. In Portland, the lectures regularly draw crowds of 80 or more, while in Vancouver, Wash., up to 100 people sometimes show up. "I'm bringing through heroes for some of these guys who they only read about or see on video," Asher says.
Eugene's practicing magic community and local supporters of the performing arts were essential to the rapid growth of the X-elent Series. "I moved to town and I only knew a handful of these guys," Asher says. "I had this crazy idea to start this mass infrastructure of lecture to the whole Pacific Northwest, and the guys in the Eugene clubs supported me on blind faith."
The X-elent series has been a crucial resource for up-and-coming magicians in the region. Asher invites professionals who practice various types of magic to offer new and diverse perspectives on the industry. "The magicians are starting to get into it," Asher said. "The lecturers will come and be shocked. They're getting paid, they're getting put up in great hotels and they're getting great numbers of people. They love the tour."
The tour is booked through 2007, so don't be surprised if you run into some of the best magicians in the world around town. And when something strange happens — you meet a mysterious stranger who says he can read your mind — you might just have to wonder…