I don’t smoke.
But I like fake cigarettes. Not the kind that are sold to wean you off smoking, or any of those vape devices. I’m talking about the cheap novelty cigarettes that are sold in magic shops (if you can find one of those). They’re the ones that come in blister packs that hang off the rack and look astonishingly like a real lit cigarette. They contain a little powder substance in them, kind of like the white sugar dust found on Bazooka bubble gum pieces. When the fake cigarettes are in your mouth and you gently blow, a puff of the white powder comes out, looking pretty much like a puff of smoke. You can get about thirty or so “puffs” out of one fake cigarette. The “lit” tips of the cigarettes are made of a red crinkly foil that’s very realistic, especially if you keep the cigarette in motion (waving it around with your hand, for example).
I don’t walk around with fake cigarettes in my day to day life. I’m not interested in making people think I smoke, nor am I using them to satisfy an oral craving or calm my nerves (like a fidget spinner). No, I mostly use fake cigarettes precisely as intended by the manufacturer - as a joke.
It started back when I was working at a costume and magic shop in Manhattan called Abracadabra. Bored one day, I opened a pack (two per package) of Puff Puff brand fake cigarettes and popped one in my mouth. I kept it there while I gave over the counter demonstrations of magic tricks. Every now and then I would take a “puff” while showing a trick to a customer. Some people were surprised, wary, or a little incredulous (“Would you please put that out?”), and some people didn’t even mention it. Personally, I thought it added a little old-school New York charm to my magic shop demonstrator persona. Many times I would sell a package of fake cigarettes after someone started asking about mine. You’ve got to demonstrate the joke in order to sell it, right?
One day, I saw in the news that the mayor of New York City had finally outlawed smoking in all restaurants, bars, and most public spaces. A light bulb went off in my head - “Hey, now would be a great time to run a promotion on our fake cigarettes!” I made small, two-sided paper flyers that I put inside the free weekly newspaper boxes around town (Village Voice, New York Press - both publications now extinct). I didn’t notice an increase in sales of fake cigarettes, but then again, that wasn’t really the reason I made the flyers. The whole thing was always about fun.
When I built the Suitcase of Wonders and started to practice it, I pulled out the Puff Puffs again. I thought it fit the character of P.T. Widdle, the “owner and operator” of the miniature magic theater to have a cigarette dangling from his mouth as he maneuvered the props within. The fake cigarette signals that this is not really a children’s magic show, and it lends the character a sort of weary gravitas; He looks like he’s been doing this act for a long time. That was the sense I wanted to convey, so that the action of what was happening inside the theater seemed even more fantastic.
Now when I perform, I wait until between tricks to pull the fake cigarette from a side drawer of the Suitcase and pop it in my mouth, apparently already lit! It hangs from my lips for the two minutes or so as I set up the next trick. If there are children watching, I may leave it out of the act, but sometimes I don’t, as I believe the cigarette is part of the character, and I feel weird censoring myself for the sake of political correctness. I’ve never had a parent say anything; I think they recognize that it is part of the performance.
Magic using real cigarettes used to be a staple among sleight-of-hand magicians for many years. Obviously though, cigarette magic has long since been retired from magicians’ repertoires. That’s a shame, as it is mesmerizing to watch the manipulations of a master magician using this small cylindrical object, especially when one end of it is dangerously hot! I believe the magician Teller still does a smoking routine with real cigarettes, but I am not aware of any magicians using Juuls in their act these days, at least not yet. Come to think of it, I haven't seen anyone eating cigarettes for years either, and I don't expect to ever again.
I am not in any hurry to add fake cigarette sleight of hand magic to my act, but I might someday, if only as a nod to the forgotten art, but also because it seems like something the character P.T. Widdle would do. Until then, I’ll continue to use fake cigarettes as a simple prop, and as the occasional joke at a dinner party or in a public space. Those looks on people’s faces - priceless.