Here is another demo of a Suitcase of Wonders routine, The Vanishing Elephant, that I mocked up on the computer to be a "playable" magic experience. Once again, as in the previous demo, the player/spectator initiates the action as the routine progresses. There are no branching possibilities, or conditional actions, but I still think the routine has its own feel that is different from simply watching a video performance.
Looking for things to do while quarantined in NYC, I decided to mock up on the computer an idea I've had for some time.
Ever since the first days of "interactive" media in the mid-90's (think CD-ROMs), I've been interested in creating "playable" versions of magic routines on the computer. I just like the idea of being able to click on magic apparatus within scenes and having it behave as if you were watching the trick, but you were moving it along yourself, so to speak.
I really had no idea how this would look and feel until I mocked up a couple of Suitcase of Wonders routines. I rather like the result. There is definitely a subtle difference in initiating the action as opposed to simply being a viewer. It does feel like I'm "playing" the trick.
Please enjoy watching a video demonstration of my first example, A Hopping Production. I'm sorry I can't provide an actual playable app at this time, but hopefully you will get the general idea. I will have another example to show next month.
When looking for something to do on a gray January afternoon, I was happy to be reminded once again of one of the benefits to living in New York City - half-price tickets to excellent same-day entertainment. On a whim, my wife and I decided to take our sons to see The Big Apple Circus, which was playing in town next to Lincoln Center. We scored practically ring-side seats, half-off, for later that same day. Boom!
The last I heard about the legendary Big Apple Circus was that it filed for bankruptcy and its star clown had resigned for sexual misconduct. A sad, inglorious end to a wonderful circus that I had experienced several times over the years. Or so I thought. The Circus was back, apparently, and this time around they had a cat show!
What an amazing afternoon we had. The Circus was another reminder that experiencing good live entertainment up close cannot be surpassed: A man doing a backwards somersault from one trotting horse onto another? Check. A woman dressed like a pigeon clowning around with the audience? Check. Feats of strength you didn’t know humans were capable of? Check. Cats doing tricks on command? Check. Another somersault? Ok, how about a guy doing one on a spinning “Death Wheel” sixty feet high? Check. Juggling open umbrellas? Yes.
My thirteen year-old was blown away enough to not reach for his phone, citing his favorite acts being the Wheel of Death routine and the cat show. As an owner of two house cats, I don’t know if I can accurately describe the amazement of witnessing those creatures perform tricks for humans in the spotlight of a live crowd. Dogs? Well, Ok, sure. But cats? Truly astounding.
All of the acts, including the refreshing and funky new Ring Master, were impressive, as I would have expected from the Big Apple Circus. I was just extra happy to see the troupe still kicking ass.
Special mention goes to seventy-nine year-old Hovey Burgess, who was giving beginning juggling lessons to kids before the show. I’d never heard of Hovey (although his face seemed familiar when I saw him), until I looked him up and discovered his distinguished circus arts career, including playing a small role in one of my favorite movies, Robert Altman’s Popeye (He played Mort, one of the toughs).
Today I had the privilege and pleasure of giving a private performance to the great Steve Cohen, master magician and host of Chamber Magic, the best magic show in New York City for the last twenty years.
I had seen The Millionaire’s Magician back in 2005 when his show was playing at the Waldorf Astoria. Now Chamber Magic’s home is the opulent Lotte New York Palace Hotel. And that is where I met Mr. Cohen, shortly before he was to perform three consecutive shows as part of his five-show weekend run.
I performed a short set for him and then we chatted for a bit. Mr. Cohen was very complimentary of my magic and offered some good advice as well. It was wonderful spending time with this consummate professional and great guy!
Last month I performed at the Oddities Flea Market in Brooklyn, where there were a number of intriguing vendors selling well-crafted off-beat wares. That flea market is a seasonal attraction/event that appears once or twice a year for a weekend.
This month I read with sadness about the closing of the long-standing and legendary Chelsea Flea Market. As a long-time New Yorker and a person of the Gen X generation, it is distressing to see yet another NYC cultural institution, the weekend flea market, fade away, along with record shops and book stores. As noted in the NY Times article, Andy Warhol used to frequent the Chelsea Flea Market in the 1980s. Now, most likely, the space will be turned into a bank or some such antiseptic corporate entity.
I remember years ago wandering around the Chelsea Flea Market and discovering the “Appealing” Orange Box, a wooden box magic trick that I once owned as a pre-teenager. It’s rare to find vintage magic tricks at regular flea markets, as those items usually stay within the specialized circuit of magic auctions and collectors. That’s why it was exciting to see this oddly painted, somewhat beat-up box trick sitting on a table among other ordinary antique objects.
Of course I purchased it (at a reasonable price, if I remember correctly), and added it to my fledgling collection of MAK magic tricks that I already owned (Square Circle, Turkish Turmoil, Temple Screen, Strat-O-Sphere). These are tricks that I and my childhood friend would drool over in magic catalogues. They were exotic-looking objects, spray stenciled with nonsense Chinese lettering, and brightly colored shapes. They were magic apparatus, in the best sense of the word. As a kid performing magic shows for kids, these magic tricks elevated our status to illusionists, like the ones we saw in the old posters from the golden age of magic - the Thurstons, and Blackstones with their stage full of boxes and tubes.
Unfortunately, most of my MAK magic tricks were destroyed in a basement flood years ago, but the Orange Box remains. It is actually a pretty bad trick in terms of routine and fooling, but I don’t care. I love it. And now, in addition to being a memento from my youth in magic, the Orange Box will also be a reminder of the now lost Chelsea Flea Market in New York City. Along with Tower Records and Gotham Book Mart, may she always be remembered through the objects that were once purchased there.
The Oddities Flea Market, an intriguing event that occurs seasonally in New York, LA, and Chicago, contains, "an endless sea of strange and unusual objects...curated for fans of the macabre." I have been wanting to attend for the last couple of years, thinking I could pick up something interesting for the Suitcase of Wonders.
Next month in Brooklyn I will get my chance to attend as I am also scheduled to perform for guests in the VIP Oddities Lounge (sponsored by Atlas Obscura). I look forward to both performing at and perusing the Holiday of Wonders Oddities Flea Market in December.
As readers of this Diary know, I, Smallini, the World's Tiniest Magician, have performed variations of Harry Houdini's illusions in the past as part of the Suitcase of Wonders theater show; Two of Houdini's stage illusions that I still perform are the Vanishing Elephant and Water Cell Escape. And two that are still in development are Metamorphosis and Walking Through a Brick Wall.
I have been working on the Wall for the better part of a year. Lately, I have completed construction on the curtain frame, which I briefly stand behind during my transposition from one side of the wall to the other. I designed the frame in Tinkercad and cut it out using the Glowforge laser cutter. The curtain itself still needs to be cut and sewn (the red cloth pictured is temporary).
My version of Walking Through a Brick Wall is predicated on the building of the wall onstage in real time using actual mortar and miniature cement bricks. The construction of the wall takes approximately eight minutes while the audience sits and enjoys refreshments and a live musician. The transposition itself occurs in the blink of an eye, and afterwards I give the wall away to a lucky spectator as a treasured souvenir.
After trying out several methods to accomplish Walking Through a Brick Wall, I've finally set upon one that I think is highly deceptive. In fact, this illusion might be the most deceptive I've ever performed. Anticipated assumptions about the secret of the effect are sure to include trap doors, powered motors (servos), thread, magnets, or even a double (I can assure the world that there is only one Smallini). None of them are employed here.
Despite all the time and effort I've put into this illusion, I don't think it will be performed more than a few times; The cost of materials is too high, and the presentation's unusual length of time prohibit it from becoming a mainstay in my regular act.
Not wanting to have all this work go for close to naught, I've decided to film the performance and make it available for viewing on the world's YouTube. This will be a tricky undertaking as I want to make sure the deceptiveness remains intact within the screen viewing experience. So the performance will have to be shot in one take, and I will have to make sure Mr. Widdle's hands (which build the wall and handle the props) stay in the frame at all times. If I can maintain the high level of deception while also producing an artful and professional experience, I hope Walking Through a Brick Wall will be a proud record of one of my highest magical accomplishments.
Every weekend an old lady sells trinkets, clothing and used DVDs at the same spot around the corner from where I live for as long as I’ve been in this NYC neighborhood, nearly seven years. In all that time, I’ve never seen anything she’s sold that’s remotely interested me, until yesterday afternoon, when I spotted a gleaming cone-shaped glass cover, also known as a cloche.
But let me rewind to yesterday morning, when I was playing handball with my son at his schoolyard down the street. We heard sirens blaring outside the yard, sounds that don’t normally turn your head if you live in New York City; A firetruck, and ambulance, they pass by several times a day, sometimes a lot more. But these siren sounds seemed different, more sustained and concentrated. Something was happening on the street down from the schoolyard, but I didn’t see smoke or hear guns or shouting, so we continued to play and I forgot about them.
Later that day I walked past the old lady who sells her stuff on the street across from the back of the schoolyard. I spotted the cloche, a fine looking thick glass cover with a dark wooden stand and a brass knob on top. I was surprised to see such a nice piece among her usual assortment of junky items. I knew I wanted it for the Suitcase of Wonders, thinking that I could perhaps “animate” something underneath it, or failing that, simply use it to display a unique item. The old lady saw me eyeing the cloche and told me was fifty cents. I said, “Great. I’ll take it!” and handed her the money. She asked if I wanted a plastic bag for it, and I declined, telling her that I lived around the corner so I would just carry it.
When the old lady heard I was a neighborhood resident she asked if I had heard about what happened this morning. She said a man in her building (that she was sitting in front of), jumped from the fifth floor onto the sidewalk. That’s what all the sirens were about earlier. She said the man’s wife had just left him.
The shock of that news stayed with me as I walked home with the cloche. Most likely, I will always be reminded of that tragic incident when I look at that piece, never mind my walking past the building regularly and probably getting a chill. I briefly considered getting rid of the cloche because of that dark association, but after playing around with it for a while (testing out an animated skull - of all things! - underneath it, I decided to keep it for the Suitcase of Wonders. I know the episode will always be there, under the glass, a little reminder about life and how it can be taken, sometimes by our own hand.
Last month, while performing at an event for Atlas Obscura, I finally tried out an idea that had been in development for a while.
Many years ago, during the first performances of Suitcase of Wonders, Smallini would speak to the audience by way of P.T. Widdle’s mouth. While moving the Smallini figure slightly with his fingers in full view of the audience, Mr. Widdle would speak as Smallini during the magic tricks. For a couple of reasons this technique never really quite gelled in my mind. First, I noticed audiences looking back and forth between Smallini and Mr. Widdle standing above speaking, which distracted from them seeing all the action on the stage. Secondly, and quite frankly, I never felt fully comfortable with my vocal acting as Smallini. While I did like the patter I wrote for him, my natural voice didn’t seem to be Smallini’s, and I could not find an accent that I thought fit quite right. Eventually, I dropped the idea of Smallini speaking altogether, deciding that it would be best if he were silent throughout the show.
Even though I enjoy performing with the silent Smallini, I’ve never fully lost the notion of him speaking again in some way. Not long ago, while doing research for my Houdini tribute show, I listened to the fabled and brief recording of the famous magician addressing his audience. I liked the tinny sound of the recording and the halting, confident way Houdini spoke. I thought Smallini should sound that way if he ever spoke again.
At the start of the Vanishing Elephant trick, Smallini is on the stage apron in front of the curtain. He’s positioned there as leftover blocking from when he used to perform a prelude to the main trick. Before raising the curtain I move Smallini a little bit with my fingers on his clear acetate stand that sticks through the back of the curtain. The audience always smiles and giggles at this.
During a rehearsal of that trick, it occurred to me that if I ever wanted Smallini to speak again, it could be as introductions to the tricks when he’s standing in front of the curtain. While this would solve the problem of the audience missing action on the stage while they looked back and from between him and Mr. Widdle, I still would not feel comfortable voice acting Smallini in real time for the reasons I previously stated.
Then I realized that “real time” was the problem. The Houdini recording gave me the idea that I could perhaps fashion recordings of Smallini that play as he introduces the tricks. For the Atlas Obscura show I created two introductions - one generic and one mentioning the specific event. I recorded my own voice but filtered and changed it so that it was higher pitched and slightly distorted, sounding similar to the Houdini recording.
At the start of each trick, Smallini stood in front of the curtain. I reached around to the front of the Suitcase and flipped up the handle, revealing a brass switch. I flipped the switch and a red light right above it turned on. Smallini then began speaking. During the introduction I stood to the side with one arm reached inside the theater (moving Smallini), and the other holding a (fake) cigarette. When the introduction was finished, I flipped the switch (and the red light) off, put my cigarette away, and turned on the music for the next trick.
One of the introductions went like this: “Hello Ladies and Gentlemen. My name is Smallini, the World’s Tiniest Magician. Thank you for coming to the Great Forgotten Garden Party, and enjoy the show!”
I’m pleased with this new way for Smallini to speak. In the future I plan to customize the introductions to specific tricks, while also incorporate some subtle bits of business for Mr. Widdle to engage in while Smallini is speaking, like looking impatient or bored. I’m also toying with the idea of removing my arm from the theater halfway through the introduction, and Smallini would still be speaking and moving (that would involve some simple robotics under the stage).
The tiniest magician in the world.