The 1970’s slogan for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups could also describe Spirit ABCs, a featured illusion in the Suitcase of Wonders magic show. When working on ideas, I sometimes like combining two tricks into one little delicious routine, just like the chocolate and peanut butter of the beloved candy. In the case of Spirit ABCs, I believe the combination of the ABC Blocks and the Spirit Slates resulted in a strong and entertaining new piece of magic.
The ABC Blocks is a parlor trick whose origin I am unable to track down as of yet. Nowadays, it seems to be performed mostly at children’s shows as a kind of sucker trick. Usually the plot is along the lines of the following: Three wooden blocks are shown labeled A, B, and C. One of the blocks is put into a hat (or small box). The other two blocks are dropped onto a thin pole. The block in the hat is then put onto the pole as well and a rectangular tube covers them. After some by-play with the audience, the tube is removed to show the middle block has vanished, and is found in the hat.
The Spirit Slates is a much older trick I believe, going as far back as at least the early nineteenth century when mediums used them to convince people they were communicating with the dead.
They were most popular when chalk slates were a ubiquitous object (used in schoolhouses). Any number of routines can be developed for them, but the basic idea is that some chalk writing, supposedly scrawled by a ghost, appears on a previously shown clean slate or slates. These days, when Spirit Slates make an appearance in a magic show it is usually part of some period piece or demonstration of mediumship from a time long ago.
As I am Smallini, the world’s tiniest magician, I own two miniature versions of both tricks.
Obtained years ago at separate times, I had no idea of how I was going to use either of them in my act. In fact, they both sat unused for quite a while until I hit upon the idea of using them together in a routine. Both items are of a very high quality and look extremely pleasing on the Suitcase of Wonders stage. The mini ABC Blocks were made by Mel Babcock (who also made my mini Square Circle), and the Spirit Slates were made by Dave Powell. Mr. Babcock also makes a trick box (in lieu of a hat) to be used with ABC Blocks, but I decided not to obtain it as I somehow knew I wanted to do something different with the blocks.
Now, a description of the routine for Spirit ABCs, followed by some thoughts about the effect:
The curtain rises to reveal me, Smallini, alone in the center of the stage standing next to two wooden chalkboard slates resting in a lucite stand, a piece of chalk on the floor beneath them.
The first slate is removed from the stand and shown to be empty of any marks on both sides. Mr. Widdle picks up the chalk and scribbles a mark on one side, then wipes it clean with his finger. He lays the slate flat on the floor before me. The second slate receives the same treatment (shown empty, written on, wiped clean) before being set on top of the first.
A yellow rubber band is retrieved from behind the rear curtain and the two slates are quickly bound together with it. They are then placed back on their stand, and the chalk laid on the floor beneath them. A red opaque scarf is brought forth and draped over the stand, covering the slates and the chalk. I move to the opposite side of the stage while the ABC blocks apparatus is brought out to the center of the stage. The wooden tube is lifted and placed next to the pole containing the three blocks. So now, from stage left, there is the scarf-covered stand (with the slates and chalk underneath), myself standing next to the three stacked blocks on the pole, and the wooden tube to my right.
A spectator now joins me by the footlights. He is of my size proportions, by the way, this man with the green coat and hat, moustache and goatee. I indicate for him to please choose one of the blocks. He turns and points to a block on the pole. I ask him, silently of course, if he is sure of his choice, and he steps closer to the pole and points again to the block in the middle, the B block. I thank him (again, silently), and he departs the stage. I turn to face the blocks on the pole as Mr. Widdle’s hand picks up the wooden tube and covers the blocks with it.
Now in quick succession, three magical moments: Mr. Widdle lifts the tube to show only two blocks on the pole, A and C. The B block in the middle (chosen by the spectator) has vanished!
I move stage left and motion for Mr. Widdle to remove the red scarf from the slates, which he does with a whisk of his hand. The yellow rubber band is unbound, and the slates are separated to reveal a large letter B drawn in white chalk on the inside of bottom slate. A ghostly prediction!
While the audience is reeling from what they have just witnessed, I move to the right as Mr. Widdle brings forward the wooden tube. He sharply rapps the tube against the stage, dislodging the missing B block from the pole. Another miracle!
I, Smallini, stand atop the block as the curtain falls.
(Mr. Widdle retrieves his cigarette from a drawer and has a puff, before placing the sign advertising the next act on the apron. )
Spirit ABC’s played so well the first few times it debuted in the Suitcase of Wonders that I moved it up in the rotation to play at the end of the first act (out of a set of three), where it has stayed ever since. The development of the routine came together fairly quickly. While playing around with the ABC blocks, I had the notion to have the selected block be a prediction, and that’s when I thought of the Spirit Slates. I then realized that the two props both suggested being in a schoolhouse, so they seemed to fit together nicely in that context.
At that point there were two magical moments - the vanish of the block and the revelation of the prediction. I knew the block had to re-appear to end the routine, but where, and how? As I mentioned earlier, the block is usually revealed using a separate box (previously shown empty), or from a hat. I didn’t want to use another prop (too many on the stage), and especially if it didn’t fit as part of that schoolhouse context. I thought of lifting the slate stand after the prediction was shown to reveal the block underneath or behind it. That just didn’t make sense to me, and it was tilting the bulk of the action stage left. What was stage right? The wooden tube.
So, what if the block was found back in the tube? That would be a nice surprise, plus the re-appearance in the tube would make the audience construct a false, and seemingly almost impossible, narrative in their minds; How did the block get out from between the other two and also stay in the tube? No such thing happened of course (the block was never in either place), but Mr. Widdle having to “rapp” the tube against the floor in order for the block to fall out gives the impression that the block was somehow stuck in the tube, a thought that conveys the slightest bit of strange logic while still managing to perplex.
The slight of hand move used to make it look like the block fell out of the tube is similar to the one used in to make it appear like the buddah re-appeared in the glass for the Water Cell Escape trick. While I move stage right, Mr. Widdle steals the block from the servante, palms it, and picks up the tube. When he raps the tube against the stage, the block simply falls out of his hand from behind the tube, effectively looking like it fell out of the tube. A nifty move, if I do say so myself.
There is a symmetry and flow to Spirit ABCs that is very pleasing to me, and to the audience, I believe. The whole piece is a little display of odd theater. That’s the kind of magic that appeals to me. It doesn’t need meaning or a personal emotional connection (although I understand why some magicians might strive for those attributes). As long as the routine is well-designed, original, and performed admirably, that is more than enough of an artistic gift for an audience. Furthermore, these little surreal episodes that are strung together as part of a magic show needn’t have a “through-line” or even a theme connecting them. After all, look at vaudeville.
If a couple of passers-by happen upon the Suitcase of Wonders in a lobby of a fine hotel or an alcove in a public garden, they might stop to see a two-minute performance of Spirit ABCs, sip their cocktails and move on. Or they might pull up a couple of chairs and take in another routine or two. Either way, they were gifted with a little treasure of an experience that took them away from the real world, if only for a few minutes. Who’s to say if the performance will leave a mark on their minds afterwards, (conscious or subconscious)? And who’s to judge whether a Smallini performance is less likely to do so because it does not contain an astounding personal revelation (like those made by today’s modern Mentalists) or an impossible location of a spectator’s signed playing card? As long as the artistic intention is sincere and the performance original, why bother fretting over how deeply one can connect with the audience? After all, there may end up being a connection without that pointed effort, one based on two humans (the performer and the spectator) sharing a strange and perhaps sublime couple of minutes in an alternate reality - one that exists in between the curtain rising and falling in the Suitcase of Wonders.