In 1998, my father riffled a red deck of playing cards while we attended a family reunion on the outskirts of Bogota, Colombia. He asked me to pick one, and I told him to stop when his fingers reached the middle of the pack. As he closed his eyes, I pulled out the ace of hearts and placed it near the end. He ordered me to think hard about my random selection, and then pretended to write something on the inside of his left arm.
“Concentrate,” he said while I watched him roll up his sleeves. “This won’t work unless you focus on your card.”
He pretended to be lost. He looked around, shook his head and grabbed a newspaper by a fireplace. After selecting a faded page, he set it on fire, gathered the gray-white ashes and gently spread them over his slightly tanned arm. Two dark figures slowly appeared on his grayish skin: “A♥.”
I was fascinated. It wasn’t the first trick my dad had performed for me — since I was 8, coins had frequently come out of my “dirty ears” and ropes had disentangled themselves from impossible knots — but this was certainly the first one that captivated me. I begged him to tell me how he had done it. Like a parrot, he repeated over and over again a conversation-ending mantra that I would soon adopt. “A magician never reveals his secrets,” he stated sternly. Of course, that argument lacked prescriptive force for a 10-year-old, and several days of relentless questioning later, he finally caved in. He made me quite aware, however, that he wasn’t going to teach how me to do it.
Soon after, my father drove me to the School of Magical Arts of Bogota, an old, spacious edifice that housed a magic school, a theater and a remarkable shop crammed with variegated paper flowers, disappearing wands, jumbo decks, vintage posters and rabbit-size contraptions. There, he said, I would finally learn the secret.
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Since the late 19th century, when two German brothers named Francis and Antonio Martinka opened a conjuring store in New York, brick-and-mortar magic shops have played a central role in America’s magical culture. For more than a hundred years, these often small, dark chambers have been a gathering place where traveling illusionists and celebrated performers like Houdini, Thurston and Kellar discussed their latest creations, shielded from the pestering presence of hobbyists and the general public. More important, up until a decade ago, they were the only places where magicians could teach eager teenagers like myself the right methods to produce ashen apparitions and the more complicated tricks that inevitably follow.
But then the Internet broke that monopoly. Today, any 10-year-old kid can type “magic tricks” into Google and gain access either via YouTube or other websites to the biggest trade secrets in a matter of minutes. He can watch a video or buy an expensive apparatus without leaving his house, seeing a live demonstration or talking to another human being.
As a result, magic stores are slowly vanishing across America. With their gradual disappearance, as Jamy Ian Swiss — a leading card-expert and magic historian recognized for his brilliant technique and for his outspoken column in Genii, a conjuring magazine — has argued, one of the foundations of this ancient art form is disappearing.
“Magic has always depended on the control of information,” Swiss told me in an interview. “When I was young, you had to hang around a magic shop, and learn to ask, and ask politely. You would approach a guy and he would tell you, ‘Well, show me what you are working on, kid,’ and you’d show him. And then he might say, ‘Let me help you out with that,’ or ‘Let me show you something different than what you asked.’
“The biggest problem with DVD and YouTube exposure is that it has damaged the skill of learning through asking, and it has created the mistaken assumption, perhaps, that all knowledge and all wisdom is available to buy,” he said. “And there’s so much difference between those two acts, because asking involves a human experience, while buying is just sitting in your coach and passively absorbing countless secrets that you think constitute magic.”
In New York, the Yellow Pages listed 16 magic shops in 1960 but just three by 2003. Now there are only two, Fantasma and Tannen’s Magic, says George Schindler, the dean of the Society of American Magicians.
Fantasma and Tannen’s are lingering throwbacks where young magicians can still learn secrets directly from their elders, sidestepping DVDs and videos from online sites. They are sanctuaries where awkward 10-, 14- and 20-year-olds can meet and talk to each other and to older magicians without fearing ridicule or censorship. They are the last place where kids who mask their timidity through magic can find someone to help them overcome the challenges of art and life.
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On a recent visit to Fantasma, “Magic Mo,” a laconic 14-year-old who wouldn’t part with his real name, fanned the cards while he waited for his mentor. As he opened and closed a red-backed deck, Mo watched David Roth, a world-renowned sleight-of-hand artist, perform for an English couple.
After divining several cards and correctly naming a random word a woman mentally chose from a book, Roth walked to the cashier and added up the cost of tricks the couple had bought for their magic-obsessed godson. The woman waved as she disappeared through the main door. Roth closed the register with a sigh and returned to check on Mo.
With a soft and at times faltering voice, the teenager showed him a card-control technique he was working on. Roth corrected him and urged him to do it again.
“Don’t practice in front of the mirror,” he told him. “You get used to blinking when you are doing a pass, which is not good. Video is better. But then again, you should do it in front of your friends here. The camera doesn’t think.”
Roth stood behind a display case filled with DVDs, multicolored decks of cards and several types of coins in a 3,500-square-foot exhibition room on the corner of 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue. (Fantasma serves as a store and display room for one of the world’s leading magic manufacturers, according to Roger Dreyer, one of the owners.) Directly in front of him, just behind a caged pet rabbit named Rambo, lies a collection of original Houdini memorabilia, which includes handcuffs, locks, books and black-and-white photographs. A couple of bookshelves line a part of two walls to the left of the exhibition, near a table with four seats that are occasionally occupied by amateur and professional magicians spreading blue-backed Bicycle decks over a blood-red cloth lined by black felt.
“Magic shops are disappearing because of the Internet,” Roth said during one of my visits while he extended his calloused hands toward the roof. “This place is an oddity.”
He works at Fanstasma twice a week, demonstrating tricks to potential customers and holding court over the enthusiasts who come by to talk to him or to show him something they’ve developed. Roth, 69, has short white hair that contrasts with his rosy face.
As most magicians will tell you, Roth is a legend within the guild. An expert coin manipulator, he was mentored by Dai Vernon, a man revered by close-up magicians throughout the 20th century. Vernon was a Canadian sleight-of-hand artist known as “The Professor” who revolutionized card magic by developing techniques he learned from gamblers all around the country. He eventually adopted Roth as a protégé from the 1970s to the 1990s — the final years of his life — in the Magic Castle in Los Angeles.
Within the walls of the Hollywood private club of the Academy of Magical Arts, Vernon advised Roth on the importance of practice and highlighted the beauty of a flawless technique in which all movements seemed natural.
“There are terrible magicians online that do tricks as if they had just learned them in the schoolyard,” Roth told me when I asked him about people who posted magic videos on YouTube. “They don’t practice. They see something and think they can do it immediately.”
Lack of practice is a constant complaint. You hear it even from amateur magicians like Uriel Nashofer, 20, a New Jersey native now studying in Missouri who likes to hang out at Fantasma whenever he comes home.
“Kids don’t read books anymore. They just watch DVDs or download effects from websites like Penguin and Theory11. The problem is they don’t think about the presentation,” he said after showing me a series of card tricks. “The effects I just did, for example, it took me nearly eight months of practice to master.”
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Unlike Fantasma, Tannen’s Magic doesn’t sell toys, only items used by professionals. The store is located in the sixth floor of an unremarkable building near Herald Square. Three black-and-white rabbit silhouettes decorate a blank wall in the corridor that leads to the shop. The dimly lit quarters house six glass counters and several floor-to-roof shelves covered with an assortment of colorful cylindrical gimmicks, colossal dice, papier-mâché flora and countless DVDs and special kinds of playing cards inside transparent plastic bags.
Tannen’s moved its catalog online a couple of years ago, and now sales are split evenly between the shadowy locale on West 34th Street and its own website, according to Adam Blumenthal, 27, the young Broadway light-designer and magician who owns the place. (Balay calculated that in Fantasma 70 percent of the sales still took place in the shop.) The store, nevertheless, still attracts a loyal throng of kids, especially over the weekend.
On a Saturday afternoon, four teenagers and a 25-year-old stand-up comedian were practicing flourishes, spreading fans, cutting the deck in three smooth movements and making cards fly from one hand to the other, and showing each other new tricks on a table in the center of the room. After watching them for a while, I joined them and asked how they thought the Internet was affecting magic.
“I started by learning from YouTube and it messed up all my future performance,” Vlad Verba, 14, said while he kept on cutting a deck in his hand. “I’m a righty, so I have to hold the deck in my left hand. I didn’t know that and I learned all the sleights using the wrong hand. I had to start all over after I came here.”
Harrison Greenbaum, a stand-up comedian, magician and counselor at Magic Camp — an event that Tannen’s organizes each year in which magicians from all around the country fly to Philadelphia to mentor and teach kids about performance and the psychology of the art — emphasized the social aspect of the store.
“In a brick-and-mortar magic shop there is a sense of community,” he said. “You get to know other people and you have somebody who’s an expert, who can help you with specifics that you don’t know about. You meet incredible magicians and you are able to walk up to them and show them what you can do, so that they’ll critique you and give you some tips.”
For Danny Braff, 15, visiting Tannen’s at least once a week offered a related advantage. “I met my best friend here,” he told me. “He’s a magician named Ruben Moreland and he’s helped me a lot with everything. I wouldn’t be nearly as good as I am if it wasn’t for him.”
The kids talked about Magic Camp and Harrison joked about how videos would inevitably fall short when answering important questions.
“What do you do if the bar mitzvah boy starts crying?” he asked, shrugging. “What do you do if your pants rip during a show? That happened to me once, you know.”
Everyone laughed and after a long silence, Joshua Kurzbam, 20, a sinewy teenager with receding black hair who sat next to Braff, looked at me, as if asking for permission to speak. “Magic allows us to be social,” he said. “It gives us an excuse to talk to people.”
Two of his companions lowered their eyes and nodded. They kept on talking until it was closing time, ceaselessly shuffling the packs of playing cards in their hands.
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The online videos often resemble movie trailers. They range from around 45 seconds to almost two minutes, featuring cyan- or red-saturated images and original short-lived soundtracks. Typically, they start with the logo of the website or a fading title over dark backgrounds, and then feature fast, short frames in which viewers can catch a glimpse of the effects being sold.
There are now dozens of Internet-based companies that sell products online. Two of the biggest, as kids in shops will tell you, are Penguin Magic and Theory11. Penguin strives to project a youthful image by using cartoons and a bright color interface, while Theory11 reinforces the aura of mystery cultivated in its videos by using black and gray tones.
Penguin started in 2002 and has grown ever since to become one of the most visited magic sites. One of the company’s main strengths is the sheer amount and variety of effects that it sells. The same is true of Theory11, a website founded in 2007 by 11 magic industry insiders, which last year launched “The Wire,” a global marketplace that allows magicians to directly publish their creations online.
The philosophy behind both ventures was to offer their clients an ever-increasing inventory capable of fulfilling any kind of style or concentration.
“The idea was to start a store where magicians could actually see a demo of every trick in the shop,” Acar Altinsel, a co-founder of Penguin, wrote me in an email. “Walk into most magic shops and the magician behind the counter can only perform a handful of what you see. This was constantly disappointing for me as a kid.”
Videos are supposed to solve that problem, according to Altinsel. “A ‘good’ magic DVD will get as much into presentation as an in-person lecture or book. Further, online video chat ‘sessioning’ has put magicians in an even better position to get mentoring and correction,” he wrote.
Most professional conjurers would disagree. The difference between a live performance or even a live chat and an online interaction is qualitative. As any music lover will testify, there are essential differences between watching a live video of a concert and actually attending the concert. The feeling and the power of the experience are heightened by the use of all the other senses, by the crowd’s feelings and the immediate surroundings. The statement is equally valid for couples who try to rekindle their passion via Skype or for any other art-form that thrives on human responsiveness.
Eric DeCamps, a magician from Forest Hills who was the second man in 107 years to receive the Gold Medal of Excellence for Close Up Magic of the Society of American Magicians, put it in somewhat similar terms in a recent conversation.
“Magic is a performing art,” he said, “and while it is interesting and fun to solve magic problems on your own, the problem doesn’t take full life until you perform in front of a live audience. I can’t explain the feeling I get when you are in front of that audience and you communicate and you almost become one consciousness; I mean, you almost know what they are thinking and there’s a level of communication that is indescribable.”
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As Jamy Swiss points out, magic is timeless, perhaps the spawn of a single moment of ingenious play. “It is likely that even in ancient times someone in a cave took a stone and pretended to put it in one hand while keeping it in the other, and magic was born,” he said.
Nevertheless, just one trick, as my father knew, was worthless. He was aware that even though the ash effect I coveted was relatively simple, to perform it properly I would first have to learn to perfection certain card techniques. He also knew I rarely spoke to other people. He knew I would rather hide behind a book than talk to a classmate or participate in a social event that involved more than two people. I presume that in part that was why he decided that a brick and mortar magic shop was the only place where I would be able to acquire the skills I craved.
The two-story house was a gathering place for Colombian magicians and for quiet, awkward kids like myself. While dozens of doves cooed from cages in the second floor, a group of five teenagers would sit around a green felt table and watch Richard Sarmiento, the stout, bearded magician who ran the school, execute basic sleight-of-hand techniques twice a week. With exacting detail, Sarmiento would explain under a weak yellow light the essential hand movements, and correct our own poor attempts to mirror him, much like Roth had done with Mo in Fantasma.
We would rarely ask questions or talk to each other. We stifled our wavering voices as we concentrated on how to palm a coin or divine a card. As we got better, Sarmiento taught us more complicated effects and pressed us to speak. We had to shed our shared shyness, he said. Our low voices would not do, for it was important to control the stage, to act naturally while performing passes or using misdirection in front of a live audience.
After a year of study, my colleagues and I staged an evening of magic in the theater. I closed my act by inviting a woman from the audience to choose a card. I joked with her and the audience laughed while I grabbed a lighter from a top hat. I asked her to concentrate on her selection and pretended to write something with an imaginary pen on a silver tray, which I held over the inside of my left arm.
I burned a newspaper over the tray and triumphantly showed the audience the blackened silver. A couple of people clapped even though the darkened metal had no particular shape. After feigning panic for a couple of seconds, I spread the black ashes over my left arm while Sarmiento and my father watched me. A “2♥” appeared in bold letters on my skin.