Sleight of Hand
Being A Working Magician Ain't Easy -- But Local Conjurers Make A Living With Tricks Up Their Sleeves
By Mike Gibson
NOVEMBER 3, 1997: It's 8 p.m. at Outback Steakhouse, and over at table 16, the Amazing Gregory (aka Greg Stringer) is probing the outer limits of his incantory powersconjuring red rubber noses, performing feats of other-worldly origami, producing lost playing cards from every bodily orifice good taste will permit. And by and large, the family of eight seated before the after-dinner carnage of take-out containers and half-empty tea glasses is appreciative, giggling, enthralled by each deft new sleight-of-hand.
Except, that is, for Miranda, a freckle-faced strawberry-blonde at the end of the table scrutinizing the steakhouse's resident mage with a 10-year-old skeptic's discerning eye. Undaunted, the mustachioed magician holds a deck of cards before his diminutive critic and asks her to recite the magic words: "Owa Tagu Siam [Oh what a goose I am]."
Miranda plays along, looking more the jaded sophisticate than the sheepish victim, even after she realizes she's been had. Then Stringer caps the trick by waving his free hand with an exaggerated flourish and pulling the card she had chosen just a minute earlier out of her pony tail.
"Tough crowd," Stringer says with a good-natured chuckle as he waves to Miranda's parents and siblings. An active professional magician for seven years, he knows that cynics are one of the hazards of the trade. "Some people just don't want to be fooled."
Among local magicians, Stringer counts himself one of the fortunate few. Although he still works two days a week as a respiratory therapist, he earns the bulk of his income teaching and performing magic. Which isn't an easy thing to do in Knoxville, where steakhouse gigs and birthday parties, not high-profile nightclub acts, are staples of the working mage's existence.
"I know I'll never be rich; I'll never be another David Copperfield," says Stringer, who fell under his first spell as a child watching magicians on the Ed Sullivan Show. "But I don't intend to be. If I can just quit my day job and make my way solely off magic, I'll be a happy man."
Although only a tiny handful of Knoxville magicians earn a living wage from their craftperhaps fewer than five, according to one estimatemagic thrives as a part-time endeavor. The local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, one of several associations for amateur wand-wavers, sports a roster of around 50 and sponsors a well-attended winter carnival in Knoxville or Oak Ridge every year.
According to John Riggs, magician, mentalist, and maestro of Abracadabra, Inc., most would-be wizards become fascinated with the mystic arts as adolescents, enchanted by TV sorcerers like Copperfield and Doug Henning, enamored of the power and prestige such spell-casters seem to command.
"Young boys especially seem to be fascinated by magic," says Riggs, author of 13 books on magic and mentalism. "Once they understand a lot of the tricks and realize it won't give them any special power or transform them from a geek into a hero, many of them give it up. The ones who stick with it and become serious are the ones who become fascinated by the psychology of the audience rather than the mechanics of the trick."
And for those who do persevere, there are endless varieties of necromantic specialties to choose from: parlor magic (for small groups), mentalism (psychic interactions), illusions, card magic, dove magic...
The secret behind most magic, however, is that there aren't that many secrets; barring a small number of more complicated illusions (a la Copperfield's elaborate TV tricks), most standard magic tricks depend on a basic vocabulary of sleights and deceptionspalming (slipping objects into an unexposed palm), sleeving (dropping props into a sleeve), lapping (allowing a "disappearing" object to fall into one's lap or onto the floor), and in the world of card magic, card counting or card forcing (predetermining which card an audience member will choose).
What lends a particular ruse that certain spark of enchantment and adds variety to what would otherwise be a series of increasingly predictable manipulations is presentation, the way the 'punchline' to each trick is revealed. "If you know just one trick, but you know 100 ways of showing it, you essentially know 100 tricks," says John Chaney, the Monday night "house magician" at Sagebrush Steakhouse on Merchants Road.
A 26-year-old doctoral candidate in chemistry at the University of Tennessee, the gregarious redhead began his journey into the mystic when, at age 9, an uncle gave him a magic set for Christmas. Now a Sagebrush fixture and an occasional party performer, he guesses he has a basic repertoire of 40 card and coin sleights, all of which can be modified such that the illusion seems fresh. "I have a lot of regulars, so I try my best not to repeat things too much," he says.
Chaney and Stringer are a study in contrast. Chaney's style is warm, engaging, interactive to the -nth degree; when he approaches a table of three reticent-looking middle-aged women, he gradually curries their favor with his polite, gentle manner and extensive battery of card tricks. Stringer, on the other hand, is the magician as comedian, a quick-witted chatterbox full of quips and improvisational élan.
However, both men aver that the stripe of showmanship a magician brings to his routinewhether it be chatty and user-friendly, arcane and mysterious, or aggressively comedicis the single most important enabling factor in carrying off a successful magic act.
"Anyone can learn the tricks; the real trick is developing a routine that's truly entertaining," says Stringer. "The secret is to find the magician that lives inside of you. The Amazing Gregory is not a real personhe's a character I play. He wears slick clothes and earrings and jewelry. He likes single malt scotch and expensive cigars. He's nothing like me at all. I live in the suburbs and like beer."
But Stringer warns that the wisecracking chatter in his act serves a purpose other than sheer entertainment value. Most magicians use their rapport with the audience as a means of masking tricks, telling jokes, or relating involved stories to draw attention away from a free hand palming an extra card or dropping a ball on the floor.
"A lot of the showmanship aspect is to create a diversion for the trick," says Stringer. "The thing that makes magic possible is that while the eye sees everything, the brain can't perceive it all, otherwise it would drive us nuts. Since the brain can only handle a few things at once, the magician can often tell a joke, fumble around his pockets, and do the dirty work all at the same time."
"Houdini once said that with the right distraction, he could walk an elephant on stage and no one would notice," says Garrett Hanas, proprietor of Magic and Fun World Hobbies in Halls. An on-and-off performer since 1989, the rough-hewn former military man remembers with a chuckle a ruse that worked unusually well for many of his stage tricks.
"I'd find the girl in the audience with the shortest skirt and the biggest chest," says Hanas, now a full-time family man who concentrates his efforts, magic-wise, on building stage props. "After that, I could do anything I wanted."
But magic isn't all fun and games. According to Stringer, the profession is fraught with more than its fair share of petty jealousies and professional rivalriesbetween amateurs and professionals, between mentalists and sleight-of-hand artists, between different performers working in the same magic medium.
"Most of the working pros in this area are at least aware of each other," say Stinger. "But as much as we want to help each other, we also realize we're each others' competition. Magic on the professional level is very competitive."
And of course, there are the hecklers, such as the man who once dove across a dinner table in an effort to see what was inside Chaney's clenched fist, or the drunken lawyer who followed Riggs all the way to a neighboring restaurant after the burly mentalist had concluded a nightclub show.
"Some people just don't like magic," says Stringer. "They are offended by the idea they can be tricked. That's why it's important to occasionally step back, take a breather, or make a joke at your own expense to keep things light-hearted."
So given the intermittent and often low-prestige work and the not-infrequent hassles, why do magicians like Chaney, Stringer, et al. persist in their art? Stringeror rather, in this instance, the Amazing Gregorysuggests that perhaps that childish sense of awe that sends pre-adolescent boys scurrying off to the magic store in the first place is something that never quite disappears. "Too many people go to their graves with their songs unsung," he says. "Maybe I won't be world famous, but I'll always be able to say I sang mine."
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