Magic became my life. Let me assert right here that magic may be the greatest hobby for a kid. It’s all consuming. Get your problem child interested in it. The first time your kid masters a trick and performs it — and an adult, genuinely amazed, says, ‘How in heck did you do that?’ — your potential juvenile delinquent will be hooked and too absorbed in the new hobby to steal hubcaps.
I’m not saying a Svengali deck given as a bar mitzvah present would have spared us Bernie Madoff. Nor am I claiming that a magic deck popped into Dick Cheney’s or Donald Rumsfeld’s Christmas stockings would have spared the world their predations. But it’s possible.
As I got more stuff from those newly discovered wonders — magic catalogs — I developed an act. Shows in church basements, Elks Clubs and birthday parties in Lincoln, Neb., and environs jumped quickly from free gigs to netting a princely $10! Soon, my fee jumped to $25. Eventually I hit $35. And they were 1950s dollars. I was rolling in it.
When my schoolteacher parents decrepit ’38 DeSoto finally threw a rod, ‘Cavett, the Magician’ (as my business cards read), their early-teens son, was able to lend them $750 toward a new Studebaker. By great luck a wonderful man named Gene Gloye, studying at the university, financed his graduate work expenses working as a local conjurer and took me under his wing. I owe him a lot. He opened my world to the wonders of magicians’ magazines, national magic organisations, magic books, magic catalogs and, best of all, magicians’ conventions.
At one of these, in St. Louis in 1952, I won, at 15, the ‘Best New Performer’ trophy in the rope category, beating out the new president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. The Lincoln Journal headline screamed, ‘Young Lincoln Sharpie Bests Magicians’ Group Head’. I’m just old enough to have seen and met some of the last of the legendary mystifiers from an earlier time. Blackstone (the elder) came to Omaha with his full evening show. I cut a day of school to see it twice.
Other greats I got to see (I feel I should say ‘witnessed’) were the legendary Cardini (in his last performance ever), Dai Vernon, Okito, The Great Virgil, Bert Allerton, Al Flosso and Jack Gwynne. Not household names to you, but gods to me.
I was too young for Houdini, of course, and Thurston, and Chung Ling Soo (William Robinson on his passport) — a man who affected offstage and on his Chinese guise, including (onstage) a wide-stance walk in Chinese robes and make-up. Without revealing anything, the stance made it possible for Chung to produce a huge, tub-sized, gleaming crystal bowl of swimming goldfish from, seemingly, thin air.
All magicians have had a trick go wrong, but Chung paid the highest price. He was accidentally shot to death on a London stage by an audience volunteer while performing ‘The Bullet Catching.’
I couldn’t have imagined that a life without magic would ever happen, but my new magical worlds — Yale and New York City and the theater and television — pushed magic out of my heart and mind.
Dick Cavett is a popular US TV show’s host and author of two books
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