Hey, new guy, why won’t you let the old magician cut off your head?
Wed, Dec 31, 2008 (midnight)
Photo: Iris Dumuk
Las Vegas doesn’t have an active chapter of the Society of American Magicians or the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Las Vegas doesn’t need one. We’ve got Gary Darwin’s Magic Club.
Darwin started the club 40 years ago because the local SAM and IBM chapters wouldn’t allow blacks or Jews into their meetings. Darwin isn’t black or Jewish, but he recognized that many skilled magicians were, so he set up his own magic club—one with no restrictions, membership fees or rules of order. For Darwin, it was all about the magic. Within a few years the local IBM and SAM chapters both folded. They couldn’t compete with Darwin.
Darwin’s Magic Club meets every Wednesday night in the back room of Boomers, a dive bar on Sirius. “Pleasantly tolerates”—those are the right words; Boomer’s pleasantly tolerates the magicians.
“Magicians don’t drink a lot,” the bartender told me. “Guess they need their hands for other things.”
The two non-magicians to my right laughed. I’d assumed the bartender was referring to sleight-of-hand maneuvers, but the laymen clearly though she meant something else. The guy to my left, an older conjurer in a brown bomber jacket, thought the same: “I was doing magic long before you were born,” he told me, “and let me tell you: I’ve heard better insults than that.”
Since moving to Las Vegas about a half-century ago, Gary Darwin has worked at the Flamingo, Desert Inn, Caesars Palace and MGM Grand. He claims that he’s invented more than 500 magic tricks, writes a book every month and was the first person to do a straightjacket escape underwater. If you get the chance to meet the man (Boomers, Wednesday night, he’ll be there) he’ll tell you all this himself, a minute or two after you shake his agile hand. Then he’ll pull out a plastic thimble or red sponge ball and show you a series of appearances and disappearances, which, as you’d expect, he performs damn well. He’ll continue doing this until 1) you ask him to show you a coin trick; or 2) a woman walks into the room.
There are usually a handful of women at Darwin’s Club. Some of them are magicians’ assistants like Shedini (who works with Jason Byrne), Melanie (who works with Jeff McBride and Kevin James, and used to assist Criss Angel) and Mistie (who works with her fiancé Kyle on cruise ships and was voted Miss Nevada in 2007). In addition, there are always two or three non-performing girlfriends whose lot in life is to select playing cards until their thumbs blister.
On a recent Wednesday I saw Darwin performing his thimble sequence before one of these non-magician girlfriends. Halfway through the routine, the woman developed a terrible coughing fit.
“Do you know any cough jokes?” Darwin asked her.
“Telling a joke is the best way to diffuse tension. If you go around coughing like that, you should have a cough joke ready to go.”
“I have asthma,” she explained, clearly offended.
Gary though for a moment and said, “If you want to work on the Strip, you’ll have to think up a better line than that.”
On average the club draws 30-40 magicians—a mixture of newbies in their 20s, pros in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and former pros in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s. Most of the pros perform at private parties and trade shows, which is a polite way of saying that you haven’t heard of them. Every month or so a big name will drop by, like Lance Burton or Siegfried, but the big names never perform any magic tricks. They just greet old friends and rack up street cred.
I, on the other hand, perform before these guys every chance I get. I look at it as a chance to improve my skills. Most of my performances take place before the StreetOfCards.com webcam. A.J. Olson founded the site and webcasts live from Boomers every week for those illusionists in Las Vegas and across the country who’d like to be in attendance but can’t. These online magicians give me real-time constructive criticism, letting me know how I can improve my act (e.g., “Hey new guy: STOP STEALING DERREN BROWN’S ACT!!!”).
Darwin’s crew used to hang out at Palace Station over the weekends, but ever since Jeff McBride’s show closed about three weeks ago, and the Wonderground (Palace Station’s “magic ultralounge”) closed along with it, the magicians have been scrambling to find a new place to prestidigitate. Last weekend the gathering took place in a chilly warehouse on Dean Martin.
To access this warehouse, you have to walk through the Denny & Lee Magic Studio, around the glass tables filled with marked cards and hinged quarters, and past the racks of instructional DVDs. When you reach the bookshelf against the back wall, push. The secret passage will take you there.
My mom spent most of her 40s chasing after me, telling me to pick up my magic tricks. Denny & Lee’s warehouse would have given her a heart attack. You can’t walk two steps without bumping into a wooden box, glass water tank or a fake saw blade. Just be careful not to confuse the fake blades with the real ones because there are plenty of those, too. Even the walls are covered with old magic props, like the golden suits of armor adorned with red feathers retired from Siegfried & Roy’s Mirage show.
A.J. from StreetOfCards set up an impromptu stage and invited a few working pros up to perform. Bizaro, a magician in a black trench coat and big black hat, produced a cube of green Jell-O at his fingertips and then pushed a tiny red handkerchief through his hand. A British lady in fishnet tights escaped from a pair thumb-cuffs and then located a playing card with the heel of her stiletto.
Then A.J. called me to the stage.
This wasn’t an easy crowd. They were forgiving, but hard to impress. They not only know how to do all the tricks I know how to do, and they not only perform all the tricks I know how to perform, they invented most of the tricks I know how to do and perform.
So earlier that day, I invented a trick of my own. Technically, I invented a new method of performing an old trick, but for magicians, this can be a big deal, too.
I tossed a paper plate into the crowd and invited the girl who caught it to join me on stage. I gave her a book and told her to turn to any page. Then I asked her to pick a word, a noun, from the page she had turned to and write it on the plate.
“At the count of three, I want to you to turn the plate around. If the word that you wrote on it matches the object I pull out of my briefcase, we’re going to take a big bow and get a big round of applause.”
“One. Two. Three!”
She turned the paper plate over and revealed the word “SOAP” as I dramatically pulled from my briefcase a tennis shoe.
The crowd laughed at me. Which is what I was going for. Because then I tipped the shoe over and allowed the bar of soap I had hidden in its heel to fall into my hand. The joke worked because most of these guys hadn’t seen me perform before and didn’t know what I was capable of. For all they knew, I really did mess the trick up.
But I hadn’t messed up; I’d earned their respect. Four days later, at Boomers, I lost it.
Gary Darwin had brought a special guest to the meeting that night: John Calvert. Calvert performed from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. The audience of 70 sat captivated the entire time as Calvert produced cigarettes at his fingertips and escaped from tightly tied ropes in a few seconds.
Did I mention That Calvert is 97?
“I invited him to come when he was a hundred,” Darwin told me before Calvert took the stage, “but he said he was booked solid.
Calvert delivered the most inspirational magic performance I’d ever seen. At the close of the show, Calvert said, “For my last illusion, I need the help of somebody who isn’t afraid of the devil.”
Calvert’s assistants removed the blanket that had been covering a long table with a giant buzz saw on its end, and they lugged it onto the stage.
“My brother made this for me,” Calvert told the audience, “out of parts left over from World War Two operating tables.”
Jeff McBride got up and walked to the back of the room. He clearly didn’t want to assist Calvert with this one. I didn’t either; I sunk down in my seat and pulled down the brim of my baseball cap.
Calvert walked through the crowd, up and down the aisles, closer and closer to me. And sure enough, he stopped right before me. And he pointed at me.
“I’m terrified of the devil!” I said, loud enough so he could hear it over the ominous music. (Did I mention the man is 90-fucking-7 years old?) Either my comment didn’t register or Calvert didn’t care, because he didn’t budge. He just stood there with his finger pointed at me.
“I really don’t feel comfortable going onstage for this one.”
He made a come-hither gesture with his index finger.
“Seriously. I don’t want to do it.”
He came right next to me and whispered in my ear, “It’ll be fine. I’m not really going to cut you.”
“I just don’t want to,” I told him.
“Kid, my music cue is running out.”
“I can’t. I’m sorry.”
Calvert gave me a disappointed look, and finally walked over to the guy who had assisted him with the previous trick.
Calvert positioned the poor guy on the table and cut his head off.
Of course he didn’t really cut the guy’s head off, but without getting into any details of how the trick is done, I’ll say that he came pretty close, and that I feel spectacular about my decision to abstain from participating.
After the performance A.J. interviewed me before the StreetOfCards.com webcam.
“Why didn’t you want to go up there?” he asked.
“When I was a kid, I used to perform an arm chopper trick. A real simple one that only an idiot could mess up. And I messed it up. I didn’t cut my hand off, obviously, but I hurt myself pretty bad. And I vowed I’d never go onstage for any type of cutting or sawing trick.”
I made the whole story up, hoping to gain sympathy from the StreetOfCards viewers. To no avail. The comments flowed in:
“What a sissy.”
“The guy’s 97. Show some respect, new guy.”
“What do you have to say for yourself, sissy?”
I smiled and said, “Want to hear a few cough jokes?”
Rick Lax is the author of Lawyer Boy: A Case Study on Growing Up, and is working on a book about deception and Las Vegas.