For my next trick … well, read on

My childhood and adolescence were peppered with magic. I’m not referring to fairy dust and Disney World visits. Nor am I looking at my formative years through the hazy mist of nostalgia. I’m talking about learning to perform magic and becoming an amateur magician.

My grandfather Andrew, a resident of New York and an attorney by profession, introduced my brother Doug and me to small-scale, sleight-of-hand tricks. Our favorite trick was the leaping mouse. My grandfather would take his handkerchief and fold into something resembling a mouse. He would then hold it in his hand and pet it. Then he would invite my brother and me to do the same. As we reached for the “mouse” it would leap from his hand! Magic!

Grandpa Andrew performs his famous jumping handkerchief trick.

I remember as a kid watching Bozo’s Circus on WGN in Chicago and seeing Marshall Brodien (aka Wizzo) perform magic tricks. In a bit of cross-marketing, WGN also ran advertisements for “TV Magic Cards,” which Brodien endorsed. 

Of course, everybody had heard of Harry Houdini and his death-defying escapes. But he had long departed to the Great Stage in the Sky before I came along. Still, he remained a legend.

My Uncle Walter, grandfather Andrew’s son and my mom’s brother, also performed magic tricks for us. He was fond of pulling coins out of our ears. At some point he inherited my grandfather’s tricks, which included playing card tricks, silks, velvet bags, coins, and otherwise seemingly normal household items that did magical things. Eventually, many of those tricks were handed down to my brother and me.

My first venture into doing magic myself was to purchase small tricks from local department stores like Goldblatt’s or five-and-dime stores like Kresge’s. One of my first tricks was a small wooden box in which you placed a coin, slid the box into a slightly larger box, and the coin disappeared. I think everyone knew how the trick was done, but they were kind enough to cut a budding magician some slack. Two things my magician mentors advised me were to never perform the same trick in front of the same audience twice and never reveal how the trick was done. We were also admonished to rehearse in front of mirror and to develop “patter,” the words that you said as you performed tricks.

On one trip to Connecticut, my cousin and I got into my grandfather’s and uncle’s trove of tricks. Without permission, we took the items out into the tent in the backyard where we were “camping” and spent hours reading the secrets of my grandfather’s wizardry. 

As my brother and I started showing an interest in improving our magical chops, my uncle started sending us magic tricks he purchased at New York’s Tannen’s Magic Shop as Christmas gifts. Tannen’s, the oldest magic shop in the country (founded in 1924, it’s still in business), sold tricks much more sophisticated (and pricier) than Kresge’s and Goldblatt’s. He also sent us matching T-shirts to perform in.

The stage beckoned!  

My mom worked at the Virginia Tutt Branch of the St. Joseph County Public Library. With the permission of her boss Rodger Smith, my brother and I, and my friend Mike, another budding magician, were engaged to perform for some small children in the back room of the library.

Scott entertains a young audience at the library.

Small children were the best audiences. They were innocent enough to be amazed without being cynical or cocksure that they knew how a trick was accomplished. It was great fun to perform for them. As a result of our first show, the library allowed us to perform at the main library and a couple of the other neighborhood branches.

In junior high, I met Ben and we bonded over our love of magic. His father owned a local Cadillac dealership, so he had tricks that went way beyond my budget. In particular, he had a trick called “The Metamorphosis,” which involved locking a person in a trunk, then climbing on the top of the trunk, raising a sheet around yourself, and then dropping the sheet to reveal the locked person on top the trunk and the magician locked in the trunk.

It’s a famous illusion that many have performed. I can’t say I ever saw Ben perform this trick and I’m certain he never revealed its secret to me, even though we were fellow card-carrying amatuer magicians. Nevertheless, Ben did me the huge honor of driving me to Chicago one evening in the early ’80s to see Doug Henning perform at the Chicago Auditorium. Henning’s brand of mysticism and hippie were all the rage at the time. I don’t know if I was inspired or intimidated.

The Dunham brothers practice their magic.

At some point during high school, I lost interest in performing magic. It did require a lot of practice, a fair amount of money to purchase more sophisticated illusions, and the willingness to subject yourself to a lot of “I-know-how-you-did-that” from older audiences. Also, there was some talk at that time about magicians being dorks and weirdos. I accomplished that vibe just fine without being an amateur magician. By college, I had given up magic entirely.

When my son Randy was a youngster, we took him to see David Copperfield at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend. At a young age, Randy had shown an interest in magic and had some fun rifling through my old suitcases of tricks. As an adult, he too has cast the magic aside. Perhaps his son will someday catch the magic fever.

Many people count performing magic as a part of their formative years. Professional magicians these days are edgier and more outrageous. Penn and Teller broke some taboos by revealing how illusions were done and by using gross-out tricks for shock value. Some magicians have created prime-time spectacles by making things like the Statue of Liberty disappear.

In a world where so many people are so sure about how things work, it’s fun to set that certainty aside for a magic show and just enjoy being fooled. Enjoying the mouse jumping doesn’t make you a fool. It brought my brother and me wonderful memories of joy. We could all use a dose of that kind of magic in our lives.