Friday, June 13, 2008

Magical Conversation with Chef Anton

“…had we met under a different set of circumstances.”
--Chef Anton

Just be glad that when you meet Chef Anton, whether it be at a Pool Trick Shot Exhibition or when he’s performing his magic act or gambling exposes, that you didn’t meet him under “a different set of circum stances.”

And once you see him in action, you’ll soon know why. You won’t see store-bought cons you pick up at a magic shop, or from some book. Chef learned his grift sense on the streets—and at a very early age, where the punishment isn’t a lack of polite applause—the results of a con gone bad can have grave consequences (pun intended).

Born in The Bronx, New York, Chef spent most of his youth and adult life in Southern California. And though not all days in California are sunny, somehow I get the feeling that Chef always managed to be in the sun when he needed to, and disappear in the shadows when he had to!

I had not seen Chef for about four years, and though this time I could only arrange to do the interview via phone, it was great to catch up with him, and gain insight into what makes, him without a doubt, one of the most charming and charismatic performers you’d ever want to meet. And in my book, I’ll say under any circumstances.
MK: Which came first, your love of pool, or your love of magic?

CA: Love of pool by far. I started pool when I was probably about four years old and got very proficient in pool by the time I was nine years old, that it became increasingly hard for anyone to gamble against me by the time I was nine even playing against 15 to 18 year olds, they didn’t want to play me for money anymore.

That got me into doing bar bets, trick shot, that sort of stuff. Rather than trying to hustle someone for a hundred bucks I could say, hey, you know, I bet you I could get the ball in the corner pocket under these seemingly impossible conditions – the people would take the bet and it would be much easier. I’d never actually swindle them and if people would get upset with me afterward, I’d say, hey I just taught you how to do the shot now you go off on all of your friends. It became very easy. People wanted to get hustled, just to learn the tricks of the trade so to speak.

MK: Safer way to do it Absolutely.

CA: Yeah, yeah much safer.

MK: Now speaking of pool, I hear people use the words Pool and Billiards interchangeably, is there a difference between the two?

CA: Yeah, Billiards is a game that uses only three pool balls. It uses a white ball and two red balls and the table has no pockets on it.

What we consider American Pool is actually considered Pocket Billiards. That’s the correct term for it. But people just call it Pool.

And then Billiards is the other game. What you would need to do in that game is strike the cue ball, hit a red ball, and have the cue ball travel around the table a minimum of three rails, then hit the other red ball, then you get one point and then you normally play to fifty points.

It’s an incredibly difficult game. And that’s where the diamonds on the table come in handy in billiards you need to use them as we like to call it. Comes up in billiards almost every time you shoot whereas in pocket billiards you use the diamonds, but not all that often.

MK: Did you have a mentor in pool?

CA: My Uncle was a very good pool player. He lived in a house directly behind us back in New York. He was probably one of my first influences in the game.

When I came out here I met a friend, Frank The Barber. Frank Alanza. He is one of the best players in the Country. He’s a little older now. Probably in his sixties. Back in the day when he was in his late twenties, thirties, forties, he was one of the most feared pool players in the world. Frank and I would run around the Country hustling people. We hustled Minnesota Fats, and we were road players for a long time. He had a very heavy influence on my pool game as well.

MK: How old were you when you hustled Minnesota Fats?

CA: The first time I hustled him I was fifteen. I’ve hustled him a number of times. The first experience I had with him, I was fifteen. We went into a place where Frank knew Fats, and knew he was going to be there. Had me go in there, have me go looking for a game, then I ran into Minnesota Fats, and I would act as if I was blown away just to be in his presence, told him it would mean the world to me to play him in a game, and it would only be meaningful if we played for money.

We played for five hundred dollars then raised it to ten. I would miss on purpose. And what Minnesota Fats was famous for was talking. He would get a crowd, because he thought he had an east Mark, so he called half of the people in the hall and he said, “Watch while I take this kid to school…” and he’d go on, and on and on.

And once he got a nice big crown and he’s chirping, I’d start making some balls, and missing some balls, and then, when his game started going downhill, and went downhill real fast, he was so used to being in control, and talking, that’s what really gets him in rhythm, once you get him out of that, and people are yelling back at him, saying stuff and rooting for me, he got off of his game real quick, and I beat him pretty handily actually.

MK: I would think for most people that would be rather daunting, but it almost sounded like a fairly easy task for you?

CA: Yeah, it was an easy task because one of my favorite things is that chance favors the prepared mind. I went into that match prepared, and I knew exactly what I needed to do get an unfair advantage over Fats. I was able to accomplish that. I was already skillful, but anyone can get in a roll, and things can happen. But once I got things in my favor and all the stars were in alignment, then he really didn’t stand much of chance at all.

MK: Now I originally prepared a question which seams ridiculous now, which is before you got into pool did you study physics, but obviously starting at four years old, you weren’t studying physics. But did you study it along the way and did it either help your game or the trick shots any?

CA: It certainly applies to a lot of trick shots but, not as much as you’d think. There is a book called The Physics of Pool, and there is a lot of Physics and Geometry involved. But most good pool players will tell you that it’s an innate ability. It’s touch and feel.

When you’re in a money match, and you got to make this ball, the last thing that pops into your mind is a perpendicular angle. You just trust your body knows what to do. You have to visualize the shot and have to rely on your muscle memory to kick in on those really tight shots.

Now when your setting up a trick shot, or even trying to figure out if a trick shot is even physically possible, now coming back to some of the basics of pool and some of the physics, and some of those phenomenons, you might use them to make the shots seem even more impossible. And you can do those things because it’s a controlled environment now.

MK: So it’s more of a Zen experience or more of a tactic then?

CA: Yeah, when you’re playing pool, there’s a term called playing Fast and Loose. Playing Fast and Loose, many a magician would recognize as meaning the classic con or swindle the barrel head, the endless chain…where Fast and Loose comes from for pool players, is from a movie, the 1955 classic The Hustler.

Before Paul Newman is getting ready to play his final match against Minnesota Fats, his backer comes over to him, and says, “How you feel?”, and Minnesota Fats says, “I’m feeling Fast and Loose.”

And in pool what that means is to be playing without thought. That your mind is just somewhere else, and your body is like having an out of body experience. You’re just on such cruise control that you’re not even thinking anymore and the balls are just rolling in and your mind is kind of just on vacation. Your body is just taking over. Your body is just hitting the balls in and it’s very automatic.

MK: That’s how a lot of good actors describe their experience on stage when all of the stars are in alignment for them.

CA: Sure. I’m sure it applies to Magicians and sports figures as well. It’s got to be very common. But, playing Fast and Loose, playing without thought, just to tie it back to the con game, is the same thing, because if you are playing Fast and Loose, for money, you’re playing without thought. Because you’re about to loose all of your money, and you’re not thinking, at least partly, so it does have that double connotation. It’s always been a term that’s very near and dear to me.

MK: Now I imagine creating a magic effect is very different than creating a trick shot. With magic, you pretty much know the outcome of the effect you wish to create. Whereas in pool, isn’t it possible to create a trick that’s impossible to do?

And how would you know if it would be truly impossible? Couldn’t a seemingly impossible shot be completed by someone of a greater skill set? I mean, for instance, Billy Joel created some of his classical pieces, that he knows for a fact he does not have the skillset to execute.

CA: Yeah, there are different forms of trick shots. There are what I consider to be your more conventional trick shots, then there is what’s called Artistic Billiards.

Artistic Billiards, is where you build very fancy Masse shots, where the balls curve and drop, and do all kinds of spins. Artistic Billiards Exhibitionists use pool cues just to set up certain shots. Just like a Golfer might have ten or twelve clubs, they might have ten or twelve pool cues. One for jumping, one for curving, one for drawing, one for forward, and different thing, because they’re doing what we call Stroke Shots. Shots that take a tremendous amount of stroke, touch and feel.

Most of my exhibitions, feature novelty shots. Shots that use a lot of props. Extra pool cues, extra triangles, a top hat with cards, drinking glasses, chalk. Anything that I can find that adds a third dimension to the trick shot show, that it becomes very, very unique, but the shots aren’t very likely to come up in pool anytime soon. So the stroke shots, the Artistic Billiards shot you can apply to an actual game. It’s very likely that some of it will come up, and some of us will use it, but, trick shots are for more of an entertainment based show, which is really what I think is one of my secrets to my success, as far as my trick shot show and why it’s so interesting.

Few people have ever seen a trick shot show live before. And in pool they understand how difficult the game is, so when they see someone who can have fun with it, and make the shots very funny, interesting, and so completely off the wall, it’s a very big draw to people. Some of the shots they watch, they might say, “Oh, I can probably do that.” “I can win a beer with that one.”

Whereas where you watch some of these amazing Artistic Billiards Champions, the general public doesn’t appreciate how difficult those shots truly are. So they’re kind of boring to watch because, you just don’t have any appreciation for it. You’d rather look at something that looks funny or something that looks simple that might be easy or it might be hard but it’s entertaining, and that’s what trick shots is all about to me. Sharing the experience with someone, Sharing the love of pool with them, and giving them a unique experience they are going to remember.

MK: It’s a shame, it’s almost like watching The Nicholas Brothers tap dance. They always made what they do look so effortless that it almost took part of that away, because you almost didn’t realize just how difficult it was to perform some of those moves.

CA: Right, you get a lot of that with performers. Magicians also. Magicians that are so technically spot on . They do something so that’s so technically difficult to do, and yet they won’t get the reactions say a comedy magician might get, that might use a trick deck or something.

MK: Oh, absolutely.

CA: I think that’s something trick shot artists, all magicians, have to keep in mind, and it’s a hard pill to swallow, that it doesn’t matter how you get to that finish line, it’s getting there and keeping the audience entertained, and engaged, and if you can’t do a perfect pass, or do a perfect double undercut, nobody cares.

I’ve never practiced my magic or pool, quite frankly, where it’s so technically perfect. I’d much rather it be technically good, better than most, but concentrate on the performance, and the routining and my interaction with the crowd and how I can make it a more entertaining experience for them rather than have them see the best sleight-of-hand or stroke they have ever seen.

MK: Well, it’s like when David Kaye says when doing children’s parties, it’s more important about the ride, then the actual outcome of the effect.

CA: Absolutely.

MK: Now, I’ve seen some tournaments where the pool players get to pick out the trick shot challenges from a book that has trick shots contributed from many other players. Are there also trick shot tournaments that are comprised of trick shots only the players themselves have created?

CA: Yeah, that was actually the championship that I won. That was the regional format. A series of elimination rounds, where you got to pick basically any shot that you wanted. And they had Olympic style judging. Judges literally with the cards reading 9.0, 9.8, and you would get a cumulative score. They would judge based on originality, difficulty, and how many attempts it took you to make it. You were allowed. You were allowed three tried back then. But if it took you three trys, you weren’t going to score very well, so it was kind of a moot point. But that’s how they did it, with Olympic style judging.

I think it was a little more fair, the reason being, with these trick shot championships, you’re playing against an opponent, and you get to chose your shot, and they get to duplicate the shot you chose.

Well, if you’re really good at jump shots, that’s almost all you have to do, almost your entire set. One jump shot after another jump shot. Now, if you know your opponent is poor let’s say at Masse shots, then that’s all you have to do, and your opponent can’t duplicate them.

Now I’ve been doing trick shots professionally for about twenty years, I developed a video about fifteen years ago that featured a lot of my original shots, it had all these extra props and pool cues, and I was recently watching the Trick shot championship ESPN was having, and they started doing a lot of shots that I’ve been doing for twenty years now, and it seems as if trick shots are now getting to where they’ll be using gigantic pool cues, pool balls, extra props, so it is kind of interesting for me to see this kind of transition that I would like to think I started a couple of decades ago.

MK: Yeah, I actually saw one where they used a miniature basketball hoop, which is pretty wild.

CA: Yeah.

MK: How does one get to be ranked a trick shot player? What are the steps?

CA: There are local tournaments. Local qualifiers, First you become a member of the BCA—The Billiard Congress of America, then you got local, regional, state, National trick shot championship stakes. And you just need to follow the steps. Start out in your local community and then just keep winning and qualifying and move on to the next round.

MK: How many hours do you practice your trick shots. I know you mentioned you don’t practice it to the nth degree.

CA: Right. I practice about eight to ten hours a day. I’m practicing more of the performance, the segues, and constantly developing new trick shots.

Normally trick shots, at least for me, they happen to be one simple occurrence. They happen to hit a triangle, and that made another ball go in and I say, well, that’s kind of interesting. If it went in once, then I start adding to it, and make it more difficult. If I add another piece of chalk, another pool cue…can I make more pool balls. Make them travel around the table in more interesting was a la Rube Goldberg.

I’ve always liked that sort of funny approach. And now in the last ten years or so, the show has taken on more of the character of Chef Anton. The pool hustler, con man. “I betcha I could to this…I betcha I could do that. So there are a lot of proposition bets in the show. A lot of fun and engaging ways I can teach the audience , so that even if they’re not a very good pool player, at least they can win a beer from a friend.

And I think that’s a nice way of giving something back to the audience. So I still get to slam them over the head by the end of the show making a shot while blindfolded or stabbing a card in mid air. Replacing a pool ball under a stack of triangles that are five feet high without it coming crashing down. And still doing something simple for the lay people too. They can appreciate it, saying this is really fun, something different,

MK: How did the character of Chef Anton come about?

CA: Actually, I think it started when I was just a kid. I was probably about nine or ten years old…about the time my pool game was really peaking I started performing on street corners and pool halls, doing Three Card Monte, The Shell Game, Fast and Loose.

Well, there was this old chef, who used to work around the corner from where I performed on an everyday basis, and every morning he’d bet me fifty dollars that he could find the pea under the shell. And every morning he lost fifty dollars, because he could never find the pea under the shell.

And over the years, people said I won so much of his money, that I could have bought his restaurant. And they kind of deemed me Chef Anton. “Oh, there’s Chef Anton again.”. It’s kind of a name that’s stuck with me. And to this day I don’t know if the owner of that restaurant, Joey DeCanto or as I like to engratiatingly call him Uncle Joey, if he was being nice to a street kind or if he was really trying. I suspect he was being really nice to me. If he was really trying he was lousy at it. But I really owe a lot to Uncle Joey. He’s passed away now.

MK: I’m sorry to hear that.

CA: He was an eccentric millionaire. A real fun character.

MK: Well, I think you’re probably being more humble, but I’ll take you at your word for it that he was being nice to a street kid.

Now I know you were joking about taking the money to buy the restaurant, but you are a reknowned chef. Is that not true?

CA: That is true. I went to the Cullinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park New York.

When I was younger in fact, for years and years I had my own catering business called The Kitchen Magician. And what I would do is concentrate on parties of two to twelve people. Private parties. And I would do what’s called tableside cooking. Exhibition cooking.

You’ve probably seen in fancy French restaurants where they come with the brandy and there’s the big flambĂ©, and they do salads and crepe suzettes, Steak DePaul, Steak Diane, And that’s what I would do. I would be teaching them a little about cooking, but incorporating magic into it.

For instance, if I were making a Cesar Salad, I would reach into thin air and produce an egg. And I’d say this would do, and I would teach them the recipes.

And where the idea of The Kitchen Magician came from, is I come from a very large Italian family, and whenever we would have a holiday, I remember my mom being back in the kitchen, bringing out the ravioli, then going back into the kitchen to brick out the chicken cutlet parmesan, going back into the kitchen to bring out the meatloaf, and you never felt she was part of the party.

I mean she was four foot eleven and all you would see is pasta. You wouldn’t even be able to see her head. She’s bring back this huge bowl to set down on the table. And I always wanted to I always wanted to figure out a way to entertain the guests and be able to host the event, cook, and still be part of the party.

So I created this catering business I had for about a decade or so and eventually my love of magic, and my non-desire to work took over, because the catering business is a hard business and I decided to just do magic and trick shots full time and put the catering business aside.

MK: I’m sure it’s a loss for many people. I would have given my eye teeth to have seen some of those demonstrations. Is there any footage that exists?

CA: It’s funny that you say that because The Food Network had contacted me probably about five, six years ago and they wanted me to be on the network. So they got an advertising company, and they came and filmed an hour-long pilot. Had me in all of these different scenarios, one at someone’s home, one at a tailgate party, with some firemen at a firehouse, picnic, pool party, they had to think of all of these scenarios where The Kitchen Magician might show up to. Well, we got a letter back from The Food Network, saying the program was too entertaining for their network! And they gracefully declined.

I still have that letter to this day. It’s mindboggling to me that anything could be too entertaining. And it’s not like it didn’t have valid information. It had great recipes and it was fun. We were trying to reach a different demographic that was different from their target demographic. We were trying to reach guys and women who might not be as fancy in the kitchen. We were just trying to have some fun with it and trying to expand their marketplace. And it didn’t quite work out.

MK: That’s classic!

Now magicians have outs when a trick goes South. Are there outs with trick shots?

CA: It’s funny that you say that because in trick shots there’s a very big difference in performing a magic trick.

In magic, you very rarely tell them what the end result is going to be. Which gives you the outs because you can always change the ending or modify it a different way and sometimes the out is even more entertaining than if the trick would have gone the right way.

In trick shots, I’ve found in years of performing them, not only do you have to tell them everything they are about to see, but you have to tell them in a way that builds the anticipation because they think you’re lying.

Every time I explain to someone what the trick shot is going to be, and it’s even more impossible than the last trick shot I just showed them, they’re like, yeah, right! That when I do do it, they’re like, Whoa!

But the problem is, I’ve just laid my hand right out there. I can’t modify the ending, because they’d say, well, that’s not what you said was going to happen. So a basic rule with trick shots is you get three strikes and you’re out. Like baseball. So if the shot doesn’t work, you can try it again and make some little jokes and do some little business as to why it didn’t work, you can joke about the wind currents or sun in your eyes, there are lines you can use to cover, things that can get you to go again.

But with trick shots, if you say you’re going to make fifteen balls, and fourteen goes in, and the fifteenth ball rattles but does not go in, the people don’t even applaud. The shot didn’t work. People are brutal when it comes to trick shots. If the shot doesn’t work. You don’t get any reaction, and you’re expected to do it again until it does work. It’s definitely a completely different beast.

MK: As you know, in magic there are Sucker Effects. Are there Sucker Effects with trick shots?

CA: Yeah, my shows are filled with stuff like that where they think something has gone awry, and then a ball might pop back out of a pocket or a cue ball scratches them jumps back out onto the table. Or it looks as if the ball is going to miss then curves at the last second to make the shot. So I definitely build a lot of that into my show to make the audience wonder what is going to happen.

MK: Who is your greatest idol in pool, and did you ever get to meet them?

CA: Willie Mosconi, by far. He’s probably the greatest pool player ever to play the game.

I have played him before, and you want to talk about being scared to death to meet someone like Minnesota Fats, it definitely came true with Willie Mosconi.

He’s a little guy, a little darling guy who was so pure…now although the movie The Hustler was allegedly about Minnesota Fats, the pool hustler con man, it was Willie Mosconi who choreographed the scenes, shot a lot of the shots, and I believe had a very heavy influence on how someone plays the game when someone is playing it correctly. Someone who can very gracefully go over to a table and knock balls in.

There’s a scene in the movie The Hustler, when they’re saying how Minnesota Fats is so fluid when he’s playing, they were really talking about Mosconi. But they used the more colorful character of who Minnesota Fats was.

I remember plaing Mosconi in an exhibition game playing nine ball so whoever makes the nine ball wins. And I’m shooting balls on the table, and I’m thinking I’m finally going to win and beat my idol, and I miss the nine ball, and it kind of goes off in an awkward bank and the whole audience goes Ohhhhhhhhh!

They felt so bad for me, and Willie says to me; “Kid, I like you. Take another shot at it. Not from where it was, but from where it lies now. Shoot it again, see if you can beat me.”

Perspiration is dripping off of me, I chalk up and shoot, and the ball again misses a pocket and I’m just crushed inside. He looks at me, and says, “Alright, Kid, I’m going to give you one more chance to beat me, I know you can do it.”

I’m looking at the shot and it goes and jaws right there in the pocket.

Mosconi jumps up on his feet and says; “That’s the shot I was waiting for!”, and knocks it right in.

All this time I thought he was being nice to me, and all along he was waiting for the easiest shot to beat me with.

MK: That’s great!

CA: He was a great character. One of the best people for the game, a real gentlemen. Didn’t like Sharking, didn’t like hustling. Would come into a pool room and say, “I’m Willie Mosconi, the best pool player on Earth. Anyone want to prove me wrong, it will cost you one hundred dollars.” Or whatever he wanted to play for. He was just a no nonsense type of guy. He was that good.

MK: Now you have a unique ring, was that awarded to you? And can you please describe it for those of us who have not seen it?

CA: Yeah, the ring is the ring I won at the Trick Shot Championship. I eventually got two of them, the first one I gave to my dad, the second I kept for myself.

It’s a pinky ring in the shape of a Gold Crown Pool table. It’s the pool table I have in my house. It’s made by Brunswick. It’s got a Malachite slate, It’s got ten pool balls that are made of diamonds, a cue ball made of diamonds, the entire ring is solid gold, then there are rubies in each of the pockets.

It’s a beautiful piece, and something I’m very proud of, I wear it all the time when I’m performing pool or magic.

MK: It’s truly gorgeous, truly gorgeous. Your Dice Stacking Routine is one of my favorites. How did you go about routining your current act?

CA: The entire act…it’s funny, when I first performed at The Magic Castle, probably fifteen years or so ago, the very first week in the close-up room, you know I’ve been partners with Whit Haydn for what seems like forever, we’re the co-founders of The School for Scoundrels, he and I developed that.

Whit has always been a magic mentor to me, he’s someone I have looked up to…I had developed a unique act that had some pool in it, very different from the act you would currently see, performed for a week, and there on the first night, Whit was there, and after the performance I said, “Whit, what did you think?”, and he said; “I loved it, I wouldn’t change a thing.”, “You’re going to win close-up magician of the year.”

I had a trick in the act that Billy McComb and seen, one of the tricks that I developed, so after Whit had seen it a few times that week, he said to me” You know, your act is very strong, has some very strong magic in it, but it doesn’t have enough Chef Anton in it..” “It’s a pool hustler doing a magicians act, and it doesn’t have any of that flair, that con man, swindler, hustler, you’re just doing card tricks and coin tricks.”

By Sunday night, we had changed every trick in the act except the Dice Stacking. It was the only thing that remained in the act. The entire act was completely overhauled. And that’s what got me into my current act, which has gambling exposes, it has The Three Card Monte, the shell game, a trick that’s like the Poloroid Cash Trick, but it’s my own version of it, so it’s very character driven now, from beginning to end.

And it’s an act that I’m very proud of now, because it’s truly a Chef Anton Act. Even if somebody wanted to do the same tricks, it wouldn’t have the same flair, because they wouldn’t have the same character.

And that’s one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned in magic, I learned it from Harry Anderson, from his book Wiseguy. He said most magicians spend most of their time developing their on magic tricks, rather then developing their own magic character.

He said, anyone can do a magic trick, but they can’t steal your character. And he went on to talk about the Needle through Arm, saying, the people didn’t come to see the Needle Through Arm trick, they came to see Harry the Hat, do the Needle Through Arm Trick.

And that’s the thing that I’ve held very, very tightly to me, and now when I do my whole act or my stage or close-up act, or Parlour act, I feel that, the audience remembers Chef Anton, and that part of the act, and not as much just the tricks that were done. It’s the whole experience.

MK: A lot of magicians don’t realize or understand the soul that goes into the choice of the trick. Or the routining of the trick, and then they…I don’t want to say steal…but perform the same tricks without realizing what goes into it. The thought behind it.

That’s why many times, you see magicians who do a trick, and the trick falls flat. It’s far different from a singer singing someone else’s song. Or even someone cooking a recipe by Emeril, let’s say. You can duplicate it, but you don’t know what goes behind it.

CA: Right, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an effect or thought about an effect, and said, Ugh! Too bad Chef Anton would never do it! And then I never do it, because it’s just something my character would never do.

I have a character driven show that has a through line, that has a purpose, and that’s another thing that magicians and trick shot artists miss, is that they don’t know why they are performing.

When they get introduced, and they’re coming out for a show, why are they there? It’s a very poor reason to say, I’m here to entertain you. I’m here to get your applause, I’m here to show off, and you’ll applaud, and I’ll get money, and that’s how a lot of magicians go into a show, Oh, I’m here to entertain you. Well, that’s not a valid reason as far as an internal logic to your show.

For me, my purpose for performing how easy simple honest folk could be taken by some unscrupulous hustler, had we met under some other circumstances, and now, that’s one of the first lines that comes out of my mouth. I set the stage right from the beginning. What there role is during the show, what my role is during the show.

Everyone understands that, and if I deliver that, by the end of my show, I did my job. I did exactly what I told them I was going to do. I told them I was going to lie, I was going to cheat, I was going to steal, and they were going to think that they had an unfair advantage, and they would think that they would beat me, and then they would realize at the end, that would have cost me a ton of money if I had met him on a street corner, or a pool hall, I would have gladly bet him that amount of money, and lost.

MK: Now that leads me to a very important question, which I’ve been asking a lot of magicians today, do you think the art of routining is dying with the advent of a lot of the so-called Street Magic, where the magicians we see today, the whole act is one trick at a time to fry the audience. There’s no connection.

CA: Yeah, I don’t think that the art of routining is dying for that reason.

I think the art of routining is dying from people not wanting to put forth the effort to get a cleverly crafted, well thought out oiled machine, of a trick. It’s very hard to do that. They see the success of David Blaine or some of the other Street Performers, and they go, “Oh, I can do that.”, and I just don’t get that kind of satisfaction out of a trick.

I would much rather have ten or twenty really solid tricks or two or three absolutely killer tricks or have ten or twenty thousand tricks and throw them in any order to make a forty-five minute stage act for my client. I think a really great act like Whit Haydn’s act, or Pop Haydn as he likes to be called, or like Billy McComb, obviously they know lots of magic and can do lots and lots of things, but their acts are very simple, but they are so well thought out. And it’s like a juggernaut, it’s just coming right at you and there’s just no way to stop it.

It’s a very watchable routine, you can watch it a thousand times, and get something new out of it, because, the lines are choreographed, the lines have double and triple meanings, the lines are structured so once you get the first meaning, then you get the second meaning, the tricks have moments in them that are just priceless where your _____by the anticipation, where you can share, even as a spectator, even if you know how everything is done, it’s like walking down the street and you see a guy walking across the street from you and you see a safe that’s dropping from the top of a building, and the guy is just absolutely clueless, and you’re just watching, and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t stop it, and all you can do is watch him get hit like watching a cartoon, and that’s how you feel for the audience.

The audience thinks, okay, I know what’s going on, I know what’s going on, and BOOM, everyone in the theatre gets it at one time. And it’s just so great to sit back and watch that.

That comes from routining, that’s not just from one great effect after another one, that a lot of guys tend to have their whole show, where there’s nothing but one big effect after another big effect, after another big effect, and the show doesn’t have any emotional hooks to it, it doesn’t have an ebb and a flow, it’s not like a fun roller coaster where you go up and down, and turning, it’s just one big hill.

You get to the bottom of that one, and there’s another big hill, and those types of acts just don’t do a whole lot for me. And I just think it’s from people just not understanding how to routine an act, or quite frankly, them just not wanting to put the effort into it. Because it takes a lot of time! It takes a lot of thought! I mean, I’ll work on a trick for maybe five or six years, a trick shot that’s picture perfect before I can insert it in my show somewhere.

And a lot of guys will just read it, watch it, and say, hey, I’ll just throw that in my act. And that’s it.

MK: Absolutely, how many times do you hear stories of magicians who stop at a magic shop on there way to a gig?

CA: Yep, yep, I’ve had it with The School for Scoundrels, where I’ll get a call, “Can you mail me that right away, I have a show on Friday?” And it’s Tuesday, or Wednesday. And they say I need to learn it by Friday, and I’m like, “Oh, gosh!”. And they do it.

I remember one night Whit and I…I developed a new pool trick, and it was a killer effect, but the problem was I didn’t have a perfect applause cue at the end of it. Whit and I, and a lot of other performers are very big believers in that every trick should have a natural applause cue built into the end of it. So one of the worst amateur things to do is to do a trick and then go Ta-da! Then you throw your hands to the side and now you’re taking your applause. Well, now that’s a cheesy way to get applause.

But if you naturally fall into that, because of the way you’re naturally displaying a card, the way you’re displaying the cup is now empty, or the pool cue in your hand, or whatever the case may be, and you just naturally fall into that, it’s a very, very powerful, graceful way of doing the same thing.

That stuff doesn’t happen by itself. I remember being on the road with Whit, and we worked for probably three or four hours one night, to get the applause cue on this one trick. The whole trick was awesome, it was a great trick, it was very powerful, killed everybody who saw it, but I was personally disappointed in it, because I couldn’t naturally get into an applause cue position with it. I got applause, but I wanted to be in to correct position to accept it. And we finally, after a lot of cups of coffee were able to work it out, but I don’t know a lot of performers who would put that much time or energy into doing that.

MK: That’s a brilliant observation. I had said to Whit in my interview with him, that there are two magicians at The Magic Castle that I can latterly can watch endlessly, without ever tiring of them, and one is Whit, and the other is Dana Daniels.

CA: Oh, yeah, they are great performers.

MK: You can watch their acts time and time again, even though you know the line is coming, you still laugh.

CA: Right.

MK: It’s amazing. Now, can you please tell us how you broke into the trade show side od the business, and how do you decide if you are going to do strictly trick shots or magic or do you automatically do both at all trade shows?

CA: That’s a great question. The person I owe a lot to is Al Perez. A guy most people never hear of. He’s a guy who passed away, he was an elderly gentleman, when I had met him, I was working in a pool hall, and I was pool hustling, doing proposition betting and engaging the crowd, having fun with them, and winning all kinds of money, and people just loved it. They were getting hustled, but loved it anyway.

And Al watched the show for a while and afterwards, said, you know I’m having this corporate event next week and I’d love for you to come. We’ll bring your pool table, I’ll introduce you as my Nephew from accounting or something, and I want you to come in and just wipe the place out. But by the end of the night, everyone has to get back their watches, their rings, their wallets, and whatever cash you got from them. And he asked how much would I charge, well, I thought of how much three hours in a pool hall would get, and I tripled the figure, thinking there was no way he was going to do it, and he said, that sounds fair to me. And I was off and running into the corporate world.

I was like, wow, the corporate world…I wasn’t going to get shot, stabbed, beat up, I was making three times the money for half of the work…and I’m going to have a lot of fun doing it.

So I worked that event, then a couple of weeks later he had a trade show. And he said I want you to do the same thing in this trade show booth. It was my first experience in a trade show, and I was maybe fourteen or fifteen at the time. He said it was going to be just the same sort of thing, except people are going to come and go, so don’t get all worked up that people are leaving, just make sure everyone gets back all of their belongings. So I did that, and he brought me back for another trade show six months later, and at this one, he said; “Would you mind throwing out the company name every now and then? It would really mean a lot to me if you said this show brought to you by XYZ company.”
So I did that, and then the next time, he said, “You know they have this new product, could you just mention the name of it, and some of the benefits?”

So it just kept growing and growing. Now from college I got a marketing background, I did a lot of study on the Human Psychology, which helps in my performing trick shots and my magic, and I was always a very good salesperson, just very entrepreneurial, from the days of The Kitchen Magician. So I found it very natural for me to incorporate companies sales messages into shows, and having been a street performer for so many years, I found it very easy to stop a crowd, and engage a crowd, build my tip and tell them what I wanted, which on the streets was, give me money, and when it was at the trade show, it was give me your badges, basically the same thing, so I just found it to be a very natural segue.

I probably do forty to fifty trade shows a year, and easily ninety percent of those are trick shots. I do do magic at trade shows, but it’s maybe one out of five, one out of ten, where I do the magic, because quite frankly, the pool show is one of the most unique shows, that I’ve ever seen on a trade show floor. I’ve been ranked number one trade show performer numerous years in a row, by different magazines and authorities on trade shows. It’s just very unique, very effective.

And I love to defy a myth I hear magicians, trade show magicians say all of the time…I’ve been told countless times, and read countless books on trade shows, which state an act has to be eight minutes. Maybe twelve at the most. And if you do anything longer than that, and if you pitch too hard to the audience, you’re going to lose the audience. Talk too much, you’re going to lose the audience.

My trade show act is a thirty minute act. One act at the top of every hour. Now in a thirty minute act, now, I’ll give you the guess, in a thirty minute act, how long are the pool balls moving?

MK: Oh, boy! In a thirty minute act? I’m going to say, twenty minutes. Because I’m thinking low here.

CA: Okay, you’re going to die when you hear the right answer. The right answer is…eleven seconds!

MK: Eleven seconds?

CA: I do four shots in a thirty minute show. And the pool balls are moving for a total of eleven seconds. So that means for twenty-nine minutes and forty-nine seconds, I’m talking non-stop about the company and tying in the experience the people are sharing back to the company, so they will relay these good feelings and good vibes back to the company that gave them the experience, and not me. And all I do is four ticks—the whole show.

MK: I have to see this show.

CA: Yeah, it’s really an amazing, amazing trick shot show. I do three or four shows a day, but the messaging stays the same, the trick shots change, because once I learned the whole questionnaire and benefit of the company’s product, I do a very lengthy pitch.

I start developing trick shots that help communicate that message to the audience. When the audience members come back with their friends, they’re likely to see a different show than they saw the first time. But the messaging is identical in every show, you get that synergy that one plus one is three, they’re learning the message in a new way, and they are more likely to remember it.

MK: Sounds beautifully designed.

CA: Yeah, it took a long time. I’ve been doing trade shows since ’89, almost twenty years now, and it certainly evolved since the first trade show I ever did to like the trade show I’m doing this weekend in Chicago, but it’s been a fantastic journey, I’ve been having fin, I’ve learned a lot along the way, and I think that it has the strongest amount of kitsch in the show.

There was a survey done, in Exhibitor Magazine, which is like The Bible of trade shows, and they did an independent survey of one on my shows, in a three day period, they interviewed twenty-five hundred people, who watched the show, which in and of itself, is pretty amazing that they found twenty-five hundred people to fill out survey cards, and they found that of the twenty-five hundred people, they had a ninety-two percent retention rate of the top three sales messages that the company wanted me to teach the audience.

MK: Holy Mackerel!

CA: Yeah, that’s just unheard of. There’s no form of advertising anywhere that you can remember ninety-two percent of what you heard in a thirty minute show, in forty-five minutes after the show, filling out cards…it’s something I’m very proud of. There are countless acts that I can talk about, but that’s one of the biggest accomplishments where the audience had a ninety-two percent retention rate.

MK: Now, what drew you into the magical arts?

CA: The magical arts came from my lack of ability to get people to play me at pool, and what I would do is, I would beat them at pool and I would continue to play them, and then they would say no thanks.

So I would bring out three shells, and I’d say, look I feel bad that you lost all of this money playing pool, what if I give you a chance to win some of this back? All you have to do is follow the pea. And then I would win twice as much money.

My early stages of magic were a lot of con games and short change routines, a lot of things I was legitimately doing as a street kid/performer that I was doing for many years.

And it wasn’t until years and years later that I was using what is now considered classical magic tricks. Card tricks, stage tricks, and things like that. It kind of came out of necessity, but what you see now, my close up at, is very similar to what I used to do, get people to bet on the dice stacking and various other con games.

MK: Who were your inspirations when you first started? And if they have changed, who are they, and why have they changed?

CA: In magic? The first real experience I had with a real magician, was with Brian Gillis.

Brian and I were working at an event together, and I didn’t know him from anybody. And I was doing my trick shots and cons and such, and he was doing this amazing strolling close-up act.

And I’ll never forget, I was watching him, and he blew my mind that he could keep getting a card under this cardbox. It was like card under the glass, except he was using a cardbox. And it drove me ballistic. Because it seemed like a proposition bet to me. Like a challenge to me. That he could keep doing this—it was one of those things that I related to quickly and it killed me that I couldn’t figure it out. So I decided to become every magician’s worst nightmare and stand by the side, and not take my eyes off of that cardbox for the entire fifteen, twenty minute set.

I said I’d figure this guy out if it’s the last thing I do. That was my attitude. But by this time, I knew the act, and knew what was coming. It was eating me up inside, and then he goes to the girl, well, you know where the card is, don’t you? And the girls goes, where? And he says, it’s under the ashtray!

And he put the card under the ashtray, not eight inches from where the cardbox was! He looks at me, winks, and says, gotcha again.

And I was like Ugh! And that was the last time I ever tried to burn a magician. I didn’t know any better at the time. You know it was fifteen, eighteen years ago.

So I asked Brian…I said, Brian, you’re really amazing, I’d love to be able to learn some of what you’re able to do—will you teach me?

Now, I remember the conversation where he told me; “I don’t teach magic, but my mentor, can teach magic, meaning Whit Haydn.

Now Brian tells me, I never said Whit was my mentor, I said I have a friend, that would be able to teach you.

So, now I’ll give Brian the benefit of doubt that he said friend, and not mentor. I just remember thinking, wow, if Brian is the great Karate master, then who must this mysterious Whit Haydn be?

So when I first got into magic, I was teaching Whit pool, and he was teaching me magic.

I wanted to incorporate more magic into my trick shot routine, more flourishes, more embellishments, and things like that. I had a very solid act at the time.

I was doing the rising card in my pool act, which is funny, because Whit does this Rising Card in the close-up room, and the first time I saw Whit do the close up act, I said, that was amazing, how did you do that rising card? And he said what do you mean? Because I did it on the pool table, but I couldn’t imagine you could do it in someone’s hand.

So we had a good laugh out of that. And for years I was teaching Whit and his wife Nancy, pool, and Whit was teaching me magic. And I’m a really good magician, and Whit is really a very poor pool player, so either I’m a bad teacher, or he’s a bad student. It’s got to be one or the other.

MK: Other than Whit, do you have Trusted Eyes that you go to when trying out new material?

CA: Oh, yeah. Howard Jay has always been near and dear friend of mine. Joe Monti, is another one who watches the show and gives me a lot of input on the show, Dan Birch is another very good friend of mine.

A lot of different performers come from different areas, Dan is an illusionist and dove magician, and here I am doing something completely different, yet I’ve always enjoyed the way that these magicians have put their acts together. It’s obvious we’re on the same page that way.

Bob Sheets definitely, Doc Eason, these are people who have had very heavy influence on me.

Gazzo. I haven’t seen Gazzo for a couple of years now, but when I was working with Gazzo, we did quite a lot of work together.

So certainly, these are some of the magicians who..Rich Marotta, a magician out of New York…if I’m working out a new effect, my grift sense is telling me there’s something wrong with this trick, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, I could normally go to any of these guys, and they will help me to figure it out.

MK: Now, how important do you feel it is for magicians to perform original material as opposed to doing proven material with their own presentation? Or, is it important at all?

CA: Oh, my gosh, that’s one of the most important things magicians miss by far!

The most important lesson I’ve learned in magic is, when you’re starting out, to basically copy word for word a really great solid act. I mean exactly. The same connotations, the same lines, the same movement, copy it exactly, because in order to be able to create your own original material, you have to understand how a truly great act feels.

And you can’t do that simply by watching a great act, and then try to develop original material, because you watched it. You have to…I feel that a lot of magicians feel that original material is so important that, and this goes back to what I was talking about earlier with Harry Anderson, it’s really a pitfall that a lot of magicians fall into.

I was doing Whit’s act for years while I was developing my stage act and my close-up act. And I was feeling like, wow, this is really like some unstoppable machine, when you’re doing it, and every line has a motivation, and everything has a purpose, there’s no wasted motion, there’s no wasted speech, and you just feel like, this is what an act should feel like.

Now when I started to develop my own material, I would think, this is good. Great effect, good applause, but this isn’t the juggernaut, there are a lot of broken parts, a lot of unnecessary parts in here.

And it’s not until you start tightening those screws, as I like to say, and when you think that you can’t tighten it any more, you get a bigger screwdriver, and you tighten it an eighth of on inch more, and now all of a sudden that act has a whole new feel to it. That’s something I’m a really big believer in. I’ve done basically the same pool act for well over then years now, almost verbatim from what it is now, very little has changed over the last ten years.

But every six months or so, I’ll develop a new line, I’ll develop a new moment, shift a moment, and all of a sudden it feels like a whole new act. And it’s hard for magicians to hear that and believe that you can get that much enjoyment from polishing, and polishing, and polishing and adding some wax, a little more.

But I feel that’s what really makes a great performance. If you look at all of the greatest actresses that ever lived, they didn’t start out just making stuff up, they had to work off of a script and work off of other mentors, studying Shakespeare and studying things inside and out, and then being able to expand from there.

MK: All of the great painters copied the masters…

CA: Absolutely…

MK: …before they struck out on their own techniques.

CA: Yeah, it’s sad to see so many magicians and trick shot artists, miss that. But they’re saying, well, I don’t want to be Chef Anton out there, I want to be original. Be Chef Anton for a couple of years, then be original. Follow Whit Haydn, follow Doc Eason, Bob Sheets, do and act, and really study what makes that act great.

You’re not going to do that act forever, but at least you’ll increase your grift sense. You’ll increase that instinct that tells you when things are right or wrong.

MK: Can you tell us some of the pitfalls you faced as a street magician, and how you overcame them?

CA: I think like most street performers, in the beginning, you have a really hard time building your tip, meaning your crowd. You have a very hard time keeping them from wanting to go. I’ve seen a lot of performers trying to do like twenty tricks thinking that more tricks is going to get me more money, and I’ve pretty much disproved that in my trade show act where I perform four tricks.

You can do an hour show with three tricks because you get so much cream out of it.

Every time you stop a trick, I’ve found, you give the audience a reason to leave. Great! That was a nice trick, really fun—now I’m on my way. If they’re at a trade show, they’re going to another booth. Now if they’re on a street corner, they’re really going somewhere. They have no intention of watching you. So you have to be able to figure out a way to show the audience what you expect from them, you are going to share this experience with them, and they in turn are going to give you applause. You want them to laugh, you want them to put money in your hat, whatever the case may be, they have to understand what their role is, and they have to buy into it.

Basically, by watching the show, they have to agree to the terms you have set up for them. Well, that took a long time for me to understand.

The performers back then didn’t have the DVDs and the books and all of the mentors they have nowadays. Back then it was like can you teach me how that thumb thing works? You know that think you put things in… and they’d be like; “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” They were really secretive, and very tightlipped. If you were another street performer, well, they didn’t want to share anything with you.

And nowadays, it’s almost like the exact opposite. There’s so much information out there. So many books, and so many DVDs, and ninety percent of them are crap. You have to have a mentor just to guide you through and just to sift through all of the junk, just to get you to those few great acts that are out there…the great DVDs that are out there…there are so many young guys out there that have the same problem.

MK: unfortunately the technology makes it so easily affordable to just to put out anything, and unfortunately, the quality isn’t there, not only in production value, but in terms of the quality of magic, the magicians teaching it, let alone the lack of crediting that goes on today.

CA: Yeah, yeah, unfortunately, it’s very true. For me, save all of the special effects, and all of the fancy wipes, and this or that, just give me content!

When Whit and I develop our books and DVDs, they’re designed to be like class notes. Not a whole lot of pizzaz behind them, but if you take the School for Scoundrels, which we offer every November at The Magic Castle, if you take the class, and watch the DVDs, they’re identical.

The information we’re handing out…there’s a lot of information, a lot of content in there. It’s the type of think you can watch over and over again, and still gets lots of information out of there.

I wish more performers would do that type of thing rather than one trick that’s okay, not that exciting, but they have all kinds of computer graphics they want to show off.

MK: Which brings me to my next question…How was the idea for School for Scoundrels born?

CA: It was a class we developed back in ’95 or I want to say ’96, Whit and I had known each other years before that, and we had both been working together, and both had the common interest of The Shell Game, and The Monte, and the cons, and Mark Wilson…I was over at Whit’s apartment when this happened…Mark Wilson, called Whit up, and wanted him to teach a class at The Magic Castle, a kind of beginner’s magic class something like that.

He and I were very heavy into the cons and swindles, so he told Mark, instead of teaching a magic calls, how about we teach a class about con games? Mark, said I love it, it’s a great idea, but we still have to bring it back to magicians.

So Whit and I came up with the idea, of how about we teach a four week class. The first week is Fast and Loose, the second week is three card monte, the third week is the Shell Game, and the fourth week is an application of how con men think and applying that back to magicians. And how the con man is the better role model for a magician then let’s say the card operator. The card operator who seeks to be invisible, disengaged from the audience, you know he’s a card mechanic, doing all of these fancy shuffles, he wants to bring no attention on himself, he’s keeping his eyes on the cards, dealing seconds and thirds, and all that.

The con man is the exact opposite. He’s got this ingratiating personality, he’s got this engaging personality, and he’s hootin’ and hollerin’, you know when someone bets right…Ooooo, ya got me! And then right away, Ha, ha! I got you back.

There’s an emotional exchange that happens, that Whit and I feel is a very big part of performing. People are interested in seeing a change of emotion and what causes that change of emotion, and how that conman will bring the people in. hook them in with their come ons, Come on, come on, come on, I’ll do it with one foot off of the ground, come on, come on, do it again, I’ll show you something, or the way a shill will hook someone in the audience, by having them look at the corner of a card. “Look that one has to be it, because he just turned it over.”

There’s a difference between the hooks and the come ons. So whit and I wanted to explain how con men think and how magicians think, and bring that back to their magic, making for much more powerful magic. Even if they’re doing a dove act. Even if they are doing a big box act, they can still apply the same theories we teach in the class. And that’s how the School for Scoundrels was born.

MK: That’s a brilliant concept. If you could have a conversation with any magician who has passed away, who would you choose, and what would you ask them

CA: Oh, boy—that is a great question! You know, I never met Harry Houdini, I’ve hardly ever seen a video of him, other than what was made up in the movies, and it’s hard to tell what that was.

But the one thing that I remember watching any documentary on him was the emotional hook he was able to get an audience with.

I distinctly remember one of the movies where he was about to get into the water chamber, and he would have the person tell the audience I want everyone to hold their breath for as long as they can. And they have this big clock and it’s ticking, and any time you can no longer hold your breath, you have to sit down, or hold your hand up, or somehow identify yourself. Basically saying, you just died! Because if you were in that tank, and you weren’t able to hold your breath…and he’s still in there…and they would mark it with a big read marker, and another guy would have this huge gong, and he would go GONG!

Every time someone couldn’t hold their breath, and the gong would go faster and faster, and it was really, really intense, and then as the last ones, three were standing, it would go GONG! Then a long delay, then GONG, and it would just remind you of a hospital monitor, like beep, beep, beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep. And that was it, now the whole audience was dead. And here he’s still behind the curtain, and he still hasn’t come out yet, and you can just feel the tension in the air, and then he miraculously bursts through the curtain and he’s all out of breath, and he gets the biggest standing ovation you’ve ever seen.

And I would love to be able to talk to him about the theatrics, of what he did, and the psychology of what he did. Why he did it, and how he developed it, and even to put ten percent of that kind of emotional hook into a show, would be incredible.

You don’t really see that type of theatre performance anymore. Not meaning just in theatre presentation. Maybe because they’re just too long for television, where they want everything quick and fast, and jazzy, whereas this is much more drawn out—he just built the anticipation so well.

I think if there’s anyone I could talk to it would be him, because it was just such a different era of magic that just to find out how he developed it, and why.

MK: Excellent choice. Do you have a favorite magic book?

CA: I’ve got a number of them. Gosh, just to pick one…WISEGUY certainly had a heavy influence on me, Darwin Ortiz’s book STRONG MAGIC, where he talks about the philosophy of magic.

Eddie Fecter’s book, a fun read and lots of interesting tricks buried in there as well. Most of the books on magic I like talk more about the psychology of magic, and the routining and theatre of it. As opposed to a book that just has some great tricks in it.

MK: How has performing at The Magic Castle changed, or helped your career?

CA: The Magic Castle is a really fun place to be performing. I only get out there every other month in a good year, and now due to my trade show schedule, I have to cancel a lot of scheduled time there. I may only get out there four times a year—twice doing my magic and twice doing my pool.

I’ve always enjoyed the camaraderie of the performers at The Castle.

I know a lot of performers use The Castle to try out new routines, or new tricks, but for me it’s such an honor just to be out there that I like to use my more polished routines.

I might slip in a new trick into the routine, but not to develop a whole new routine for my next time at The Castle. The Castle teaches you a lot about performing. The more that I’ve been there, the more comfortable audiences are. I try to encourage them to be loud and unruly.

Sometimes you can get caught up in The Close-up Gallery, of really doing bad magic, bad sleight-of-hand, but the audience doesn’t know, “should I say anything, or shouldn’t I?” “I’m at The Magic Castle and I should be proper .”

But they end up applauding anyway, and sometimes performers get a false sense of security.

Whereas my background is really the streets, and nowadays it’s restaurant work, even though I’m a very successful corporate and more specifically trade show magician, and do motivational speaking, I still work restaurants twice a week, if I’m available.

Because working in the trenches, if you’re doing something wrong in a restaurant, they’re gonna tell ya. That’s a great way to work out new material. I use it to create contacts, and build my contact database.

MK: Now you’re obviously performing magic, and doing the trick shots and trade shows, full time, I’m assuming, along with School for Scoundrels. What was your last non-magical gig?

CA: Gosh, you’d have to go back to when I was twenty-one, twenty-two. I was working for a company called Aramark. What they do is run the food service corporate cafeterias, like IBM. You know, employees gotta eat, and rather than having them go out to In & Out Burger, they want to keep them in the cafeteria.

I was in charge of running the LA Times, which is like a five million dollar account, so I had to make sure all of the employees were fed, and keep the cafeteria going. It was a very high paying corporate job with the 401K, and the company car, and the whole nine yards.

Well my boss quit, and I got this new boss. Well this new boss, didn’t know me very well, and I’m the kind of guy—just let me go free, and I’ll work twenty-five hours a day!

But if you get on me, and telling me what to do…it gets very frustrating for me. It doesn’t make me want to work very hard for you. It shows you don’t really trust how I’m doing my job. I’m a much better independent worker.

So the new boss lady came in on a Friday, and I was the star of this company—I was the Golden Child. And this lady comes in and just tears me a new one, telling me how bad the cafeteria is, tells me how bad the catering is, the client’s unhappy, my fifteen employees are unruly, they’re lazy…on and on, and on.

And I had till Monday to write up my six month plan on how I’m going to change my act to keep my job. Now I was doing magic at this time, I still had my catering business, I was doing pool at the time, I was doing it, but not full time. It wasn’t my only source of income.

I had talked to Whit around that time, I was so upset. I told him what was going on, and Whit said to me, do what you love to do, and the money will follow.

Now I had concerns, can I do this full time and make the money I was making with this corporate gig? It was a six figure income. So it’s a hard thing to give up, with no guaranteed income.

So I went back on Monday, and the lady, her name was Bonnie, meets with me, and says, so do you have a plan? I had a jacket pocket with a sealed envelope in it, so I said, yes I got it right here, but first, I put it back into my wallet, and said, let me show you a magic trick. I think it will break the ice, since we got off on the wrong foot the other day.

And I did The Ambitious Card Routine. I had her sign the card, and it’s here, there, everywhere, then the card vanishes altogether. And she says, wow, that’s amazing! Where’s the card?

And I said it’s right here in this sealed envelope, along with my resignation letter.

And I walked out the door.

MK: I love it!

CA: That first year in magic, I tripled my salary, well, the first year I doubled it, and by the second year, I tripled it. And now I’m making many, many times over what I was making then.

MK: What’s the one piece of advice you have for someone starting out in magic?

CA: Study sales. Billy McComb told me in order to be a Magician, you need to know ten percent magic, and ninety percent business.

In order to be a working full time magician, really making your career doing magic, all your money from magic, you really need to know ten percent magic and ninety percent business, and marketing, sales and negotiation.

So if any young magician wants to come out and be really successful, study business, study marketing, read negotiation books, read goal oriented books, things that will really help you in business, and make sure you have a solid original act.

Trust me. Twenty years ago, there wasn’t a demand for pool trick shot guys on a trade show floor. I created the demand. I had an act that I was very, very comfortable with, and I basically went out there and said, I’m the best in the world that does this. This is unique, this will deliver, so I sold my services to these companies and created the demand. It really didn’t exist at all. And now there’s so much demand, that I wish there were other guys that could do what I could do.

MK: Any closing thoughts?

CA: For the young guys…it’s a great journey, most importantly, enjoy the ride. Don’t just think about the big prize at the end. All of the hard work you’re doing every night, all of the passes and the studying, researching the business and studying the marketing, and all of that…you have to enjoy every step of it. Because if you don’t, you’ll never make it in this business. And if you do, it’s the most fulfilling, satisfying, easy job, that you can ever have. It’s something you can do forever, and you’ll just absolutely love it. You’ll lead a very successful, happy life. That’s how I fell.
MK: Please check out the links below to see Chef Anton in action!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Magical Conversation with Whit Haydn.

Whit Haydn, known affectionately as “Pop”, is one of the finest magicians you’ll ever see.

Born in Clarkesville, Tn. (Whit's family is from the western part of Virginia--near Martinsville), Whit lived in Tennessee until he was nine, then moved to Greenville, NC where he went to high school.

Whit finished college at Lynchburg College in Virginia, and went to graduate school at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va, where he studied for the Episcopal ministry.

His charm is instantaneous. He feels like family and friend all rolled into one from the moment you first meet him. And yet, his wry smile and twinkle in his eye give you the feeling that if you were a betting man, your money would soon be parted from your wallet--forever. His mechanics are perfection personified. His showmanship in a class all by itself.

It is my great pleasure and honor to bring you this Magical Conversation with Whit “Pop” Hayden.

MK: What first drew you into the magical arts?

WH: I saw a performance when I was eight or nine by a Methodist minister at a summer camp. It turned me on to magic in a big way. There was an old man in his eighties that lived close to me in Clarkesville, and he claimed to have been a professional gambler. He taught me the basics of the Three-Card Monte and the Shell Game--at least the basics of the moves. I didn't understand the shills and all the psychology until many years later.

MK: Who were your inspirations when you first started, and if they have now changed, who are they, and why have they changed?

WH: My first mentors were Bill Tadlock and Dick Snavely of North Carolina. They taught me and introduced me to other great magicians like Bill Spooner and Rick Johnson. I was only ten or twelve when I first met Dick Snavely. He was a great magician and a college friend of my parents. He introduced me to Bill Tadlock, who lived much closer to me, and the two of them gave me a great grounding in magic. Later, my friend Brian Gillis introduced me to Eddie Fecthter and his magic. Eddie became a huge influence on my work. Eventually, after moving to Los Angeles, Billy McComb became my mentor and best friend. Besides these men, many others have had a big influence, including Duke Stern, Johnny Thompson, Don Alan, Frank Garcia, and Tony Slydini.

MK: Did you join any magic clubs when you first started?

WH: No.

MK: Did you have a mentor? As we are always constantly learning, do you still have mentors or trusted eyes when trying out new material?

WH: When Billy McComb died, I lost my last mentor. It is a terrible loss, more than just emotional. Billy was like a part of my brain--I could always call him and ask "Where is this from?" or some such question and he always, always knew.

MK: Do you remember your first act? What was the lineup of illusions you presented in that act?

WH: I did many shows as a high school kid, always featuring the rings and ropes. I did some puppetry, and all the usual magic shop magic--Zombie, Hippity Hop Rabbits, etc. My first real "original" magic act was what I created for the street in the late sixties--cups and balls, linking rings, cut and restored rope, billiard balls.

MK: There are two acts that I love to see at The Magic Castle over and over again, and I can never tire of seeing them—Dana Daniels and you. The two of you share a unique ability to get genuine laughs from the audience even if they know the punchline to the joke. I attribute it to a great sense of comic timing, but what do you feel is the reason for the success of your act especially in light of the fact that you have many repeat audience members seeing your act?

WH: Thanks. That is the best compliment you could give me, and I am sure my dear friend Dana would agree as well. I believe that art is judged by just that standard. Most magic acts you can see two or three times and truly enjoy, but never care to see them again. "You get it." That means the acts are disposable art, and not great art. Great acts you can watch over and over and never seem to tire of them. Billy McComb was one of the greatest magicians of the Twentieth Century, I always felt, because you could watch him a thousand times and still find him thoroughly charming, entertaining and interesting--he had many layers and levels of theatrical and magical interest. The Mona Lisa is great because you never tire of looking at it. It is always "fascinating." That is what I look for in art and try to achieve in my performances.

MK: You’ve created a definitive character, but what I’d like to know is how much of the character and the look of your character is you, and how much is the stage persona, and how did you first go about creating your character?

WH: Well, the accent is real. I have worked without a Southern accent for most of my career, having learned to speak general American dialect when I was an actor in my early twenties. The accent is thickened up a bit--I am sort of doing an impression of my grandfather's accent. The character is based on Nineteenth century sure-thing gamblers like Soapy Smith and Doc Baggs, combined with a bit of Medicine Show pitchman, and vaudevillian.

MK: Was the character you now perform as the first character you chose? Of not, what were some of the other characters you tried first?

WH: My original stage character, which I have worked with for more than thirty years, is a sort of clueless substitute teacher dealing with a subject he doesn't understand and "put-upon" by the unruly and rowdy class he is trying to teach.

MK: How important is it to you for magicians to perform original material as opposed to performing proven material with their own presentation? Or is it important at all?

WH: I have written an essay on just that question. Here is a part of a recent post I made on The Magic Cafe on the subject: How does one learn to routine? What is a great routine? What makes a great routine different from one that isn't "great?" How do you construct a great routine? Where do you go to learn routining?Most of the bad magic around today is very clever and original. It just isn't well-constructed because the originators never had actually learned their craft. They had never really done well-constructeed routines and therefore didn't know what they were supposed to look like and feel like.Originality is a stupid goal. It should never be a goal. It is the result of having to change things in order to make them work in your venues, or needing to change things in order to solve a problem or fix a weakness, or in order to give a better expression of your personality or character or the meaning you want to communicate.Originality is not very important to audiences or bookers. Being "different" from others in your performing venues is important for any pro, but that is very different than being "original."Understanding how to actually hit all the notes, and learning how to make a song interesting and full of impact--learning how to sell it--these are all much more important to a musician than having an original approach. Only after "mastery" of the craft should the performer begin working on original presentations.I believe most magicians are encouraged from the youngest age to be "original" and it is both a disservice and an impediment to growth.A complicated art form like magic can only be learned by imitation, and "originality" without craft leads to the worst possible art. Most of the great magicians learned by copying and imitating until they understand the craft. Then their artistic needs compel them to change the work of their teachers and masters.It is hubris to think you can do this before you truly understand the work of the masters.I had performed both the Jack Miller "Five-Ring Routine" and the Vernon "Symphony of the Rings" for years before creating my own "Comedy Four Ring Routine." My routine "borrows" heavily from both of these masterworks. And I could never have created it without having first studied and performed those great routines. I needed to perform both routines in front of audiences many times before I felt I understood how and why certain things worked the way they did. I did not start changing my routine because I wanted to create something original, I was basically adjusting to the new requirements of working on the street, and changing my ring routine to make it work in those special venue requirements. I would not feel the least guilty presenting Jack Miller's or Dai Vernon's routine exactly as written, word for word and move for move in the same sorts of venues they were created for.Magic is not about originality.Besides which, most good magicians are on the level of cover bands in music.They do decent presentations of other people's work, and make a good living doing it. There is nothing wrong with this. Not every great singer is a singer/songwriter. Not every good singer is unique and original. We can't always afford a David Copperfield or a David Blaine for our weddings and Odd Fellows meetings. We hire a cheap imitation and are often very happy with it.My essay was about not getting the cart before the horse. Please learn the craft first by studying the greatest routines by our best performers. Do them the way they were created first, and learn to make them work well in front of audiences before you start creating your own.One should study Hamlet and the work of the actors who have played him in the past before setting about changing all the words, entrances, and presentations. An original Hamlet doesn't necessarily have to have a single change of a line or stage direction. Originality comes from having studied and discovered something new for yourself within the play, not from rewriting the play.

MK: How do you go about creating an original effect?

WH: I don't. Most, if not all, my effects are classic effects. The routines are my own, but I almost always start with a classic effect.

MK: Can you tell us about some of the pitfalls you faced early on as a street magician, and how you overcame them?

WH: I discuss a lot of this in my book Street Magic. I had a lot that I needed to learn, but there weren't any other street magicians around. This was in 1968-69, and the only other magic performer I knew of on the streets was Jeff Sheridan. He and I spoke on the phone, but never met. I worked downtown, he worked in Central Park. Great magicians came to my aid, however. I got great advice from Presto (Earl Johnson), an incredible black magician who had spent years in the Dime Museums and really knew his stuff. He helped me to understand how to work with angles. The Captain was a legless hustler who taught me a lot about nerve and boldness in performance. Ed Mishell taught me the basic rope routine that I used to create the Mongolian Pop Knot. Ken Brookes in London helped me find a way to work on the streets unmolested by the cops.

MK: How was the idea for your SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS born?

WH: I was consulting with Chef Anton in 1995 for his pool trick shot show. I helped him create some magic for his routines. In the process, he and I discovered that we both had interest and experience in hustling short cons, and started sharing notes. About that time, Mark Wilson asked me if I would teach a course at the Magic Castle's new Magic University, so Chef and I agreed to teach a course on street scams. We named it after an old Terry Thomas/Alistair Sims movie from 1960. We wanted to offer the street con man up as a better model for close-up magic than the "card mechanic" model that we have used so prominently during most of the last century. Our students couldn't find the props they needed, so we began making them for the students, and thus our magic manufacturing company got started. The company is just a sideline for both of us. We both make most of our income from our performances.

MK: What are some of the things you and Chef Anton teach there?

WH: We teach hustling and con games like the shell game and three-card monte.

MK: You have an affinity for the great con men of the “Old West” and The Alaskan Gold Rush of the 1890’s. What is it about them and that era that fascinates you?

WH: I feel like a lot of what created modern America and its values was born then, and a lot of the political and social questions that were prominent then are being echoed today in our society--the robber barons replaced by the multi-national corporations, the magnetic belts and ultra-violet rays by crystal healing and psychic surgery, etc. The medicine show is just television--free entertainment used to sell a product. The people and the issues of the period are fascinating to me, and the impact of the Gold Rush on the American identity is profound. I find that the period is a rich source for creating an interesting and very "modern" character.

MK: Do you have a favorite magic book?

WH: Maskelyne and Devant, Our Magic.

MK: Do you feel with the direction both magicians and magic dealers are taking with the fry your audience with one trick at a time, the art of building a routine is dying? And how do you think this will impact magic in the future?

WH: I don't know about any of that. The future of magic is of very little interest to me. I am simply exploring an art form that I find interesting and fulfilling. Very little of what goes in in the "magic world" is of much concern to me. I focus on my own work. I will be very happy when magic's popularity dies, and the magic shops and clubs begin closing down. What is popular now in the kid's toy market is of little interest or concern to me. I am not being elitist, I just don't feel it has any impact on my work and career at all.

MK: How has performing at The Magic Castle changed or helped your career?

WH: It has been a huge help in too many ways to count. I have met and watched and become friends with hundreds of magicians because of the Magic Castle. I have had the privilege of learning from masters like Vernon, Larry Jennings, Bruce Cervon, Billy McComb, Ron Wilson, and so many others. I have had exposure and experience that I couldn't have obtained any other way, and the six performing awards I have won from the Academy have been huge door openers for me during my career.

MK: Are you performing magic full time? If so, what was your last non-magical gig? If not, what is your daytime gig?

WH: Never had any other job than performing magic--I studied for the Episcopal ministry, but never worked in the field. I had jobs as a fry cook and waiter while in college. I worked as an actor/magician/juggler for a traveling theater troupe in the early seventies. Other than that, I have made my entire living from performing since 1974.

MK: What’s the one piece of advice you have for a person starting out in magic?

WH: I have stolen so much that by now it is called research. Steal everything you can. Steal the stuff no one will recognize. Copy. Imitate. Learn to hide your sources. Study. Try to understand what your craft is about and what it is for. Enjoy your work. It is a gift to be able to do something for a living that you really enjoy. The best way to live life is on your own terms. Show business--especially magic--is a very hard way to make a living. If you can do anything else at all besides magic and still be happy, I recommend you do that instead. If nothing else can make you happy but spending your entire life involved in the art and business of magic, I feel sorry for you, and welcome you to the club, my friend.

MK: Check out these clips of Whit performing!

MK: And check out Whit's links: and

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Magical Conversation with Peter Samelson

There are few magicians today who take your breath away. Not just because of their chops, but because of their sense of style and finesse. Peter Samelson is the epitome of that magician. I'm sure some of you have ad the pleasure of seeing Peter perform on video. Let me say, video simply does not do justice. You have to see him perform in person, and I urge you to see him at Monday Night Magic here in NYC, or if you are really lucky, see him at one of the conventions in a town near you. But for now, enjoy our Magical Conversation!

MK: Where were you born? Is that where you grew up?
PS: Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and raised between Princeton, NJ and Ann Arbor, finishing Jr. High and High School in Ann Arbor. Mid youth 4-8 was spent in Princeton, where my father was at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) for part of that time and while my parents were getting a divorce. My mother moved us back to Ann Arbor after my father moved back to teach at the University of Michigan, Department of Mathematics.
MK: What first drew you into the magical arts?
PS: At the age of six my Great Aunt Gertrude Sergievsky gave me a Magic Kit for Xmas. Initially thrilled, my disappointment that there was no real magic in the kit lead me to abandon magic, until, at the age of 11, I saw a magician perform at an elementary school assembly. I unfortunately do not remember the name of the performer, but the two effects that stick in my mind are the Lota Bowl and the Serpent Silk. I bugged my mother to help me find books on Magic and she, in turn, asked her friends in the academic community, which yielded a copy of Professor Hoffman’s Modern Magic, a volume I still have in my library. I did my shopping for effects first at the local store, the Blue Front, where boxed magic tricks were on a spinning spindle situated right next to the adult magazine section. There was also the Johnson Smith catalog, where I could learn to “Throw Your Voice” and buy X-Ray Specs, which would allow me to see through people’s clothing. And eventually, of course, Abbott’s.
MK: Who were your inspirations when you first started, and if they have now changed, who are they, and why have they changed?

PS: My only exposure to Magic, other than that school assembly I mentioned above, was Don Alan on Magic Ranch and probably a performer at a birthday party or two. There was a very short period where the Magic Club I founded had some training from a guy who was temporarily in Ann Arbor, who did magic and Yo-Yo tricks.

MK: Did you join any magic clubs when you first started?

PS: Nope. I started Magic Clubs, founding one in Junior High School and then carrying on and establishing one at Pioneer High School. To the best of my knowledge, that club is still in existence. I have never been a joiner, perhaps a deep seated suspicion of organizations that comes from my family experiences in Europe during WWII and my time in the Boy Scouts and Summer Camp. I have always hated being told what to do and having others decide right and wrong for me. That said, I was a member of the Marching Band, Orchestra and the Junior Theater. In High School, my girlfriend’s father was a member of the local IBM so I had access to his library and met magicians through him, but never was moved to join either the IBM or SAM.

MK: Did you have a mentor? As we are always constantly learning, do you still have mentors or trusted eyes when trying out new material?

PS: Never had a mentor, but found inspiration in watching other performers, including magicians. I had given up magic, for all intents and purposes, during the late 60’s. I felt the government was doing a good enough job fooling people that I did not have to contribute to the confusion of fact and fiction. Up at the Magic Cellar in San Francisco I had the great good fortune to see Tony Slydini perform and he had the same effect on me that the magician at my elementary school assembly had had. I was inspired and energized. I had experienced the shock of real magic. No moves, no sleight of hand. Magic.

MK: Do you remember your first act? What was the lineup of illusions you presented in that act?

PS: The very earliest memories I have of effects include building a tip-over production box, straight out of Modern Magic, and some Adams pocket tricks including Coin in Cash-Register (coin slide) and a plastic sword that penetrated a round block of wood when it was inserted in a tube. Later was the Card Penetration Frame, the Hanson Rice Bowls, Temple Screens, and Zombie.

MK: It was great to see you perform at Monday Night Magic. How did MNM begin?

PS: Monday Night Magic began 10 years ago, when Michael Chaut decided that there should be a place in NY and called me up to see if I would help make it a reality. I said “yes.” I proposed that Michael bring Jamy aboard and he did. That lead to Todd coming along. And Michael had known Frank Brents for a long time, so Frank became part of the board. We started with a single night a month at the Sullivan Street Playhouse and four months later went to weekly. And that was ten years ago.

MK: Your performance showcased some of the classics of magic, proving that they still have the power to entertain, however, I feel that the reason they still worked so well, was due to your elegant style. How did you go about choosing your style and character, and can you elaborate on the choice of material in your act?

PS: Pack small and play big. Find effects you like, dig into them to see what they are about, and write a script that is magical, theatrical and gets your point of view across.

MK: How important is it to you for magicians to perform original material as opposed to performing proven material with their own presentation? Or is it important at all?

PS: Lead or follow. As you point out, I believe that there is value in the classics, but push against the boundaries by trying to create effects that reflect my vision even when it exceeds or strays from existing effects. Often it turns out that someone has already thought of it, but learning it for yourself is important... Then find out what others have done. In college, I produced a version of Macbeth in the style of the Japanese Noh Theater. Only after I had begun this journey did I discover that Kurosawa had already created Throne of Blood. As soon as I had finished our production, I tracked down a way to watch it, to see what I could have added to the version I had created, not through imitation, but through inspiration. Ultimately, it is about what it is about.
MK: How do you go about creating an original effect?
PS: Find an effect I like, dig into it to see what it is about, and write a script that is magical, theatrical and gets my point of view across. Getting to an idea takes different paths. Sometimes it appears out of an image generated by a story or a piece of music, and sometimes the effect comes first, followed by the exploration of why it speaks to me. Both routes can lead to an original effect or an original presentation. Or both.

MK: If you could have a conversation with any magician who has now passed away, who would you choose, and what would you ask them?

PS: Don’t think about it. Would rather have a conversation with my parents who have passed away.

MK: Do you have a favorite magic book?

PS: For beginners, Bill Tarr’s Now You See It, Now You Don’t is a great way to get going. The Magic for Dummies book is great and for more advanced workers, Tamariz’s Five Points of Magic, which was recently republished by the Hermetic Press.

MK: Do you feel with the direction both magicians and magic dealers are taking with the fry your audience with one trick at a time, the art of building a routine is dying? And how do you think this will impact magic in the future?

PS: Fry once, rinse and repeat is only useful for some types of street performers, but those who make serious money build routines, whether they be street performers, close up workers or stage magicians or mentalists. One trick can get a quick video reaction but a performance needs to be built. That takes structure and understanding or incredible instinct.

MK: How has performing at The Magic Castle changed or helped your career?
PS: Yes and no. One might argue that performing there helped put me on the cover of Genii, but working out there only reinforced friendships I had already established. Some work came my way from the West Coast, but almost everything that was significant grew out of my friendships in the Magic World established on the East Coast. That said, I was thrilled to be able to work for the Professor and meet some of the legends out at the Castle, and the Close Up Gallery is one of the best performing venues for Formal Close Up in the world.

MK: You performed before Princess Stephanie, how did that come about?
PS: Performing for the Rich and Famous leads to performing for the Rich and Famous. I was working the World Cruise of the QEII and met a family from Paris that was traveling in the Queen’s Suites. They had four. Each was listed as $340,000 for the whole cruise, and they were doing most of it. I was invited up for dinner and did a private performance for them after coffee and drinks. It would have been my pleasure to do the show for them, as they were generous in other ways, but they insisted on tipping. And tipping very well. Later in the year I got a call asking if I would fly to Paris to work a surprise birthday party for the younger brother who was turning some year in his 20’s. I flew in a couple of days early and checked in to the Hotel de L’Opera, where they had me staying. The party was held at a private club, and was filled with celebrities such as Alain Proust and Nikki Lauda (Grand Prix drivers,) Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top,) Princess Stephanie, astronauts and others. They wanted 20 minutes of Close Up and I worked it hard.. Many parties followed, and they included me in them all. Truly an iceberg of experience of which this is just the tip.

MK: Are you performing magic full time? If so, what was your last non-magical gig? If not, what is your daytime gig?

PS: Although I am performing professionally, in close-up and stage for both the private and corporate markets, I am not making my entire livelihood from Magic,. I run a company, The Afterglow Group, that does consulting for corporate clients and production of multi-media content for on-line and interactive use. This material uses video, Flash, Director, and various graphic sources to deliver advertising, identity and training solutions.

MK: What’s the one piece of advice you have for a person starting out in magic?

PS: Get absorbed by all elements of culture. Spend as much time learning about theater, dance and social interactions as you do about Magic. Find Magic you like and try to learn as much as possible about it as you can. Find all the variations, learn one or two and then find a professional worker who can help flesh out your understanding of the moves, timing and thinking.

MK: Any closing thoughts?

PS: Monday Night Magic has been a wonderful opportunity. It has kept me in touch with the Magic World, even when I was pulled out of the limelight. I urge everyone to come down and see what we have going on.