Profile

William Murray

We are silting in a corner booth at Elaine's, a dimly-lit restaurant on the second floor of the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, watching Michael Skinner case the room. I le moves quietly and purposefully about the premises like a big, amiable cat, not missing a thing, a bit wary but nevertheless secure in his control of the ambiance.

Elaine's scats ninety-six people, two-thirds of them at candlelit pink tablecloths under a large, low-hanging chandelier, the rest in comfortable, upholstered booths lining the mirrored walls. Tonight the room is about half full and very quiet, most of the diners middle-aged and eating in couples or small groups. Elaine's is one of the few quiet places to eat in Las Vegas, and no one seems eager for action or entertainment, certainly not from anyone who can perform instant miracles.

Michael Skinner is an unassuming-looking, medium-sized man of about fifty, with curly, sandv-colored hair, who wears eyeglasses; dressed for the occasion in a black tuxedo with a ruffled shirtfront, he could easily pass as a member of the staff. Unnoticed by almost everyone, he takes less than five minutes to size everything up, sense the mood of the place, and return to the maitre d's post at the entrance to the room, where he pauses briefly before making his first move. "I walk up and smile," he said once, describing his technique. "I don't interrupt heated conversations and I stay away from macho types trying to impress their dates. I'm also wary of old people, who may have given up on their lives. Women and children are the easiest to approach, bccause they're more open to the unexpected. I say, 4Hi, I'm Michael, the resident magician. Perhaps you'd like to see a little magic. Compliments of the house, no charge, it goes with your dinner. I'll be happy to come by and we'll have a little fun.' I always stress the no charge, so the guy isn't thinking all during dinner and my performance how much it's going to cost him. So I take the pressure off him right away, but generally I'll get a tip anyhow. I'm paid a good salary, so I don't have to hustle."

Michael doesn't have to worry about our booth, because he knows he's got it wired. My wife, Alice, and 1 have put this dinner party together as away of showing Michael off to our friends, a couple from Los Angeles named Lynn and Gary Salt and a couple from Las Vegas, Sally and Paul Houdayer. Lynn and Gary are fans; they've seen Michael work once before and have come from L.A. specifically for the occasion. However, this will be the first time for Sally and Paul, who know very little about close-up and whose only previous exposure to magic has been to such glitter)' big-room acts as Siegfried and Roy or Doug Henning, magicians who like to sawwomen in half or make elephants disappear. I've told them that Michael will come to our table after we've finished eating and show us a few moves, but I'm enjoying the expectation that they'll also become fans, because they arc friends who are open to the unusual and the unexpected.

By the time Michael comes around, an hour or so later, we are ready for him. The table has been cleared and a chair added so that he can sit facing us. After introductions and a little preliminary chitchat, Michael goes to work. He knows that my wife is an excellent audience, so he turns first to her. "For Alice I'm going to perform my mother's favorite trick," he says, "the i

Hopping Thimbles." He holds out his right hand and shows us five white thimbles on the tips of his fingers. "When I recall how I used to practice this years ago, I could never decide how to begin. I thought maybe that better than having five on one hand-" he makes a quick crossing pass with his hands at chest level-" four and one would be better, one on the left and four on the right." A single thimble appears on the index finger of his left hand, leaving the four others in place. "But instead of having four on one"-another crossing pass-"maybe three and two would be better, two on the left and three on the right." This is now what we sec, after which the ballet of fluttering hands and delicate, swooping passes continues, each move reflecting Michael's gentle, almost bemused patter, as if he himself is reacting in wonder at what we see. "Of course...better than having the accent on my right hand...perhaps the accent on the left would be more appropriate...three and two, the logical continuation of four and one...Now, to move from the thumb back to the forefinger and from the forefinger back to the thumb..." And in the end, seemingly without having touched each other or dipped below the level of his chest, the thimbles vanish and Michael holds out his empty hands to us.

Alice, who is seated on Michael's left, no more than a couple of feet from the action of his hands, is sitting straight up, already bouncing up and down with delight. "Bless your heart," Michael says, grinning at her. The rest of us lean forward to see what the magician will do next.

I le reaches into a side pocket. "1 have a number of dollar tokens, six of them," he says, spreading the coins out on the table before us. "I'll remove my finger ring as well." He places the silver ring next to the coins. " This is a favorite Chinese effect called Han Ping Chien, named after a great Chinese magician who created this illusion more than eighty years ago. Han Ping Chien. Watch closely now, because the closer you watch, the less you see, and the less you see, the better for me."

He begins to describe what he's doing. "The ring goes in my right hand, along with three dollars. That's three dollars and a ring in my right...and three in the left." The ring and the coins are now hidden in his clenched fists, thumbs up, held out well in front of him and apart. "Watch, Sally-three coins in my left and what's in the right? Three and the ring. Don't forget the ring. Now, as long as I keep my hands far apart, nothing can happen unless 1 move my thumbs"-he wiggles them several times-and thev go from here...all the way over here." He opens his hands to show us that the three tokens in his left hand now nestle with the other three and the ring in his right one. "Now, they say lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place, but occasionally it does, with perhaps a twist to the ending." Another wiggle of the thumbs and the three wandering coins have returned to his left. hand. "We'll try it again. Han Ping Chien. The ring in the right hand along with three dollars...and in my left hand just three. Is that correct? But are you sure? I'm not sure, so let me check again...Yes, we have three coins in the left...What's over here, Lynn?" He holds his right hand toward her. "Three, and don't forget the ring." He shows her his hand to confirm his patter, then closes it. "Now, as I keep the hands far apart, nothing can happen unless 1 move my thumbs like that-" he wiggles them again, then opens his hands to reveal that all the coins and the ring are in his left hand. Another close, another wiggle, and the coins and the ring move from left to right. He places them all on the table, as we laugh and applaud. "Bv the way," he continues, "if you walkthrough a slot-machine area in any casino, you seldom see people smiling." I le slips his ring back on, then pushes his sleeves back to his elbows. "I'll pull these back, so it's easy on the eyes." He picks up the coins again, three in each hand, and makes two fists. " The reason they don't is: when they pull the handles, only one in ten pays off." He opens his hands and the coins have vanished.

I've always been fascinated by Michael Skinner's hands, because they seem to have a life of their own. They are small, white, and delicate-looking, with the long, perfectly manicured fingers of an ophthalmologist or a concert pianist. In action, as they maneuver small objects or shuffle a deck of cards, they can be mesmerizing. Not a single motion or flick of a finger is unsure or awkward. Even at rest, between moves, his hands convey an impression of power and control, as if like birds they could take off at any moment to accomplish miraculous feats of levitation and acrobatics.

I first became aware of Michael some ?? years ago, during a visit my wife and I made to the Magic Casde in Los Angeles. The Castle, on a hill above downtown Hollywood, is a lavishly decorated Victorian mansion that has become a landmark and a reference point for magicians from all over the world. Once a private home, the house was acquired about thirty years ago by two brothers who were both magic buffs, Milt and William Larsen; they converted the building into a combination museum and haven for devotees of magic in all its forms. The rooms are crammed with antique furnishings, gewgaws, and magical mementos, and decorated by old posters, photographs, prints, lithographs and paintings of long-vanished magicians and celebrated magic acts. The Castle, which is operated as a private club, has a top floor which contains a reference library and reading room open only to members and professional conjurers. Theoretically, only members are allowed to frequent the Castle, but it's not difficult to gain admission, and seven nights a week a sizable public is to be found wandering through the lower rooms admiring the exhibits, dining and drinking in the refreshment areas, and attending the scheduled magic acts in the theatre or in one of the smaller so-called closeup rooms devoted to intimate sleight of hand. Because the Castle also serves as a rendezvous for magicians, one or another of them can usually be found in some corner of the premises practicing their peculiar craft or putting on impromptu performances for their peers and passersbv.

While waiting to attend a performance in the main theatre one night, I noticed a pleasant-looking man, wearing thick glasses, sitting at a corner table near the bar. He was shuffling and riffling a deck of cards while quietly carrying on a conversation with a handful of admirers. From time to time he would fan the cards out to reveal various combinations of colors and numbers, then sweep them up, reshuffle, and fan them out again to show other sequences, and once he spread out a blank deck, scooped it up, reshuffled, and then restored the fan to display the familiar suits arrayed in perfect order.

I wasn't the only one in line entranced by what was going on at the corner table. "That's Michael Skinner," I heard someone behind me say. "He's the best with cards." The line was spoken with the sort of reverence that might have greeted the entrance of Wyatt Earp into a saloon frequented by fast guns. I stepped out of the line and joined the group around the magician, who, it turned out, was explaining some of the finer points of his moves to several fellow artists. "And this," he said, as 1 edged closer, "is the Erdnase Shift. First with two hands, then with one."

The Erdnase Shift, Michael explained, is a maneuver that reverses the action of a cut. It's fairly simple to do. but is not widely used, even by card cheats, because it requires a favorable moment and a covering "patter" to disguise it, conditions not readily available in a big-money poker game. Nevertheless, Michael proceeded to execute the move so skillfully that not once in several demonstrations was I able to spot it. Nor was I able to fathom any of the other moves he went on to show us over the next twenty minutes—fancy cuts using "crimps" and "jogs,"

iii bottom dealing, second dealing, cull shuffling involving from two to nine cards, "blinds," various methods of palming, riffles I had only seen in movies about riverboat gamblers or starring W. C. Fields. And as he performed all these small miracles, Michael continued to talk quietly, soothingly about what he was accomplishing, regarding the action of his hands with a bemused smile, as if he himself couldn't quite believe what he was seeing.

1 found out later over a drink with Michael that he was in his late thirties and regularly employed at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, where, as the resident conjurer, he strolled from table to table in the casino's main restaurants, performing on request. It was the perfect job for a closeup magician, he informed me, because it provided him with a regular income and left him enough free time to hook himself into cruises and to work at conventions, the two other main sources of income available to him. One of the ironies of magic, he revealed, is that the real artists in the field, die prestidigitators who work with their hands and whose effects can only be achieved after thousands of hours of practice, can barely make a living from their skills, mainly because they can only perform in intimate settings for small audiences of no more than thirty people. The big bucks in the profession are reserved for what .Skinner and his fellow closeup artists call pots-and-pans acts. There is little real skill involved and the emphasis is on showbiz flash. "It's mostly mirrors and construction," Michael had explained, "though you have to admire such acts as those of Siegfried and Roy, who work with big cats. The magic is in the presentation and the way they make the animals behave."

Michael loves to talk about his craft in all its manifestations, especially about cards, which he refers to as "the poetry of magic." When I once asked him about the Erdnase Shift, he explained that it was named after the man who perfected it, S. W. Erdnase, the pseudonymous author of a little book called "The Expert at the Card Table," which was first published in 1902 under the title of "Artifice, Ruse, and Subterfuge at the Card Table." The author's real name was E. S. Andrews (S. W. Erdnase spelled backwards) and the reason he chose to hide behind a nom de plume is that, although his book has always been sold in stores as a legitimate work on magic, it has also long been regarded as the definitive textbook on cheating at cards. "But you can't just read it and begin to cheat," Michael said. "You still have to practice and it takes a long time to become good at it."

In his early years, when he was a struggling young magician in L. A., his skill with cards drew the attention of some local hustlers. "They could see the possibilities and they hired me a couple of times to deal big-money poker games for diem," Michael once admitted. "All I had to do once or twice a night was to run in a cooler, which is a prearranged deck that ensures everybody gets a good hand. The betting is heavy, but the big pot, of course, goes to the shill, the house player. One guy came along who offered to pay me thousands and thousands of dollars to go on the road with him, and I was tempted. You have to remember I was starving to death and I thought I could do this for a few months, then quit with enough money to live on." He was talked out of it by Professor Dai Vernon, a celebrated older magician with whom he'd been studying. "He said to me, 'Michael, you're a fine artist and you want to remain one, with your fingers intact.'"

Michael turned down the offer, but occasionally he's still approached by players who want to make a big score. "Cheating has been around since the beginning of gambling," he said, and he pointed out that gamblers and magicians share a common terminology. Such phrases as "into the kick with Charlie" (palming a card and slipping it into your pocket), "gypsying a broad" (switching a card), "putting in a cold one" (introducing the cooler into the game), "a sucker move" (making someone believe he's seeing something he isn't), "a table ribbon spread" fanning a deck), "cutting up a touch" (dividing up the take), "heel and toe a check" (walking mt on a bill) are common to both worlds. "There's something of a good con artist in all magicians," Michael said. "After all, our skill requires fooling people, making them see what you want them to see."

During our first meeting at the Castle, Michael asked to borrow my pen, a gold-plated Cross, then persuaded my wife to loan him her wedding ring. "Don't worry, 1 won't make it disappear," he said. "In fact, I 'm going to give it back to you in a way you'll never forget." He handed Alice :nv pen and instructed her to hold it horizontally out in front of her while clasping it tightly in her fists at both ends. "Watch," he said, "Ring on a Stick." As we all focused on my pen, the magician held up Alice's ring, then made a swift pass that, Alice told me later, felt simply like .1 small breeze passing over the backs of her hands. Her ring now dangled from the center of the pen. "My God," Alice said, "I was holding it so hard my nails were digging into my palms." We'd begun the evening knowing very little about sleight of hand, but we were hooked.

"Often young children come into dinner with their parents," Michael says to the four of us, and when they do, I like to have some specific item that will really entrance the younger set. So if you folks will pretend for a moment that you're about nine years old, you can enjoy what children enjoy so well." I Ie reaches into his pocket for his wallet, opens it, and produces a paper cocktail napkin. "Among the wonderful kitchen appliances we have today, Lynn, to make our homes more comfortable, we have radar ovens, electric dishwashers, frying pans, electric can openers, but the one kitchen appliance not everybody has is a trash compactor. 1 earn' my own with me." He twists the open napkin into a spiral, then crumples it into a ball between his hands. Watch closely, now, my own trash compactor." He opens his hands to reveal a tiny ball of paper :he size of a pinhead lying in one open palm. Alice screams. "Wow," Michael says, as if he had surprised himself, too. "I'd be handy to have around the house." He closes his hand, opens it and the paper has completely disappeared. "I could eat you out of house and home and clean up my own mess. Handy and practical, as well as entertaining, eh?"

We all applaud, laughing, except for Lynn, who has begun to look at the magician as if he might have dropped in on us from some other planet. "Cowboys used to roll their own cigarettes jut of Bull Durham," Michael continues, producing a packet of cigarette papers from his pocket. I happen not to believe in cigarettes, but I'm going to show you what we do with these Bull Durham papers. Watch closely now." He takes a single sheet out of the booklet and tears it in half, then puts the pieces together and tears them in half again, as he chats: "Left side, right >ide...left...right...Once again now...By the way, did you read in the paper about the guy who lost his left side? He's all right now." A corny joke, but by this time we'd have laughed at anything he said. "Watch die paper..." He shows us the four pieces, crumples them into a ball, then slowly opens the ball up to reveal die single sheet, restored.

He shows us another of his mother's favorite effects, which is known in the profession as lumping Gems but which he's named after Liberace. "He used to come and watch me work and was one of the nicest show-business personalities I've ever met," he explains. "He wouldn't ignore anybody. He'd remember names years later, and so even though he didn't give me these"--he produces a small black case and removes two sticks made of black Lucite. 1 tell people they're Liberace's piano keys."

He blows on the sticks and diamond-colored stones appear set at each end. "But I 'm getting ahead of the story," he says. "We don't need diamonds vet." He waves them in a small arc and the stones vanish. He holds the plain keys out toward us. "Boy loves girl, girl loves diamonds, boy looks for diamonds. Should it be this one?" A tiny move of the stick on the right and a diamond reappears. "Or this one?" There are now diamonds on both sides of the key. "His girlfriend says, 'Let me see.' So he lets her look them over." The diamonds vanish from the right stick and reappear on the left one. "She says, 'I'll keep one, take the other one back.'" One diamond disappears from her key and materializes on his. "So he takes it back and decides to keep it for himself. Oh, but she was the greedy one and soon had many diamonds from many boyfriends." He passes her key through his left fist and it reappears set with four stones, two on each side. "Sometimes she'll wear them in pairs." He shakes the stick once and the bottom stones join the two top ones. "Sometimes one in each ear and sometimes a pair in one ear." The gems move in concert with his patter, as if obeying commands. "She even tried to get our hero's solitaire, but all she ended up with was an old beat-up ruby or two." The diamonds disappear from her stick to be replaced by a single rose-colored stone. "But just between us, he had the diamonds all the time." A shake of the right stick and all four diamonds become visible on the key.

"Liberace came in one time and presented me with another piano key, this one more elaborate than the first," Michael continues, putting away the original sticks and producing a single, larger one, set with six differently colored stones. "Sally, many jewels on this pretty key. 1 wonder if you would name a number from one to six, give me any number."

" Three," Sally says.

" That's one, two, three," Michael counts. "You stopped on the rose-colored stone. You could have a diamond, the amethyst, die emerald, but you chose the rose-colored stone. Watch." He turns the key over in one hand. "Because you like that rose-colored one, I'll give you many rose-colored stones." Smiling, he slowly turns it back to reveal a row of six rose gems.

One of Michael's great heroes, he tells us, was the late master magician named Tony Slvdini. He had appeared on television and in night clubs and had been a teacher of magic since 1947, celebrated in the profession for his gentle patter and understated style. "I don't like to disturb people," Slvdini once said, describing his approach. "They don't know what I'm going to ask or how to answer me. So I deal with only one person. I let the rest of the audience relax and experience." Michael recalls that one of his great thrills when he was in his early twenties was attending a magic convention in New York City and seeing Slydini perform what he thought was "one of the most wondrous sights I've ever seen in my life, and 1 still feel that way-Slydini's Knotted Silks."

"I have two handkerchiefs here, two silk handkerchiefs," he now says, producing two white squares from a side pocket. "They're both the same size and the same shape. Now, in a moment, I'm going to tie these handkerchiefs together very tightly, then I'm going to ask one of you to tie the opposite ends so we have a complete circle, O. K.? Now, when it comes time for you to tie them, you can tie them in a square knot or a granny knot--whatever you choose. The main thing is to be sure you tie them tightly." As he talks, he's executing what he describes. "Now that's a square knot," he continues, tightening the knot by pulling the ends apart. "When you tie yours, you can tie any knot you like. Just be sure it's tight. Alice, will you tie the ends for

"Do I have to?" she asks, but she does so, tying as tight a granny knot as she can.

"Tie them again, just to be sure," Michael urges her, and she tics a second knot in the ends, just as tightly as before. " That's right. Pull it tight. Real tight. That's the way. Boy, I've seen some knots, but I've never seen anything quite like this." Michael holds the kerchiefs in his hands, staring at them in dismay. "What kind of knot is that? Boy, I don't know how I'm going to get that one out. I'll tell you what, will you hold on to one of them for me?" Me hands Alice one end of the handkerchiefs. "Let me check my glasses. Everything looks rose-colored, everything looks great. I don't know how I slipped up here." Michael has removed his glasses to peer through them while holding die other handkerchief in his hand, leaving Alice holding hers as if they had never been tied together at all.

I le proceeds to tie the cloths together again in a rabbit-eared, or overhand, knot, then asks Gary, who is big and strong, to pull them toward him as hard as he can. "There you go," he says. "Now, regardless of what you call this knot, there's no way you can take a knot like this apart, unless you untie it the same way you tied it in the first place. Of course, you can go like that"--and he hands Gary one of the silks—but that's another story."

On and on he goes, tying impossible-looking knots, asking us to test them and to tie our own, all of which he slips apart as effortlessly as if the cloths had never been connected. As a finale, he ties two sets of knots in each handkerchief and informs us that people are always asking him ¡f he can tie and untie them "the way normal people do," which he proceeds to do by twirling and twisting the cloths about without ever touching the knots themselves. "I'll never forget the way I felt when I first saw Tony do this," he says, as we slump, limp with wonder, in our seats, and I said, 'Someday I'm going to learn that.' As life turns out, later he shared my apartment with me for a few months in L. A., when he came out to visit the Professor, who was his dear :riend for more than fifty years. In gratitude for letting him share my place, he taught me this personally and it's been one of my prized possessions ever since."

By the time I met Michael he had become something of a legend in the small, circumscribed world of closcup. 1 go to Las Vegas from time to time to watch him perform, and he never fails to produce some dazzling move I've never seen before. Like most closeup artists, Michael rarely refers to his effects as tricks, because implied in the latter term is the use of a gimmick, some sort of device to aid in the achievement of the stunt, whereas a true closeup artist works only with ¡lis naked hands, relying on timing, speed, strength-skills acquired through constant practice.

A few months ago, I attended a two-day magic convention held in a small hotel a couplc of blocks off the Strip. Sponsored by a company that manufactures products for the trade, the event brought together about ninety of the world's best closeup performers, who spent most of the time between seminars showing off moves to their fellow artists. Among those in attendance were such luminaries as Johnny Paul, who used to perform while tending bar in a local casino, and Jimmy Grippo, who is now in his nineties and officially retired but still likes to do card and coin tricks at private parties.

During a general session in which the attending magicians were each given five minutes to show us something, David Neighbors, introduced to the gathering as "a fine young coin man from Denver," moved fifty-cent pieces from knuckle to knuckle across the backs of his hands and demonstrated an effect called Backfire Reverse; a comedian named Bizarre Burton put out his cigarette by pressing it into the clenched fist of his left hand; Geno Munari produced an endless flow of cards from his supposedly empty pockets and made theni vanish into the air; Johnny Paul found ice cubes for his drink in his pants pockets, then took a fifty-dollar bill from a spectator in the front row, tore it up, threw it away and reproduced it intact from inside the box of a deck of cards in his pocket; and Allan Ackerman shuffled a deck of cards, then asked a spectator to ctit it into four packets, after which he turned over the top cards on each one to uncover the aces, an effect Michael considers "one of the ten best ever seen or done." The grace of magic was exemplified in the work of an elderly Japanese named Shigeo Takagi. Conserva-tivelv attired in a shiny blue suit and necktie, he made a delicate ceremonial dance out of connccting and disconnecting large silver rings.

Michael was introduced as a "master magician who didn't need an introduction." He produced a pair of red casino dice, which he held up for us between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. "You know, this is a gambling town," he said, "and, of course, it wouldn't be out of place to have a pair of dice in a town like this. But not everyone realizes that all dice add up to seven on the opposite side. Now, the six is always opposite the one. The trey is opposite the four. And the deuce is always opposite the five. All dice, international law, must add up to seven on the opposite side. So it makes sense that if I put a pair of dice together like this, then the opposite sides in a pair must total twice seven, or fourteen. So if I have eleven on top, I must have three on the bottom." He picked up the dice and moved his hand in a tight little arc, but not his fingers, to illustrate his lecture. "But if I don't care for the three on the bottom, then we adjust die bottom like this." As we stared at the surface showing a six on the left and a five on the right, he brushed his left forefinger lightly across the other side, then raised his right hand to show us what had happened. "Now we have eleven on the bottom and three on top and it still adds up to fourteen. But I met a guy one time who said, 'I think you have eleven on the bottom and eleven on top.' His hand dicn moved to show us eleven bottom and top. "But if I show eleven on the bottom and eleven on top, when 1 actually have three 011 top and three on the bottom, in order for it to add up to fourteen, you need one, two and then six and five..." And his hand continued to swing in its tiny arc, the white dots on the surface of the dice obligingly illustrating his patter, changing sequences and faces without seeming to move inside the firm clasp of his thumb and forefinger. I had known Michael for more than a decade and I had never seen him execute this move.

I got into a conversation later that afternoon with a young magician named Darwin Ortiz, a scholarly-looking man who lectures on magic as well as performs it. "Closeup is so fragile," he said. "It's either very good or it's embarrassing. Even' single thing that happens is calculated, but the trick itself is like the tip of the iceberg. What you don't see is what accomplishes the effect. When I first saw Skinner perform, it changed my whole style of magic. He influenced me a lot, because he made me appreciate the physical aesthetics of every move. I now want even-part of my own work to look beautiful. It takes practice-six hours a day, five days a week. There are 110 shortcuts in close-up."

"There are many ways to shuffle a pack of cards," Michael says, splitting in half the deck he has just opened. "This is an interesting way. It's called the Faro Shuffle, named after an old dealer in the Northwest in the eighteen-hundreds. Faro is an old game that used to be played in Las Vegas years ago, but you seldom see it anvmore. There are many variations of the Faro Shuffle. This is the waterfall." I Ie weaves the ends of the two halves together, first shaping a perfect dovetail, then makes a V with them and allows the cards to tumble from one hand to mother in a stream to reform the pack. "Perhaps even more interesting," he continues, "is the one-handed variation," which he now demonstrates by cutting and shuffling the pack with his left hand. "Evidence, you sec, of a misspent youth."

Lynn, the quietest member of our group, is smiling broadly but looking intently at Michael. The magician senses diis intensity and turns to her. "Now, Lynn, let's perform what I call the two-card test," he says. "I'll place one card on my left, an easy card to remember, a black Four. Black Four goes on my left and a contrasting card on my right, near you, Lynn, a black King." He displays the cards, then puts them in place face down. "See, Gary, we have a Four on the left and which one is this one?"

"The King," Gary says.

Michael turns them both over to show that die cards have changed places.

"How do you do that?" Lynn asks, clearly not expecting an answer.

"Many people say die hand is quicker than the eye, Lynn, or that the quickness of the hand deceives the eye," Michael explains. "Well, I'm not going to confirm or deny it, but I will say that I can change four cards into four completely different ones right before your eves. " He deals r imself four cards, face up. "Let me see if I can change these into four completely different cards. We have an Eight, Jack, Seven, King. They won't leave your sight, they'll stay in plain view the v.hole time." Again he displays the cards, picks them up, and inserts them one by one into the far end of the deck, which he's holding in his left hand. "One, two, three, four. I won't push them all the way in." He allows the four cards to protrude slightly from the end. "As a matter c: fact, why don't we leave them right up here at the corner, where you can keep an eye on them. Watch now." Still holding the pack in his left hand, Michael Hicks his wrist once and propels the four protruding cards onto the table. They land face up to reveal the four Aces. "Don't you v.ish you were playing poker?" he asks.

"You're the greatest audience," Michael says to us, as he reassembles the deck and shuffles k. "The pack is all face down," he says, cutting it. "I'm turning half of it face up and I'm shuffling the face-up cards into the face-down ones." He begins to shuffle again. "Like this...face up and c<>wn...once more...making a mess...like this...and one more shuffle." He completes the action, showing the deck to be a scramble of face-up, and face-down cards, assembles them again into a pack, then snaps his fingers twice over it and quickly fans the deck out into what he calls a ribbon spread. All the cards are now face down, except for the four Aces, which are face up in : ie very center of the fan. "Ah, that's nice," Michael says, beaming with pleasure at his own skill.

He gathers up the cards, turns to Lynn and hands them to her. "Lynn, 1 wonder if you'd take the pack and be so kind as to hand me exactly eleven cards, one at a time." Looking very serious, I vnn deals Michael eleven cards from the top of the deck. "O. K., we'll set the pack down," he saws. "Now, it's very important that I have exactly eleven. Gary, if I need any extra ones, I'll lei you hand them to me one at a time, O. K.? Will you hold on to the pack, in case I need them?" i ie hands Gary the pack while retaining the cards Lynn has counted out for him, and says, "Let ■ne count them again to be sure wre have eleven. One, two, three..." He counts them out, and lays, "Gee, I only have ten. Could I have one more card, Gary?" Gary deals him one. "So now

I have eleven," Michael says, and begins to count again, and again reaches only ten. "I can't get eleven. Could 1 have another card, please?" Gary deals him another one and Michael turns to Alice. "Maybe it's me," he says. "Would you like to count them?" He hands her the cards. "Count them onto die table, one at a time."

By then most of us are giggling, but Alice tries to concentrate. Very deliberately, she counts aloud as she deals, but comes up with only ten cards. "That's what I got," Michael says. "I thought it was me. I--I don't understand. It must be that new math they have in school now. Could I have three cards this time, Gary?" Gary deals. "One, two, three." The magician turns to Paul. "So how many do we have, Paul?"

"Thirteen."

"So if I give him back two," Michael says, doing so, "that should be eleven." He begins to count his cards. "One, two, three..." This time he has thirteen. "Maybe I forgot to give you two, Garv. So here's two more, take a couple more." Gary takes the cards and Michael counts what he has left. "Ah, eleven, finally," he says triumphantly. "But don't take my word for it, Alice. Count them one last time." He hands her the cards.

"Oh, no," Alice says, flushing nervously.

"Oh, wait. Before you start, dear, take an extra card for insurance," Michael says. Gary hands her one. "Now count them."

Alice and Michael count together as she lays the cards down in front of her very carefully. There are only nine. "Even with insurance it doesn't do any good," the magician says, smiling at us. "Oh, my goodness!"

We all laugh and clap, but it's Lynn who expresses what I think we all feel. "You know, Michael," she says, as he relaxes for a few moments, "you're challenging a whole concept of the universe. It's what shamans and magicians have always done-lift people's hearts and minds beyond themselves. There's a healing quality in this."

Michael was seventeen when he discovered magic. A school friend loaned him a book he'd taken out of a local library called "The Amazing World of John Scarne." It was the autobiography of a gambler who had become an expert on gaming and who claimed he could do just about anything lie wanted t.o with a deck of cards. Michael was fascinated by the idea. His second discovery was Erdnase's "The Expert at the Card Table," which be bought through a mail-order catalogue. "I didn't know what it was, but I paid eighty-nine cents for it and I was just hooked," he recalls. "I went through it and I couldn't believe it."

In the library, he looked up all the books he could find on magic and games, then began ordering them by mail from Lou Tannen's Catalog of Magic, the largest mail-order firm for magic supplies in the world. "I was spending all my allowance ever)' week and saving the money I was making from my job as a pinsetter in a bowling alley," Michael remembers. "If I had twenty dollars to spend on magic, I wouldn't blow it all at once. I'd spend three or four dollars on each order, so I'd keep getting packages in the mail all the time. Every day would be like Christmas, with something to look forward to." He would disappear into his bedroom for hours at a time co read and practice. Occasionally, he'd emerge to try some newly acquired skill on his family, something he liked to do especially at Sunday dinners, which were also attended by aunts and uncles and cousins. "My first effects were the Multiplying Rabbits, a sponge-rubber bunny that becomes a couple and then produces babies, and a coin trick called Flying Eagles." His family and friends enjoyed themselves, but Michael had no idea whether what he was doing was any good. All he did know was that he had found his metier.

Michael was born in 1941, in Rochester, and he and a younger sister, Mary Ellen, grew up in a middle-class family of English, Irish, German, and Dutch descent. His father was the head of the engraving department at Eastman Kodak and hoped that his son would take after him, but he never put any pressure on him to do so. " I had a very warm, loving, wonderful childhood," Michael recalls. "Our home was always called Skinner's Motel, because both my friends and my sister's friends were always welcome at our house. We played pool and chess and backgammon and shuffleboard, and we'd go bowling and play golf, and 1 got to be very good at all those games."

Magic, however, supplanted everything else. "I was a very shy, introverted child," Michael explains. "I had a pockmarked face, and pimples, and ears diat stuck out. I wouldn't take otit girls. I was afraid of them and I didn't know what to say to them, I felt so awkward. When I discovered magic, it changed my whole life. It gave me an identity. I began to feel comfortable and confident around people and it changed my whole personality-the fact that I had something nobody else could do and that people would Hock to sec it." The feeling inspired him to work hard at it, an average of eight to ten hours a day.

It was several years before Michael found anyone who could teach him anything about magic. One day, at a magicians' convention in Batavia, New York, he met a man named Eddie Fechter, who had once worked as a professional wrestler and who now managed a small hotel in Buffalo. "He was huge, with arms as big around as my legs and hands like hamhocks, but he could perform like Paganini," Michael recalls. "He tossed me a book of matches with the name of his place on it and told me to come up and see him." The next weekend Michael borrowed his father's car and drove the seventy miles to Fechter's place. "He kind of took me under his wing, like an adoptive father, and I had a wonderful time." Michael hung around Fechter most weekends for four years. They would drive about, dropping into bars and night clubs co perform. "Every closeup magician works single-o and I needed the experience in front of people," Michael says. "1 discovered I really liked working in small groups. I don't really feel comfortable over the footlights. 1 can do it, but I prefer people huddled all around me. There's an air that's set up, a vibration, and I discovered 1 could control the mood of a room in a way that I couldn't from a stage."

After two years of college, during which he spent very little time studying, Michael went to work for the Xerox Corporation, building copying machines. He went to the factory every working day with a pack of cards in his hip pocket and managed to find twenty minutes or so every few hours to practice or to disappear into the men's room and read his magic books. He detested his job and after five years he quit, loaded all of his personal belongings into his car, and set off, in early May of 1967, for Los Angeles. He wanted to see the Magic Castle and meet Dai Vernon, the resident magician there, who was the creator of such original moves as "the breather crimp," and was then considered by many to be the finest closeup artist in the world.

Michael arrived in L. A. over the Fourth of July weekend and drove straight to the Castle, where he immediately introduced himself to Dai Vernon, who was sitting at the bar talking magic to several colleagues. Vernon was then in his mid-seventies. He had long, curly white hair, a mustache, snappy blue eyes, and was rarely without a cigar in his mouth. Not only was he still performing regularly but he proved to be a great storyteller. Michael was enthralled, because Vernon represented everything he himself wanted to become. "He was a modern Merlin, who had established closeup as a fine art, but I soon found out diat he was also a wonderful, compassionate man, forgiving and understanding," Michael says. "He's the most humble magician I've ever met. Not once in the eight years I spent at the Castle did 1 ever hear him talk about himself and how great he was." (Vernon is now ninety-seven and living with one of his two sons in the San Diego area.)

Another conjurer, Ron Wilson, happened to be at the Castle that evening and offered to put Michael up until he could find a place of his own. Michael stayed on for two years, spending as much time around Vernon as he could and practicing. "All we ever talked about was magic," Wilson later recalled. One night, Wilson went to bed around 2 a.m., while Michael was still working on one of his moves, and awoke the next morning to find him still seated at the kitchen table, shuffling cards. "You're up bright and early," Wilson commented, only to learn that his boarder had never gone to bed.

Michael remembers those early months in Los Angeles as an enchanted time, mainly because he was at last doing exactly what he wanted to do. "I became a magic bum, working in magic shops during the day and spending everv night around Dai Vernon." In addition to performing at the Castle, he began to work at parties in Beverly Hills and Bel Air. He acquired an agent and appeared in several television commercials and on the Tonight Show (Johnny Carson is a magic buff), then began going off on cruise ships. Always he'd come back to the Magic Castle and Dai Vernon, whose credo became his own. "If you want to be an artist, you must devote your life to it," the Professor had once told an interviewer. "Chess, music, anything. After you get just so high, you realize that if you want to be truly great, you have to give up everything else-you have to dedicate your life to your art."

During his stints at the Castle, Michael would perform four times a night, seven days a week. Each show was about twenty minutes long, with seven or eight effects. One night, on a dare from another magician, he agreed to perform as long as he could without repeating a move. He was well into his second week before one of the assistant managers asked him to desist, because by that time word had spread, and so many of his colleagues were staying through show after show to watch him work that the paying customers couldn't get into the room. Impressive as that feat was at the time, Michael estimates that he has now mastered well over two thousand effects and adds between fifty and seventy-five new ones to his repertory every year.

In 1975, his agent introduced him to Steve Wynn, the owner of the Golden Nugget. The magician wasn't scheduled to perform that night, but he came in to meet Wynn, sat at his dinner table, and entertained him for about an hour. Wynn promptly offered him what has amounted to a lifetime job, and told him to think of the Golden Nugget as his home. "The timing was right," Michael says. "I'd had enough of L. A. and I was ready to move. Also, I wasn't dating anyone seriously at the time." I le had lived for some months with an opera singer, but she had her own career to think about and Michael had discovered by then that obsessions can put a strain on relationships. "Almost no one likes to be woken up in the middle of the night and asked to take a card," is the way he once put it.

Today, the magician lives with a small calico cat named Teresa in a modest duplex condominium he bought a few years ago several miles east of the Strip. The furniture is heavy and dark and the room looks cluttered, as befits the living quarters of a sorcerer. On the walls hang framed reproductions and prints of such pictures as " The Conjurer," by Hieronymous Bosch, and "Sleight of Hand," a painting by the American artist William Birney. Most of Michael's books, which he began acquiring as a teen-ager, are about magic and magicians; they spill off the shelves, lie scattered about the room and fill several cartons piled up in various corners. Many of them are first editions and have become so valuable that Michael would never part with them. He practices on a custom-built two-foot-square dark wood table topped with green felt on which rest most of the objects he plans to use that particular day.

He begins getting ready to go to work at about three o'clock in the afternoon by meditating on a pile of comfortable Indian cushions in his bedroom, praying (he's a devout Roman Catholic), then taking a long, hot shower and dressing slowly, usually in a tuxedo or a dark business suit. He used to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, but recently quit and this routine has become important to him as a means of keeping relaxed, a state he feels is conducive to good magic. He arrives at the casino around five and eats a light meal, with no liquor. "I'm always trying to slow down time for myself," he explains. "When I'm around my friends, I think and act and talk in a way to make them feel comfortable. When I'm around magicians, we talk tricks and tell stories. But that's not really me. Mainly, I enjoy being alone, because I'm a very solitary person and I want to be myself."

Often, in his public performances, Michael concentrates on just a few basic effects from his huge repertoire. He feels that, his first duty in the hotel's two main restaurants, Elaine's and the less fancy Stefano's, is to make as many friends each night as he can. "I don't want to be a threat to people," he savs. "If the magic goes wrell, they'll laugh and derive real enjoyment from being fooled. I take them back to their childhood. Also, I can get them to talk about themselves. If you show real interest, they'll spill out their lives to you. Magic is a vehicle to get me to their table and make myself known, so they'll want to come back."

Michael devotes the last part of his time with us to several more card effects, including an amazing demonstration of three card monte, which he defines as one of the great classics of prestidigitation. "It's similar to the old walnut shell and pea game and to the games you see played on street corners, with the dealer using, let's sav, two black cards and one red one." He deals himself two black cards and a red Queen, shows them to us and lays them face down in front of him. "A little game from hankypoo," he intones like a sidewalk barker, as he picks up the cards by their edges and begins to move them about, "the black to me, the red to you. All you have to do is keep your eye on the little lady. Five will get you ten, ten will get you twenty..."

Needless to say, none of us ever identifies the Queen, even when he bends the corner of one card, performs the move in slow motion, then uses only two cards. "You can do t his even without a playing surface, just by holding everything in your hands," he assures us when it's over. "This is advantageous, because if the cops break up the game you have no evidence to get rid of, no box or table. You just dump the deck into a side pocket and mingle with the crowd."

By the time Michael concludes another card-counting effect, several of the waiters and busboys on this slow night have gathered around behind him to watch.

"Now I'd like to perform my favorite effect for you," Michael says, gathering up his cards and putting them away. "My interpretation of the ancient Egyptian cups and balls. This is actually the oldest effect in magic. It dates back to the days of the Pharaohs, but I've kind of dressed it in modern dress by using common items-coffee cups and olives." He takes three empty coffee cups, turns them over in a line in front of him and produces three small green olives from his pocket. "And we need a magic wand, Gary, so I also brought a soda straw."

He places one olive on top of each cup. " I '11 pull my sleeves back, so you won't think anything is up there," he says, "and I'll also remove my rings and my watch, so they do not distract your attention from the events at hand." He does so. "The mystery of the cups and balls," he announces, now taking the olives in turn from the tops of the cups. He folds his hand over each olive, causing it to vanish, then picks up the soda straw and taps the top of each cup. "No. 1 on the end, No. 2 in the center and cup No. 3," he says, lifting the cups in turn to reveal an olive under each one.

"Now I can recall how I used to practice this years ago," he says. "I could never decide how to begin, Lynn, so I thought, Wouldn't it be nice to start the three in the center-" He lifts the center cup to show us the three olives nestling under it.

As he proceeds with his descriptive patter, with his hands lifting and replacing the cups, the olives show up, one under each cup again. Then he removes two of the olives from under the end cups and puts them back in his pocket. "It won't be necessary to use all three olives, will it?" he says. "So, Alice, how many would you say are under the center cup, the one in the middle?" *

Alice cannot answer; she's on the edge of her seat, staring fixedly at the center cup. Michael raises it to reveal three olives under it. "I've obviously missed a couple," he says. He puts all three olives in his pocket. "How many would you say are under there, Lynn? Take a look?"

Lynn lifts the cups in turn to reveal three small red potatoes, one under each cup. "Sometimes I'm just as surprised as everyone else," Michael says, setting die cups down behind the spuds. "Lynn, what's under the center cup this time?" he asks.

Lynn is beaming, as if Michael were about to make her a very special gift. She reaches out and slowly lifts the center cup to show us a fourth, much larger potato. She holds the cup motionless in her hand, a smile of absolute rapture on her face, as the rest of us applaud.

After watching the magician perform all these moves that night, I still have no idea exactly how he accomplishes any of them, nor would it do me any good to know. Magicians in general are reluctant to share their secrets and, in the case of closeup, the true mystery is in the skill of the performer. "Magic is not executed on as high a level today as it should lie," Michael once told me. "It's definitely one of the great arts, but only a few practice it at the highest level."

At the end of the evening, Gary asked him, "Are you yourself ever baffled?"

"Occasionally I am," Michael admitted. "Usually it's a highly technical effect involving a new move I haven't practiced or read about yet. And it's a thrill. 1 usually go home and spend half the night staying up to work it out. Generally, I do work out a way to do it. After all, I've been at this for so long, thirty-two years."

"You enjoy it so much," Lynn said. "What you do is so full of spiritual energy."

"I feel it in this life," Michael said. "As you progress through this art, you have the years of painstaking study and practicc and performing experience. If you love magic as much as I do, you always enjoy it, but every few years you look at it in a different way. I'll never experience again the thrill I had in the beginning, the first couple of years discovering all these secrets and practicing them, because I know them all now. Today, it's not. so much what I can do, but the effect that I can create and leave with people. I communicate through my hands and it's much more important to me that people say, 'Gee, what an interesting guy, I 'd like to get to know him better.' And I never go anywhere, you know, without a deck of cards in my pocket, because then I can do either five minutes or five hours. It's my security blanket. When I'm out in the street, I like to pat my deck, because it gives me a good feeling. I know I have that power diere if I need it."

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