As we travel along life's path, we inevitably meet many people -- and many people meet us. Some of these people are quickly and easily forgotten. Others remain in our memories -- and in our lives -- forever. For one reason or another, we never forget them. Some, of course, we remember because our meeting was not what we wanted or desired. Experiences we do not enjoy are easily remembered. Other people are remembered because their words and actions had a profound influence on what we later became. From these last, perhaps, we have learned something, something of value.
Learning something of value from others is not always dependent upon spending long periods of time with that person. Sometimes brief meetings with certain people have great power over us and our lives -- and so they last forever.
Let me tell you about two individuals whose words or examples had a deep and lasting effect upon me. The first is not a magician; the second is.
The non-magician was the philosopher Alan Watts who helped bring Asian philosophy into Western consciousness in the 1950s and 1960s. You can still find many of his books at your local bookstore. Probably his most famous book, The Way of Zen, remains a wonderful introduction to Buddhism in general and Zen in particular.
I met him 10 days before he died in early 1973. How I met him was itself rather magical. I was living with several housemates at the time and one of them, Marcella, got it in her head that "if you want to meet someone, you should just do it." Well, we all wanted to meet Alan Watts and knew that he was in Chicago giving a two-day seminar nearby. Basically, we "kidnapped" him during his two-hour lunch break and took him to our house and had a perfectly marvelous time with him for about an hour-and-a-half -- and then we returned him.
When you think about it, an hour-and-a-half isn't a long time. Yet this brief meeting had a profound effect on me. Even though it was 25 years ago, I still remember two things quite vividly. First, Alan Watts was having a grand time being Alan Watts. We laughed at his stories until our sides hurt. He was an expert entertainer and he was thoroughly enjoying it.
The other thing I remember was something he said to me: "Sensible people get paid for playing. That is the Art of Life."
At the time, struggling with a job I didn't especially like, his words passed right over my head. I understood them on a verbal level, but I certainly did not understand them deeply. That understanding was to come years later, after I had become a professional magician.
A brief meeting, yes, but its power has lasted over twenty-five years. His words and, especially, the joy that he seemed to be having simply being himself are gifts that have remained with me through the years.
The other person was the magician Irv Weiner. I first heard of Irv in the 1950s when Holden's Magic Shop marketed his effect "Soft Dice." The dice were made of sponge in different colors and the basic premise was that, with soft dice, you wouldn't disturb the neighbors when you and your friends were gambling late at night. It was a clever routine and I enjoyed performing it.
When I heard about Irv's death in December of 1999, I spent some time reflecting upon the few brief times we had spent together. And, again, I realized that I had been given a valuable gift.
I suspect that many who are reading this have no idea who Irv Weiner was. That's sad. Though he had been sick and inactive for some years, in the late 1970s and 1980s, his show, "Mr. Fingers," was one of the top non-music college programs in the United States. For several years, he received the award for Best Show of the Year. And he greatly deserved it.
As I said, I spent very little time with Irv -- in Chicago for a few days when he gave a lecture and workshop, and then at Ray Goulet's shop in the Boston area in the 1980s. Yet, I greatly admired him. Not the least important, Irv had triumphed over alcoholism. Others have told me stories of how low he had sunk before his recovery. When I met him, those days were long past. What remained was a sense of positive power. And he wasn't afraid to give his audience positive messages throughout his show, messages of power and hope. He often closed his show by telling his audience that his own parents were deaf and he learned to communicate with them using sign language. Then he taught the audience to sign the phrase, "I love you." Now he performed the "Tom and Restored Cigarette Paper" as his closing piece, signed "I love you" to the audience -- and got his standing ovation.
There was something elfish about Irv. To me, he was like a leprechaun. He wasn't a tall man and he had a short white beard. He absolutely sparkled when he was performing. His eyes lit up and twinkled and his smile was irresistible. It reached across the footlights and touched you.
Before I tell you the great gift I received from Irv, let me tell you something about his show. In one sense, the magic effects he performed were hardly new and earth-shaking. Irv Weiner was a great testament to "It's not just what you do but how you do it."
This isn't to say his magic wasn't powerful. It was. He did a very clever book test. He performed a prediction effect where the prediction was in a sealed can. The college would provide an electric can opener so the can could be opened and the prediction confirmed. He also performed an effect called "Problems in Dimension," which was a two-in-the-hand, one-in-the-pocket effect except that the sponges used were different sizes and shapes.
And then there was his Thumb Tie -- called the "Red Tape Thumb Tie" -- which is probably one of the two best and most practical methods ever devised for this effect (the other, in my opinion, is Jay Marshall's "Jaspernese Thumb Tie"). Another of his effects involved a coin vanishing from a folded piece of paper (Irv's handling on the coin fold was excellent), which appeared in a small nest of boxes that a spectator had been holding.
Max Maven tells me that Irv had an effect where he brought out a jewelry box about 8" by 6" by 1" deep. Irv would set it on the table, open it, and immediately remove three very tall metal cups for his "Cups and Balls" routine.
When Irv performed the "Miser's Dream" he literally transformed himself. He turned away, rumpled his hair, and turned back with crazed eyes. He was a miser and now he was dreaming of money appearing at his fingertips. The acting was wonderful and everyone understood the message.
When we look at these effects analytically, we discover something rather fascinating. Basically, Irv Weiner was performing close-up magic on a stage before audiences of one to three thousand people. And his audiences were loving it and voting for him as the best college show of the year!
And that was Irv Weiner's gift to me, a gift given during several brief meetings. Irv taught me -- and, even more importantly, showed me -- something that was later to be reinforced by my study of the shows of Max Maven and Billy McComb: You can do close-up magic on stage if the effects are clear and if you know how to do it!
Thank you, Mr. Fingers!
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