Wednesday, June 25, 2008

But wait...there's more.

Allow me to paint some word pictures that will give a bit more detail to the story in the previous post.

I was about ten years old and riding in the car somewhere with my mom. We were heading down Los Alamitos Boulevard (in the city of the same name.) There was a slightly seedy strip mall right near the corner of Katella Boulevard. It was set back a bit from the street and easy to miss. I notice a small sign on one of the shops that said “Magic Shop”.

Later in the day, after we had gotten back home, I mentioned to my mom that there was a magic shop in Los Alamitos.

My mom informed me that I was wrong.

I informed her that she was the one in error.

She poo-pooed my comment and life went on until I brought the subject up a few days later. Once again, we went round and round about whether or not there was a magic shop in Los Alamitos.

Finally, she decided to show me how wrong I was by taking me to the spot where this alleged shop of magic was supposed to be. We got in the car, drove to that location…and there it was, the B & H School of Magic.

I would like to tell you that it was a grand and glorious emporium of amazement. That was not the case. Even to my unsophisticated ten year old eyes the place was a bit shabby. But there was charm in that shabbiness. Much of this came from the owner.

Herb Fiedler was a tall, dark older German man with a warm smile that showed he had been through much in his life (more on this back story in another post). When we met, he stood their behind the counter and demonstrated a bunch of tricks that he thought I could do. We ended up buying a trick pack of cards known as a Svengali Deck. Herb also mentioned that they had magic lessons on Saturday afternoons.

Sign me up! I was hooked. I went through all three levels of classes: beginning, middle and advanced. And I started spending time there at the shop after the classes were over. And after I had graduated from the B & H School of Magic (I still have my diplomas!), I would bend every effort to hang there on Saturdays.

The reason for my eagerness was because there was always a bunch of old guys camped out there on Saturday afternoons, like it was a clubhouse. These guys were ancient…they had to be in their 30s and 40s (that was a painful sentence to write.) They would sit around smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes, doing card tricks for each other and swapping lies. I loved listening to their stories of shows they had done (often with things going wrong) and magicians they knew. I like soaking this stuff up (and I still do. Sitting around and trading war stories about show business is known in the carny world as “cutting up jackpots”.)

On that day I encountered my first sideshow at a carnival, I headed over to the magic shop after I saw the show. Since I was coming in later than usual, one of the guys asked where I had been. I regaled them the wonders that I had witnessed. I then uttered words that forever changed my life. I said, “I want to learn how to do that stuff.”

It turned out that one of the guys, Ralph MacAbee had worked in a sideshow doing magic and he knew a few of the acts like fire eating and the Human Blockhead.

“Yeah, I can teach you all that dangerous stuff…but don’t tell your parents.”

I quietly said, “Cool.”

Ralph then smiled a smile that I thought was just showing kindness, but it was actually concealing the fact that Ralph had a plan.

More later.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

In the Beginning...

The last thing the Internet needs is another blog. But we can't always get what we I thus start this blog. You will find here posts filled with such important information and opinions that this blog might cure cancer!

We begin with how I got to be known as the world's preeminent glass eater.

I grew up in southern California. That's enough of an explanation for some as to why I do the twisted things I do, but it goes further than that. Youthful years were spent in a suburban community. The place was filled with a subtle and persistent insistence that this was not A way of life, it was THE way of life. What more could you want? No need to ask questions. Clean, safe, quiet and the liquor stores opened at 6:00 am.

We have all gone through moments when our private world shifts. Our outlook on life is changed forever. I was twelve years old. A carnival came to our community. On the midway between the crooked games and the rides approved by bribed safety inspectors, there was a large white tent. The front was festooned with colorful banners depicting unusual people doing remarkable things. In front, on a small stage, there stood a man, not the Barker, that's a term only used by Marks. The correct term is Outside Talker. He was doing a Bally. Its short for Ballyhoo, a little performance that makes people want to see the show inside. He used a dollar to build a Tip, that is, to gather a crowd. If his Opening, his sales pitch, worked he would Turn the Tip, this means to get the people to buy a ticket.

I bought a ticket and went inside. I wanted to see that master of magic the talker spieled about on the outside. The magic bug had bitten me a few years earlier. I had learned some sleight of hand. What I had learned was a bunch of tricks, but I had a desire for more. I would seek out all the magic I could with the hope of seeing the real thing, something extraordinary, not just deceptions.

Unfortunately, the magic act in the sideshow that day was the first act of the show, just a time killer until the crowd had all bought their tickets. The rest of the show, however, delivered in spades the very thing that I desired most. There, on that narrow, high catwalk stage were low-life crusty carnies performing miracles. Fire eating, sword swallowing, feats of strength and endurance. And it was all real. Not an ounce of trickery in any of it. They demonstrated abilities beyond the capability of the average person, and that my friends, is the definition of real magic. With my amazement came a hunger to learn and perform these feats of wonder.

As fortune would have it, one of our neighbors had a secret. He was a retired carnival performer. I pestered him until he finally said, "So you want to learn all the dangerous stuff, huh kid? Okay, I can teach you. Just don't tell your parents." And I thought, "Cool". I learned it all. With each skill I acquired there came with it an understanding of the principles of physics and secrets of anatomy that make it all possible. It took hard work and persistence, to say nothing of burns and bleeding flesh. It was all worth it.

Along the way, I picked up the skill of eating glass.

Learning these skills opened up a new part of our universe that I didn't know existed. The world of the carnival. Learning what that is all about has been quite an education in human psychology. I put all of this to good use first working at the last ten-in-one sideshow left out in Coney Island, Sideshows by the Seashore. I was associated with that show and the organization that runs it, Coney Island USA for fifteen years. I was the Executive Director and the Chairman of the Board of Coney Island USA and the Dean of the Coney Island Sideshow School. I no longer am associated with that fine group and a future post will talk about.

Thoughout the years I performed in just about every venue imaginable, from gritty rock and roll clubs like CBGBs to the stage of Carnegie Hall, and everything in between. I have purveyed amazement at events, tradeshow and presentation for major corporations like Fujifilm, Amtrak, Salomon Smith Barney, GE and others. I've also spent a goodly amount of time on the college and university circuit, and have performed on countless campuses from coast to coast. In addition to all of this, I have trouped with the Big Apple Circus, am one of the producers and featured performers of NY's longest running magic show, Monday Night Magic; been the host of the Ripley's Live! show that has been presented around the country and created an award winning theater off-Broadway show called Carnival Knowledge.