LAYERS OF CLAY
When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a magician. From as young as I can remember, the annual David Copperfield TV special was must watch programming. Once my family got our first VHS player, I began recording the specials. I was crazy for magic. My mom would take me to the library where I’d snag books on the history of the craft. I learned everything I could about Harry Houdini. I’d practice in my room for hours at a time, dreaming of performing my own act one day on stage.
For a real special treat, mom would drive me down to the Southside in Pittsburgh where I could prowl around The Cuckoo’s Nest and talk to real magicians. I’d buy the best tricks demoed by the magician on duty. They would answer other questions I had and share fun tidbits about legendary acts. Once I proved my bona fides by showing continual new knowledge of the craft, I earned the right to some juicier inside knowledge. I learned my first false cut right there on the display case glass.
It was a hobby I’d slip in and out of from year to year. During college, I limited my focus to card magic and even developed a simple little false shuffle I never saw in any of the resources I studied. When funds were nonexistent during the undergrad years, I always knew enough gotcha tricks to relieve other students of a spare piece of pizza or two through good-natured bets I told them they’d never win. They willingly participated, exchanging some lunch for flashes of entertainment.
I never cheated to swindle anyone out of money. Well, there was the one time a bunch of frat boys invited me into their poker for money game, and the contents of this one jerk’s wallet ended up in my pocket, but he was a real bully. I may also have dealt a card or two from the bottom during social nights to avoid consuming anything I didn’t want.
Long after the childhood dreams of being a professional magician had waned, I went to see David Copperfield for a third time, this last show in Las Vegas. I so wanted to be selected to go onstage. He walked right past me twice but no dice. At the end of the show, I had my hands on the ball one had to catch to go up on stage and get vanished, but I was the second person to catch it, and only the third person got chosen. I tossed it back into the crowd, and it fell into someone else’s hands, having literally slipped from my fingers.
Maybe I was never going to perform magic on stage, but it would be amazing to be included in a professional act, I thought. What’s it like to be one of those lucky folks tapped from the audience to join world class magicians on stage? Guess I’d never know.
Alas, time rolled on, and I continued to admire magic from a distance, occasionally wondering what life would look like if I was the guy drifting from table to table at restaurants, tossing sealed decks against the sealing only to leave signed cards stuck up there over the heads of slack-jawed diners.
But I haven’t really practiced or done much legerdemain in nearly a decade. So when I happened to Vegas this week for work, you know where I spent my free night.
There is no shortage of magic acts in Sin City, but there was no question who owned the best act I had never seen—Penn & Teller.
Penn & Teller have been around a little longer than me, performing together since 1975. They are hilarious, smart, and wickedly talented. Their hit show Fool Us on CW is great and keeps them up there as perhaps the most recognizable magicians going these days. At their heart, they tell lies on stage as a way to tell the truth in life.
I bought a ticket in one of the closest seats to the stage in the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio Casino and spent the day anticipating a great act. I would be positioned only a few feet from the performance. All afternoon, I daydreamed about getting up on stage.
There are all sorts of different acts to get involved in. Some illusions require dozens of folks to stand on the stage at once. Other tricks require only a couple people who do or say very little. Some magicians use confederates planted in the audience for certain routines. But the coolest ones, I always thought, were the folks who got to go up by themselves and really interact with the performer. “Helen” from Copperfield’s 1990 special still stands out. Yes, I know the names of audience members from a quarter century ago. By the way, she was immediately preceded on that show by a cameo appearance from none other than Penn & Teller, who helped Dave recover his television camera.
As I got ready to go out that night, I scrutinized myself in the mirror an extra moment just in case I found myself on stage in front of a live audience. As I took my seat, I thought how suspicious it would look if they picked me out of the crowd, this guy sitting all alone up there.
So, when Penn Jillette pointed directly at me and asked me to join him on stage, I was exhilarated but ready.
Here is what it’s like to be that person called up on stage, particularly when you’ve dreamed about it your entire life.
Penn—the only speaking member of the act—had already set up the trick, explaining how magicians always use fake blindfolds that anyone can see through. So, Teller—ever silent and brilliant—escorted a young lady named Jordan on stage. Penn instructed her to become a human blindfold, so there she stood face to face with Teller, covering his eyes with her hands. The way they stood stage left like that, Teller’s back to Penn and this unsuspecting girl cupping his face was really funny.
That’s how they stood when Penn called me up. As I ascended the steps, he asked my name. It was surreal, especially to hear this familiar voice saying my name so many times. I could see every detail up close like that. His left ring finger is always polished red, a tribute to his departed mother, but I could see the sparkling, glitter topcoat on other nails. I saw the tiny mic attached to the right side of his glasses. We could smell each other’s breath.
I looked at Penn, then across the stage to Teller’s back and Jordan laughing. I looked out into the crowd, which is to say I stared into a black mass shrouded in bright light. You can’t see much of anything from up there. It’s probably what it looks like as you’re dying, which is likely how reluctant audience members feel when they’re pulled up on stage.
Not me. After speaking in front of people most of my life, that part didn’t bother me. The challenge, though, was to contain my inner 11-year-old who was exploding inside. Focus, I thought. Listen to what the man’s saying because you have to do stuff, and he’s explaining things, and OH MY GOD HE HAS A DECK OF CARDS IT’S GOING TO BE A CARD TRICK! You know, stuff like that in your brain makes it difficult to follow simple instructions.
Penn said most magicians would force me to select the card they wanted me to pick, but he wouldn’t do that. Instead, he gave me about half a deck and asked me to fan it. I spread the cards out before me.
“Think of any face card there,” he said. “Don’t touch it or say it, just think of it.”
My eyes drifted to an Ace as most eyes do. Hazy thoughts from years ago about mental forces tried to emerge in my brain, but I squashed them down, telling myself to not mess anything up. That’s one of the best parts of participating in magic, the feeling that you control things over which you hold no sway. I saw a King of Spades then glanced past a Jack and settled on the Queen of Hearts to its left.
He told me to close the deck and shuffle. I went into a quick overhand. I’m not sure if I jumped the gun or if he was just pretending to be surprised, but as I shuffled the cards under the bright lights he said something to the effect of, “Or you can do it that way.”
A quick exchange followed, something like:
“Say the name of the card you selected out loud.”
“Queen of hearts,” I said, being sure to project.
“Clay, did I tell you what card to pick in any way?”
“And the cards are in your hand. Do you even know where the Queen of Hearts is?”
“Not at all.”
I surely was grinning like an idiot this entire time, but it was true. I had no idea where any card was in the deck that I held and had shuffled myself. I thought of all the tricks I had done that took place in someone else’s hands, how they always wondered if they had messed it up, how they would never believe that they had no bearing on the outcome they were being led to no matter what they did.
Penn continued. “Clay, is this deck marked in any way?”
I inspected the cards in my hand. Red bicycle deck—the magician’s standard. “Nope.”
And if it was, he reminded Jordan and I, Teller couldn’t see because his eyes were covered by her hands.
Penn instructed me to cross the stage and deal the face down cards one at a time into Teller’s hand. His back was to me, his right arm extended behind his back, palm up, Jordan covering his eyes.
Since I had no clue what was about to happen, I was not performing, yet I was part of a performance. Jolts of excitement bolted through my body in charging waves. Audience sounds came and went, only half registering as I placed the first card face down onto Teller’s palm, for he would know, truly and magically, when the right card was placed there.
He rubbed it slightly between his thumb and fingers before throwing it with dramatic contempt behind himself and through the space between our legs. He flicked the card as if he were insulted that I would even waste his time with such an obvious fraud. Big laughs from the audience, and I was right there with them, both spectator and participant.
I dealt a second. Then a third. Each one he whipped or flicked with pantomimed disgust. One slammed into my foot, and I laughed so hard as it settled on the stage in the greatest discard pile of my life. The fourth one, I believe, he sent spinning out into the second row of the crowd.
I have no idea what Penn was saying behind me that whole time. I was an obedient monkey following instructions and playing along. All I know is that around the fifth card down in my pile, he paused and asked me to once more state the name of the card that only I had selected in the deck that only I had touched.
“Queen of Hearts,” I said.
“Turn over the next card.”
And like tens of thousands of random people before me, I turned over that card, eyes wide as flying saucers. As I slowly turned it over for the big reveal, I heard someone say, “No way!” and realized it was me who was speaking.
Gasps. Applause. Penn thanked me, shook my hand, and told me to keep the queen card. I don’t remember handing either of them the rest of the cards, but I must have before floating back to my seat.
As the applause concluded and I sat back down, the lady seated next to me said, “They really didn’t plan that with you before the show?”
“Nope,” I said, appreciating how suspicious it looked, but it was all true, just as they saw.
All of that, and I had attended all by myself. Not one acquaintance to freak out with. Not one picture since photography isn’t permitted (rightfully so in the world of magic). What I wouldn’t give for video of that event!
As the show concluded, just after they vanished an elephant onstage, we all filed out in a slow parade of pleased patrons. A number of folks flashed double-takes my way and eyed me with suspicion as I used the restroom and strolled out of the theater, the Queen of Hearts securely nestled in my back pocket.
I touched the tip of the card repeatedly, as if I were checking to see if I had actually just experienced one of the coolest things ever. I had not done the trick, but it had all happened in my hands. I knew I controlled nothing, that they were all over it, but it still felt magically incredible.
I had actually stood on a stage fanning, shuffling, and dealing a deck of cards in one of the best magic acts in the world.
Penn & Teller are generous with their art. They hold the ability of all great performers to make each show feel special and new, as it is for many people in the crowd, even if the pros have done the act countless times. Penn remembered me later as he walked through the crowd celebrating the success of a trick which literally included the participation of every person there. He remembered me one final time outside the auditorium after the show.
They’ve invited tens of thousands of fans up on stage, but for me it was a once in a lifetime experience, and the realization of a dream that started long ago, in that time when fantasies incubate in youthful minds unencumbered by the pressures of adulthood.
Then again, who knows? Maybe it’ll be a twice in a lifetime experience someday. Because if I ever go back to Vegas—and Penn & Teller’s show is a great reason to do so—I’ll be sitting right up front again, escaping reality and watching magical things through childlike eyes. For the greatest feat accomplished by guys like Penn & Teller is how they can transport us back in time and allow us to spend a couple hours living in a state of awe and wonder. That’s the real magic, the power behind those beautiful lies.
How amazing it would be to do such entertainment for a living, to bring that much joy to that many people through such cool feats for that many years. No, I’m not rethinking my career choices, but I just might have to dig out the old magic trunk and start carrying a deck of Bicycle cards with me everywhere I go again.
Now, if I could just find a volunteer, someone who can help me with this next trick…