Sleight of Hand

Storytelling and impossible objects

by Hannah Fleming, illustration by Charlie Theobald

My Amtrak train ride was a trick. I avoided the smog swaddling cloth of the Pacific Coast highway, yet I stood before a vessel reminiscent of “James and the Giant Peach,” a tin can with the label peeled off. A gust of wind lifted my scarf and covered my eyes for a moment, giving me an uncanny sense of foreboding: I saw my name in a sea of fine print, invisible in the back corner of a bankrupt San Diego newspaper, a statistic of an Amtrak train crash. The next gust of Santa Ana winds would send the last paper copy into the sewer. As we boarded the train, not a single passenger on the platform had lifted their eyes from their cell phones. 

There were no assigned seats. I must have looked terrified because a woman moved her giant handbag and beckoned me to take its place. My eyes darted between the woman and a man at a four-top in a top hat, shuffling cards like they were floating. He wore a lion ring on his right hand. When he looked up at me, I was met with cloudy blue eyes and tufts of blonde hair that were coming out from under his top hat. 

“You can sit here if you’d like.” He placed the cards in a neat pile. “But I’m not playing with a full deck.” 

Eric Stevens, magician, author and speaker introduced himself and said he was on his way to Los Angeles to visit The Magic Castle—a private clubhouse for magicians. He promptly delved into a card trick that seemed impossible. (As Stevens later explained, “If it were impossible, I couldn’t do it.”) 

The trick, called The Ambitious Card, is the bread and butter of every illusionist from Howie the birthday clown to David Copperfield. I selected the Ace of Clubs. It went back in the deck. Then, the magician snapped his fingers and revealed the card on top—it was mine. 

“You have to mix and match,” Stevens says. “Sometimes I’ll snap my fingers and it comes to the top again, and I put it back in the middle of the pack. When [the audience] looks up the playing card is sticking out of my mouth.” 

Regrettably, the magician did not wow me with his mystic molars. What Stevens had in store was a far better business move: he allowed me to write my signature on the back of one card, and the name of a loved one on the back of another.

You can probably guess where this is going—but you probably can’t guess how. 

“The first card goes between their hands, and I do a little bit of mystic mumbo jumbo. Then when they turn it over, this random card that they signed on the back, it’s transformed, with the loved one’s name on the other side of the card. So they now have this impossible object they get to take home with them,” Stevens says. Sure enough, I turned over the card with my signature and found that my friend’s name in Sharpie had somehow transferred backgrounds. 

At one time, the magician included his business card with the keepsake—that time has somewhat passed. “I realized very quickly that this wouldn’t get me very many books because everyone will put that card away in their wallet, and they’ll probably put the business card in a different spot.” He says the most important thing is what you take home with you, a memory of the trick, the feeling of wonder, the physicality of this object. When I dug through my bag three days later, I discovered the impossible object was still there and the business card had somehow evaporated. 

Stevens is first and foremost an entertainer who “happens to do magic”—and no, his sparkling demeanor does not conceal an inner cynic. Outside the scratched train car window, the sun lowered. We pulled the shade down so we can read poems from our cell phones and discuss how ridiculous screens really are. “I love magic, almost every kind, there are few exceptions. It’s my passion—getting paid for it is just a bonus. And the business side of it is just more of a nicety,” Stevens says. His job is to create a meditative space for patrons and passersby, absorbing their attention, allowing them to “sit down and enjoy life.” 

A few weeks later I spoke to Joe M. Turner, a corporate magician whose clientele is typically a company or association of some kind. “So I’m speaking directly to them or I’m speaking on their behalf to an audience of their patrons, customers clients, their market,” Turner says. The current president of International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM) is casually a cardsmith himself—only for him, the business side of being a magician is intrinsically tied to his clientele and to his magician identity. 

In this environment, Turner claims the success of magic hinges on a sale: on the principle of pattern interruption and the way an experience is delivered. 

“If you study salesmanship, you’ll hear that one way to get a client to pay attention to you and break down a barrier is by interrupting their preconceived pattern of how the interaction’s going to go…something unusual or unexpected happens,” Turner says. The audience is left scrambling for answers, reassembling themselves as a result of what they’ve seen. According to Turner, “their defenses are down.” If they’ve been amazed in a fun way, the performer receives credibility. For Turner’s audience, fun is extremely helpful in shattering the perception of magicians as Dumbledore look-alikes performing street magic, or as the manipulative Edward Norton in “The Illusionist.” For the companies, it is a godsend. 

“Frankly the fact that you’re doing something entertaining at all in many corporate settings is such a breath of fresh air that they’re willing to listen to you. The real trick is being able to take any idea and translate that into magic. There’s a certain family of ideas that are always going to be in play: ‘We’re high quality, we’re more successful, we’re more bang for the buck,’” Turner says. 

And if he’s supposed to help someone sell toilet seats? 

“Pretty much any idea can be transformed into an entertaining presentation—it’s just a matter of finding the right kind of presentation,” Turner says. He describes his style as a talking act that uses comedy, wordplay and interesting quotations along the way. Underneath it all, Turner considers himself to be a sort of teacher. “I’m not one of these mysterious, dark music playing, fire pops up from the sides and the wind blows your hair and you strike a pose. I’m more influenced by Johnny Carson or Dick Van Dyke or these performers who engage you with personality.” 

Personality is key—and as Eric Stevens says, “That’s something a lot of magicians fail to do: they don’t know how to create or find a good hook, get people interested. It took me a long time to figure out how and I’m still figuring it out.”

Magic folk may be able to charm anyone, but they tend to run in the same circles. Both Stevens and Turner have visited The Magic Castle (Turner has performed in all three of the Magic Castle’s performance rooms) and cite it as the treat of all meet and greets. It is a private nightclub for magicians and the clubhouse for the Academy of Magical arts, a place where even the bartenders are well-versed in dark arts and every great since 1930 has performed a hundred times over. Located in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles, the line out front is comprised of sun-tinged Southern Californians. 

Stevens says he grew up seeing pictures and hearing about the Castle. The first time he got to experience it, oddly enough, it didn’t seem real. 

“You speak the password to this little statue of an owl and the bookcase moves to the side…The moment I stepped inside I felt nothing like I’d ever felt before, like my heart was just pumping and there was something besides the blood pumping through my veins, and I was where I belonged in this place, in this spot, with these people,” Stevens says. 

The first item on his magical bucket list: perform in The Close-up Room, the smallest of the three Magical Castle performance rooms and what Stevens refers to as his “ideal performance space.” The Close-Up room seats twenty to twenty-five people and is best suited for micro-magic, anything from card tricks to coin flips with intimate audience participation. “Turner, a southern gentleman, prefers the second of the three rooms known as the The Parlor. “Last time I worked The Parlor, my whole show was musical theatre themed. It was connective tissue and it all wrapped up beside the magic happening it fit together and it made sense—you don’t always get to do that in the same way,” Turner says. 

In the Castle’s main areas, you approach the nearest famous magician at the bar and pull a business card from behind your ear. You straighten your necktie, bowtie or bolo tie and admire the classy dress of your fellow magic makers, marveling at the way the scene seems to be from a different time. 

Even outside of The Magic Castle, Stevens isn’t sure he belongs in a millennial space. On the train, he played music from the Netherlands reminiscent of the Renaissance and quoted Shakespeare. At the top of his non-magical bucket list: to stand underneath Big Ben as it strikes midnight. 

Stevens asked “Do you believe in time travel? Do you believe it exists?” He says he receives a range of answers but his is always the same: “Time travel does, in fact, exist. For example, you have the International Dateline. Daylight savings time—if you chose not to put your clock an hour back you’d be living an hour in the future.” Time travel turned into a card trick, another variation of the Ambitious Card. I’m not sure if I’ll ever understand it. 

In the Ambitious Card, the card comes to the top. “So why does anyone care that a card comes to the top? A lot of magic is like that—there’s no justification for anything, it happens for its own sake. Usually what will happen is that I will have a pocket watch. I’ll have them sign the card, it goes in the deck. As I’m speaking about time travel, I freeze—and then I start up again as if that’s the moment the time travel happens,” Stevens says. 

Magic, as defined by both Eric Stevens and Joe Turner, is a feeling. The way the hair on the back of your neck stands up, the response to the human in front of you who has skills that work in tandem with perception. If the emotion of astonishment is a real, then magic must be. The magician’s job, as Turner explains, is to create that experience—and it is a lived and ancient experience, one that stems from an oral tradition. It is the kind of storytelling that can’t be enjoyed via YouTube.

“Everything is a story—whether you’re teaching Spanish in a classroom or you’re delivering a sermon in a church or you’re selling Coca-Cola on television. Whatever you’re doing,” Turner says. “If you’re giving a presentation at work, you’re still on stage. And the nature of the stage may change, but those elements of live performance and storytelling don’t. If you want to be more compelling and more engaging then you’re going to have to find some performers to help you because that’s what we do.”

The Amtrak train pulled safely into Los Angeles Union Station. Stevens and I stood in the aisle, ready to disembark. The lady with the handbag stood next to us. She was smiling, perhaps after listening to our conversation during the train ride. Before we came to a stop, Stevens gave me a “magic stick:” it is red on one side, while the other is broken into sections of five different colors. Soon, I will be able to make it appear as though it has the same pattern on both sides with my barely-acquired sleight of hand. Had Stevens not gifted it, I would have bought the stick in a heartbeat to impress everyone I know. 

I practiced as I walked through the crowded tunnel of the train station, feeling travelers brush against me as they raced towards the platforms. Many seemed lost in words on screens—I was lost in a ridiculous object, my small reminder of wonder as I entered the land of strict vegan diets and Arnold Schwarzenegger.