Prestidigitator

maxresdefaultI think it’s unfair to ask children what they want to be when they grow up. Unquestionably I have arrived at “up,” and I still don’t know the answer to that question.  When I was a kid, my ambitions generally floated around being a fireman or a movie star. How to choose? When I was a little wiser, I added philanthropist to my career options list.

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In sixth grade, my job search turned up “nuclear engineer.” I didn’t know what either of those words meant, but this profession invariably got proud, approving murmurs from my aunts. I don’t think they knew what a nuclear engineer did either, but things nuclear were getting a lot of attention in 1955. In school we were taught the life-saving benefits of ducking under our desks in the event of a nuclear attack.

c161ee097f0085f71dff4c8883c4d59eOnce, after seeing an outdoor performance of “Kiss Me Kate” at the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre, I said I wanted to be a dancer because they got to wear tights in public. This career choice was met with troubled looks.

So I expected applause when I marched in from school one day with a serious answer to that vexing question and announced triumphantly that I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: “I’m going to be a magician.”

My mother was unimpressed. “Well, that might be a good avocation.” She was peeling vegetables at the kitchen table.  “But what would you like to do as a vocation.”

But I had just said it.  I couldn’t be more certain: “I want to be a magician.”

“We’ll see.” She brushed some carrot peels into the waste can.

What my mother didn’t seem to grasp was that this wasn’t some hairbrained scheme I had hatched overnight.  I had chosen my profession after extensive research and thoughtful reflection about many possibilities.  Well, to be completely honest, the precise idea of becoming a world famous, fabulously wealthy magician did come about rather suddenly and serendipitously. But it happened while I was doing serious research.

Screenshot 2019-08-07 at 6.27.10 PMIn grade school, the classified ads in the back of Popular Mechanics Magazine served as my search engine for all sorts of life guidance. One day, I had been scanning these black and white columns in search of a way to transform myself from “a bloodless, pitiful skinny shrimp” into a “muscular red-blooded head-to-toe he-man.”Screenshot 2019-08-07 at 6.24.20 PM

This had become a preoccupation of mine since my body began undergoing alarming growth spurts that left me a gangly kid with a capricious voice. One ad caught my eye and urged me to consider the Lionel Strongfort Institute in Munich, Bavaria, Germany (American Zone.)

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What kind of man are you?  Weak, frail, without energy and ambition?

           STRONGFORTISM
The world-renowned modern science has fulfilled its mission in America and Europe for hundreds and thousands of just such men and women, who adopted the principles of this real revelation and who found supreme health, strength and organic stability. 

Organic stability… Strongfortism…Germany? I don’t know.

Turning the page, I noticed for the first time, that Popular Mechanic’s classified ads had a variety of a suggestions of what you could be when you grew up.  The career opportunities made my head spin:

-WANTED MAN with car TO RUN STORE ON WHEELS.
-Step into a well-paid hotel Position.
-From every indication Auto Body and Fender Repair work will continue to be one of   America’s Big Income fields.
-I DOUBLED MY INCOME-Am My Own Boss-in CUSTOM UPHOLSTERY
-Start a $40 a day business in your spare time with BELSAW Sharp Smith

screenshot-2019-08-07-at-6.24.43-pm-e1569080174502.pngI began to scan the listings more carefully because I knew they contained the key to my future.  In my imagination I could see business cards with my name on them, but I didn’t know what my title should be.  Since my search had now become serious, I skimmed over the opportunity to learn more about the Rupture Easer “for men, women and children” and kept my attention on possible career paths:  perhaps making big money raising chinchilla rabbits, or learning the secrets of ventriloquism from the Fred Wilson School of Ventriloquism in Detroit.  The business world was much larger and more complicated than I had imagined. Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks.

Magic Tricks. It’s fun to do magic.”   Why hadn’t I thought of this before?

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I had wasted all that time thinking about nuclear engineers and dentists and bank presidents when I should have been considering something more solid and serious…like show business. Fate was calling. I could make money and have fun at the same time. I knew it was for me because it all seemed so easy.

I sent my dime away to Douglas Magicland in Dallas, and rushed to the mailbox each day thereafter to look for the 500 tricks that were promised in the ad.  What I didn’t understand was that the 500 tricks had to be purchased from the catalog that I received in return for my dime.Unknown copy

It didn’t matter.  The photos alone were worth the ten cents. I was intrigued by the simple illustrations that showed oily haired men with pointy beards and powerful eyebrows wearing enormous turbans. They were shown producing rabbits from hats and floating ladies in the air.  Some sported white tie, tails and top hats. Their female assistants always looked like Las Vegas cocktail waitresses or refugees from a harem, but who cared? They could float in the air.

It was thrilling to realize that I could be that guy in the turban. I could levitate my sister, Kathy.

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In today’s sitcoms, a character that has a magic hobby is usually portrayed as a nerd or misfit.  I can assure you, though, that in my day being a magician was going to make me a respected man of mystery, a star.  At least, I thought so.  It was an identity.  Kids would say, “I hear you’re a magician” in a way they would never say, “I hear you’re a basketball player.”

I poured over the Magicland catalogue.  Each trick had a brief description and was accompanied by an illustration: The Rising Cards, Hindoo Color Tags, Cups and Balls, Block Penetration.  I was especially intrigued by magical apparatus, the bigger the better: multiplying beer bottles, a box that produced doves, The Vanishing Lady.

The stenciled decoration on the equipment suggested something vaguely Asian or Arabic. The names did too: The Chen Lee Water Suspension, Pyramid of Mystery, Foo Man Choo’s Sawing a Maiden in Half. I left for later the question of what prompted Mr. Choo to think it would be amusing to saw a woman in half in the first place.

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I would have to wait for my birthday before I could afford to buy any tricks.  So I began my magical training at the St. Louis County Library-Natural Bridge Branch in our neighborhood.  Rather than rummage around the stacks myself, I presented myself to the head librarian and told her I was interested in books on the subject of magic.  She looked up from the listing of Dewey Decimal numbers she was consulting.

“How to do tricks,” I clarified.

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I was thrilled to find on the shelf she indicated seven books that explained how to do magic tricks.  The library limited borrowing to three books at a time, so I checked out the ones with the most illustrations and photographs.  Later I would graduate to biographies of Blackstone, Thurston and Houdini.  I was hooked.

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The first thing I learned from the books is that a magician never reveals how his tricks are done.  I took that obligation seriously and solemnly promised myself that my lips would be forever sealed (after I learned some secrets), even to friends and family members.  Unless, that is, someone threatened me with pain, and then the secrets would flow like berries through a goose.

I consumed the books, memorizing their strictures and suggestions.  Practice in front of a mirror.  Never perform a trick until you have mastered it perfectly.  Never do the same trick twice in front of the same audience.  In fact, you shouldn’t call tricks, “tricks.” “Effect” was preferred.  “For my next effect, I will need a volunteer from the audience.”  And no matter what you saw in photos, do not lift a rabbit by its ears.

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Magicians in training were encouraged to develop interesting patter as part of their presentation.  Once again, the Chinese—or at least the 1950’s racist stereotype– figured in prominently.  “One day Chung Ling Soo went to an ancient temple in Peking…”

And jokes were important.  For this I turned to Robert Orben’s humor pamphlets. Depending on who you talked to, Orben either wrote the material that many radio DJ’s used or he listened to the radio a lot and stole the material DJ’s wrote. Whatever the case, he later did write for Gerald Ford, so there’s that. I wasn’t interested in arcane academic arguments about Orben’s creative process, anyway. I was simply happy that such a resource existed if I was going to have to be magical and funny.

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Some of the knee-slapping jokes that became staples in my act were:

  • A Chinese magician taught me this trick.  His name was Ping-Pong.  Boy, did he have a racket.
  • I’m sorry I was late for the show tonight, but I ran over a milk bottle.  It wasn’t my fault.  The kid had it under his jacket.
  • The last time I performed this trick, the audience yelled, “Fine.  Fine.”  And I had to pay it too.
  • You know, I don’t have to do this for a living…I could starve.
  • My parents are in the iron and steel business…my mother irons and my father steals.

It was reassuring to know that if I ever tired of doing magic I had a bright future in comedy.

No matter how much I talked it up, my mother was not encouraging.  “How are you going to earn a living doing that?”  By doing shows, of course.  Kids’ birthday parties… school Christmas parties…and…and…night clubs.  “A ten year old in a night club?  I don’t think so.”

Okay, so I had to work on the business angle more. And that’s where Ernie Heldman came into the picture.  I wouldn’t say he was actually a star, but he did have a show on local television called “The Parade of Magic” sponsored by Pepsi-Cola and Old Vienna Korn Kurls. Heldman was known around the St. Louis area the way the weather man was.  And taken about as seriously.

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“Good afternoon, boys and girls.  Welcome to the Parade of Magic.  How’s tricks? And welcome to a fine group in our studio audience, Cub Pack 235.  Tell me, now, who sponsors Cub Pack 235?”

“Saint…Pa-trick’s…School…P-T-Aieee.”

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On station KSD-TV, every Saturday afternoon at 5:15, Ernie Heldman paraded his magic for 15 minutes.  Sometimes he dressed in black tie and tails.  On other shows he wore a white dinner jacket, just like in the magic catalogue. His assistant and wife Arlene’s outfits made her look like she was about to take your drink order at the slots. “Good luck, hon.”

That’s what I would do.  I would get my own television show.  First, I had to find a sponsor.  Since Pepsi-Cola sponsored  Ernie Heldman, I figured the soft drink category was taken.  After scanning the St. Louis Post Dispatch and flipping through the Yellow Pages, I settled on Pevely Dairy.

I would write them a letter inquiring if they wanted to sponsor my show.

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My mother had recently bought an Underwood portable typewriter.  I figured that typing a letter would make it more business-like and also disguise my youth and my poor penmanship.  I called the dairy and asked for the name and address of the person in charge of advertising.

Dear Mrs. Beck,
I represent a talented young magician named Ted Lorenz.  His amazing tricks and humorous patter have already charmed many audiences of children and adults. I think he is perfect to have his own television show sponsored by Pevely Dairy.
Please let me know if you are interested.

Sincerely,
Mr. Michael Weidner

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was anticipating John Barron and Donald Trump by fifty years.

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I kept the letter short because typing it involved a Herculean effort of hunt and peck.  In the days before Wite-Out, mistakes had to be corrected manually with an eraser while being careful not to leave a smudge. I had to start over several times and there were numerous erasures. It took an entire Saturday afternoon to complete.

A week after I posted the letter, an envelope arrived in the mail.  Madelaine Beck’s name was typed below the Pevely Dairy logo.  My heart pounded as I opened it.  This was my ticket to fame and fortune.

Dear Mr. Weidner:
Thank you for your letter.  Mr. Lorenz sounds like an entertaining magician. Unfortunately, Pevely Dairy is not considering advertising on television at this time.
However, I am organizing the annual Christmas party for our employees’ families.  I would like Mr. Lorenz to perform at the party. We do not have a budget for entertainment.
Please let me know if Mr. Lorenz would be available to entertain at this important event.

Sincerely,
Madelaine Beck, Secretary to the Director of Advertising

No budget?  Mrs. Beck wanted my services for free. I was crushed.  I didn’t dare tell my mother about the incident because this was written proof of how difficult it was going to be to earn a living doing magic.

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While I waited for my birthday to arrive, I learned tricks with coins, cards, rope and glasses of water from my library books. Not one to waste time, I also worked on my magician’s facial expressions based on what I had seen in the catalogues and books.

I gathered that when you zapped the magic power into the dancing hanky with your hand, for example, you should have a facial expression that indicated that magic was also streaming from your eyes.  The eyebrows were the main actors in projecting this mysterious power and arching one of them was essential.

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Perhaps, like me, when you were young, you went through a “discovering my facial muscles” phase.  I did most of my work outs in Geography class. While Sister Ethel Rita traced the path of the Mississippi River on a large roll-down map, I isolated the muscles that could flair my nostils, wiggle my ears and—most importantly—arch my eyebrows individually.  Jim Teasdale in 5thgrade could arch his eyebrows, wiggle his ears, dilate his nostrils and wiggle his chin in a rapid rotation.  But Jim was Olympic calibre.

My birthday approached.  I implored my parents to give me money as a gift and nothing practical like a dress shirt. Each of my aunts sent me two dollars enfolded in birthday cards. My total take came to $17.

On the last Saturday in April, Mom and Dad accompanied me on a journey that I knew was going to change my life. All of the images that I had seen since I received the first magic catalogue danced in my imagination. For months I dreamed excited technicolored dreams of myself in a turban, waving a magic wand and amazing audiences of all ages. And now, at last, I was going to be entering that magical realm.

Mother had remained cool to the whole expedition.  It didn’t diminish  her skepticism any when she learned that the small magic shop was located in a garage behind a house on North Grand Avenue. But I knew that a fantastical experience awaited us. We pulled up in front and walked down the two narrow strips of concrete that served as a driveway, opened the door on the side of the wooden building and entered.

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The garage was newly painted.  Spot lights in the ceiling bathed the room in shadow and mystery. The aroma of lacquer, glue and freshly cut wood perfumed the air.  Shelves lined the back and side walls. On each, exotic equipment stood in pools of light:  brightly painted tubes with neon colored silk scarves bursting from their tops; large bouquets of unnatural looking feather flowers; a plush rabbit puppet peeking over the brim of a silk top hat; fans of oversized playing cards; walking canes and chrome bird cages. In other words: heaven.

The proprietor, Don Lawton, stood behind the long glass counter that held even more tricks and a display rack of “Genii, The Conjurors’ Magazine”.  A courteous man with a soft voice, Don greeted us with a warm smile. Seeing the “Flip-over Box” and the “Egyptian Mummy Mystery” from the catalogue in real life was like running into Tony Curtis or Annette Funicello at Walgreens.  I was tongue tied.  I stood back shyly, so my mother took charge.

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“We’re here to buy magic tricks.”  She didn’t sound like she expected to be mystified.

“Are you interested in anything in particular?”

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For the next half hour, Don patiently demonstrated the Topsy Turvy Bottles, Mutilated Parasol, Rice Bowls–every trick I pointed to. Each was presented with professional polish and patter. Seemingly baffled by the tricks, Dad puffed on his pipe and chuckled in delight at the show; but Mother occasionally shot Dad an incredulous look.

When Don finished a trick, I would express my wonder and inquire about another that I saw displayed. Seeing where this was going, he finally asked, “What is your budget?”  I hadn’t thought about my birthday money as constituting a budget, but I quickly learned that $17 has limited magical power.

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Don began demonstrating tricks that I could afford. To my disappointment, the large apparatus stayed on the shelves as he presented the Vanishing Quarter and Color Changing Silk. Regardless, it was all marvelous to me, even though the Sword thru Neck that I had been dreaming about would have to wait for another day.

I floated out of Don Lawton’s Magic Shop that afternoon with a shopping bag containing The Linking Rings, Color Changing Deck, Chen Lee Water Suspension, and Vanishing Milk Pitcher. 

I would return whenever I managed to put together some spending money. Each time the courtly man with long elegant fingers behind the counter greeted me warmly and, after inquiring about my budget, patiently suggested and demonstrated tricks.  He treated me with respect and seriousness which confirmed in my mind that I had entered the brotherhood. I was no longer a bloodless, pitiful, skinny shrimp.  I was a magician.

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Author: Ted Lorenz

Ted Lorenz was born in Salinas, California in 1944. He graduated from college with a degree in Religious Education and quickly discovered that it was not a handy degree to possess. He began his career in New York City writing for Jerry Lewis Cinemas and drafting press releases for opera and concert stars. Ted produced shows at the legendary Upstairs at the Downstairs in New York and served as talent coordinator for the world famous Bitter End in Greenwich Village where he worked with stars such as Jay Leno and Billy Crystal as they launched their careers. Producing and directing credits include "W.C. Fields, 80 Proof" and the award winning Las Vegas show "Enter the Night." He has produced or directed shows that featured The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Orchestra, and Wynton Marsalis. He has served as creative director for major corporate events. Currently, Ted lives in Paris with his partner. His book "Holy Hell: A Catholic Boy's Story" is available on Amazon.com.

7 thoughts on “Prestidigitator”

  1. Dear Ted, you hit on many subjects here. I remember the he man/strong man ads in Popular Mechanics. I learned that to be a weakling was to be lees than a man. Been compensating ever since! Amazed that you have the original adds. Another stand out the whole idiocy of what do you want to be when you grow up question. As if you are supposed to have that figured out as a teenager or younger. A mere debutant at life! My own father made it easier. I was given a choice of three lofty overachiever professions. All I had to do was pick one. Trouble was they were all his projections. None of them intrinsic to me. I choose the road less travelled – my own journey. Finally, “two wongs don’t make a white!” Another entertaining journey through part of your life. Thanks!

    Like

  2. Ted, this was enchanting to read and amazing to have this glimpse of your parents, especially your mother. I loved it. It was— magic.

    Like

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