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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Teller, Magician

“I wore that magic set out.”

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Teller doing a magic trick at age 11.  

I’m 5 years old and I’m sick with toxic myocarditis, and I’m watching The Howdy Doody Show, and along comes Clarabelle, the magic clown, and offers a Howdy Doody a magic set, to send away for dutifully for three Mars-bars wrappers and 50 cents. It arrived flat in the mail, an envelope about 9 by 12. I take it out and, with the assistance of my parents, tab together little dotted-line pieces of cardboard and make out of them a strange little box that, if you look at it one way, has three Mars bars in it, and if you turn it over it suddenly has six Mars bars miraculously inside the box. And this thing grabs hold of me. There’s a wonderful passage in the play Equus about how a child’s eyes rove over the whole field of phenomena, and suddenly one thing clicks, and it’s like magnets clicking together to form a chain that the person is attached to for the rest of their lives. That was the event for me.

I wore that magic set out. We had a dusty storage room in our little house, and I would sit in the dusty storage room in the afternoon and just work the things over and over again, for my own edification. I wasn’t really performing for anybody. I was just obsessed with it. And incidentally, on my 60th birthday, my closest friend in the world found a copy of the Howdy Doody magic set on eBay, and it was advertised as “the same kind of magic set that got Teller started in his career.” My friend gave it to me, and I just sort of collapsed and couldn’t stop crying, because it was so thrilling.

When I went to college, I started to do fraternity parties, and at this point, I was fascinated with the idea of lying without speaking, because I was very sick of magic patter, where magicians tell you what they’re doing, and they lie to you as they’re doing it. Either they’re telling you something stupid like, “Here I’m holding a red ball,” or they’re telling you a blatant lie like, “Last night in the middle of the night, I woke from a dream, in which I was here in this room, and I foresaw the following event …” All that stuff is so insulting to an audience, and I was rebelling against that. So I started the business of not speaking. I always felt like using music when you’re not speaking is kind of cheating, it’s kind of forcing emotions upon people. And I thought the idea of stripping everything away and just doing actions, soundlessly, wordlessly, in a room, and letting people look at what’s going on and put the pieces together themselves, was a new approach to magic. It just struck me as daring. It was kind of daring to be willing to risk the idea that you wouldn’t be forcing an interpretation on them.

I learned some pieces of magic and developed them further. I learned to swallow razor blades and dental floss, and bring the razor blades up tied to the dental floss. That’s a very effective trick that I still do a version of today; the original version is to swallow needles and thread. That trick goes back to 1813. What I began to learn was that if I shut up and focused very tightly on what I was doing, and had some piece of activity that had a plot that made you say, “What’s happening next?,” that gave you the sense that you were watching a story, and that gave me a kind of power. I exploited that power at fraternity parties. A couple of fraternities hired me, and I went to swallow razor blades dutifully for them, and by not talking, for some reason, it seemed as though I gained a kind of authority and intimacy with the audience. It’s a strange thing. It’s as if you’re taking one of your big pieces of power and throwing it out the window, but you gain more power accordingly.

At one of the fraternity parties, I think it was the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity at Amherst College, I controlled the room for maybe the first time in my life — by not talking and swallowing razor blades. I recall in those days I also did a variation of the trick where you bake a cake in a hat, by pouring a lot of goop into somebody’s fancy blazer pocket and baking a bagel in there. The guy I did that to, a gazillion years ago, I read that he still recalls the shock of my pouring flour into his pocket, because he was a very dapper guy. But any place where people are roaring drunk, it’s difficult. Even now, if you give me a choice between performing in a place where people have cocktails, and a straight legitimate theater where people are just sitting in their seats, I will always opt for the people in their seats. And the business of not talking mostly saves you from heckling. The only person who will heckle a silent person is just a drunk or a crazy person.

But the idea that there really is some kind of mastery that you achieve is completely fraudulent. T. S. Eliot said, “Every venture is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate.” And that’s really true. We’ll be doing something in our show for five years, and you might come and say, “Oh, he’s mastered that.” And I might be going, “I’m just struggling my way through that.” There’s a constant sense that you’re never quite at anything like mastery, because there’s always something new to learn. The moment you say, “Okay, I’m a pro” is the moment when you’re sitting down after a street show and you have stacks of quarters that you’re rolling into $10 bills, and you go, “Wow, that was a $100 show. I think I’m a pro.” It might really be as unromantic as saying, “People were willing to pay me as though I were a professional. I must be.”


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