Magic Tricks Amuse Even In Extraordinary Times

We live in a time where we expect to see amazing things before our eyes, like space ships streaking between stars. Dinosaurs returning to life. Whole planets blossoming with beautiful blue people. So how do you expect to impress people just by sawing someone in half or picking the ace of spades out of a deck of cards? Host Scott Simon visits the Conjuring Arts Research Center in New York to talk with director and magician William Kalush.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

We live in a time where we expect to see extraordinary things before our eyes: space ships streaking between stars, dinosaurs returning to life, whole planets blossoming with beautiful blue people. So how do you expect to impress people just by sawing someone in half or picking the ace of spades out of a deck of cards?

But magic can still enthrall us. Anyone with an interest in what must be the world's oldest other profession, I'd want to schedule a visit to the Conjuring Arts Research Center. It's a small, dark library in the shadow of the Empire State Building in New York City, crammed to the rafters with personal letters from magicians and books on magic that predate Columbus.

William Kalush is the founder of the center. He says magic goes way, way back.

Mr. WILLIAM KALUSH (Conjuring Arts Research Center): What's the oldest thing we know about?

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KALUSH: There's an Egyptian papyrus in the Berlin Museum that tells a story of a magician named Dedi of Ded-Snefru, doing an effect for King Cheops, the great - famous for building the Great Pyramid. And he does a thing where he takes an animal and decapitates it and takes its head - I think he used a duck - and shows that its head's over here and the body's over here and he puts them back together, and duck is perfectly fine and goes on to live.

SIMON: Wow. Wow.

Mr. KALUSH: And I've heard academics talk about this papyrus and they say, well, no, these are fairy tales. But I know as a magician this can be done. In fact, we created a method to do this and then actually performed this a few years back on a television show. And it really just looks like that. It looks like youve taken a chicken - we used a chicken - taken its head off, here's its head, here's its body, and you put it back together.

And now put that 5,000 years ago. This papyrus is about 2500 B.C. - so its pretty close to 5,000 years old.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KALUSH: So that's the earliest. But then there's a big gap and we start getting stories about magicians performing things that we would recognize again, by the time of Christ, about the first century A.D. And then books start to be written telling secrets, and there's some really good things that we could still use as magicians today that were written 2,000 years ago.

SIMON: Like what?

Mr. KALUSH: Well, what can I tell you without tipping too much? There are ways to read minds that are 2,000 years old that still work. There are methods to take your hands in front of the entire audience without sort of covering, take a pot of oil, put it on a fire - when it starts to boil you put your hands in the oil.

SIMON: Ah.

Mr. KALUSH: Take them out.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KALUSH: They're fine. Now you throw the vegetables in, which start to cook and you can make dinner. And this is a method that's still great and would still fool anybody today, yet it's 2,000 years old.

SIMON: Youve done that?

Mr. KALUSH: I haven't done it personally. I would though. I mean weve thought about it.

SIMON: This is something like Jamie Oliver should do on his show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KALUSH: This could absolutely be done.

SIMON: I dont want Nigella to harm herself. But in any event, I dont want Jamie Oliver to harm himself either. But in any event...

Mr. KALUSH: But then there's a jump again, and then when books start happening now, there's lots of records of books - of non-printed books, if you'd like to go into the rare book room.

SIMON: Yeah. Yeah, please.

Mr. KALUSH: Ill show you some of the things that weve managed to collect here.

SIMON: Okay.

Mr. KALUSH: It's a little bit warm, but I'm not going to turn the air on because...

SIMON: This place is beautiful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KALUSH: Thank you.

SIMON: And huge show posters here of, if I knew my conjurers a little better...

Mr. KALUSH: Well, there's Karmie(ph), buried alive for 32 days. Actually was an American, wasnt Indian at all - professed to be an Indian. Fannis(ph), who had now, this is in the '30s, would memorize well in excess of 100,000 telephone numbers. The books, this is where we keep all the books printed and the manuscript books before 1900. And the earliest complete book we have, originally it was written in about 1280.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KALUSH: The first time it was printed was in the 1470s. This example is about from 1480 and it was printed in Rome and it's in Latin. And this particular book is attributed to Albertus Magnus. He's now a saint but he wrote about a lot of interesting things, and in this book he writes about secrets and one of which is how to take a dead fly and resuscitate it, bring it back to life. And here it is, written in the 13th century and printed in the 15th century.

SIMON: Now, if I asked you how do you resuscitate a dead fly, would it be against the code for you to tell me?

Mr. KALUSH: I wouldnt tell you. No. I might tell you the path you might take to go find that method yourself. For example, I've already told you that it's somewhere in this book in Medieval Latin. You might be able to find a copy of this book someplace and find somebody who can translate it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KALUSH: ...and that could tell you what the method is. I wouldn't mind helping you find the method, but I wouldn't want to just tell you the method, because what we're doing here is teaching more than just exposing secrets.

SIMON: Show a man how to do a magic trick and he does a magic trick for a day. Teach him how to do a magic trick and he does magic for life?

Mr. KALUSH: Right. Entertain him for an hour or teach him how to entertain for the rest of his life.

One of the things we do here is we have an outreach program where we send professional magicians into hospitals and they teach kids in hospitals, kids in community centers, and also kids in detention centers, how to do magic. And it's really not about physical therapy. It's really about mental therapy. It's about the ability to project yourself and to show a little initiative and built self esteem.

SIMON: I'm interested in this because (unintelligible) with a kid who's considered to be at risk. He or she learns how to do a series of magic tricks and it lifts their definition of themselves.

Mr. KALUSH: Absolutely. Absolutely. It's all about feeling like you've got some power over your own life, because it's not just about performing tricks. We don't like that word, trick. And you know, sometimes magicians use it, but I think it's the wrong word. I think that it's really about an effect and about a performance and about magic.

And so what we teach these children and the veterans is about having a power. And the power is maybe I can read minds. Maybe I want to have the power to put a solid object through a solid object. And so we create a small set of powers and let the kids choose what power they want to have. It's pretty exciting.

SIMON: There's so much that we can look at now, and for that matter youngsters are growing up with now, that seems like magic, that we know is done by special effects and it's done by computer graphics and it's just, I mean, you see astonishing things. Whole worlds are created that way. Has that made it rougher for magic - conjuring?

Mr. KALUSH: I think - to be honest, that's a great question. I'm glad you asked. And I think that it's made it not rougher. I think it's actually opened the door even wider for us.

Because one of the reasons it's special is because a great - in my - from my perspective, a great performance of magic always involves the audience, whether they pick this card or whether they choose this or when it's a mind-reading effect, what have I done with this and what am I think - these are all things that affect the outcome of the show. So the audience becomes integral.

And I think because of that factor, as long as magicians continue to use that, all of this technology, whether it's in film, whether it's the iPad - which looks like magic to me - I don't think it's going to affect the performer.

SIMON: What's the importance of keeping conjuring going?

Mr. KALUSH: Well, I think a day without wonder is really a terrible day. I think that what keeps people, what keeps science moving forward, what keeps our human spirit, is curiosity and wonder. And I think that as magicians, what we can do when the performer is accomplished, we can give you a peak into what a world would look like if magic were real. I think that if we can allow our audience to feel like there's real wonder and magic in the world, then we've done our job.

SIMON: Thanks very much.

Mr. KALUSH: Well, thank you.

SIMON: Nice talking to you. Thanks for all..

Mr. KALUSH: Yeah, this was wonderful.

SIMON: William Kalush, founder of the Conjuring Arts Research Center in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: We have nothing up our sleeve. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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