GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Now, there are magic tricks - the kind your uncle performed for the kids on Thanksgiving. And then there are magic tricks - the kind where every member of the audience holds their breath because the stakes are life and death. SNAP JUDGMENT's Anna Sussman spoke to a real magician, Mr. Steve Cohen.
STEVE COHEN: The moment it became real for me, where I started to have a little bit of cold feet, was when I visited the firing range. I was actually now standing on the end of the range where typically they have those paper targets. No one's supposed to stand there. Like, people don't stand there; it's just not something you do. And I had a man standing in the other end with a pretend gun in his hand. He was just holding his finger up like, you know, kids play cowboys and Indians. That's when it really became real. My palms started to sweat a little bit. And, you know, at that point also, I knew that I had to do it, so I couldn't turn back. But still, I have two kids, I'm married and I didn't want to leave, you know, my wife a single mom. I never wanted to do The Bullet Catch. It was actually something I never wanted to perform.
ANNA SUSSMAN, BYLINE: It's known as the deadliest trick in all of magic. At one end of the stage, a gun, loaded in front of the audience. At the other end of the stage, the magician. In between the two - a pane of glass. The gun is fired directly at the magician.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)
SUSSMAN: The glass explodes.
COHEN: Some magicians were attempting to catch the bullet in their hands; some of the magicians caught the bullet on a plate; some of the magicians actually tried to catch the bullet on the tip of a sword. And the most deadly and probably most visceral of all these is to catch the bullet in your mouth. And, you know, these are risky ventures. The first time I ever heard of The Bullet Catch, it was just mind blowing to me that someone would stand in front of a gun and have a bullet fired at their face and attempt to catch it in their mouth. And little did I know that I would be standing, facing a gun myself years later and attempting that same feat. The legend of The Bullet Catch is that 12 magicians have died and nobody wants to be number 13.
SUSSMAN: Some magicians were killed by faulty props, others by opportunistic assistants or wives. One magician shot and killed his own son onstage; he was jailed. Performers now like to claim that the trick is haunted.
COHEN: I wanted to tell the story of The Bullet Catch because it's really an excellent story, particularly the tale - the true story, I should say - of Chung Ling Soo, who was a very famous illusionist from the early 20th century.
SUSSMAN: Chung Ling Soo performed The Bullet Catch over and over again for audiences across England. And as he did, his guns and their secret compartments wore down.
COHEN: He went on stage and was attempting to perform his defying-the-bullets trick stuff as he always had. In his version, he used to catch the bullet on a porcelain plate.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)
COHEN: I've actually held the plate that he used. He was performing this, and the bullet actually pierced through his body, and he fell down onto the stage. Of course, the audience probably thought that this was part of the act, but he yelled out - now remember, he was a supposed Chinese performer who'd never spoke a word of English on stage - suddenly he yelled out in English, in kind of a Brooklyn accent - something went wrong, lower the curtain.
SUSSMAN: See, Chung Ling Soo wasn't really Chinese. His real name was William Robinson. But for years, he took the stage posturing as a Chinese conjurer. He never spoke onstage but pantomimed and gestured. After the curtain was lowered that night, Chung Ling Soo nor William Robinson ever performed again.
COHEN: The bullet penetrated his left lung, and he died shortly after the performance ended. And I loved the story of Chung Ling Soo, and I wanted to dramatize that. When you're a performer, when you're a magician particularly, you're always trying to figure out the next most thrilling thing to entertain your audience with. And after what I've done in my own career, I thought that this might be an excellent way to really build up interest in - you know, for my own audiences. So I said I'm going to do it. And once I made up my mind, then it was all - it was just basically fait accompli. I knew that I was going to have to actually pull this off.
SUSSMAN: Up until now, Steve had performed close-up magic - card tricks for polite audiences in velvet-lined parlors. Catching a bullet in his teeth would propel him to the level of the greats. But he had very little experience with dangerous tricks like this. So he began planning with meticulous research. He asked for advice from men who had survived the trick, like Simon Drake who had performed The Bullet Catch on British TV.
COHEN: When I met Simon, he told me, no matter what, don't perform this trick. He said that it really changed him. It made him more paranoid about life in general. He almost had a breakdown after performing it.
SUSSMAN: But Steve had already signed a TV contract committing to performing the trick. He spent months performing every detail with a team of directors. So he stepped onto the firing range.
COHEN: The way that the illusion looked was I had a bullet removed from the clip. I walked over to a random member of the audience and I asked someone, a random guy, to take a permanent marker and to mark the bullet. Then the bullet was returned to the clip, loaded into the gun...
SUSSMAN: And Steve stood 20 feet away and stared into that loaded gun.
COHEN: I extended my arms in a crucifix pose to prove that my hands are far away from my mouth - I'm not slipping anything into my mouth. And I held a white handkerchief, which I use as my signal for him to fire. And I stood there for as long as I needed to mentally be ready for this. It is emotional; it becomes an emotional experience when you see a gun facing you. This could go wrong. Now I just have to stay calm. I let go of the white handkerchief. He pulls the trigger.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT AND GLASS SHATTERING)
COHEN: I felt something pierce my chest, and my whole body kind of caved in and then dropped straight to the ground. I had no control over body. I just slumped straight down. I truly thought to myself, I can't believe this is happening to me because this is exactly what I had tried to avoid when I was learning all about Chung Ling Soo, and now I'm Chung Ling Soo. This is - I'm Chung Ling Steve - something went wrong, lower the curtain. And I'm on the ground writhing in pain. This was not planned at all. There was mayhem, like, people were going, what went wrong? And people were running around, EMTs being called, and the cameramen ran straight up towards me writhing on the ground in pain. I spit the signed bullet out onto the ground next to me. It is indeed the signed bullet. At the same moment, the EMT comes running up to me, cuts open my shirt. I didn't understand what had happened.
SUSSMAN: The curse of The Bullet Catch, or the peril of standing in front of a gun, or the danger of standing in front of a pane of glass as it shatters because here's what happened - a flying shard of glass traveled through Steve's shirt, entering his body just above his heart. Still, he got his wish. He successfully performed the deadly Bullet Catch.
COHEN: I wasn't trying to prove anything by performing The Bullet Catch. The best way I could describe it is that The Bullet Catch is a very important part of the annals of magic history. And I wanted to enter into those annals of history by attempting it.
SUSSMAN: Steve and a long line of magicians stretching back the 400 years the trick has been in existence have known the dangers of The Bullet Catch. And they attempted the trick anyway, and when the next eager magician in that line turns to Steve...
COHEN: My advice to magicians who are thinking of performing The Bullet Catch is to avoid it. Don't do it. It's a mistake. Stick to card tricks. There are other ways to thrill an audience than to truly risk your own life.
WASHINGTON: Don't do it. Do not do it, Snappers. We want to thank Steve Cohen for sharing his story. He's got a running show in New York City at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Find out more about Steve Cohen on our website - snapjudgment.org. That piece was produced by Anna Sussman, with sound design by Renzo Gorrio. When SNAP returns, we're going to make it rain, and magic is best used when it's used for revenge - for real - when SNAP JUDGMENT's storytelling with a beat continues. Stay tuned.
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