Interviewed by middle-schoolers about Houdini


Awhile back, I received an email from a middle-school teacher in Wisconsin.  She explained that her students were writing papers on celebrities of their choice, and then had to interview someone who works in the same field as their chosen celebrity.  A couple of the kids were doing their papers on Harry Houdini, and so – obviously – they were looking for a magician to interview.  I said yes, because, like, why not?  So they emailed over their questions, and what follows is the friggin’ book I sent back.  *shrugs*


3:59 PM

Greetings, kiddos.

First of all, I’m glad to hear you’re doing a project about Houdini. Very cool. I remember doing one or two assignments about good ol’ Erich Weiss back in the day, myself. He was quite a fascinating cat, yes? Weird, with substantial psychological and “mommy” issues … but fascinating nonetheless. And probably a genius of sorts.

So, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Indianapolis right now, surrounded by angry unemployed hipsters who are arguing about music, loudly-giggling soccer-moms, and a crazy-homeless-looking guy who keeps winking at me. Or maybe he just has an eye-twitch. I’m not sure. But the coffee here is REALLY good, so I can overlook all of that.

I have a couple hours to kill before I have to hop back over to the hotel to get ready (i.e. hide stuff up my sleeves) for my show tonight, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to answer the questions you sent over.

And… heeeeeere we go….


Where were you born?

I was born and raised in a small town in Northeast Iowa; Postville.

It’s quasi-famous for being a very small town but with an amazing “melting pot” of nationalities from all around the globe. I think there were direct immigrants from something like 100 different nations, all living in this town with a population of about 2,000.

It was AWESOME to grow up in a place like that.

It’s also, not-so-coincidentally, the site of a famous GIGANTIC immigration raid that pretty much destroyed the town’s economy.

It’s funny ‘cause it’s true.

What/who inspired you? How?

Oh boy… Well…

I first caught the “magic bug” when I was very young. In kindergarten, a magician performed at a school assembly. This was my first exposure to a magic show, and I was enthralled.

A few different effects stand out in my memory – the first is his bare-handed production of a bunch of playing cards. The second is when he put a teacher’s head in a box, jammed a bunch of arrows through it, and then her head disappeared. The third – and most powerful, because I got to actually assist with the trick onstage – was a coloring book that magically turned from black-and-white drawings to a fully colored book.

Looking back, the stuff he did and the style he had was pretty generic. Hack. Off-the-shelf.

But at the time, I was wide-eyed and slack-jawed.

I didn’t really understand they were “tricks” until my stepdad performed and then explained a simple card trick to me.

Shortly thereafter, I received a toy magic kit for my birthday, discovered books about magic in the library, then saw the legendary magician David Copperfield on one of his television specials (…and then got to see him live!).

The hook was set DEEP. I read everything about magic I could get my hands on. I would show my stupid little tricks to anyone who would watch. I imagine I was quite an annoying child.

I did my first real “paid” magic show when I was 12, for a neighbor kid’s birthday party. I asked for ten bucks, but they gave me fifteen bucks, man! PLUS CAKE! THEY GAVE ME CAKE! I LOVE CAKE!

From there, everything just snowballed, and magic became a full-blown unhealthy obsession – and evolved into an
actual job – that continues to this day. Granted, my show NOW is much MUCH different from THEN (now I only do adult shows because I like to do dirty jokes and dangerous tricks and stuff; that’s just who I am), but I’m still doing magic.

Do you have family? Is it hard to see them on the go?

It seems as though every time there is a family reunion or holiday get-together, I’m already booked somewhere or on the road. So that kinda sucks.

On the other hand, I do keep in touch with the (few) relatives that I actually get along with, and if I’m traveling through the areas in which they live, (because I’m self-employed) I have the freedom to meet up with them for a beer… I mean… um… a cup of coffee.

Why are you such a fan of Harry Houdini?

At first, it was just because he was one of the past masters. Magicians today stand on the shoulders of giants, and Houdini was one of the more gigantic giants. Not literally. Reportedly, he was a pretty short (albeit muscular) man. But you know what I mean. His performances, tricks, and escapes were legendary, and many of them (or variations on them) are still being used by professionals today.

And when I started delving deeper into his life, I gained a whole different level of respect for him because he was such a master of publicity. He wasn’t just creating publicity to sell tickets; he was creating his own legend. P.T. Barnum would have been proud.

Even today, nearly 90 years after his death, he is still the most recognized name in magic, and stories (Houdini’s OWN, completely made-up stories) are still being told as if they’re historical fact.

One great example is a story of how Houdini was once doing an underwater packing-crate escape in the wintertime, and a hole had to be cut in the ice to lower the box (containing Houdini) into the ice-covered river, and Houdini escaped the box and handcuffs, but when he went to swim back up to the top, he couldn’t find the hole that had been cut in the ice because the river’s current had carried him downstream. He allegedly had to breathe the tiny pockets of air between the water and ice until he could swim upstream to find the hole in the ice.

Get this: That NEVER really happened. It was a story that Houdini made up during his own lifetime to perpetuate the sort of “super hero” public persona myth.

Clever, eh?

Nowadays, though, I respect Houdini on an even deeper level; I respect him because of his rags-to-riches story.

He was born and raised in a poor, immigrant family, and through relentless hard work and complete, tireless dedication to his craft, came to be one of America’s first real superstar celebrities. THAT is something to REALLY respect.

It’s sort of THE definition of the American dream, and I find his story very inspirational; Find something you love, learn everything you can, work your butt off, never give up, and you WILL succeed.

How has this career choice affected your life? / Does this occupation affect your lifestyle?

The full answer to this would be quite lengthy. But let’s just say… yes, and in every conceivable way. This crazy stuff I
do is not only part of my life, and not only affects my life… it IS my life. But I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Well, here’s one thing to ponder, that I just thought of… I first fell in love with magic because of that moment of child- like wonder when you experience something impossible (“There’s no WAY that could have happened!”). But now, it’s very, very rare to get to experience that feeling anymore. I’ve read too much, I’ve learned too much, I’ve been playing this game for way too long to get jaw-on-the-ground fooled anymore. Depressing, eh?

Has anyone ever figured out your tricks?

It really doesn’t happen very often, and I don’t even worry about it when it does, but yes. And I’m okay with that, and here’s why:

The goal in my show is not simply to “fool” people – it’s more about comedy, interaction, and having fun. The “tricks”
take a back seat to the entertainment of it all.

What they say is true: it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.

If a magician is doing it right, the audience doesn’t even really WANT to know how the tricks are done. They just want to enjoy the ride. It’s fun to be mystified.

And, ya know what? Every (normal) person already knows they’re “tricks”… It’s not real magic. You know it’s a trick, I
know it’s a trick, now let’s have fun.

I say every “normal” person because… I *have* been accused of “witchcraft” and “devil-dealing” by some insane whackjobs throughout the years. Early in my career, I always tried to explain how these were “just tricks,” but trying to change the perspective of a person who is not willing to even listen is kind of like teaching algebra to a goldfish, so nowadays when that happens, I arch up one eyebrow all mysterious & Spock-like, don’t say a word, give them a slow & psychotic grin, and stare at them unblinkingly until they either leave or start to cry or pray or whatever.

A bit evil? Yes. Entertaining to me? Absolutely. Ya gotta enjoy the little things in life.

Do you get stage fright when you are performing? If so, what do you do to overcome it?

Yes, occasionally.

Although, in most cases I don’t think it’s actually “fright,” as I am the happiest and most comfortable when on stage. It’s more of an excitement, or a nervous anticipation, before shows.

You see, I’m always tweaking some part of the show (changing part of a trick here, rewriting a joke’s setup there), so in addition to the pressure of remembering not only an hour’s worth of material AND the recent updates, there are also a lot of “unknowns” that I have absolutely no control over: I use a LOT of onstage audience participation, and I have no idea how ‘X’ volunteer will react to ‘Y’ joke or ‘Z’ trick.

I think nervous anticipation is a natural response to all of that.

I take that nervous energy and try to use it productively. I try to use it to really amp up my energy onstage. And, honestly, even legitimate stage fright isn’t a bad thing. Don’t try to fight it or suppress it. Being scared is a great way to stay alert and deliver a great performance.

And, in almost every instance, once I get that first laugh from the first joke, and the first burst of applause from the first trick, all the shakes and insecurities go away and I’m in “the zone.”

The way I look at it is… if I ever get to the point where I’m never nervous or excited right before a gig, that means I don’t care anymore, and I don’t ever want that to happen to me.

Describe your process for learning new tricks.

I don’t really “learn” new tricks anymore. I create them.

I’ve spent a couple decades learning the hardcore principles of magic, much like a musician learns how to play the notes and chords on his instrument competently. And of course I learned a whole bunch of the classic tricks in my learning stages, much as a musician learns the classic songs.

But now, using those principals – or “notes,” in the case of a songwriter – I can create new ideas, routines, effects, tricks, and illusions, much like a songwriter writes new songs.

Creating a new chunk of material for the show is a clunky process, usually, especially for me, since so much of my show is comedy-based. It’s very rare to have a flash of inspiration and immediately be happy with the finished product. It’s more of a slow evolutionary process.

It’s not uncommon to test out a new bit repeatedly onstage for a year or more before I’m happy with what it has become. Scripting needs to be tightened, jokes need to be added (or cut, if they’re not getting big enough laughs), dialogue need to be condensed and clarified, technical aspects of the trick itself need to be made more efficient or more deceptive, stage blocking (where I’m standing and how I’m moving at any given moment) needs to be refined and motivated… It goes on and on. There is a LOT of work that goes into the show, which the audiences should never be aware of. I pride myself on making my performance look improvised and off-the-cuff, as if I’m making it up as I go. You now know the truth, however. Don’t tell anyone. 😉

For example, there is one chunk of my show that I’ve been doing for 12 years. To an outsider, the different incarnations of it have appeared to have been about 8 or 9 different tricks. But it’s the same one – it’s just evolved. And it’s not even in its final form yet. I’m constantly working on it. And it’s so STUPID and SILLY (it’s the one with a straw and spitwad, if you ever get a chance to see my show).

But back to the magician vs. songwriter analogy… The major difference between a songwriter and a magician is this: not only does the magician have to write the “song” (trick), he has to build an entirely new “instrument” (props or sleight-of- hand technique to accomplish said trick). I think it was Teller, of Penn & Teller, who once said that (yes – SAID. He can actually speak.)

But the end result – five minutes of solid entertaining material which is consistently met with laughs and enthusiastic applause every night – is totally worth the hassle.

What, if any, are your tricks with fire?

I no longer do any tricks with fire or smoke, mostly because of the practicality of it. There is red-tape with insurance, permits, transporting and storing pyro equipment, fire marshal inspections, making sure smoke alarms and ventilation systems above the stage are at the right settings… ya gotta have fire extinguishers, wet blankets, and a crew to use them in the event of an accident… It’s more of a headache than it’s worth.

What really prompted me to purge all of my fire/sparks/smoke effects was the 2003 fire at a Rhode Island nightclub
(from a band’s pyro effects) that killed 100 people and injured a couple hundred more.

No matter how professionally you are trained and competent you are, mistakes and freak accidents WILL happen, and there is no way I wanted to be responsible for something like that.

As a hobby, I do still do fire-juggling and fire-breathing, though, occasionally… but only outdoors, over pavement or gravel, and away from all buildings and trees.

What motivator do you use when you feel like quitting?

I’ve never felt like quitting. Not in the larger sense, anyway. I’ve never felt, “I’m not doing shows anymore!”

There have been several nights (when things just aren’t “clicking”), where I’ve just wanted to give the audience the finger, drop the mic, and walk off… but I’ve never really wanted to totally quit.

My job is just too much fun. When you’re doing what you love, even the WORST day of THAT job is 100% better than the BEST day of some poor schmuck doing a job they hate, day in and day out.

Were you mostly self-taught or did you go to a school?

I’ve been mostly self-taught (learning the obligatory basics at first, then creating my own stuff later on), but when I was
a teen, I received a letter from a man from Guttenberg IA. He had seen a newspaper article on me, and sent me a letter,
introducing himself as a magician of 60 years (he was about 80 years old at the time), and offering to “talk shop”
sometime. I got in touch with him, set up a time to meet, and I went down to his place.

After a cordial chit-chat, he told me to follow him into his building’s basement. What I saw there I will never forget. Shelves lined the walls with 60 years’ worth of magic knowledge, books, manuscripts, props, and tools. He looked at me and said, “I really don’t plan on doing this stuff much longer,” as he extended his arm and made a wide gesture at everything, “So, under the condition that you do this exact same thing for another young magician when you’re my
age… all of this is yours.”

As you can imagine, my jaw DROPPED. Hard.

He had just gifted me every single magic book and manuscript that I had ever dreamed of one day reading, PLUS a thousand other props and tools. He had just given me a 60-year head-start. It felt very much like when Willy Wonka gave Charlie the chocolate factory… Except that guy wasn’t as weird as Willy Wonka, and I wasn’t as ugly as Charlie.

I’ve never gone to a school for magic (although I did seriously consider it at one point), but I read and learn everything I
can. Self-education is underrated in today’s society… Even if I’m crazy-busy with other projects, I try to spend at least
30 minutes per day reading something productive / educational, something that will help me work towards my goals.

You should do that, too. At least 30 minutes a day, read something to better yourself. You’ll thank me in about 20 years.

What (in your opinion) is the best part of having this occupation?

The best part of this job is getting to travel around and meet new people every night, and seeing them in a good mood after the show.

The best compliments I’ve ever had were, “I was having a really [crappy] day, but then I came out to your show,” and “My friend bought me tickets to the show because I’m going through a divorce and was all depressed, and you helped me get my mind off of it! I had a great time and laughed my [butt] off! Thanks!!!”

It’s messages and comments like those that really make me love my job.

Well, these messages… and the love and approval in the form of laughter and applause from complete strangers.

What is your favorite touring stop? Why?

Locally owned Mexican restaurants in which they don’t speak English and the outside looks like a dump. Because those places, without exception in my experience, have the absolute BEST food.

But if you’re talking about places to perform, the answer is, without a doubt… biker bars. Not even kidding. They’re both insane but smart, clever enough to “get it” and not uptight so they won’t be offended… and they typically have extra spending-cash on them so I can sell a hundred t-shirts and DVDs after the show.

What is your favorite act?

I imagine that’s kinda like asking a parent which child is the favorite.

But right now, I do have a favorite act. I do an escape routine that was borne of my early admiration of Houdini… I have audience members tie my hands behind my back INSANELY tight, with a million knots, and then I have to escape before a 30-second-audio-countdown reaches zero. It’s really exciting for me because it is a serious, for-reals-not-even-kidding challenge, and I really have no idea whether or not I’ll fail each night (I’ve only been unable to escape once, but it was funny and it got a big laugh and a standing ovation anyway, so I’m cool with it). Houdini would agree with me: Rope
escapes are really the most difficult (as opposed to locks, chains, or boxes) because there is no “trap door” in a rope, and you cannot “pick the lock” on a really tight knot that a stranger has tied. It’s not “magic,” “illusion,” or “sleight-of-hand,”
… it’s just a neat skill that a kid picks up when his parents have a really skewed idea of what discipline is. 🙂 j/k.

What field of magic is your best/favorite?

That would probably have to be a field called “comedy magic,” which has become my specialty (and, although I realize I sound like an egomaniac saying it… I’ve become pretty darn good at it). It combines stage/parlor/sleight-of-hand magic with stand-up comedy and audience participation. I accidentally fell into doing comedy magic when I was a teen, and would (almost unconsciously) make smart-alec comments about whatever tricks I was doing… Furthermore, throughout the years, I’ve realized that audiences don’t really care about whatever trick you’re doing or whatever
sparkly box you’re showing them – they only want to have fun and laugh. Comedy-magic is what I’m good at, at it’s what I enjoy doing.

Houdini would have HATED that. He thought magic and comedy were two totally separate entertainment forms that should NEVER be combined. He actually kicked the legs out from beneath one emcee because the emcee was making jokes onstage as Houdini was rolling around and struggling to get out of a straitjacket. (short fuse, much? jeeeeez.)

Do you have a pet?

Yes. Two. I have one white rabbit and one white dove. And they’re both in my show. And they’re both dead. [*evil grin*] Seriously.

Do the number of people who are in fact good magicians compete with each other, or are they actually friends?

That is an excellent question.

I could go on and on about this for days (I assume you’re asking this because of Harry Houdini’s publicly-perceived rivalry with Howard Thurston?).

They say birds of a feather flock together, and it’s really no different with magicians. There are little “cliques” just like you see in school (I’m in more of the “unconventional magicians” clique – the mindreaders, the goths, the sideshow freaks), but for the most part, we all get along, across the board.

The thing is, every decent magician has his (or her) own little niche, so none of us really compete with each other. Our audiences consist of different demographics, our acts are very different stylistically, and since most of us develop our own material, we’re not even comparable in the “trick” respect.

It’s kinda like… Houdini rarely did actual “magic” and Thurston never did escapes, and their styles were vastly different… But just for kicks and giggles, they played up the whole rivalry thing for the public. Hey, we magicians gotta entertain ourselves somehow.

For those of us who are working pros, yes, we’re all pretty much friends. For those of us who have original material and styles, and appeal to different types of audiences, there is no jealousy and no competition. Conversely, we respect each other for doing our own respective things for our own respective crowds in our own respective styles.

Once you reach a certain level, where you’ve proven that you can create and perform original material (and have integrity and aren’t a complete ******), there really is a feeling of community, a “brother-and-sister-hood” – We’re all in this together, and everyone understands where everyone else is coming from.

The only time “competition” is ever an issue among magicians is with those annoying birthday party guys who all do the same tricks in the same way with the same colorful boxes and all wear the same sparkly vests. Those guys. I hate those guys.

Do any other family members of yours practice magic? If so, who?

Ummmm… my Uncle John does a pretty impressive trick called “Pull My Finger.” Does that count?


Hope you found these answers satisfactory. If you need any further information, or have any questions or whatnot, feel free to ask.

Oh, BTW, I realized that the crazy-homeless-looking guy was NOT winking at me. It was, in fact, an eye twitch. My eye is doing it now, too. It’s the caffeine.  I’ve had way too much coffee. Twitch twitch twitch.

Don’t do drugs.

Caffeine, however, is not a drug. It’s a vitamin. I need to go for a run.

~ Nathan

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