Category Archives: Hoax

Risa’s Stars Were Not Aligned

As promised, I am writing a post explaining the insanity I faced at my recent gig at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

Let me say up front that the gig was actually really good. I enjoyed myself for everything else that happened. I made a bit of a reconnection with the local magic club and the people at the museum were friendly and easy to work with. Everyone I dealt with, audience, other entertainers, other exhibitors and the staff were fabulous.

But the people of Risa’s Stars were most definitely not. I should explain.

So the event was a members night for the museum where they decided that the theme would be ‘magic.’ This theme was being fairly broadly interpreted. They had myself as a strolling magician, they had the local club doing ‘stage time’, they had people doing bubble stuff, playing Magic The Gathering, showing films of magicians, people making magic wands, people teaching how to “cast spells” (yes, supposedly ‘real’ spells), displaying ‘the magic of physics’, talks about the magic of the universe and astronomy.

And astrology.

Okay, it is no surprise that I have little use for astrology and people ‘casting real spells.’ Yeah. Right.

But I will say right here and now that I didn’t go looking for trouble, I didn’t go looking for these people, I didn’t intend to interact with any of them. Not because of my disagreements with what they do but simply because I was there to do what I do, entertain people. I was in full on professional mode.

Here is the way this comes together. I was brought on early. I went to the museum about a month and half before the gig to talk with the events coordinator and to check out the area. This was a totally volunteer gig, I wasn’t going to get paid. That was fine. Doing free gigs every now and again is a good thing, and considering it was for the museum I felt pretty good about it.

If you haven’t been to this particular museum it’s pretty nice. It is three levels and at the very top there is an open air sculpture garden which I thought would be a really good place to entertain. At the bottom level was a stage area, on the middle level landing the local club magicians were set up and I was set to wander about and entertain any place I wanted.

The event was to run from five o’clock to eight o’clock. But, because we were all unpaid volunteers we were told that we could come whenever we wanted and leave whenever we wanted.

I showed up at five o’clock. I changed into my costume very quickly and got out among the already over full site. They had anticipated three hundred. Apparently they had about seven hundred.

I made a point of checking in with the event coordinator first thing and then proceeded to wander about. I found the local club group and made contact. I performed for a couple of kids and then I found myself at the top of the museum.

When I wandered out on to the open air sculpture garden I was impressed. Someone had decorated with strings of lights and put up a popup tent that had been decorated to be a kind of ‘meditation’ space. All around the space they had set up astrological signs – ie sheets of paper with a sign and the appropriate date range for the modern signs. They also had chalked up the pavement with a ‘meditation path’ and drawn a simply horoscope circle.

In other words nothing that particularly marked this as an exhibit instead of the outside space it was intended to be save the actual popup. No one was walking around the space explaining anything or offering up any interaction with the guests in order to make it clear there was anything there except stuff to look at, and mostly pretty boring stuff at that.

When I walked out the door and into the space I was actually very warmly greeted by the woman I presumed to be “Risa” of Risa’s Stars. After the fact, mind you. At the time she didn’t introduce herself or her exhibit. I’ve made the guess about her identity based on information gathered after the fact. In any case all she did was compliment me my costume and point out that I would go well with the tent they had set up, including pointing out the camel they had set up.

I thanked her for the compliment and then moved away rather quickly because there was another woman standing there with a burning smudge stick and it was rather noxious to me.

I walked over to the tent that had a small bench in front of it. I sat down, pulled out my bubble stuff and started entertaining the kids who had been running around and screaming like kids are want to do. When I pull the bubble stuff out they immediately gather and they generally settle down. The adults walked up behind and were smiling and enjoying what I was doing.

But after a few minutes the lady with the smudge stick walked over and asked me to stop because what I was doing was blocking the path. Which was true. The kids were sitting on the chalk path that had been drawn on the ground. So I wrapped up and cleared the path. Makes perfect sense.

So I got up, walked around a little bit and noticed three women sitting on a bench. Still doing what I was brought on to do I approached them and asked if they wanted to see a little magic. They said yes and I began performing one of my favorite card tricks.

When I was finished the woman I have tentatively identified as “Risa” of Risa’s Stars came over and proceeded to chastise me. She literally got in my face and began talking to me like I was a child. She was extremely rude. She tried to tell me I had no right to be there. She told me that I was being rude. She yelled at me that no one told her that I was going to be doing what I was doing.

She also tried to tell me that this was not a personal attack. Yeah, right. Someone gets in your face and tells you that you have no right to be doing what you were actually ‘hired’ to do? Someone who, by the way, has trapped one of the guests (the other two managed to get out) and forced them to sit through this childish tirade instead of trying to be professional and having a calm discussion about the situation.

Her biggest complaint? Apparently what I was doing was taking away from what they were doing. Which, as near as I can tell, was sitting on their asses and doing nothing because, as I mentioned before, no one was actually interacting with the guests who were there. No one was being told what their supposed ‘exhibit’ was even about.

At one point during her incoherent rant she tried to get a rise out of me by accusing me of ‘smirking’ at her while she was yelling at me. What I was doing was controlling myself and keeping my calm and professionalism in place. Many of the things this idiot complained about were so irrationally sad I could have easily taken her apart without even trying.

At another point she asked me “you understand what I’m telling you?” I responded, literally, with the phrase “I see what you are saying” and she actually yelled back at me “NO, DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT I AM TELLING YOU?”

Now, here is the beauty part of the fact that since this is my blog and I can therefore say pretty much anything I want on it. What I responded to her with was “yes, I understand.” What I wanted to say was:

FUCKING BITCH!!!!

I was literally stunned with how incredibly childish, rude and utterly irresponsible this woman was. I was straining to keep my professionalism as much as possible, speaking softly, maintaining my composure and trying to figure out how to get the poor guest who was still trapped there out of the middle of this.

But “Risa” at this point tried to threaten me by saying she was going to go talk to the event coordinator, a threat she attempted a couple of times prior in her rant. I simply responded with “yes, lets go talk to her” and Risa then left.

At this point I turned to the poor woman who had been trapped through this whole thing and apologized profusely to her. She was amazingly gracious, complimented me on my handling or “Risa” and on my skill as a magician. I thanked her and then headed off to find the rest of the magicians who needed to be warned that if they were going to do any strolling as well that they should stay away from the “astrologers exhibit.”

By that point I turned around and the lovely woman who was the event coordinator was standing there and apologizing for the rudeness of “Risa’s Stars.” She told me that this group was a last minute addition to the event and that they had been problematic from the word go.

I told the event coordinator that I was fine, that I wasn’t worried about the whole thing and that I was sorry she had to deal with the whole thing. I stayed away for the rest of the event and had a really great time.

All that being said, let me just say the following things:

  1. First off, the actual people at Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History are pretty cool.
  2. From where I stand astrology is a joke, a bag of pseudoscience that can easily be debunked and has been time and time again. If you want to talk to me about this position I am open to debate.
  3. Go to the Museum.
  4. Risa’s Stars isn’t worth dealing with even if you are someone who thinks there is value in astrology. Any group of people who would act so irresponsibly in a public venue should not be trusted.
  5. Go to the Museum.

In all my years of performing I have dealt with a wide variety of people. I’ve been heckled. I’ve had contract problems. I’ve dealt with unappreciative audiences. I’ve dealt with drunk audiences. I’ve competed against bands. I’ve dealt with bad promoters. I’ve dealt with a lot of crazy crap.

I’ve never dealt with anything as bad as “Risa” of Risa’s Stars.

What do Aladdin and I have in common?

One of the coolest things in magic history is the magic lantern. A device which is essentially a medieval version of a modern slide projector. Although the history is a bit difficult to pin down, the magic lantern is generally thought to have been invented in the late 1650’s by Christiaan Huygens. However there is evidence that a similar device existed in the early 15th Century created by Giovanni Fontana.

Giovanni’s device projected an image of a demon and in fact this seems to have set the trend in how the devices were used for at least a couple of centuries as they were taken up by magicians and conjurers to project images of ghosts, devils, demons, animate inanimate objects or convince people that their loved ones could be spoken to from beyond the grave or even brought back to life.

By the 18th century they devices were being used in seances and eventually a Belgian inventor named Etienne-Gaspard Robert eventually created a theatrical show called “Phantasmagoria” using the devices to create a whole variety of images for entertainment.

As you might well imagine this is a real amazing kind of thing. A really cool bit of history for magic, theater and the movies.

So imagine how utterly floored, completely dumbfounded and increadibly stunned I am to now have in my possesion an actual antique Magic Lantern, complete with intact glass slides for the device. I am floored.

My birthday is coming up in a few weeks. My apprentice happened to find one at an estate sale yesterday and gave me an early birthday present.  I am so moved words can not describe it.

It needs a little TLC but it is already actually functional. I need to sort through the glass slides and see what is there. Some are numbered so there may actually be a set telling a story. If so, I’ll need to find the story.  When I’m ready I think I will try and add this to my Carnival.

But I have a real Magic Lantern.  Just like Aladdin.

To give you an idea of the kinds of things that were accomplished with Magic Lanterns take a look at this video.  The lantern I have isn’t as sophisticated as the one used to create these images, but the tech is very similar.

The Ethics of Party Fortune Telling

In a few days my apprentice and I will be entertaining for a large corporate holiday party and we both decided to write about it, each from our own perspectives.  (You can read her thoughts here.)  We will be there to tell fortunes using various methods such as Tarot cards and Palm Reading.   This kind of entertainment option at large parties is remarkably well received.  In fact I can tell you with all assurance that whenever I have done any sort of entertainment event if the package I provide includes fortune telling it is always a hit.

Now this may seem a bit odd coming from me.  People who know me know that I do not believe in the supernatural in the least.  In fact I actively debunk such things when given the opportunity.  In this day of fake psychics (a term which is entirely redundant), talking to the dead, every television channel offering up every variation they can come up with on ‘ghost hunter’ shows and all manner of homeopathy/alternative medicine bullshit it is all I can do to keep up with the relevant information.

Given all of that why would I be willing to provide such a service?

I could argue that I’m just giving the customer what they want.  In the end I have bills to pay and if they are going to give me good money to listen to me hold forth on their prospects for the future why shouldn’t I collect?  My wife has often joked that “there are stupid people and we need their money.”  We have often joked that given all that I do know how to do as a magician it would take very little effort on my part to start a cult.

The truth is I have come to a compromise in providing this service and it is based entirely in the ethical stance I have chosen to take with regards to the differences between my client’s potential beliefs and my own.

You see there is an argument in the magic community about certain types of entertainment.  Magicians who use their ‘power for evil’ such as fake psychics (there’s that term again) are universally shunned.  Magicians who use their ‘powers for good’ are seen as entertainers.  I offer up for your consideration Uri Geller and Derren Brown.  Uri has long claimed he has real powers.  Derren admits up front that he has none yet gives performances that far outstrip anything Uri has ever provided.  Browse YouTube for examples of both.

This upcoming event is a perfect example of how I have found it possible to do these things in a manner that I find ethical and still respectful of any of the possible believes of my clients.  Allow me to set the scene for you.  I will be sitting at a table off to one side.  Able to view and participate in the party but slightly secluded so as to avoid to many casual observers at any given time.  I will be dressed very nicely and slightly mysteriously.  Which is to say that I will wear small but subtle accessories with my outfit which will suggest a ‘magical’ nature to my character.  Given that the party is to have a “Mardi Gras” feel to it this is entirely appropriate.

A single individual will approach my table, sit down and ask to have their fortune told.  I will immediately swing into action, asking questions and gathering information on them by their answers and by their appearance (even in costume many things are revealed if you know what you are looking for) and I will proceed to give them a reading most probably with Tarot Cards.

At the end of this reading I will ask more questions usually if they understood everything I have told them.  They may ask for clarification, they may not.  This is okay.
Inevitably there will be one question or statement that will come up.  Someone will ask me if really believe this stuff, or they will comment that I have a “gift.”  Something along the lines of questioning or verifying my belief in the supernatural will come up in these conversations.  In fact the more convincing my act is the more likely I will generate this question, if not right away, certainly be the end of the night as my reputation spreads among the crowd.

I will have earned this question.  After all I came to their party for the express purpose of reading their future.   By my appearance I will have put myself into the character of someone who is ‘in touch’ with other realms of reality, the psychic realm, ghosts or spirits perhaps.  I have presented them with a plausible if not completely convincing reading of their future.   I will definitely have earned this question.

And here is where the schism in the magic community presents itself.  Do I tell them that I do indeed have a gift?  Do I tell them that I receive messages from my spirit guide, a faery named Sand, or perhaps my guardian angel.

Or do I tell them it’s all a trick?  I have no special powers, I have simply been manipulating them and the cards to my own ends.  Do I shatter the character I have created for them and their enjoyment?

Sadly there are plenty of magicians and charlatans who would opt for the former.  They would justify themselves with the idea that either they will get more gigs out of the reputation they have built among a bunch of credulous individuals or perhaps they will simply assume they’ll never see any of these people again so why not tell them such a story?

But I am there for their entertainment.  I’m there to do a job and the job is to provide them something they will enjoy.  If I just say “nope, it’s all a trick” then I’m doing more harm than good.  I am at the very least humiliating them by pointing out how easily they have been fooled in a situation where they have put their trust in me and at the very worst I have challenged and mocked their beliefs in something beyond themselves.

And while I might like to challenge their notions of the supernatural this is not the place to do it.  Professionalism alone dictates that.

So, how do I do it?  How do I walk this line between what they may believe, what I believe, respecting the contract and my professionalism?

Theater.

In the end this is a show.  I am a character.  I am portraying someone with a mysterious gift.  But when the time comes the actor must be revealed.  And there has to be answer to the question.

“That was amazing!  You must have a gift!”

“I do, but probably not the one you’re thinking of.  It’s not so much a gift as it is a skill, one everyone can learn.  You can learn it too.  It’s not hard to learn but it takes patience to practice because it’s all about asking the right questions and really listening to the answers.  And in the end, it’s all about telling the best story possible.  I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it.”

So this is my ethical answer.  To tell them the truth.  Because right there is the secret to every type of fortune telling or psychic speaking to the dead you have ever seen.

It’s all about the questions you ask and really listening to the answers you get.  Sales people know this.  They call it Active Listening.  Psychotherapists know this as Active Listening too.  Magicians call it Cold Reading.  It’s all in the questions we ask.

Will they believe me?  Will they accept my answer?  That depends on the person really.  I’ve given this answer, or some variation of it, every time I’ve been asked.  Outside of any performance context I have made my position very clear and inside of the performance context I have stuck to my position but softened my words for the sake of the atmosphere and the event.

Yes, there are times when people refuse to believe me.  I have been told that people understand if I want to keep the truth about my gift to myself.  There is a person in the building where I work who is still absolutely convinced that I have psychic powers after I read her fortune five years ago and explained how I did it.

After a certain point what more can I do?  Even when I have argued the improbability of various supernatural things with believers in a basic debunking discussion I have always encountered those who simply refuse to give up what they believe in despite the evidence provided to them.  This is always going to be the case.  I can’t worry about the people who refuse to believe my explanation for how I do what I do inside the context of a show.  They have made the choice they have made.

I expect that this gig will be fun.  As I mentioned at the beginning this is both myself and my apprentice who are going.  She is far more versed in a wider variety of divination methods than I am.  She has written her own article about preparing for this particular event.  It is a very interesting to read.  Please check it out.

Spidora! Half Woman! Half Spider! All Creepy!

Given as we are fast approaching Halloween, my absolutely favorite holiday of the year, I thought it might be fun to post a few things of I always loved from Carnival Haunted Houses in particular.  I’m not sure how many of these I’ll be able to bring to you before Halloween is upon us but I promise you’ll get some fun stuff no matter what.

So the first thing I’m thinking of to share with you is a really fun sideshow piece called “Spidora!”

Spidora is a giant spider with the head of a woman.  She talks, she answers your questions and generally speaking she’s absolutely fascinating and terrifying to a six or eight year old kid like me who hates spiders but also has to just know what the heck is going on.

Sadly, however, I have to say that when I first saw her it wasn’t under the ideal sideshow conditions.  She wasn’t presented to me as a real creature but simply as a carnival illusion and photo opportunity much like the things you’ll find in amusement parks now where you can crawl inside or stick your head through and have your picture taken.

That’s right, I got to be inside the contraption and become a giant spider.  Which may or may not have scared me for life, I’m not sure.

Still, even after having climbed into the thing I wasn’t sure how it worked to make it look like my head was on the body of this giant spider.  I poked around it after I got out and tried to figure it out.  Unfortunately the clip below doesn’t really show you how good an illusion it really is.  Trust me when I say that you can walk right up next to this thing look underneath the spider body and not see how a persons head is coming out of it.  Not unless you really know absolutely what you are looking for.

But these days I really wish I had been presented the opportunity to see Spidora as she was meant to be seen, inside a Ten-In-One (a sideshow tent housing ten attractions under one roof) or as one of the oddities as presented in the clip below.

I have plans now.  No, I mean, blueprints.  Actual plans for how to build this wonderful sideshow attraction.  Someday I hope that I can.

Smile and Say “Boo!”

A number of years back I discovered that in my family history I have a spiritualist minister.  My great grandfather on my father’s side was an ordained minister and used to engage, apparently, in talking to spirits.  Since then I’ve tried to get my hands on his ordination papers, but no luck at this point.

I have been interested in charlatanism for a very long time.  In fact, back in High School I actually took the opportunity provided by my photography class and my sci-fi lit class to provide a sort of hoax that I showed to everyone just for the fun of it.

The hoax was a photograph of a ghost.  A little spirit photography.  The picture is long since gone but I remember it very well.  The camera I had back then was an old SLR and I was using a lot of black and white film back then because it was cheaper and what the class generally supplied.

Using a tripod and really long exposure time I simply set the camera up, opened the shutter, walked into the field of view, stood there for a few seconds and then walked out again.  Total exposure time about 20 seconds.

As the Teacher’s Assistant for the photography class it was my job every morning to set up the darkroom including mixing all chemistry for that day and putting out the supplies.  But once that was done I had my own little empire and I could do anything I wanted.

I developed the film, made some prints and “BOOM!”  Spooky evidence of a ghost in my backyard.

I showed the picture to my teachers and to other students to a wide variety of reactions.  I never said it was real but I didn’t deny it for a long time either.  You see my sci-fi lit teacher Mr. Gutierrez was kind of in on it.  I did the whole thing on my own but he saw the value of it as a way to make his students think a little harder about irrational things.

Eventually we revealed the hoax.  The people who were skeptics all along were not surprised.  The students who also had photography classes and experience were not particularly surprised.  The people who knew me well enough to know that I was probably up to something were not surprised either.

The believers were in total denial.  Surprise.

Obviously the experience stuck with me and one of the things that I have always found the most interesting from the realm of spiritualism is ghost photography.

In the early 1900’s a guy named William Hope was one of the best known spirit photographers around.  He made tons of money scamming people by taking spirit photos of their dead relatives and loved ones.  He had a rather large following including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was an ardent follower of all things spiritualist and was responsible for the fame of the Cottingley fairies.

It was definitely a time when some amazing things seemed to be caught on film.  Of course today we are jaded by Photoshop and movie special effects.  But it’s not that hard to imagine the impact seeing spirit photos must have had.

Well, recently a new collection of spirit photos taken by William Hope has been uncovered.  Take a look and imagine what it might have been like to sit for a photo and find later on that your dead relative really is watching over you.

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