Magician Harry Anderson Has Something Up His Sleeve
"There is no magic. There are only magicians," said Harry Anderson, veteran magician and former sitcom star. He was onstage in a ballroom full of amateur and professional conjurers at the 2013 convention of the Texas Association of Magicians, held Labor Day weekend at Addison's Intercontinental Hotel.
Photo by Stephen Masker
More than 500 conventioneers, many of them men older than 50 who do magic as a hobby or for charity fundraisers, listened to keynote speaker Anderson for two hours Sunday afternoon. If they thought they were going to get a tutorial in how to perform some of Anderson's famously baffling card tricks and illusions, they were in for a bit of bait and switch. Lectures and tutorials are what usually happen at magicians' conventions. Trade secrets are revealed. Dealers hawk their wares, including standard magic tools like fake thumbs and $250 sets of chrome cups under which foam balls appear and disappear. Magic conventions are where you can work with pros to perfect the double card lift, learn the needle-in-the-arm illusion, levitate tables and turn "silks" into live doves.
But no, Anderson felt like talking. And not just into any microphone. He didn't like the head mike he was wired into. A standing mic was found as he warmed up the crowd by telling any parents who'd brought kids to the convention that he wouldn't be curbing his tendency to curse (even though he'd signed a "no blue language" clause in his appearance contract, a TAOM member told me). "If you brought your kids here," Anderson warned, "go hire a fucking sitter."
He then performed a quick R-rated trick called "The One-Armed Man Counts His Change." Think about it.
See also: Want to know how David Blaine Does That Stuff? Don't Hold Your Breath.
Anderson, now 60, starred on TV in Night Court and Dave's World, but he started his showbiz career doing street magic and stand-up comedy in L.A. clubs in the early 1980s. A recurring role as con artist "Harry the Hat" on Cheers, plus eight appearances on Saturday Night Live, led to his big break with Night Court, which ran for nine seasons. His three secrets of success, he told the magicians in Addison, are "Get up as early as you can. Work as hard as you can. Get two sitcoms."
He believes in old-school magic, tricks and illusions learned from books that go back centuries and procured in his early days haunting magic stores in Los Angeles. "You could buy a trick at 2 in the afternoon and perform it at 6," he recalled. Anderson can count cards and make things float, vanish and change into other things -- just four of the 19 skills it's said great magicians can perform.
After Dave's World ended its four-season run on ABC in the late 1990s, Anderson and his second wife, Elizabeth, moved to New Orleans, where he opened a French Quarter magic shop called Sideshow, and performed his comedy-magic act at his own nightclub, Oswald's Speakeasy. He admits he completes only three tricks in his hour and 45-minute show. The rest is comedy patter and shtick: "This jacket was a surprise present from my wife. It was on the chair in the bedroom the other night." And "my wife asked me to get her something expensive she doesn't need. So I signed her up for chemotherapy."
The Andersons left New Orleans for Ashville, North Carolina, seven years ago, dispirited by the downturn in post-Katrina tourist trade and the re-election of Mayor Ray Nagin. Harry also got roughed up a couple of times, but he insisted to a New York Times reporter that wasn't the reason they moved.
Anderson got professorial on Sunday, recalling for his fellow magicians how in ancient times they'd have been regarded as healers and avatars who could make crops succeed and weather change. But in the age of YouTube, where the magicians' code is being busted with videos like this, what can magicians offer to their audiences? "Surprises," said Anderson. "Real surprise. You have to offer true impossibility."
And with that, he performed one of his best tricks, a mathematical stumper called The Magic Square. Anderson does it with ease -- "I like tricks that are cocktail-proof" -- folding and unfolding a huge piece of special white paper he buys from Dick Blick art supply in Houston. He seemed to write random numbers on the paper, folded into 16 squares, using a thick black marker pen. But when he unfolded the paper, the "magic" was revealed. Added in every direction, up, down, diagonally, the numbers equaled 34. The audience applauded. There is a second step to the trick, too, involving audience participation. Anderson said that in clubs, the bit never fails to earn a standing ovation. He then told the magicians how he does it. (If you want to know, there are lots of websites that explain it, including this one.)
It's a fun trick, though not as visually spectacular as Criss Angel defying gravity by rising 10 feet in the air, or David Blaine appearing to hold his breath in a water tank for 12 minutes. But the convention of magicians gave Anderson his due. He talked to them as peers, giving a nod to attendee Gene Anderson, inventor of the classic "torn and restored newspaper" trick.
"Everyone's life would be improved if they do could one great magic trick," said Anderson, winding up. "And tell one great joke, play one tune on the piano and do one great origami fold."
He tipped his hat to the audience and then invited everyone down to the dealers' room, where he was selling his self-published books and some of the ties he wore as Judge Harry Stone on Night Court for $100 each.