“Technical skill is mastery of complexity, while creativity is mastery of simplicity”
-Sir Erik Christopher Zeeman-
It was 1960 and I was 12 years old and deeply entranced with magic. My family lived in Norfolk, Virginia and my Dad was a Navy man. It was the height of the Cold war and the Russians might nuke us at any minute. Chubby Checker was singing “The Twist” and The Ventures had just released “Walk Don’t Run”.
I spent my evenings pouring over magic catalogs and there was an intriguing effect called “The Spirit Bell”. It would ring and appear to read people’s mind. It sold for an enormous amount of money! There was no way that I could afford it. I would have to mow lawns and deliver The Virginian Pilot newspaper all summer to get anywhere near the price.
The thrill of every month was visiting the magic club meeting at Earl Edward’s Magic Shop in downtown Norfolk. Bob McAllister, the local WTAR-TV kid’s show host was always there. He took a liking to the way I thought about magic. Twelve years later I would have my own syndicated TV show based in Charlotte, North Carolina and Bob and I would continue to be good friends as he ascended to Wonderama at WNEW-TV in New York.
I had to figure out a way to make a functional Spirit Bell. The trick was too amazing. I had no money but I had to make it work! I reasoned that it used a mechanical ringer. I played with having an assistant pull a fishing line to make a weighted ringer hit the bell. Nothing seemed clean and examinable. I wanted everything to be examinable.
It was a warm August night and my dutiful Navy father happened to be in port and drove me downtown to the meeting in the back of Earl’s Shop. Edwards had a small stage and with seats in his inner sanctum. Bob introduced me. Earl had a small stage in back of his shop and I asked that all the lights be dimmed.
The Crystal Bell I was using was used without permission. It was from my parents wedding in 1947. I placed it on a plain undraped table that was sitting on a small rug. I passed the bell and the table for examination and returned the bell upright to the table.
“Bell, processor of the spirits, answer “yes” with one ring and “no” with two. Are you ready to read minds? One loud “ding”! The audience snapped to attention.
For the next few minutes the bell told the ages of young magicians, and answered everyone’s questions with absolute accuracy. Following the routine I again brought the bell and the table down into the audience for complete examination. There were no gimmicks! No ringers. They were totally unprepared!
I thought that Earl and Bob and the assembled at the club would die from puzzlement. You know, it was one of those times when you know they were fooled out of their minds but they could not bring themselves to admit it.
After the meeting Bob grabbed me over to the side and said, “Kid, you fooled ’em! Got me too until I almost broke my neck!”
What Bob discovered and the others didn’t was how I did the trick.
My kid-brother Kenny was backstage in the wings with a soda straw and a mouthful of BBs! He was pee shooting the “dings” on the bell through the straw! I needed the rug so you could not hear them fall.
Bob almost tripped over the BBs on the floor. That is what tipped him off as to what I was doing!
So, friends, if you ever want an unprepared “Spirit Bell”, try the simplistic BB method! It works and fools magicians.
Later in the year my Dad was transferred to Mayport Naval Station near Jacksonville. He was assigned to an aircraft carrier, the USS Essex, CVA 8.
When we arrived in Jacksonville, I was convinced we had arrived in heaven. The sky was bright; the weather was balmy with beautiful palm trees and a beach. The only hint of hell was the stench of the paper mills. At first my Mom thought that someone was cooking cabbage all the time. We lived across the street from the Pittsburg Pirates spring training camp at Jacksonville Beach. Summer mornings were spent watching Ranger Hal on TV and afternoons meant a time with Skipper Al and Popeye cartoons in Channel 12. Jim Green and Fielding West would have their own shows on these TV stations a decade later.
I wasted no time in trying to find a magic shop and magician’s group. The pickings were slimmer than in Norfolk, Virginia. The big name in Jacksonville at that time was , “Mars the Magician”. His name was Alston Cockerill. He was a sort of Bill Neff character. He did ghost shows and phone room fund-raising and had a collection of illusions. The other main local guy was Bob Hutchings who had a small magic shop called, The Magic Shack. It was actually a small building in back of his house.
I was excited to find out that they had sporadic meetings and I forced my mother to drive me over on the next Friday night. Shortly after arriving in Florida I made an exciting discovery of a brand new magic principle! For a few years I had been pulling single strands of nearly invisible thread from my mother’s old nylon stockings. I used them to move cards and work my own version of The Wonder Mouse. We had not been in Jacksonville for a week when I discovered a brand new animation principle that was not available in Norfolk, Virginia and places up North.
I arrived at Hutchings Magic Shack and there was only another boy about my age and mostly older guys smoking cigars. It was a familiar smell that I remembered from Leroy Mingus’ shop in Reading, Pennsylvania. Mingus was known for making his feather flower props.
It was my turn to perform! Bob Hutchings quieted down the roundtable, “Guys, here is a young newcomer from Norfolk who wants to show us a trick. His name is Dennis, give him a hand”. I opened up a shoe box and removed a one dollar bill and explained that it was all I could earn from picking up pop bottles the week before. I laid the dollar bill flat on the table and made some incantations and moved my hands around it and it began to move toward my hand. The old guys were not impressed.
Then it began to move sideways and reverse the direction. I put my hands into my lap! The bill kept moving. One old guy took his Swisher Sweet cigar out of his mouth and moved in for a closer look. They all moved in. I invited them to feel around the dollar bill for threads and look under the table for magnets. I got up and walked away and the bill was still weaving and bobbing all over the table. One old guy laughed and said, “Well, I’ll be da….sorry for the language, kid. That’s good!”
I picked up the bill and returned it to the shoe box. That night I never did explain how I did it. You see it only took a few days in Jacksonville to discover a brand new method of magical animation: A giant roach! Florida was filled with huge Palmetto bugs. I merely stuck one to the back of the dollar bill with a dab of magician’s wax! Once you stuck the bug on the back of a bill they were highly motivated to move.
Sometimes the best tricks are ones with a simple method!