Author Archives: bobbyblog

How Germain Spooked Me

Back in March 1988, I visited magician and author, Stuart Cramer who wrote two books on the master magician, Karl Germain (b.1878).  I traveled from New York to Ohio to interview Cramer for an article I was writing on Germain and spent a lovely weekend with him and his wife. One of my questions was about the year that Germain had died. In one of his books Cramer wrote that Germain died in 1959. In the other book, he gave the year as 1960. When I asked Stuart about it, he wasn’t aware of the discrepancy but was pretty sure it was 1959 as he was one of the pallbearers.

On the last day of my visit we decided to visit Germain’s grave to settle the question. Stuart confessed he hadn’t visited the gravesite since Germain died about 30 years earlier. On the way to the cemetery Stuart had to make a stop at the bank and parked on the street. As we did so I looked up at the rear of the car parked in front of us. I gestured to Stuart to look at its dealership nameplate – it said Germain! Spooked, we turned and gave each other an “Oh shit” look.

Now you have to understand that by the 1940s Germain had been retired from magic for decades. However, he was still extremely secretive about his magic and jealously guarded his secrets. This was true even for Stuart would regularly take care of the blind, elderly, recluse Germain in his later years. Cramer would beg Germain to reveal his secrets to him. He expressed to Germain he would never be performing again and that his brilliant creations should not be forever lost to posterity. Well, a few times a year Germain would relent and reveal some treasures to Stuart.

Stuart and I arrived at the cemetery walked up to Germain’s grave. Now we were to settle once and for all the date he had died. However, we were both shocked when we looked down on the dates inscribed on the stone; 1878-19__. The date of his death had never been put on the stone! Stuart exclaimed, “The old bastard has fooled us again!” However, later checking with the cemetery office, the date was confirmed to be 1959.

I have since heard that some do-gooder has had the date filled in totally ruining my story. No doubt Germain is turning over in his grave over it


Teller and Torkova

Twenty years ago this week, I was to perform my stage coin act at Monday Night Magic at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in NYC. It was challenging due to the close proximity of the audience being in a semi-circle around the small stage. I also happened to know that Penn & Teller were in town and about to open their show later that week at the Beacon Theater.

And wouldn’t you know it, just before I’m introduced (and already feeling nervous about the act), someone tells me that Teller is in the audience. No pressure! Well, the act ended up going fine except for part of the finale which didn’t work but the audience never knew it. I was pretty happy as it was the first time I had done the act on such a small stage. I received a big round of applause and walked backstage.

A few minutes later, one of the producers of the show came up to me and said that Teller wanted to speak to me (yes, he can talk) at intermission. I was surprised and flattered. When we met, he congratulated me on doing a great job. Then he gave me this long quizzical look and said, “You did some very subtle things there, some very subtle things!” Between that and the expression on his face I was pretty sure that this was his way of saying that I had fooled him – without him coming out and admitting it.

I thanked him and he was kind enough to autograph a postcard for their upcoming show. It’s hard to read here but it says, “To Torkova, from your new fan, Teller.” In recent years I’ve been rejected trying to get on their television show, “Fool Us.” While disappointing, I can still take some solace in that at least I fooled Teller once upon a time in a little theater in Greenwich Village

Dai Vernon

I am reminded today of one of the proudest times in my magic career. Back in 1987, the New York Magic Symposium had a roast for the legendary magician and one of my early inspirations, Dai Vernon. Some months earlier, Herb Zarrow, an extraordinary magician himself and one of Vernon’s close friends, had seen me perform my routine with the Cone and Ball. This I had based partly on Vernon’s routine. Herb told me, “Oh, I would love Dai to see that!” With Herb’s urging and influence, he arranged for me to perform it at the Vernon Roast. To say I was nervous would be an understatement especially since Vernon would be sitting right on stage as I performed it! Everything went smoothly and afterwards, Vernon, who was 93 at the time, congratulated me saying, Great, really really great!” I would get such a thrill seeing him later mention my performance in his column.
A couple of years later after continuing to refine the routine, I performed it at The Magic Castle in Hollywood. Once again, Vernon had a front row seat. After the show Vernon’s close friend, Bill Bowers, approached me saying that “The Professor” wanted to see me. We went over to the corner where Vernon held court and after congratulating me again for my performance, said he wanted to show me something.
It was the ratings card that Castle members would give to the various acts. This would help the bookers determine whether or not to have an act back. Showing me the card, Vernon had given me a 9 out of 10 rating! This pretty much left me speechless. I thanked him and said I how much that meant to me. That would be the last time I would see Vernon.
From what I understand, they no longer use rating cards at The Castle. At the time I didn’t think to ask for it and when I inquired the next time I was performing there, the card was long gone. But my memory of having one of my early idols in magic praising my work so highly is something I will never forget.

A Hanky and a Top Hat in Salem, MA

Had a wonderful time at the Psychic Entertainers Association conference in Salem, MA. Saw many old friends and made some new ones. And am pleased that my show, A Hanky and a Top Hat, was so well received. Then toured the House of Seven Gables with with friends before heading back to NYC.

Childhood Magic Books

I’ve always been very sentimental; especially when it comes to my magic. I’ve collected all the magic books that used to be my local library (793.8). I glance at them every day on my shelf and occasionally still reference them. Today I wanted to check a routine in Paul Curry’s book, Magician’s Magic, which was published in 1965 and pulled it off the shelf.

For some reason today when I looked at the cover, I was flooded with memories of how I used to look at the book on the shelf in the library. As a young boy I was so intrigued with all those wonderful illustrations which had so transported me to another place. It’s funny how such strong feelings can sometimes be triggered after so many years for no apparent reason.

Origins of my silent magic act

It might be of interest how my Multiplying Candles routine relates to my new one-man show, “A Hanky and a T-T-T-Top Hat,” which is about my growing up and becoming a magician while dealing with my stuttering issues. Here is some background that didn’t make it into the show since it only covers my childhood into my 20s.

For most of my performing life I have done a “silent act” meaning it was a non-speaking act set to music. It never really occurred to me to perform magic that required speaking onstage. While never being a fully conscious choice, it was a natural one due to my stuttering and fear of speaking onstage. And it was also natural that when I first moved to NYC back in 1978, I began taking mime classes and becoming proficient enough to be asked to join the company’s troupe. Mime was a “perfect” medium for this stutterer.

Over the years I was able to work out and master some of the silent routines I am known for; particularly my Coin Act for which I had won many awards. I was successful working silently onstage for many years. However, I gradually developed a passion for mentalism. Previously I had had absolutely no interest in it; probably since it was ALL about speaking onstage – an anathema to me. Eventually my desire to develop a longer show and not just an “act” pushed me to add mentalism to it despite my stuttering. At the time (before getting more speech therapy) my stuttering was much more severe than it is now. And with the shame that is felt by every stutterer, it wasn’t easy. Indeed there were many times that I could barely get a sentence out which led to many awkward performances.

However, I stuck with it and eventually decided to go back to speech therapy which I hadn’t done since childhood. Within a six months my stuttering diminished to the point where it was less awkward onstage. I also received some very positive feedback from various friends in the performing community which boosted my confidence enough to eventually write my first solo show, “Thought Prints,” a whimsical mentalism play that I performed at the New York Fringe Festival. It was the first time in my life that I had ever spoken for that length of time onstage – 60 minutes! And while I stuttered a fair amount during those performances, I considered that, at the time, the greatest accomplishment of my career.

Since performing mentalism and having some very good responses with it over the past 10+ years, I’m still told by some that while they enjoy it, they still like my old silent magic the best. And I appreciate that; having performed those routines for most of my life, I am naturally smoother and more polished with those routines than I am at mentalism. It makes me think back to when Woody Allen first started making more serious films and being told by his fans that they wished he would go back to making those, “funny movies.”

It does take a fair amount of courage to set aside something that has worked for you so well for so long and take the risk of doing something completely different. And for a long while you will likely not be very good at it. And for a performer, that can be tough to take. However, I believe the rewards in the long run are worth it. Just as taking a huge risk going from a silent act to a speaking act, so now, with my new show, I have written the most personal story of my life (and now speaking for 75 minutes onstage). Judging by the responses I have received so far, the risk seems to be paying off.

At some point I may write a sequel about this journey which I hope would be just as compelling.

Feeling accomplished

Pulling myself up from my bootstraps, I dug in and got some good work done today. Since the cues for my solo show are more complex than I’ve ever used before, I decided to take it to the next level. I bit the bullet and ordered the state of the art Media Monkey remote control system and then spent today learning the basics of Qlab to run my show. After many frustrating hours, but with good tech support, am proud to say that I finally got a handle on it. Now to get back to figuring out the problem of setting up and striking the show more quickly! (Boy, I look so much like my Dad in this photo)

Packing for the Road

My new solo show which runs 75 minutes, takes 45 minutes to set up and almost 45 minutes to pack up so that it fits into 2 road cases. But having attended two different panel discussions on entering Fringe Festivals, I found out like that like the NYC Fringe Festival, almost all give you only get 15 minutes to load in and 15 minutes to load out. Some festivals it’s just half that time! I was hoping festivals in other states were more flexible.

Working and traveling alone it seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle due to the nature of my magic props with the delicacy of packing and setting them up. I was resigned to not being able to play 95% of the festivals out there.

However, a couple of days ago I decided out of curiosity to rethink the whole packing and setting up issue and see if I could possibly meet the dreaded 15 minute deadline. This will entail having special boxes built to hold pre-set props. Then to also figure out how to pack them so that each prop is taken out of the case in the order that the show needs to be set up.

While I only started this morning, I’m thinking there might be some hope! I intend on putting the same amount of time and thought into this problem as I would any other routine in my show. This just another issue that professional performers have to address that the audience never knows about.