Popular Mechanics (South Africa)
BUT WILL HE ACTUALLY TELL US HIS SECRETS?
HE BUILDS THE WORLD’S GREATEST MAGIC TRICKS.
THERE IS A CENTURY-OLD MAGIC TRICK THAT JIM STEINMEYER FINDS PARTICULARLY FASCINATING.
A group of random audience members file on stage and each places a personal possession inside a sturdy, commercial-model safe, out of view of the magician, Charles Morritt. The safe is locked before anyone looks inside, and after a beat, a burglar appears. The lock-picking bandit looks at the closed safe with a pair of field glasses and disappears. Moments later, a telegram arrives for Morritt. It’s from the master thief. It says, in essence, ‘I’ve decided not to crack that safe and steal the contents – it’s not worth my time. But here’s a list of everything inside.’ When the safe is opened, the list matches up, item for item. By almost any estimation, Steinmeyer is the greatest creator of illusions in the history of magic and theatre, but describing Morritt’s stagecraft still animates and energises him. He’s not even sure what to call the act. It’s a mind-reading trick, but instead of the magician playing the part of the clairvoyant, it’s the third-party burglar.
‘Something bigger is happening,’ Steinmeyer says. Morritt had come up with a new twist on a familiar routine: A magician presses his fingers to his temples, closes his eyes, and sees the unseeable.
Steinmeyer uses the mindreading trick as a launch pad into a fascinating disquisition on how magic tricks evolve, but it walls me off from a question I’m eager to ask: How does it work?
That’s the point of my visit – I’m here to understand what Steinmeyer does and how he does it. I’d approached him with this intent a few weeks earlier. He’d been polite, but wary. Given the nature of his business, he said, he had to be proprietary about his insights. ‘In terms of explaining how things work,’ he told me, ‘I can’t get into too much of that.’
But he had agreed to let me inside his world under an illdefined agreement to stick to the basic principles of building magic tricks. Of course, I’m still hoping he’ll lift the lid on his more guarded secrets, and I’m alive to the fact that I’m in the room containing much of his classified material.
My eyes flick across Steinmeyer’s studio, a shrine to the history and craft of stage magic. Here is a miniature version of the cabinet used in the Disappearing Donkey illusion, a once-lost trick that Steinmeyer reconstructed via dusty tomes and informed intuition. There are two walls of reference materials: books about magic, of course, but also books about furniture, graphic design, screenplays, and antique apparatus. Resting along one wall is a pair of tables used in the iconic sawing-the-assistant-in-half illusion, as well as a locked chest for mind-reading tricks, a cylindrical ‘phantom tube’ used for optical illusions, and a foam-core model of the magic table he created for Disney’s latest stage rendition of
Mary Poppins. This prop allows the British nanny to pull gigantic items from her carpet bag, including a hat rack and fulllength mirror.
But what Steinmeyer intends to unpack for me is uncertain. He’s not going to let me flip over his mirrors or rifle through his drawers, and when I ask him a straight-line question, he responds with misdirection – labyrinthine tangents and looping alternate pathways. His story about the burglar and the safe is as much about what he doesn’t say as what he does. My brain fizzes with unsated curiosity.
Secrecy is the coin of the realm here, and Steinmeyer is an open secret himself: Most people who see magic shows assume the performers invent their own tricks, but it’s illusion designers such as Steinmeyer who conjure most of the magic offstage. The New York Times, in fact, labelled Steinmeyer theatre’s ‘celebrated invisible man’.
But even given Steinmeyer’s relative anonymity compared with the Copperfields and Blaines of the world, magic has to reckon with YouTube now. Type any trick into a search bar and you can view explainers of its mysteries in seconds – endless spoilers about invisible wires, trap doors, and rigged boxes. You can find books that detail the mechanics of most illusions, down to diagrams with measurements. Some of these tell-alls have existed for generations. Some of the more recent ones, Steinmeyer wrote himself.
So as one of history’s greatest conjurers of magic continues to explain and not explain the safe trick, I find myself wondering: If anyone can dig up the secrets behind many of Steinmeyer’s tricks, why is he so intent on hiding them?
At 61, Steinmeyer retains a striking youthfulness that manifests in an easy grin, a cheerful chattiness, and eyes that seem lit from behind. He wears a khaki vest over a tie and pinstriped Oxford, a look that recalls him as a boy in the 1950s, haunting Chicagoarea magic shops, hobnobbing with performers, probing for tips. As we walk through his home, posters of great magicians past stand guard along the walls. One shows an illustrated Harry Kellar, a sensation in the early 20th century. Kellar’s arms are elevated skyward, a woman floating above his hands. The legend reads: ‘Levitation – The Greatest Illusion in the World’.
Once settled in the studio with Albert, Steinmeyer’s doddering but ebullient 13-year-old dachshund, I make an opening gambit: I ask Steinmeyer about the state of magic today. He launches into a commentary about how people don’t just receive entertainment anymore – they see it as a challenge. ‘That’s what this has become,’ he says, ‘“Let’s talk about magic as a puzzle. Let’s deconstruct it.”’
Steinmeyer has given the world more to tease apart than almost anyone else on the planet. The god-tier highlight of his career is arguably designing David Copperfield’s televised vanishing of the Statue of Liberty, but over more than three decades, Steinmeyer has engineered an entire pantheon of physics-defying, brain-exploding, how-is-that-even-possible feats. He made a flying carpet for the latest turn of Aladdin on
Broadway. He transformed the Beast into a prince at the end of the stage version of Beauty and the Beast. He vanished the titular character of The Invisible Man. He erased an elephant from the centre ring for Ringling Bros.
In the more traditional world of magic, he brought a painted portrait to life and back again (‘The Artist’s Dream’, performed by husband-and-wife team the Pendragons, among others) and designed a whole series of illusions in which the performer walks through a mirror, a wall, and a number of other impenetrable objects. Steinmeyer has invented card tricks and box tricks and levitation tricks and ESP tricks and every other imaginable kind of theatrical deception, then some you couldn’t imagine, for the biggest names in entertainment, including Orson Welles, Siegfried & Roy, Doug Henning and Ricky Jay.
Aside from its ambition and quality, what stands out is the breadth of Steinmeyer’s work. Most illusion creators stay in a lane: big-stage illusions, escapes, mind reading, theatre productions, or ‘close-up’ magic. Steinmeyer does it all.
‘Jim is an expert in virtually every area of magic – in fact, he’s singular in that,’ says Richard Kaufman, publisher of the industry magazine Genii and the author of scores of books about magic. ‘Nobody else is working at this level. People like Jim come along once every two or three generations.’
Steinmeyer keeps his secrets out of reach as hours of conversation unfold. He is engaged and animated, and he shares his biography with depth, but he deflects other questions in a way that reminds me of the conversational rope-a-dope magicians
use, suggesting one thing – See these rings? Solid metal, right? – before doing another.
I ask where his ideas come from. His answer, at first, is that he doesn’t really like the question. ‘For years and years, I thought it was presumptuous to say, “Here’s how you create things,”’ he says. ‘I always hate reading that stuff.’
Only when I press does he relent.
‘My secret,’ he says, ‘is that I keep a messy notebook. It has to be all three things: That you keep it, that it’s messy, and that it’s a notebook.’ A spiral-bound Strathmore Sketch pad sits on the table between us, and he flips through it, pausing just long enough for me to glimpse the pages. There are careful sketches of rotating, hinging mechanisms, drawings of altered cabinets and wardrobes enveloping phantom figures and annotated with measurements and enigmatic notations. Two pages depict a giant industrial fan – clearly an illusion in which the performer passes unharmed through the spinning blades – but many of the others are impenetrable.
Steinmeyer’s job is to ‘think of something completely impossible, then figure out a way to apparently accomplish it’ – and that process involves intense revision, sometimes over several years. ‘An idea branches,’ he says. ‘You start working on something and you go, “Oh, it would really be good if it was like this.” And you pursue that for a little while and you go, “Yeah, that’s not right.” Well, those – he points to a stack of notebooks – are so when I abandon something, I can go back and find it. There are no dead ends.’
For example, the Mary Poppins illusion originated as an unrelated jolt of inspiration: a table that employs angled mirrors to conceal items within its folds. ‘I remember thinking that was a really good idea, but I had no use for it at the time,’ Steinmeyer says. Into a notebook it went, and years later he excavated it for the play.
A trick has to tell a story, and each story includes layers of deception. ‘There are three scripts in a magic show,’ he explains. ‘There’s the script where you ostensibly say what’s happening, which is often a lie. Then there’s the script of what you’re actually doing, so you’re saying one thing and doing something else. And then there’s the script of how you’re manoeuvring the audience through the act.’ The story should be both familiar and impossible. Audiences should recognise the trick. ‘You want that thing where people go, “Ohhh, they’re about to divide a person into three pieces,”’ Steinmeyer says.
Once magicians manipulate audience members towards certain expectations, those expectations can be subverted, and the audience can be fooled.
While attending primary school in suburban Chicago, Steinmeyer went home every day for lunch, flipped on the TV, and watched ‘Bozo’s Circus’, a variety show sometimes featuring touring magicians. Steinmeyer’s older brother, Harry, had a drawerful of abandoned magic props, and when Jim was about six, he says, ‘I found that drawer.’
Jim’s bounty: a P&L Change Bag (turn one item into another, or pull something from an empty bag), an Ireland set of cup and balls, and a collection of mystifying instruction books. Harry taught Jim that magic was about more than props – you had to engage the audience with a story – and between this tutelage and the television and Chicago’s booming local magic scene, a fascination took hold.
Steinmeyer immersed himself in Chicago’s magic-shop subculture, popping in on Saturdays, hanging around, and talking to other magicians. Before long, he developed what was known as a ‘medicine pitch’ act, in which he played an old-timey snake-oil salesman and incorporated tricks into demonstrating his various cures. The act won a few local awards.
When Steinmeyer was 13, his father died, leading to what he describes as ‘a hell of a year’. As the family wrestled with grief, his mother encouraged him to attend a magic convention in Michigan with his friends, to plug into something that might distract or excite him. Steinmeyer saw a performance by George Goebel, a veteran magician with a grand-scale stage act. Rather than perform for a small circle of spectators, the tuxedoed Goebel stretched his act across the entire stage, employing costumed assistants in larger illusions such as levitation and sawing someone in half. ‘That’s when I became interested in stage magic,’ Steinmeyer says. ‘It was that performance with that guy. I was a 13-year-old kid who just lost a father… And it was like another door opening on an interest I already had, and opening in some bigger, grander way.’
In the following years, Steinmeyer dropped his own act; what he really loved, he realised, was conceiving ambitious illusions – the flashbulb of an idea popping inside his head, the mental calisthenics of how it might work, the sketching and spitballing. In college, he started pitching tricks to Doug Henning, arguably the world’s most famous illusionist during the 1970s. Henning eventually bought a piece from Steinmeyer called ‘Modern Art’, an illusion in which the performing magician stands inside a picture frame but is split in half when the frame is moved – their legs stuck in place while their head and torso slide with the frame. Henning liked the way ‘Modern Art’ spun off a trick called ‘The Zig Zag Girl’, in which the performer divides an assistant into thirds. ‘It was very much of its time,’ Steinmeyer says. ‘Because Zig Zag was so fresh in the ’70s, things that felt like that were attractive.’
Two other Steinmeyer illusions soon made a Henning TV special, and Henning eventually offered him a job helping launch Merlin on Broadway. The job was supposed to last six months; Steinmeyer kept it for seven years before moving on to Disney Imagineering. These positions had their rewards, he says, but he struggled with the compromises that came with corporate productions. He knew that if he wanted to design illusions from a molecule of an idea in his notebook to something that grew and emerged naturally, he needed to be on his own.
Today, running his own business requires an astonishingly disparate set of skills. Some days Steinmeyer is a mechanical engineer, building scale models with foam core, mirrors, and toothpicks. Other days, he’s a historian and detective, reconstructing old tricks; still others, he’s a graphic designer drawing up informal blueprints, or a playwright developing scripts to go with his illusions.
Each illusion involves close collaboration with the builders and the performers – Steinmeyer’s clients. ‘Every trick has a flaw,’ he says. ‘If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a trick, it would be reality.’
For magic to accomplish the impossible – making something disappear – a ‘flaw’ in the magic has to be hidden, like a trick mirror or special compartment. If a magician can’t conceal this secret, the trick is worthless. Steinmeyer relies on both meticulous design and well-suited performers to construct tricks. When he offered to help launch the solo career of Alex Ramon – a former magician for the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus – he asked Ramon to write down his favourite tricks, architectural styles, pieces of art, colour schemes, and so on to garner a sense of his aesthetic and his way of thinking.
Ramon had never performed original tricks before, but in Steinmeyer’s studio he understood for the first time how they were birthed. ‘It made me think about magic in a different way,’ Ramon says. ‘I was just a performer. I didn’t have that engineering mind.’ Today, he has a trick in which his ‘blonde assistant’ materialises in an empty chair covered by a cloth.
Though the assistant’s silhouette appears at first to be human, it turns out to be Ramon’s dog. Steinmeyer helped Ramon create this signature part of his act. ‘I definitely owe a big chunk of my career to Jim,’ he says.
During the evening on my second day in Hollywood, Steinmeyer drives me to the Magic Castle. The members-only club for magicians and enthusiasts is both a laboratory for the craft and, by night, a place for guests to take in large-scale and intimate performances. Built in 1909, the building is a shambling maze, a classic chateau
themed manor with narrow passages, branching wings, antique banisters and Tiffany stained-glass windows. At the time of my visit, Steinmeyer served as president of the club (though his tenure has since ended), and we arrive about an hour before opening so he can attend a board meeting. I have to borrow a tie at reception to meet the dress code, though I’m already wearing a sport coat.
Steinmeyer heads to his meeting, leaving me to roam the castle. In a room tucked behind the main entrance, I test ‘Irma’, the ghost operating the grand piano, and she nails my softball request (‘Hotel California’).
The energy ramps up once the doors open, the crowd rolls in, and the performances start. In the Close-Up Gallery, Tom Craven peppers his card, rope, and metal-ring tricks with a stream of old-world patter. Over in the larger Parlor of Prestidigitation, Bill Abbott presents a mash-up of puppetry and magic featuring a lustful monkey. In the Magic Castle’s showcase room, the Palace of Mystery, Greg Otto performs a comedy-laden routine (when a heckler pipes up, Otto replies, ‘I thought I told you to stay in the truck’) before Kyle and Mistie Knight deliver a classic big-stage performance heavy on audience participation. To take the stage, Kyle passes through a giant fan with spinning blades – the very trick I’d spotted in one of Steinmeyer’s notebooks.
What’s striking, besides the polished performances, is the feeling in the building. The Magic Castle rules call for people to stow their phones, and there are no TVs. It’s a time capsule, everything analogue, and the audience arrives with a roiling, tipsy energy. People call out to performers, laugh, slap shoulders, and scream with surprise and wonder. No one is sneaking a look at their phone, and no one resists the timeless astonishment that has been conjured in magic audiences for decades, from Charles Morritt to today.
I mention this to Steinmeyer on the drive back – he’d been in his meeting for the duration – and he nods. ‘I know it’s weird to say, but somehow magic is immune from technology,’ he says. When he watches performances, he tunes in to not just the magic but the way people respond to it. ‘The thing about the Magic Castle and places like it, when you’re there in the right size theatre, the intimacy is just completely amazing. People always say afterwards, “I had no idea the performances were going to be so strong.”’
On my last day, I ask Steinmeyer straight up: How does the sawing-in-half trick work? Two trick tables are in the studio with us. The illusion has been around for more than a century, and Steinmeyer has mentioned its timelessness and layers of innovation. So what’s the secret? True to form, Steinmeyer gives a non-answer. He begins a mesmerising filibuster about the illusion’s evolution, citing his friend and mentor Alan Wakeling, who in the 1970s came up with an ‘incredibly elegant’ design for the trick in which two audience members shackle the hands and feet of the woman, and instead of sawing the box in two, the magician stabs four blades through the sides.
Steinmeyer allows that historically, the trick is that the woman pulls her knees up to her chest when the sawing happens. But with Wakeling’s box, you can still see her feet sticking out the bottom, and beyond that, the box looks too narrow for a knee lift. So I press: ‘But there’s no room for her to…’
‘Right. I mean it’s all – as soon as people believe you’re doing one thing, you can subvert it by doing something else,’ Steinmeyer says. He smiles and shrugs as if to say, what more do you expect?
Here, I realise where Steinmeyer has been trying to lead me all along. In Hiding the Elephant, his narrative history of magic, Steinmeyer points out what most of us already suspect or know: The secrets of magic are often right in front of us. He says a magician friend often tells him, ‘If you want to keep something a secret, publish it.’
Magic is not about knowing how we’ve been deceived. ‘Magic,’ Steinmeyer says, ‘is an opportunity to experience a deception without actually being threatened.’
In a world of deepfakes and identity theft and warfare by invisible computer viruses, real-life deception has consequences. You need to know the mechanisms of these ‘tricks’ to avoid being taken in. That’s why we press for answers.
Steinmeyer sees I’m pressing about the sawing-in-half trick, so maybe against his better judgment, he relents. The feet are fake, he explains. The box incorporates design elements that make it appear narrower to the audience than it actually is. In fact, there’s just enough room for the woman to drop her knees to one side and avoid the blades.
I nod. Huh. It’s a cool explanation, but somehow learning the answer isn’t as exciting as I’d expected. I remember something I’d read in one of Steinmeyer’s books: Magicians don’t protect their secrets from the audience, they protect the audience from their secrets.
The truth of how magic works is that most of us don’t know because we don’t want to know. What we want, instead, is to sign what Steinmeyer calls ‘a mysterious pact between a performer and the audience’. We want to be in the midst of that credulous, shrieking crowd at the Magic Castle.
‘There’s no substitute for that,’ Steinmeyer says. ‘When you gasp or scream in response to a card trick, it’s a hot-wire to that sense of being incredibly pleased, a sense not only of surprise, but of wonder.’
The secret of magic is not knowledge, it’s feeling. Steinmeyer and I eventually while away almost an hour analysing the early-1900s illusion with the thief and the safe. He revels in the intricacies of it – the different historical accounts, Charles Morritt’s possible motives, all the potential explanations. Steinmeyer holds that feeling himself. He admires a trick well done. He treasures the wonder that comes with being fooled in an artful way.
Steinmeyer doesn’t know how the safe illusion works. He never has, it’s possible he never will, and this doesn’t bother him in the least.
‘EVERY TRICK HAS A FLAW. IF IT DIDN’T, IT WOULDN’T BE A TRICK. IT WOULD BE REALITY.’