by Mark Sicher, 1994
(This story has never been published, but has remained in my files since Mark died at age 23.)
The first time I saw him perform was downtown at Mostly Magic. I was 14 and by this time I had read about most of his famous tricks: The Coins Through the Table, The Silk Handkerchiefs, The Paper Balls in the Box, etc.. Now was my chance to see them live. But first, the other acts: some guy with sponge balls, another with rings, and a third with… the rings. Then came intermission.
Sitting by myself at a table in back I looked around, trying to spot Slydini. Very often at Mostly Magic, performers would be in the audience before they went on, checking out the other acts. It didn’t take long to spot him. I recognized him immediately. Small, old, his hair combed back with grease, he was at one of the tables down front with a couple of other older men. He was talking quietly, smiling, laughing. I watched as he placed a cigarette into his mouth, struck a match, lit the cigarette and made the match disappear in the smoke. The men laughed. I didn’t. I didn’t remember reading about that one.
Finally, he stood up and began walking away. Now was my chance. I jumped up from my seat and ran down to him, “Excuse me, Mr. Slydini, will you please sign my books?”
In a thick Italian accent, he said, “Sure, what’s-a your name?”
As I was telling him my name and handing him the books, I was immediately struck with how short he was. He was about the same height as me and he looked very old and moved very slow. It couldn’t have been more unintimidating. He was smiling and he was friendly.
Nevertheless, my heart was racing. I was so nervous and I couldn’t bring myself to ask the next question. I knew it was now or never. I kept thinking, what’s the worst that can happen? The absolute worst…he says no. So I just asked.
“Do you give lessons any more?”
For some reason I continued talking as if I didn’t hear him.
“…Because I was wondering if I could…uh…take, uh, take one lesson from you? It would really be an honor.”
He paused. Silence. He thought about it for a moment. Then he reached into his pocket and gave me his card. He said, “Call-a me tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? OK, tomorrow? What time tomorrow?”
“Thank you Mr. Slydini, thank you.”
“You’re welca.” Pause, “What’s-a your name?”
Slydini lived way over in the west 40’s, in Hell’s Kitchen, down the block from an all-male burlesque theater. That first afternoon I didn’t even notice the derelicts and bums yelling things to me as I walked by. The garbage and graffiti, the broken glass, the theaters, the prostitutes were in the background as I wondered what I should call him: Slydini, Mr. Slydini, Tony, Quintino, Mr. Marucci.
When I got to his door I didn’t call him anything. I said, “Hello.”
He lived in a small, old apartment. A dark, thin hallway led to the living room where, all over the walls, there were plaques, awards and photos of Slydini with different famous people. The television was on extremely loud. He’d been watching “One Life To Live.”
“Sit-a down,” he said. “I want to show-a you a trick.”
I sat down. He lowered the volume on the TV. His card table, a cheap, old, fold-out card table, had cigarettes, matches, silver dollars, an English Penny and an old deck of Bicycle playing cards on it. He took a seat across from me, picked up one of the silver dollars and spun it on the table. As it was spinning he lifted one of his fingers. With this finger he pushed down on the spinning coin and flattened it to the table. He looked up at me nervously and gave me a smile. He spun the coin again and, with the same finger, flattened it again. He giggled uncomfortably and shook his head in frustration. He started spinning the coin and flattening it, spinning the coin and flattening it, again and again and again. He moved beyond his initial frustration and became so intense, his eyes staring straight ahead, concentrating, spinning and flattening that he was soon not looking up at all any more. I became more and more uncomfortable. I had no idea what he was trying to do but, whatever it was, it was obvious that it wasn’t working. Things were becoming more and more intense. The angrier he became the more I just wanted to get out of there.
I didn’t know if I should say anything. But I couldn’t just sit there and watch. Finally, I got up the courage. I cleared my throat and said, “Mr. Slydini, what are you trying to do?”
He looked up at me in complete seriousness, maybe even in desperation. He said, “I’m-a trying to stick-a my finger in the eagle’s ass!”
I couldn’t believe what I heard and I burst out laughing. And thus I learned about building tension and release.
“What do you want to learn?”
What do you want to learn? I had the feeling if I said “teach me a shift,” he would have taught me a shift. But I knew you don’t go to Slydini to learn the shift. You go to learn Slydini’s magic. I said, “The Coins Through the Table.”
After about 30 minutes of his instruction I realized that, for all the hours I’d read about and practiced this routine, I wasn’t even close to being able to know what it was all about.
The two hours passed quickly and by the time it came for me to leave we’d only gotten halfway through the routine. I thanked him for the lesson and gave him the check my mother wrote. As he walked me down his bare, dark hallway my adrenaline began to pump in anticipation. I was waiting for him to ask me back to learn the rest of the routine. This began a pattern in which, for the first few weeks he taught me, I’d make sure to only leave when we were in the middle of something.
Each week’s lesson would start with a mini-performance. He’d show me one of his routines, tell me stories and anecdotes about the old days, about him and Dai Vernon, about some of his greatest shows. He’d teach me his techniques.
Of all the things he showed me or told me about, easily the most incredible was The Helicopter Card Trick. I’d never read about this trick. I had no idea what it was or how it was done. He placed one half of the deck on the card table and spread them out into a mess. He took the other half in his left hand. He made a fan, away from the table. I picked a card from the fanned half and he put it back in the fan, sticking it out so I could see it. Without moving, he asked me to look at all the cards on the table. He wanted me to make sure my card wasn’t there. I did so. It wasn’t. He slowly closed the fan, pushed the card back in the deck, not once coming close to those cards scattered on the table. With his right hand, he moved his finger around like a helicopter propeller, bring it from the closed deck in his hand, saying, “Look, look, look.” He pointed down to the middle of the mess and said, “That’s your card.” I turned it over. It was. Then, he offered to do it again. This time I was watching carefully, I knew what was going to happen, I knew what had to happen. And again, I had no idea how he got the card from his hand and on to the table. He did it a third time and a fourth time. Each time it became more and more incredible. Never, in my whole life, had I been so fooled. It was the only time I could remember feeling that this has got to be real magic.
I told him that I didn’t want to learn this trick for a while. I didn’t want to lose that feeling. It wasn’t until two years later that I asked him to teach it to me.
And another time, while in the middle of telling me a story, he lit a cigarette and made the match disappear the same way he did at Mostly Magic. He then took the lit cigarette and held it up above his head with the lit end facing down. He stuck out his tongue and slowly moved the burning tip towards his mouth. Just as he was about to burn himself he stopped, looked at me, and said, “Did you ever see me do this before?”
I said, “No.”
So he continued, lowering the cigarette slowly down into his mouth. His fingers lowered in. Empty handed, they came out. He closed his mouth. He took a glass of water, took a sip of the water and the cigarette was gone.
Watching these performance, hearing these anecdotes, taking these lessons, I learned many of Slydini’s classics. In addition to The Coins Through the Table and The Helicopter Card Trick I learned such routines as The Paper Balls in the Box and The Silk Handkerchiefs. I learned about misdirection and timing. I learned his shooting the gun theory, the han ping chien, the imp pass and the revolve vanish. Whether the techniques were Slydini originals, or standard moves to which Slydini had added his own subtleties, all were taught in explicit detail. I learned how to do each routine exactly the way Slydini did them. Every look, gesture, smile, question, and word, down to the thick Italian accent, was done in pure Slydini fashion.
The first time I performed one of his tricks in public was in a hotel at a magic society meeting. I opened with a few card tricks and developed a rapport with the audience. I then took a seat behind the table and got ready for the final routine. I called up a lady volunteer, took the coins out of the purse and, in my best Italian accent, said, “I’m-a gonna fool ya.” I went through the trick exactly as I had been taught. First, six coins and a ring, then six coins, then four coins, then two, and finally, the famous one coin routine. I had mastered all of Slydini’s nuances: his slow, deliberate movements, his facial expression, his pauses, his jokes, his asides. I literally turned into an 85 year old Italian man. The response, though, was not what I’d expected. Instead of being amazed by the magic or amused by the act the audience seemed to mainly be confused. I got no response. With each phase I became increasingly aware of the lack of reaction. Where Slydini would get a laugh, I got stares. Where Slydini would get spontaneous applause, I got silent nods of approval.
This left me extremely uneasy. There was obviously something very wrong with my performance. I vowed never to perform Slydini’s routines in public again. It was impossible for me to do them without mimicking the man himself. I couldn’t figure out how to extract the concepts and apply them to my own performances.
There was one trick, however, which I always wanted to do. The Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette. It was one of the most beautiful and visual pieces of magic ever created. He would light a cigarette, clearly break it in half. His left thumb and forefinger would then hold the pieces at a right angle. Leaning forward, he would delicately straighten the halves, roll them together. The cigarette, still burning still smoking, would be restored in his otherwise empty hands.
My problem, though, was that I didn’t smoke. If I wanted to do it I would have to figure out my own variation.
I decided to try a torn and restored match. I spoke to Slydini about it and he helped me work out some of the details. For a few weeks at the end of each lesson we would spend some time adjusting the technique of the trick and mapping the pacing and positioning.
I don’t remember when I decided it, but at some point I told myself that I was going to fool Slydini with this trick. This was going to be my variation and I was going to get him with it.
I spent several weeks honing it down, working out the details, staying up until three, four in the morning. I’d sit in front of the mirror, making it all as natural as possible. At the time, I also used to go to Reuben’s delicatessen every Saturday, where all of the old magicians would gather in back and show each other tricks and tell stories and help each other out. A couple of guys at Reuben’s helped me a lot.
Because Slydini was a smoker he always had matches lying around. They were always the same kind of matches, in a gold matchbook, the matches themselves weren’t too long, they were dark, not too big a sulfur tip. At the end of one lesson, while Slydini was getting a glass of water, I ripped out a few matches and dropped them in my shirt pocket. Slydini didn’t have anything to suspect and he didn’t notice.
The next week, before I went to the lesson I palmed one of the matches in my right second finger. It was cold out, it was the middle of winter, and I put gloves on. Slydini did not live in the best heated apartment in New York City so there was no reason for him to be suspicious when I kept my gloves on through the first part of the lesson.
About half an hour into the lesson I said, in the most nonchalant way I could, that I had something I wanted to show him. As I carefully removed my gloves I asked him to give me a match. He removed a match and put the matchbook down on the card table. I did not touch them. My adrenaline was going.
I performed the routine slowly, methodically, never touching the matchbook, and handling the match with no more than two fingers at a time, keeping it always within close view of Slydini. He sat quietly and watched, nodding occasionally. I could tell by his face that he didn’t know I had an extra match. I was a step ahead of him. When the moment came the misdirection worked… he missed the switch. Before I even had a chance to restore the match Slydini slammed his hand down onto the table and said, “Son of a bitch!”
“I got you, didn’t I?”
He paused, smiled, and said, “In some parts.”
He then proceeded to show me all of the places I could tighten the trick up and make it better. It was then that I learned to move away from simply adjusting the techniques of “The Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette;” it was then that I learned how to develop a technique and a style better suited to what I was trying to do with my magic.