Corrections or additions?

This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the September 26,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Penn & Teller: Quirky & Hip Hocus-Pocus

By all rights it seems that stage magic should have

been relegated to the back-bin of quaint nostalgia a long time ago.

These days, with technology capable of jettisoning the wildest sort

of virtual reality into impressionable minds at the click of a mouse,

it is hard to imagine anything potentially more anachronistic, and

downright corny, than magic. The image of a mustached magician decked

out in top hat and tails mouthing stage patter as he pulls a

defenseless

bunny from a hat remains magic’s enduring image. Didn’t this stuff

go out with the horse and buggy?

But surprisingly, 75 years after the death of Harry Houdini, magic

has leapt into the 21st century, looking less like a carefully

preserved

daguerreotype than a high-tech digital TV. It is high profile, trendy,

and cool. (One noted magician even became a fixture on the covers

of the gossip mags recently, haven broken up with his super-model

girlfriend.) Nostalgia, magic is not.

Ever since the 1970s, big-name magicians such as Siegfried & Roy,

David Copperfield, and the late Doug Henning have been international

celebrities. Their big budget TV specials and lavish stage shows,

still relying mostly on the old tricks, but adding an updated

high-tech

edge, have drawn huge crowds and big bucks. And today, as any channel

surfer can attest, magic shows dot the cable and satellite TV

landscape.

But in the face of all this glitz and glamour, Penn & Teller,

sometimes

called "The Bad Boys of Magic," have been performing their

quirky, hipster version of hocus-pocus since the mid-1970s. Despite

appearing in their own brand of TV specials ("Penn & Teller Go

Public" won two Emmy Awards) and even a movie ("Penn & Teller

Get Killed"), they’re approach is decidedly anti-mainstream.

Nonetheless,

even though they don’t like to admit it, Penn & Teller are two of

magic’s prime practitioners. They will be appearing at McCarter

Theater

on Wednesday and Thursday, October 3 and 4, as a part of their 25th

anniversary tour.

Using the trappings of traditional magic shows as a jumping off point,

Penn & Teller have taken such time-honored bits as bullet catching,

the East Indian Needle Mystery, fire-eating, juggling, and levitation,

and launched them into new oddly inspired avenues of offbeat surprise.

"We’re not really in the mainstream of magic," admits Teller

(his full legal name), in a phone interview from his offices in Las

Vegas, Nevada. "The fact that I’m willing to use the word `magic’

about some of the stuff we do is a new thing to me. We’ve always done

something very different, twisting things in different ways. I really

kind of defy you to tell me in what category to put some of the stuff

we do."

As an example, Teller describes how they’ll open their show at

McCarter.

"We open things with, supposedly, a card trick, but we behave

as if we don’t notice the fact that we’re doing this trick each

wearing

giant inflatable suits, like mascots wear at ballgames. There’s a

giant, 12-foot-tall Penn and an eight-foot-tall Teller. Now is that

more like Harry Blackstone or Samuel Beckett?"

As another example Teller describes a bit new to the show which is

really a kind of psychological test for each individual audience

member.

It is a variation on the traditional escape trick made popular by

Harry Houdini.

"We lock me in a wooden crate with a Plexiglas box nested inside

it," he explains. "It is locked from the outside so it is

really impossible to reach the locks from the inside. Now normally,

an escape is done with a screen put up in front of the box, and then

a little while later the magician emerges from behind the screen

exhausted

and all covered with sweat. They then whip the screen away and there’s

the box, still intact. Magic. Now our view of this is that the screen

is optional. We tell the audience, `We’re going to do the trick, but

if you want to be amazed, you’ll have to keep your eyes closed. On

the other hand, if you want to see how the trick is done, keep your

eyes open. That’s your choice.’

"This tells you what kind of individual you are," he

continues.

"Are you someone who comes to the show with the hope of taking

home mysteries and puzzles that trouble you when you wake up in the

middle of the night, or are you the kind of person that wants an easy

answer? I guess you could say that’s a magic trick, but it’s not a

magic trick if you don’t want it to be."

Teller, the shorter half of the duo, has become famous

for his refusal to speak onstage. Asked if he was inspired in some

way by the comic persona of Harpo Marx, he says, "No, not at all.

I never really paid any attention to the Marx Brothers until I was

well into my 20s, long after I stopped talking onstage.

"It was mostly a rebellion against the dumbest kind of stage

patter

that I heard other magicians spewing out onstage. Things like `Here

I am holding a red ball,’ which is horribly redundant, or some

12-year-old

kid saying `Last year, when I was traveling with my retinue in the

orient…’ Yeah, sure. Sometime in college I got a bug in my bonnet

that I would try to do dramatic and funny magic without talking and

without using music as a substitute. Just do it dead silent and let

the audience use its head and figure out what’s going on. Soon after,

I met Penn and I just kept on being silent."

Teller was born and raised in Philadelphia. His initial encounter

with magic occurred when his parents bought him a Howdy Doody magic

kit when he was five years old. "My father designed lettering

for newspaper advertising," he says. "My mother mostly worked

in the sale of art supplies."

Both his parents are still alive and both are serious fine artists.

"My mother primarily paints still-lifes and portraits," he

says. "She is a real sensitive painter who tries to get down into

the very soul of whatever she’s painting. My father is a kind of wild

colorist. He paints both abstract and realism, but in everything he

does there is a sense of humor, and a way that these things jump

off the canvas and drill themselves into your head."

Last year, Teller published a book of cartoons drawn by his father,

Joe Teller, in 1939, and entitled, "When I’m Dead All This Will

Be Yours." Since then his father’s artistic career has taken off.

"The book led to an exhibition last July of my father’s work at

WHYY studios in Philadelphia," explains Teller. This has led to

his father’s first gallery show that will take place in October at

the Rosenfeld Gallery on Arch Street in Philadelphia.

After graduating from Central High in Philadelphia, Teller went to

Amherst College where he graduated in 1969. He then briefly taught

high school Latin in Lawrenceville before meeting Penn Jillette in

1974.

Along with a third partner, Weir Chrisimer, Penn and Teller formed

the "Asparagus Valley Cultural Society," honing their

eccentric

comically-laced magic act. "We opened it at a theater on the

Princeton

campus in 1975," he says. "We did that show for six years,

and then it kind of fizzled. Our third partner decided to go his own

way. He wanted a life, and as everyone knows, if you’re in show

business

you can forget about having a life."

Speaking several days after the tragic events in New York, Washington,

and eastern Pennsylvania, we asked how Teller how a comedian would

handle it. He said he was relieved that he would not have to perform

and try to be funny too soon after the attack.

"Our tour really begins in Princeton, so I really don’t need to

deal with that question for a couple of weeks. The immediate

aftershock

is that I don’t think a lot of people will be going to comedy shows

tonight and laughing a lot. It’s too bone-deep for that. But,"

he adds, "we recover from these things."

"My big fear about this is that aside from the immediate, horrific

damage it has done to people, that the more repressive elements of

the government will take this as a cue, and in a sense, an opportunity

to work toward depriving civil liberties," says Teller.

"You know that, in all the talk that’s a going on about `Oh, we

have to control the Internet or there will be terrorism.’ Well, even

though the Internet doesn’t appear to have had anything to do with

this piece of terrorism, those people are going to be singing that

song very loudly. And we’re going to have to watch them. The damage

isn’t just the death and the destruction that was wrought on those

individuals and on the communities. The damage is really, potentially

psychological, but maybe, indeed, whoever is behind this will end

up depriving us of some of our freedoms."

Penn & Teller’s month long tour will also take them to such nearby

places as Wilmington, Red Bank, Newark, and Easton. Then they will

return to Las Vegas where they perform 20 weeks each year. "But

the touring audiences are our favorite audiences," says Teller.

"They buy their tickets two months in advance and they get all

revved up for the show. They’re the best. Especially in an incredibly

cool place like McCarter."

Without any new film projects or TV specials on the horizon for Penn

& Teller, he says things are comfortable and that’s how they both

like it.

"We’re in a very comfortable place," says Teller. "I used

to say to Penn, `When I grow up, I want to be Victor Borge.’ I want

to be the guy who can always do shows, always fill up the audience,

always keep people very happy. It may sound immodest, but I think

we’ve really gotten close to that point."

— Jack Florek

Penn & Teller , McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place,

609-258-2787. $32 and $35. Wednesday and Thursday, October 3 and

4, 8 p.m.


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