What's life like for a man who makes his living fooling people? I decided to find out, in this interview with professional magician and magic theater owner Steve Spill.
Steve Spill has spent his entire life performing magic, producing magic shows around the globe in places such as the French Riviera's Cannes Film Festival, Universal Studios Hollywood, Harrah's Tahoe, and Toronto's Massey Hall.
Among the projects on which Spill has provided expertise are the CBS TV special "The World Greatest Magicians," and the FX TV series "Penn & Teller's Sin City Spectacular."
Spill grew up at the Magic Castle, a private club for magicians in Hollywood where his father, Sandy Spillman, was a manager in the 1960's and the young aspiring magician was tutored by industry icons such as Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller and Francis Carlyle.
At 21, he started working as a magic bartender at the Jolly Jester saloon in Aspen, Colorado, where he perfected and became known among magicians, for his interpretations of a number classic and original sleight-of-hand tricks.
From 1980 to 1985, Spill teamed up with Bob Sheets in Washington D.C. for the long-running show, "Magicomedy Cabaret," which Lloyd Grove of the Washington Post called "...hard to resist."
Over the next decade Steve maintained a busy schedule of live solo appearances -performing his unique brand of magic at comedy clubs, casinos, and corporate events across America, in Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean.
In 1998 Spill opened Magicopolis, a magic theater, in Santa Monica, which is the permanent home of "Escape Reality," the show he stars in with his wife, actress Bozena Wrobel.
How did your interest in magic start?
I was pulled out of a hat. Others might say I was destined to be a magician. That it was fate. Supernaturally ordained. You might say it, but I wouldn't. When it comes to paranormal phenomenon, most magicians are skeptics and I'm no exception. Yes, magic goes way back in my family. No, I don't believe in cosmic forces. Yes, I live my life amidst mysteries, miracles, and dreams.
I was five and my dad was bedridden for a couple weeks with an ulcer. That's when he lit the flame of magic in me, which, to this day, has never gone out. He sat up in bed, his jaws sagging at first, his face pale, stubbled with beard hairs, and taught me the simple trick with two strings that his father, my grand¬father, had taught him. What I witnessed that day was one of the great thrills of my life.
The instant he started teaching me, a transformation came over him or from within him,. He was no longer a slumped man in bed suffering from an ulcer. He was suddenly vital and strong as if nothing was the matter with him... a regal master mentor, majestically passing the baton, the magic wand, to his son. Nowadays, the same sort of thing happens to me, if I'm ill and have a show to do, another set of reflexes take charge and the ailments seem to vanish while I'm on stage. After that day, instead of Leggos or little green army men, the only toys I played with were magic tricks.
What exactly is the appeal of magic for you?
I love the idea of surprising people. Giving the specific feeling of amazement. Leading audiences down the garden path and turning the hose on them. That feeling I got as a boy watching the surprise twist endings on shows like Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. I like putting 2 and 2 together and making an audience see 5 and the idea that things can look one way when they're really another - the built-in irony of magic.
I like the challenge of crafting presentational elements that go beyond deception and give an experience that reaches out to your emotional, intellectual or philosophical core in one way or another.
Very appealing to me is the honest way the craft of magic allows you to tell lies in a socially acceptable way. The trick of our trade is to alter perceptions with dyslexic displays of honesty that range from tiny little manipulative untruths to big, fat, in-your-face, lies. To be a professional magician is to be an expert at dispensing disinformation, duplicity, hypocrisy, distortion, deception and fakery without any of the guilt or unpleasant consequences. And I enjoy the thrill of getting away with it.
Your father was a manager at the Magic Castle in the 1960s. Was he a magician, too? Is that where you saw your first live magic shows? What was it like hanging out there as a kid?
My father, Sandy Spillman, considered doing magic tricks a hobby. He was an on-air personality in early television, at San Francisco's KPIX-TV, the first television station in Northern California. That's where my dad read the news, hosted chat shows, game shows, and did commercials.
In 1960 our family moved to Los Angeles so pops could make his assault on Hollywood as an actor, writer, director, host, whatever... He had only sporadic success in those first few years. At an audition, a casting director saw on his resume that magic was one of his special skills. That guy hooked my father up with a CBS producer, Bill Larsen, who along with his wife Irene and brother Milt, was making a career transition into opening the now iconic Hollywood Magic Castle. The three Larsens were charmed and my dad was offered the night manager job.
The Magic Castle is where I saw my first professional magicians in the mid 1960s, and there were four in particular who really influenced me in those early years. Other kids my age had heroes like Batman and Superman... I had The Man Who Fooled Houdini and The Man With The X-Ray Eyes, both real men known to all magicians, Dai Vernon and Kuda Bux, that I got to know very well personally along with Charlie Miller and Francis Carlyle, each of the four were magical icons. It's curious how some young popular magicians I've spoken to recently don't like to mention those who helped them along the way. I suppose they don't want it noised about that they needed any help, they want everyone to believe that they did it all on their own. I had a lot of help, and I'm delighted to admit it and blab about it.
I learned a lot about how magic should be constructed and physically look from Vernon, prop management and angles from Miller, clarity of effect and the proper way to accent moments with comedy without destroying the magic from Carlyle, conveying and embellishing impossibility and mystery from Kuda...
I was so blessed to have known this cast of characters... the mid 60s to early 70s were an incredible time for me. I craved the attention of these guys and by osmosis learned their lessons. Each one had his own trick, a nuance, a personal way of doing things, a lesson, a gesture, a story, a philosophy, an attitude... I was a sponge and absorbed something from each of them. All of it went into my mental file. Very gradually, right up until today, nothing too specific, but little bits and pieces that seemed to inherently fit me surfaced and worked their way into my performances, and the combination added to my personality gave me something new. Part of Carlyle's delivery, but not his words, the way that Miller would look at an audience after something amazing happened, a little sly confident half smile like Vernon's.
Early on, you opened for rock acts such as Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Eagles, the Byrds, Cheap Trick and Little Feat. What was that experience like? How were the audiences? Were there any magician groupies?
Yeah, that started around 1970, when 8-track tape players were the thing and before comedy clubs or open mic nights became popular nationwide... I started doing free gigs around Los Angeles like the Monday Hootenanny at the Troubadour and the Wednesday showcase at the Palomino and a bunch of others. The experience was terrific. The money wasn't. These were all non-pay encouraging confidence building on-the-job training type gigs where I appeared with folk singers, comics, spoon players...
By 1973 I was opening for bands like the one's you mentioned at The Whisky and Roxy on the Sunset Strip, Starwood in West Hollywood, Topanga Corral... and getting ten to twenty dollars a gig.
At first it was extremely tough holding a rock club crowd's attention... but I learned how to make it work and audiences got off on me. I called myself "Highdini," my act was inspired by Cheech & Chong, who had recently released their first comedy record album and were very popular around town.
Several big fake bouquets of marijuana appeared from nowhere then vanished in a puff of smoke. Throughout the act I snorted tablespoons of white powder, as a finish to the bit I grabbed my nose and a long stream of salt-like stuff poured out. One by one eight smoking pipes magically appeared between my fingertips, which made me dry as a bone and "gave me cotton mouth," causing me to spit out dozens of cotton balls, then it looked like I drank a huge thirst-quenching pitcher of beer in a fraction of an instant. I pretended to be a little stoned while I did these drug-inspired tricks, in the same way I assumed Dean Martin "acted" drunk when he sang songs.
Mastering these shows gave me a kind of power I had never felt before. At times I had total command of these crowds. I loved that these rock audiences were tough and I could actually entertain them. Every once in a while someone would come up to me and ask "How did you do that?" or say "You're funny," and it would make my night. Of course, they were always slurring their words, or on the verge of passing out, but that didn't matter. You asked about groupies, I think anyone who appears onstage meets girls, a nice little perk that comes from performing.
Your magic shows have lots of comedy. Why add comedy to magic? (Hasn't magic simply been straight magic for centuries?)
Yes, magic has been simply straight magic for centuries, and today there are very successful guys like David Blaine and Criss Angel who play it straight as if the magic they do is real.
On the other hand, I'm a bit of a sarcastic smart-ass old hippie who doesn't take himself too seriously and could never present myself as someone with special magic powers.
It became very apparent to me early on, way back then in the 70s, that undoubtedly there are a few people who believe in the existence of "real" magic, but most audiences accept the role of a magician as an entertainer who pretends to do the impossible for the amusement of the audience.
I like amusing people doing tricks, but I also like being funny - and always try to glue my presentations together with something I want to say or try to illustrate something I want to say with a trick, be it autobiographical, observational, philosophical or whatever. Those ideas or the procedural situation of doing the trick itself or the audience interaction along the way are some places where the comedy in my magic comes from.
You provided consulting expertise for the FX TV series "Penn & Teller's Sin City Spectacular" and the CBS TV special "The World's Greatest Magicians." What exactly did you do for those shows?
For the Penn & Teller series I created bits for them to perform on the show. One of my favorites was Blood from Stone where Penn & Teller bring the metaphor to life by actually squeezing blood from a stone - then Bill Maher exposes the fact that Teller has a huge shard of broken glass hidden between the stone and the palm of his hand - and when Teller squeezes the sharp glass secretly gouges into his flesh - the blood that looks like it's coming from the stone is actually coming from the gaping wound in Teller's hand. Another fave was the Infant Card Sharpe where Penn & Teller coach Gena Lee Nolin's newborn infant to successfully perform card tricks like a sleight-of-hand expert. I love Penn & Teller.
The CBS thing featured twelve magicians and in addition to getting together in advance of the shoot to help some stage their tricks in front of a camera to analyze angles and shots and make adjustments so their bits would look best onscreen - I was also one of the featured performers.
I appeared on that show wearing dark sunglasses, an electric blue silk suit, and held under my arm was a life-size stuffed animal puppet goose. Referring to the puppet as a clairvoyant Mind Reading Goose, I put a felt tip marker in his beak, and that goose wrote predictions on a pad of paper. Those scribbled writings accurately predicted what audience volunteers did in the moments that followed. It was a bizarre bit that at that point had been honed over a bazillion performances in comedy clubs.
What percentage of the magic tricks in your repertoire is original as opposed to tricks other magicians have done?
Out of the many hours of material I've developed over the years, relatively few items are completely original. Highdini, The Mind Reading Goose, Blood from Stone and the Infant Card Sharpe might be in that category.
But mostly I'm living proof that it's not what you do... It's the way you do it. Often I re-envision classics creating something original about the method - in other words the secrets behind how the effect or the magic trick itself works and is perceived by the audience - and I always aim to make my interpretation or point of view in terms of presentation inventive and fit my personality the best I can.
But there are far fewer "notes" in the magic craft than other performing arts like music. A lot of what magicians do is making things apparently appear and disappear, and magically move from place to place. The great magic inventor Stewart James describes the magician as "a choreographer of objects," and the three fundamental effects of productions, vanishes, and transpositions constitute much of that choreography.
What is your current favorite magic trick?
My favorite is whatever new thing I happen to be working on at any given moment.
Are women impressed by professional magicians? Did being one help you get dates?
There's no doubt about it. If you make yourself visible after being onstage - at the bar, in the lobby, near the women's restroom, whatever... at least a few girls who enjoyed your show will introduce themselves and there you have it. It definitely helped a weirdo like me. Put me behind a deli counter with a paper hat and day-old meat stains on my apron and guarantee you I wouldn't be the happily married man I am today.
Of the celebrities you've worked with and met through the magic world, who were your favorites and why?
Penn & Teller, of course... Sting, Jack Black, Bob Dylan, Stephen King, Albert Brooks, Chris Rock, Martin Landau, John C Reilly, Adam Sandler, Rob Reiner... so many, but it all comes down to this:
Those whom I've worked with or met and admired possess tremendous enthusiasm, great energy, and enormous self-awareness. My ambition is to continually strengthen those qualities in myself and communicate with audiences while being as interesting and funny and amazing as I can be.
Did you attend college? Have other career aspirations early on, or was it always magic? .
No college for me, and it was always magic. From the time I was a small boy I didn't bother to even try to excel at school, spent most of my time daydreaming about tricks and jokes, talking to myself as I acted them out in my mind. But somehow my grades were always okay.
Were your friends and family supportive of your magician aspirations?
Friends yes, at first family no. My parents knew firsthand the volatility of being self employed and wanted me to have a career that would provide a secure life. All they ever wanted was for me to grow up and be comfortable. I felt proud, magic was something I loved, outside of my interest in trickery I was just a know-nothing kid. They tried to reason with me, but reason never stands a chance against an obsession. I could only express myself with that old hand-me-down cliché, "Choose a job you love, and you'll never work a day in your life."
Eventually my folks realized there wasn't much they could do to change my mind. Going forward they seemed to be okay with the fact I would never turn back and were absolutely as supportive as they could be.
Where did the idea come from to open your own magic theater, Magicopolis, in 1998? What sorts of challenges did you face doing so?
Flashback to January 1995, it was a Tuesday afternoon, amid a blur of gigs, on a plane, staring out at the clouds, when a life-changing notion came to mind. I was forty years old, living my dream, but the thing was... even though my work didn't require getting up before the crack of dawn every morning it was starting to feel like a nine-to-five job. Not a problem working hard, but I wanted more independence, to be not answerable to anyone else but myself, to not depend on others for work. It was those things, and a couple of little problems that gave me the most important idea of my life.
One problem, I was technically living in Santa Monica, but only spending a handful of nights per month in my own bed. I felt like Santa Monica would always be my home, unfortunately I wasn't at home often, by necessity, of course. You might say part of the vision for Magicopolis came to me from sleeping around, and you'd be partly right. I needed to be wherever anyone would pay me to do magic tricks. It might be at an Indian casino, or it might be at a convention of internists in Indianapolis, but staying home felt like the right thing to do. Instead of constantly changing cities, to find new audiences, I needed a way to stay home more and have new audiences constantly find me.
The other bothersome problem, as sure as my name isn't Harry Houdini, most of my audiences were not coming to see me in particular... or even a magician in general. I was corporate event entertainment, or doing a comedy spot in a variety or revue show, even when I was a headliner, it was often at a comedy club where one went to see comedians and might be surprised the show was topped by a magician.
These ideas rolled around in my head constantly, while on planes, in cars, hotel rooms, eating, sleeping, and breathing. I thought so hard my brain hurt. The idea to produce, and perform my own show, in a theater I designed, built, run, and named Magicopolis, was not born suddenly. It grew gradually in my mind, but it was that Tuesday in April 1995 that I knew that was what I wanted to do. I yearned for the intoxicating freedom of being a servant of nobody.
The challenges were too numerous to answer in this forum, but are detailed in my book I Lie for Money. But in a nutshell... To write, produce and perform a show in a theater that you designed, built, own and operate, you have to be equal parts dictator and diplomat. You must be both the astonishing magician and visionary storyteller on stage and the guy shoveling raw sewage in the middle of the night because no one else would and everything would be lost if it didn't get done. You must be both an extravagant artist and a penny-pinching jerk. It isn't easy, it isn't always fun, it isn't about money or fame. It's about what it takes to share your vision with those who want to see it.
How did you meet your wife/performing partner, Bozena Wrobel, and how did she become a part of your show?
Some guys hit their forties and have a midlife crisis. I, on the other hand, fell in love. Enter stunning looking, smart, talented, Polish actor/writer Bozena Wrobel... She would become my best friend, my wife, my lover, my partner in crime, in Magicopolis, both onstage and off, whatever the occasion demands.
November 9, 1997. That night she was celebrating her birthday at Igby's, a West LA comedy club. My act had gone well, and when I came off stage I saw her at the bar, she was smiling at me. She looked as though she could give a man something that he needed to quiet his soul and soothe his body. I was saying inside myself, "I am incomplete. She would make me complete. I wonder..."
Then Bozena opened her mouth and began talking in her own peculiar brand of broken English, a great belly laugh came out of me. It's hard to make me laugh. I observe, I smile, but when I'm really amused you can hear me a block away. My vanity was tickled with a thousand feathers when she spoke my name. Before her accent became a little more Americanized, instead of Steve, when she said my name it sounded like "Stiff!" Everyone within earshot always thought I was a real stud muffin, which I was perfectly willing to accept.
She stared at me with wide eyes and has been looking at me with wide eyes ever since, except for the many times when she closed her eyes to my errors and my faults. Bozena intently listened to my grandiose Magicopolis scheme. I took her to the empty building on Fourth Street, with spray paint cans we drew on the floor where the stage would be, walls, lobby, dressing rooms, the project was a constant topic of conversation. Besides her physical beauty and inward loveliness, Bozena had intelligence... and brains help in the long-range plan of happiness.
Just a few months after we met, on a romantic weekend, I pulled a rabbit out of a hat. They say one of life's most memorable moments is a man asking a woman to marry him. I don't remember proposing to her, I have no idea how it happened, but I do know it was a spur-of-the-moment, totally impulsive idea that Bozena agreed to. I remember the wedding... it's etched into my credit card bill forever. We flew to Vegas and were married at a drive thru wedding chapel, a drive thru reception at Jack in the Box. No throwing of rice, no clergyman, no bantering by envious wedding guests... total time on the taxi meter thirty-nine dollars. Marrying Bozena was the best thing that ever happened to me. Today she feels the same way... that marrying her was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Before Bozena, as a solo performer, my content was largely comedy. The Bozena collaboration, added a female actor/ writer's skill set to the mix... her comments had authority and vitality. She had ideas, a deep knowledge of scene construction, and an expert capability of playing any character imagined. Bozena embodies the lives of beings I can interact with - vampires, séance mediums, even a horny man. The only character I can credibly play, was, and still is, an embellished version of myself.
While developing our show, we argued about most every bit and piece along the way until we came to agreement. If a disagreement on any certain trick, routine, or dialogue wasn't settled, we got rid of it. This wasn't some rule of thumb or even discussed, that's just how we did and do it. Those opinions often changed to confront obstacles, logistic or otherwise, and we make/made incremental changes or dumped whole bits, as we saw fit. Debating with ourselves, and each other, the arguments over creative differences make us really commit.
With the benefit of audience feedback, after each performance we'd replay the show in our heads, figuring how to make it better and better. We spent day after day in the theater cutting and fixing and changing and switching. Our best work is about more than floating ladies, mind reading and sleight of hand. It's as much about what we want to say as the tricks themselves. It is about us, our lives, our feelings... many of the show's best moments were initially improvised on stage.
Bozena and I are as synchronized as the parts in a watch, when either of us goes off script and does or says something different, we can follow each other without missing a beat... and whenever we hit a perfect moment the audience feels it. We also work with the reality of the moment. In a play, if a light suddenly goes dead or someone throws up in the audience, the actors keep doing the script. When things out of the ordinary arise we use them, respond to them, weave them into our presentation - sometimes not knowing what's going to happen next is a ton of fun.
Your book is called I Lie For Money: Candid, Outrageous Stories from a Magician's Misadventures. Could you share one of the misadventures that stands out?
One of my life's misadventures that stands out most - is a recurring one, not unlike the scenario in the film Groundhog Day... like a lot of performers in my age group, over the decades and with many thousands of shows behind me, I've met thousands of people and simply can't remember them all. Oftentimes, I am out somewhere... where some guy greets me, and the dialogue goes like this:
"Hello Steve. Long time no see."
After an embarrassing moment, he follows up.
"Look ..." he says, "you don't remember me, do you?"
"Let's see..." I reply, fumbling, "it was at...
"Yeah, I thought you didn't remember."
"I've... uh... ah... your name is Chad... but you used to be taller and you took your mustache off. What a change!"
"My name is Nick."
"You changed your name too."
I hate to hurt anyone's feelings by admitting that meeting them made so little impression on me that I've no recollection of doing so, but lying about it is usually worse.
"You don't remember me, do you?"
"I can't believe I would have met a girl like you and forgotten about it."
"Fantasy Springs, 1995," she said.
It was an Indian casino near Palm Springs where I'd done a show.
"And I was one of the dancers."
"Of course you were, now I remember!" I lied.
"I had the operation six months ago."
I probably had seen her dancing, but as a boy dancer. Now he was a girl, and a gorgeous one at that with newly installed anatomical features.
Around 1978 I was with my old buddy Bob Sheets at a magic convention in Wichita Kansas. Approaching us was a rising young teenage magician, who later became a Vegas star, named Lance Burton. I urgently whispered to Bob, "That guy coming toward us. I've met him at least a half-dozen times. I have a terrible time remembering names." "That is young Lance Burton," Bob told me. "Lance, how nice to see you," I said when we met a moment later. "How are you?" I turned to my longtime buddy then. "Lance I want you to... uh... ah... to meet... uh... my old friend... ah... umm... "
What remains on your bucket list?
There is one big project on the horizon, but I can't risk jinxing it by revealing anything now. You can always find me doing shows here at Magicopolis in Santa Monica. I'm looking forward to the rest of my life - a year or thirty years - with quiet, peaceful expectation. In fact, I hope to do so much constructive living that fifteen or twenty years from now I will write another book about the coming period.
Your desert island choices for:
TV show: Larry Sanders
Movie: Midnight in Paris
Book: Anything by Mark Twain
Food: I'll take the menu from Gratitude or Rose Cafe
Anyone in history for conversation: French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, widely considered the father modern magic, the guy Houdini took his name from and the first fella I ever read about who created his own shows in his own theater - that was back in he 1800s.
Anyone in history for romance? I've heard Marilyn Monroe was great in the sack and Ingrid Bergman was super hot when she made Casablanca.
Podcast: The Magic Word (themagicwordpodcast.com) Great listening to a veritable treasure trove of wonderful recollections, insights and controversy from the world of magic and magicians. The best episode is the side-splittingly funny and really touching one about me.
What part has Judaism played in your career or life?
Truth be told, neither of my parents was religious, but they did think it important to send me to Hebrew school and I was bar mitzvahed.
Not long after my faith was lost and like a lot of magicians I'm an atheist... and a bitter, cranky pragmatist with the mouth of a stevedore, and the soul of a heretic.
But family tree wise I'm still Jewish, and I think culturally our heritage encourages the performing arts and since they say comedy is a way of coping with tragedy and our ancestors experienced the prejudice and persecution and unhappiness and hurt that comes from being part of a minority group that...
On the other side of the coin, be it rupee, the drachma, the peso, baksheesh, or wampum, the Jews don't have a monopoly on talent.
But face it. Houdini was Jewish so his stuff is in my genes and a lot of comedians are Jewish, plus I can't think of a single successful Baptist comedy magician.
What would you like to have written on your tombstone?
Buy my book I Lie For Money: Candid, Outrageous Stories from a Magician's Misadventures.