I met two teenagers who challenged and changed how I think about the art of magic. I met them each separately and decades apart but I recognized similar qualities in each of them. They were both at a skill level well beyond their years and in both of them I saw a passion and a seriousness and an intensity that I had not seen in other young men their age. In hindsight I suppose I had glimpsed the artists that they would become. I remember that I was instantly drawn to both of them and felt, in one, a fraternal bond and in the other, a paternal affection.
Recently, decades later, I saw them each perform an evening of magic and story telling in two very different shows and two very different styles and my very first impressions of the young men I met were confirmed. They had each bloomed into wonderful artists with uncompromising visions of how the art of magic could be interpreted.
In 1976 eighteen year old John Carney stopped by Dayton, Ohio to lecture for a small group of IBM Ring 5 members. It was held in the home of Dr. Kitain, a dentist and amateur magician. I was fifteen and had a growing interest in close up magic fueled by the libraries of Dr. Kitain and "Doc" Smith, another local dentist/magician. I knew who Vernon was and only recently learned about Marlo.
Up until that point I'd seen terrific close up magicians at the few conventions I was able to attend, but I wasn't prepared for John. By then I had witnessed, at best, very competent magicians perform complicated and difficult routines that sometimes fooled me, but none of it felt like real magic, until that night in Dr Kitain's living room.
Coins melted away in his slow moving hands. Cards changed colors as he casually fanned the deck. What was I missing? I didn't see any tells or "moves," no clenching of the hands or bunching of the shoulders I'd learned to watch for. His easy smile and his non-combative manner threw me completely off guard. His innocent attitude and easy manner lowered my defenses and he was able to slip methods and maneuvers in that I had no chance of catching or even suspecting.
My head was spinning, magical effects were happening inches from my noseand I had no idea what was going on. This friendly Midwestern teenager effortlessly wiped away all of the preconceived notions I had built up about how magic could be performed close up. I was stunned and disoriented, especially because he was not much older than me. The other kids my age were still trying to be either David Copperfield or Doug Henning. Or both.
And then he began to explain. He taught the secrets to the routines and the fine touches on the sleights, but more importantly he taught basic lessons in timing and misdirection. He taught the importance of naturalness of action and motivation of each movement. These were new ideas to me at the time. He spoke about his mentors, men like Fawcett Ross and Dai Vernon. Roger Klause and Charlie Miller. High priests in the church of naturalness. I was converted that night. Turns out he was a great teacher at eighteen as well.
I'm happy to say that we stayed in touch and became friends. We've shared ideas and methods over the years. We've, in turn, celebrated and lamented the ups and downs of our careers over the years and had many, many laughs. We've cheered each other on and dared each other to climb higher. I've always felt that John was my magical big brother. He was always a role model for me, an example of how to behave on and off the stage.
I've watched him grow and have always marveled at his work ethic and his search for the better, higher path along the way. His never ending search for better, cleaner methods and his amazing range as an actor and comic.
A few weeks ago I sat in a small theater in Seirra Madre, California and saw, for the first time, John's one man show. Forty years from the night we met and the same feelings of awe washed over me during the performance. Here was that same friendly Midwesterner effortlessly tossing off miracles while employing some of the most difficult techniques with such ease. And it was all wrapped up in a such a disarmingly charming presentation that the audience had no chance. I sat there thinking "It just doesn't get any better than this." A lifetime's worth of study and practice was on display. You don't often get to see a true master work at the top of his game.
It was also a piece of theater. John's loving portrayal of his slightly eccentric magic mentor Fawcett Ross was a sweet glimpse into John's earliest influence. When he slipped on the cardigan and placed the pipe between his teeth we were transported to Fawcett's living room.
Then just as easily he slipped into another eccentric character, the ridiculously self-deluded Mr. Mysto!
I'm proud to say that I was present at the birth of Mr. Mysto many years ago when John stepped out on stage portraying a mamby-pamby egomaniac with a goatee at the Washington DC convention. All in attendance were in stitches by the end of the night.
I don't know any one else on this earth with John's acting chops, sense of humor and sleight of hand skills. Add to that his smart and funny writing and ingenious methods, borne out over decades of trial and error and the whole package is irresistible.
My son, Ben was with me that night in Sierra Madre and I pointed out to him that he was witnessing one of the greats. But he already knew that, he saw me beaming with pride watching my old friend and glowing with love for my magical big brother.
In 1998 I stepped into a magic shop in Colorado Springs and the fourteen year old kid behind the counter snapped his head up from his cards and he stared at me as I moved around the shop. I knew I had been recognized. "You're David Williamson."
"Yes, I know, who are you?"
I asked him to show me something, and he did. That same feeling I had in 1976 returned as I saw this young man display sleight of hand skills way beyond his years. Derek demonstrated shuffles and deals and techniques that I was still trying to get a handle on at the age of thirty-seven! The easy execution alone told me that I was in the presence of a highly skilled operator, but it was the intensity, the fire in his eyes that made me think that I may have just met another prodigy. Even though he was well on his way to advanced levels of ability, he had that thirst for knowledge that I recognized.
I asked him if he wanted to go grab some lunch, but the store owner reminded Derek that his shift hadn't ended. "Then I quit." He said before joining me for a sandwich. That's when I knew this kid was something special. (I think he got his job back later.)
Over lunch I learned more about his life at home and a little of his hopes and dreams. A bond was formed.
He came to see my goofy show that night for a bunch of insurance executives, and for a few years after that we met again at the same annual event.
I got to see Derek less and less over the years but I followed his progress from a distance. He moved to LA and entered acting school. He found friends and comeraderie at the Magic Castle. He was running with the big dogs in the gambling underground. He dabbled in casino card play and corporate gigs. But he never seemed satisfied with the perceived paths most of us followed in magic. TV, clubs, corporate dates, Vegas all seemed like dead ends to Derek by a certain point. At least that's the impression I got after a phone call from back stage at an east coast night club. "Is this all there is?"
Then, a few years later I met him again in LA for a sandwich. Here was a different person. His eyes glowing, ideas flowing after meeting his artistic counterpart, Glenn Kaino, for the first time. Glenn is a very talented conceptual artist. He spoke a language that Derek understood. I think at that lunch I witnessed the beginnings of Derek's new vision of what magic could be, and what being a magician means. I was concerned that day, I thought he was on drugs because he was speaking a mile a minute of concepts that I could barely grasp but he had to explore.
And he did, in many formats and in fits and starts in galleries, and performance pieces on both coasts. Was it art or magic, or something else? His buddy Helder from Portugal joined him to create a ground breaking show with some thought provoking moments establishing his bonafides in the theater world, where Ricky Jay had paved the way.
Last week in a small theater in Westwood Village in LA I witnessed the culmination, so far, of Derek's search for what it means to be a magician. I couldn't tell you how any of the "effects" were achieved because I have no idea. The story he told was personal and the show hit me with an emotional punch. Here was that same intense young man performing real magic, with real meaning to many of us and I was drunk with pride and love for this kid.
My son Ben was with me again, and he saw me burst into tears at the end of the show.
And I'm glad he did.