GRAND ILLUSIONS : Mastering the Difficult Art of ‘Close-Up’ Magic

John Carney won the Hollywood Magic Castle's Magician of the Year Award in 1984

“The Great Kellar once said: ‘The end of all magic is to feed with mystery the human mind, which dearly loves mystery.’

That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 15 years or so--tapping into people’s appetite for mystery. It makes them happy most of the time, which makes me happy too. I really enjoy myself when I’m up there. But I’m proud of what I can do. I made a conscious decision to do magic and to be one of the best. If I’d made a decision to do brain surgery, I’d have to be the best at that too.

Even though I work hard at magic and make a living from it, I can’t resist doing it for fun sometimes. When a waitress brings the check to my table, I might tear it up and make it disappear--and then restore it. It brightens my day, and hers too.

I discovered magic in sixth grade, when a classmate gave a book report on Houdini. As soon as I got home I had my brother tie me up with rope so I could try to escape.


I lost interest in that type of magic very quickly, and soon found that there had been more books written on magic than on any other performing art. I mowed lawn after lawn in our Des Moines neighborhood to buy as many of them as I could. For a while I bought equipment from catalogues, but tricks that rely on mechanical apparatus leave little room for creativity.

And so I came to apprentice myself to the specialty of ‘close-up’ magic, the difficult art of making small, ordinary things behave in out-of-the-ordinary ways.

Sitting in a boring class, I amused myself and my fellow students by rolling a coin through my fingers. When the teacher approached and made a grab for the ‘evidence,’ the evidence disappeared. Word got around. I wasn’t much for sports, but I was a celebrity.

That’s the key to my enjoyment--an audience. But it’s not easy to satisfy one, because the essence of magic is intellectual. Magic master Dai Vernon, with whom I’ve studied at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, says that a trick’s purpose is ‘to lead the mind step by step to defeat its own logic.’ To amaze and amuse you, I have to divert not only your eyes but your sense of logic. Your mind instructs you that what I’ve done can’t be, but your heart wants to believe that it is.


It’s natural that people want to figure out what I’ve done, but at the same time they don’t really want to know. If I told them the trick, they’d feel insulted--'How could I be fooled by something so simple?’

It usually is something simple, but it takes study and thought, and it takes more study and thought before simple becomes fun and the essence of the magic is expressed. Originality is a must. I get ideas everywhere. I have stacks of notebooks filled with ideas for new tricks. Not all of them come to fruition--and some come to fruition in a much altered form. Let’s say that I want to make a flower appear. I’ll figure it out step by step, then hit a problem I can’t solve. A year later, stuck on a step for another trick, something jogs my mind. I go back to my notes on the flower, and although I still may not have the flower sequence, there in my notes is the solution for the other trick.

When I perform, I feel confident and in control. A trick may go wrong, but that’s a challenge--to analyze the situation and correct it midstream, without the audience knowing. I’ve invented many new tricks that way.

There are a few basic magic effects--I can make things appear or disappear, change shape and so on--and only a certain number of techniques to achieve the effects. They’re like notes on a scale. Magicians keep rearranging them in fresh combinations. (At least we hope they’re fresh.) There are 100 ways to make a coin disappear, but 98 of them are junk. Sometimes I’ll see a real master do a basic trick, and the way he sets it up--the drama, the atmosphere, something--sends a chill up my spine. I know what’s happening, but it feels supernatural.

There’s magic in the everyday too. I think that airplanes are magical. I understand the principle, but I can’t get over the idea that something so big can get off the ground, and that it’s filled with people who simply accept that they will have dinner, see a movie and be set down by this thing thousands of miles away.

We want mysteries to contemplate, things to discover. That’s why we dig for fossils and go to the moon. I’d love to astonish the world by discovering a planet. But I’m very happy amazing and amusing a room full of people by making a pineapple appear out of thin air.”