Steve Spill, When Magic Tricks Just Don’t Work

These are some cherry picked stories from my professional life in where I had an idea, worked up a method to do the trick, got the props together, scripted the routine, and rehearsed it.  But on stage, in front of real breathing strangers, for one reason or another, it wasn’t a keeper. Instead, these were routines that turned out to be useless and insignificant, and yet, strangely poetic.


Smoke on the Water

For this one I had a bunch of bells, they were the simple sound-making devices you held in your hand and shook to make them ring. There were eight bells. Each rang a different musical note in the scale. I handed one bell each to eight people in the audience.


In one hand I held a glass of water, and with my other I conducted the orchestra. With the index finger of my right hand, I quickly pointed one at a time to different bell holders. Following my instructions, when I pointed at them, they would ring their bell. When it worked right, the bell ringers played the song “Smoke on the Water,” by the British rock band Deep Purple. At the end of the song’s melodic hook, a puff of smoke burst from my glass of water.


I thought it was a clever bit and I had fun, but spent a ton of time working it out. When it went as intended, it was great, but sadly most of the time it didn’t, largely due to the ineptitude of the inebriated or otherwise impaired bell ringers.


Nose Hair

“Did you ever pull on a straggling nose hair that you just couldn’t seem to get out?” I once developed, and had a working prototype, of a tiny spool of thread gimmick, that could securely be hidden inside a nostril. When I pretended to pull a hair from my nose, I would pull on the end of the thread and it would unwind. It looked like I was pulling out a ten-foot hair!


Not a crowd pleaser.


Book Worm

I explained to the audience that prior to my appearance, I wrote one word on a white card and sealed it in an envelope. I taped the envelope to the mic stand so it was in full view. I asked a volunteer to join me on stage to assist in demonstrating my ability to “see into the future.”


I handed the helper a dictionary and asked her to examine it and make sure it was ordinary. She gave it back to me, and I handed her a cardboard container, the type you get take-out Chinese soup in, and had her thoroughly examine what was inside. It was full of live night crawlers, the type of earthworms commonly used as fish bait.


As I riffled through the pages of the dictionary I asked my helper to choose any worm and randomly drop that single live worm into the pages of the book, wherever she desired. As soon as she dropped the invertebrate crawler, I slammed the book shut . . . squishing the worm. The dictionary was then opened to that page; one word seemed to be underlined by the squished worm. I tore open the envelope and the predicted word was the very same one selected at random by the night crawler!


To me, the thing that made this trick great wasn’t the dictionary. It was, of course, the earthworms. Although funny, half the time the volunteers screamed, dumped the worms on the floor, tossed them at me or into the audience, or simply refused to pick one up in their hand. This made it impossible to finish the bit. Plus it wasn’t so easy to constantly have a fresh supply of live earthworms whenever and wherever I was performing. So, for those reasons, this one ended up in the scrap heap.


Baby Houdini

The Cabbage Patch Doll had a hard plastic head and a soft cloth body. I took the stuffing out of the body of one and replaced it with an inflatable teddy bear. The doll looked normal when blown up, but I could pull the air plug on the back and it would deflate like a balloon with a hole.


I introduced the blown-up doll as Baby Houdini, bound the hands with real handcuffs, the feet with steel chain and an iron padlock, then tied the cuffs and padlocked chain together with a thick rope. As I did this, I said “ . . . in a moment I am going to ask everyone to join me in counting backwards from ten to one . . . ten, nine, eight, seven . . . First, I’d like to add that Baby Houdini is not carrying any concealed lock picks or canned ham keys . . . if anything goes wrong, we do have a trained paramedic GI Joe doll backstage . . . ”


I held Baby Houdini by the head, “Okay baby! Escape!” as the audience counted backwards, the plug was pulled, the doll deflated like a spent balloon, and the connected rope, handcuffs, lock and chain, slipped off, the entire restraint assembly crashed on the floor in a heap. “Tah dah!” My girlfriend at the time thought it was a scream; it always made her hysterical, no matter how many times she saw it. About half the time audiences agreed with her, while the other half of the time the baby deflated along with my ego. Another one bites the dust.


Tainted Clam Mystery

I tried this bit out a few times while appearing at a Cape Cod comedy club that featured a raw bar full of locals cracking open shellfish that were caught that morning. A sack of fresh clams was introduced and a volunteer smelled the clams. Next I had the helper sample the foul aroma of a tainted clam. The rare tainted clam was mixed into the sack of fresh virgin-smelling clams.


The volunteer violently shook up the bag, further shuffling the tainted clam amongst the fresh ones, yet I, the talented one, was able to reach into the sack and instantly bring forth the tainted one. As a prize for assisting, the tainted clam was offered to my volunteer with a little cocktail sauce.


Removable Thumb

I’ve always liked the “teach a trick” premise. I started by doing the old grandpa-removing-the-thumb trick, using the normal method—the audience saw the back of my hand but didn’t see the thumb because it was bent into the palm, and by bending the thumb and fingers of the other hand just right, it looked like one hand took the thumb off the other, an old trick that everyone knows.


Then I gave a bogus, and what I thought was funny, method of how it was done. I held up a blue piece of cardboard, “It’s done with a camera trick; first my hand is photographed in front of a blue screen, then model technicians build a thumb, also filmed in front of a blue screen, moving like this.” At that point, I brought out a long wire with a fake thumb attached to the end and moved it in front of the blue cardboard. “A robot camera films everything, and after final optical printing, all the elements are put together and the final product looks like this . . . ”


For the finish, I again performed the usual old grandpa removing the thumb bit. I thought the premise and execution was hilarious. Audiences responded with, “Meh” and “huh?”


Siegfried & Roy Re-enactment

Sometimes performers appear larger-than-life on stage. That was particularly true of Siegfried & Roy. Not so true when I imitated them while using a tricky TV prop that was a pain in the drain to build, transport, and perform. The idea of the bit was that I would show those who couldn’t make it to Vegas how Siegfried magically changed a 650-pound Siberian tiger into Roy, and then made Roy vanish.


Wearing a huge Siegfried blond wig, and a humongous over-sized sparkly golden pouch that attached to the front of my crotch—just like the type Siegfried used to wear—I stood in front of a table with a VCR and TV on it. Playing on the TV was a video of a snarling tiger pacing back and forth. I acted like the TV was actually a cage with a live tiger in it, showing, pointing, and gesturing toward the tiger like a girly game show model displaying a new car. As the beautiful animal paced back and forth, I draped a cloth over the TV.


After some appropriate mysterious hand-waving, I whipped the cloth aside. The tiger had vanished from the TV screen and Roy burst into view. It was a great video of him laughing and jumping from some Disney special they had done. I triumphantly covered the TV a last time, more mysterious hand-waving, and when I whisked the cloth away, the TV had vanished. Funny and a great magic trick ending, right? This routine was more work to pull off than you’ll ever know, and it didn’t even get as good of an audience reaction as the Nose Hair or Book Worm bits.


Disgust is Contagious

In the eighties there were literally a hundred one-nighters in and around the Los Angeles vicinity. Restaurants, bars, hotels, bowling alleys, anywhere that was empty during the week put on a comedy show. I tried out this one in the lounge at the Whittier Hilton. If you were attending that night you would have seen me holding a large pitcher of milk.


“Perhaps some of you have seen the classic bit where a magician takes a sheet of newspaper, forms it into a cone, pours milk into the cone, and the milk disappears. I’ve developed a new way to do that trick, which I shall now attempt to show you, without gagging.”


I quickly drank the half-gallon pitcher of milk. Yep, this part of the routine was identical to the way I drank pitchers of beer in the old rock club act. Next I placed a metal bucket on the floor in front of me and very realistically threw up the half gallon of milk into the bucket. This wasn’t a little burp. I puked a half-gallon of milk like a fire hose, and said, “I’m glad I brought that up.” People with weak stomachs headed for the exit, and then I picked up the bucket of barf and threw the contents into the crazed audience, drenching many of them, with what was only a bucketful of confetti!


Before I even threw the confetti, as I threw up the milk, a few people in the audience did the same in response. I hadn’t expected any audience participation. The bartender yelled for the janitor and there was pandemonium. My hope was for a standing ovation. Instead, I got the smell of fresh alcohol-laced vomit. I guess what goes around comes around. Up to that point, this trick had never elicited more than a loud belch.


As a reward for reading this far, I’m going to expose the three secrets that made this puke routine work so well. The first part is a prop called the Magic Milk Pitcher, which you can buy from a magic store or online, which will allow you to really drink only a cup of liquid but it will look like a half gallon. The Confetti Bucket, which allows you to pour in liquid and throw confetti out, is also available where finer magic props are sold. Now, the best part, the retching part, is my own invention, so without ruffling the feathers of any retailers, I can completely explain it to you . . . it’s done with a cleverly concealed hot water bottle filled with milk.
For those who want to know where on your person to cleverly conceal a hot water bottle filled with milk, and how to use it to simulate realistic vomiting, please buy my book, I Lie for Money, which completely covers those questions. That’s a lie, but anytime I can get a laugh I’m not going to let the truth interfere with it.


About the author
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 in Santa Monica, which is the permanent home of “Escape Reality,” the show he stars in with his wife, actress Bozena Wrobel. For more info, visit: