Magic Power

Magic Power

Halloween’s shadow draws nearer. Soon the powers of witches, ghosts, bogeymen and, most of all, kids jazzed on candy will be at their strongest. During the seven days leading up to Halloween, “magical” happenings will uptick across the country—not because of increased supernatural activity, but because it’ll be National Magic Week, which encourages magicians to bring out their tricks and treat us to laughs and gasps.

But not so much in New Haven. Not this year, anyway. Magic Week New Haven—which for the past eight Halloween seasons brought magicians to the city’s public library branches and other venues—has moved to another city following the fortunes of its organizer, Cyril May, a.k.a. Cyril the Sorcerer, a longtime New Havener who now works for Waterbury.

Halloween is especially important for magicians because, besides the good PR opportunity, it marks the death of one of their best: Harry Houdini. Houdini séances still take place with pendulums, Ouija boards and verbal invocations of the famous illusionist, who died 89 years ago this October 31.

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“Do people seriously believe he’ll come back or speak to us?” Gale Alexander, president of the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, asks, before answering, “Not really, but it’s a way to honor his memory.”

Ring 59, a phrase that rings with the enigmatic chime of a good stage name, is the designation of this league of local magicians, which holds court in the Trumbull Public Library every first Monday of the month. Chartered in New Haven in 1948, it’s officially dubbed “Frederick Eugene Powell Ring No. 59,” honoring a contemporary of Houdini who toured the world before retiring to New Haven in 1934.

Today, Ring 59’s membership hovers in the 30s, and is open to anyone over 14 with “a sincere interest in magic,” Alexander says. Most members are hobbyists who do it for fun. Some are professionals, conjuring a living from it. And others—like former Ring 59 president May, who managed Yale’s recycling program for many years, and who supplements his many public talks on the subject with magic tricks—are somewhere in-between.

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Alexander is the hard professional type. An accomplished magician, he represented the U.S. in the 1991 Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques World Championships—“the Olympics of magic,” he says. He continues practicing magic today and wears a good many hats besides. Not only is he president of IBM Ring 59, but he’s also the treasurer of the Danbury Tophatters Assembly 131 (of the Society of American Magicians) and the IBM territorial vice president for the state of Connecticut.

When asked whether he had any advice for young magicians, Alexander suggested that rather than questing to invent the most unbelievable trick, burgeoning magicians should learn to speak in public, take every opportunity to act in plays and practice, practice, practice. “It’s not about the trick, it’s about the presentation. … Those who start magic just to know how to do the trick, they leave the art form rather quickly. Those who want to spread joy and wonder, those are the people that last.”

Alexander likens learning how an illusion is performed to seeing your favorite film and, at the most dramatic moment, having the camera pulled back to reveal the lights, rigging and crew. Magicians keep their lips sealed in part because it would be a disservice to the audience if they didn’t.

During a gig at a restaurant, Alexander remembers meeting a woman who refused to be shown any magic tricks. “‘I always feel stupid after they’re done,’” he recalls her saying. But “people shouldn’t feel bad about not knowing,” he says.“Magicians take advantage of how the mind works to deceive us. And very logical people are often the easiest to deceive.”

As an example, Alexander offers the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research. In 1979, James Randi, a well-known magician and debunker of purported mystics, faith healers and the like, sent two fake psychics to the MLPR, then a newly established research project run by bonafide scientists at Washington University in St. Louis. After demonstrating their “powers” by gaming the scientists’ initial experiments, the two fakers convinced the researchers that they were genuine. The eventual revelation of the truth, and the sensation it stirred among the press, caused the lab to shut down in 1982.

When it comes to “true” magic, most magicians are highly skeptical, says Alexander, and don’t take kindly to those who claim such powers. “We’re deceivers, but we’re honest ones.”

But becoming a magician isn’t necessarily an antidote to deception. “I get fooled all the time!” Alexander says, seeming to take a certain pleasure in the thought of it. Being fooled shouldn’t cause anger or shame, he insists, but should instead spark a sense of wonderment. “It makes you realize you don’t have a handle on everything in the universe—none of us do.”

Frederick Eugene Powell Ring No. 59
Meetings at the Trumbull Public Library (map)
every first Monday of the month at 7:30pm (except holidays)
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Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Image #1, depicting Frederick Eugene Powell in various poses, photographed by Daniel Shkolnik. Image #2, depicting Ring 59’s original charter, provided courtesy of Ring 59.

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