Shift Switch: Magician's assistant
Most of us have a "bucket list" of accomplishments we want to experience during our lifetime. During the past year, I was able to cross off from my list the strange and unexplainable desire to get sawed in halves by a magician.
I achieved this unusual experience thanks to David Seebach, a master illusionist who lives in Menomonee Falls and travels the country performing his signature show called "The Wonders of Magic."
I sent David an e-mail a couple of months ago, and told him about the OnMilwaukee.com "Shift Switch" series that requires the staff writers to take a shift in an interesting job. I asked him if I could be his assistant, and if during my "shift," he could saw me in half.
I knew David and I were a good match when he replied that yes, he would be happy to have me as his temporary assistant, but, actually, he would be sawing me in "halves," not in half. I love a grammar zealot, so we made a plan to meet.
During the course of the next two weeks, I spent many hours with David, learning about his life and his career, as well as learning two illusions: a levitation act and the coveted sawing-in-halves act.
However, before he told me the secrets behind the illusions, he made me promise never to tell anyone.
David reminded me that the greatest illusionists, like David Copperfield, require their assistants to sign a document that legally requires them not to divulge the secrets of magic. Although he didn't make me sign anything, he did ask me to look him in the eyes and promise never to tell my family, my friends, my coworkers or anyone else what I was about to learn. I promised, and although a few people -- namely my 7-year-old son -- tried to get me to share the sacred information, I remain loyal to the oath.
Before I launch into what it was like to be inside a coffin-esque box with a sharpened blade slicing through what appears to be my midriff or the sensation of being lifted -- without strings or wires -- many feet off the ground, the limelight must shine on David.
"The magician is more important than any particular act," he says. "People always think the secret is a mirror, but really, the secret is always the same. It is the magician."
Magic in the making
Officially, David started his career as a magician in 1962, when he was 11 years old, and performed a magic show at the Center Street Library which was then on 27th and Center Streets in Milwaukee.
Later, David's mother became very ill, and his father -- in an attempt to distract and cheer up his young son -- took David to a magic factory in Colon, Mich. He bought David new magic tricks, and shortly after the father and son returned home, David's mother died.
But his fascination with magic lived on.
During his trip to Colon, a city tagged as "The Magic Capital of the World," David saw a stage illusion, which is a magician's prop that involves a human being. The prop was a mini Taj Mahal, the size of a dollhouse, and was an apparatus that a magician's assistant climbs into so the magician can thrust swords through it.
"It was $250. That was a fantastic sum of money for a boy in 1966," says David.
Following these events in his young life, David says he "got bit by the bug hard" and went into the world of magic "with great gusto." He never forgot about the stage illusion at the magic factory, and after spending a portion of junior high and high school daydreaming about magic and putting on small shows, he was able to graduate a semester early from Washington High School and work for his brothers who ran a restaurant. David saved and saved until he could afford the Taj Mahal stage illusion, a replica of which stands in his basement today.
He then attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as a business major, but had awful grades. The following semester, he majored in theater and his grades shot up.
David considers himself to be a showman. He says he considered a career in radio or TV, but, ultimately, being an illusionist was the best fit.
"Magic allowed me to put on a show," he says. "But the magic is just a means to an end. It allows me to perform with music, costumes and stories."
David graduated from the UWM in 1973 with bachelor of fine arts degree in theater. He was already performing magic shows at a ritzy resort in northern Wisconsin called The Deer Park Lodge, where he worked for eight summers, honing his act.
"This job taught me a lot. My repertoire exploded exponentially. I suffered disasters. I learned," says David.
Today, David is married to one of his former magician's assistants and the couple has twin 7-year-old daughters. His home is part living space for his family and part shrine for his successful and unique career. He also shares his yard with rabbits that he raises to assist in his performances. Since his teens, he's owned a rabbit as a pet and for his shows. Male rabbits, he says, are easier to work with than females.
David performs more than 100 shows a year. Most of his appearances are corporate events, but he also performs at Summerfest, Polish Fest, parties, schools, birthday parties, scouting events and, for the past 19 years, an annual Halloween show at the Modjeska Theatre on Mitchell Street.
During last year's show, two young men broke into the theater's back stage area and stole numerous non-replaceable props including a robe, black taffeta sheet, devil mask and deck of trick playing cards. The theft was discovered during the show and David was forced to cancel his grand finale illusion, Mysteries from the Devil's Chamber.
"In a tiny way, me not performing Mysteries from the Devil's Chamber is like going to see Tony Bennett and not hearing the song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." He won't return to the Modjeska this year and is looking for a new theater to perform in on Halloween.
David's other famous illusions include the levitation act and the guillotine act, but he says his true magic stems from his personality, not his stage props.
"I'll be the first to admit I have not invented big magical acts, but I have a very original presentation. I march to the beat of a different drummer," he says.
Learning the craft
David decided that, although I am a little on the tall side, I would attempt to perform with him onstage the two most famous tricks: the sawing in halves and the levitation.
We practiced the levitation first. I cannot divulge how it is done, of course, but basically, the illusion involves David putting me in a "trance" and balancing my body perpendicularly on an upright broom.
Regardless of how we pulled it off, it felt really freaky and unsafe at first to be suspended in mid air, with my body parallel with the floor. However, I trusted David's expertise and, sure enough, I didn't plummet to the ground.
Practicing the "sawing in halves" illusion was more unnerving. I felt claustrophobic inside the box and even though I knew the blade wasn't really going to slice through my body, the combination of the visual of the blade combined with the vulnerability of being trapped in a confined space was enough to create mild claustrophobia.
During our rehearsal, we successfully pulled off both tricks, but David decided the levitation was more natural for me. I am 5 feet 8 inches tall and, ideally, a magician's assistant should be a little shorter. I admit I was disappointed that I would not be able to do the sawing in halves act onstage. After all, it appeared on my "things I want to accomplish before I die" list -- but there's really nothing I could do about being too tall. Not even master illusionist David Seebach could make me shorter.
For the levitation, we picked a purple dress with a silver scarf with spider webs on it. I was hoping for something with sequins, but it was comfortable and worked well with the illusion. We also picked out a pair of black heels.
David reminded me that for the show I would need to wear stage makeup and a lot of it. I have a fair share of performance experience, so I knew what to do and really caked it on before the show. The real assistants sometimes wear wigs and fake eyelashes, but I didn't go quite that far. Maybe next time.
Lights, camera, magic!
The following Sunday, on the stage at Wisconsin Lutheran College, I performed the levitation act with David. It went really well. Flawlessly, actually.
The act starts with me standing on a platform, resting on two upside down brooms almost as if they are crutches. David puts me in a light sleep state. Then, he removes one of the brooms, takes the stool from beneath my feet and lifts my legs so my body -- now only propped against one of the brooms -- is suspended at a 45-degree angle. He adjusts my legs again and pushes them even higher, so I am at a 90-degree angle, with my legs parallel to the floor and my body resting on a mere broom top for support.
Even though I know exactly what's happening, the feeling of being suspended in mid air is exhilarating.
My kids, who were in the audience, found it amazing. This was a relief to me because I was slightly concerned they would find it scary. My family and friends who witnessed the levitation said they have no idea how we pulled off the illusion. According to David, this is a compliment to their intelligence. He says it is easier to fool a smart person than a not-so-smart person.
"You can't fool a dumb group. Give me a group from Mensa any day and I will fool them," he says.
According to David, intelligent adults' brains -- because they move at a faster pace -- are more willing to presume how a trick works before it happens. A less intelligent person or a child is slower at processing the information and less likely to draw assumptions, which actually makes the trick more difficult to pull off.
It was fascinating for me to observe the real performance of "Wonders of Magic" after learning so much about the behind-the-scenes stuff. David, who dresses in a classic magician's tuxedo for his performances, is a natural on stage and clearly enjoys himself.
The show is about 75 minutes long, without an intermission. During the performance, David includes magic tricks from around the world. Also, he does tributes to the great Harry Houdini, who was born in 1874 in Appleton, and does a version of his famous act that involves a chained woman climbing into a bag, which is tied shut and locked inside a box. Seconds later, she magically reappears on top of the box, unchained.
David's real assistants, Maureen Murphy Dornemann and Kimberly Rodriguez, were extremely nice to me and very helpful back stage. They helped me dress and went over the details of the act with me one last time before I performed it.
Maureen has assisted David since 1989, when she was a theater major at UW-Eau Claire. She says she loves creating a new character for each show, but sometimes the venues can be a challenge.
"We perform in just about any sort of facility, from a school cafeteria with little to no backstage area for quick changes and preparation to fully-equipped theaters," says Dornemann. "But we always make it work."
I can't say I'm going to leave my writing career for the glamorous world of magic, but thanks to my experience assisting David, I have a great story to tell for the rest of my life.
And on that note, I'm going to disappear now. Poof.
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Excellent article only wish we had seen a video of you doing your dream illusion the sawing.
Very interesting, must have been an unbelievable experience. But where is the video of you being sawed in half? Did that happen? It all seems amazing!
"David decided that, although I am a little on the tall side, I would attempt to perform with him onstage the two most famous tricks: the sawing in halves and the levitation." "Illusion" Michael. Tricks are something a whore does for money....or cocaine. Sorry, I'm contractually obligated to quote Arrested Development anytime I see illusions referred to as tricks.
How fortunate the you have succeeded in working on your "bucket list". Great article and I am very impressed with your sense of adventure!
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