“May I have a volunteer from the audience, please.”
These were words that would change my life.
My friend Rob and I had a little magic act in Stamford, CT, that was composed of cast-off tricks from his father, Ed, a professional magician. When his wands, silks and production boxes were being upgraded, the leftovers went to our act.
Rob and I made $10 an hour giving shows at birthday parties and senior centers, and we had joined The Society of American Magicians, a very big deal to a couple of nine year olds. And it made Ed very happy, too: Ed would become the president of the Society of American Magicians.
SAM always has their annual convention on Hallowe’en, the night that former president Harry Houdini died. And in 1965, the convention was held at The Roosevelt Hotel, a short walk from Grand Central Station. Ed had planned to take Rob along to the convention, and invited me to come along, too.
I got autographs that night from Dennis Day, Kuda Bux, The Amazing Randi, and Henny Youngman, (whose grandson was my age, and a magician.)
Off to the side, a room had been set up with a stage, upon which magicians could do their acts for booking agents. When we came in, a fellow named Chang was doing his act, with his beautiful female assistant. (I think she was known as Lady Chang.) Unlike a lot of “Chinese magicians” of the day, Chang actually was Asian, as was his lady friend.
I could see that Chang was about to present a trick designed for an unsuspecting audience volunteer; it involved two seemingly identical props, one of which did the trick, one of which didn’t. In fact, Rob and I did the same trick in our little act in Stamford.
Taken by an uncharacteristically mischievous spirit, I told Rob, “If he asks for a volunteer, I think I’ll have a little fun with him.”
Sure enough, Chang said the magic words.
“May I have a volunteer from the audience, please.”
My hand shot up, and since I was on an aisle in the third row, I was the logical selection. (One that Chang may have been better off without.)
I approached the stage, and stood near the prop table, (under the watchful eye of the beautiful assistant.) Because I hadn’t been the person to set the props, I couldn’t know which prop did the trick, and which one didn’t. (They were identical, after all.)
But I was pretty sure that the one on the left was supposed to be on the left, and the one on the right was supposed to be on the right...
While Chang was downstage with his back to me, explaining the premise to the audience, (comprised almost exclusively of other magicians,) I winked at the assistant and mimed “Shhh!”
And I switched the placement of the props. (The assistant shouldn’t have permitted that, but she was giggling too hard to stop me. And Chang evidently didn’t hear the sounds of muffled laughter coming from his colleagues in the audience.)
Chang came up to the prop table and took what he thought was the prop that was rigged to do the trick. “Take your box, and go like this.”
But the prop didn’t do anything magical.
I said, “You mean like this?” I executed the illusion the way nearly everyone in that room that night, probably, had done it at one time or another.
KA-BOOM! My first big laugh in New York.
(I must take a moment to say that Mr. Chang was very gracious about my little prank, and even happily posed for a picture with me afterwards.)
AS FATE WOULD HAVE IT...
The Manhattan Savings Bank, in 1965, was located a couple of blocks from The Roosevelt Hotel, on Vanderbilt Ave. at 47th Street. And the bank’s Vice President, a fellow named William Denton, was a magic enthusiast.
In the days before credit cards and Automated Teller Machines became dominant forces of the holiday season, banks had a lot of work on their hands at Christmas time with parents who had to stand on long bank lines, often with small children in tow. Bill Denton had come up with an idea to make Christmas banking more fun.
The vast main branch had enough spare room in which to build a 99 seat theatre, with a stage and lights. Denton commissioned a Christmas musical, The Magical Spirit of Christmas, which would star Milbourne Christopher, a venerable magician and magic authority. Also in the show would be the Jans Brothers, little people who were European circus stars. And the pre-show audience warm up was done by an Argetinian sleight-of-hand artist named Maximillian. The show would be presented three times a day on weekdays, and four on Saturdays.
The plot involved Santa sending his magical emissary to the Appalachians, to make the season brighter for a miner’s family. (This was a hot topic in 1965.)
And one of Mr. Christopher’s illusions in the show would involve a doll house for the little girl, who, when asked what she wanted, had said, “May I have a Dutch Boy doll, please?”
The illusion called for Chris, as Mr. Christopher was called, to wheel in a dollhouse that seemed to be about 40” square. The doors would be opened to demonstrate that the house was empty, and would be turned around when the doors were closed. Upon opening them again, there was a Dutch Boy doll roughly the size of a GI Joe. The little girl would pretend to be disappointed that it wasn’t bigger. Chris would return the doll to the house, turn it around a second time, and upon opening the house, a larger doll in the same costume, roughly two feet in length, would appear. Again, the little girl expressed disappointment that it wasn’t “Really Big!”
With this, the doll would go back into the doll house, which would revolve a third time, after which...Chris would open the ROOF of the house to take out a “doll” in the same costume, to be played by a 9 year old boy, who would then come to life.
Now, I ask you...if you’re Bill Denton...and you have come to the Roosevelt specifically to try to find a 9 year old blond boy to assist Milbourne Christopher with some magic tricks in a Dutch boy costume...and you see little Donny Stitt use a magic trick as a device to get a laugh that was loud enough to carry to Columbus Circle...
WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
Mr. Denton spoke to Ed, and Ed told him he would talk to my parents.
And the next day, I was “booked” for my first paid gig in a New York show.
(An ill-timed bout of the Chicken Pox almost prevented it, but they seem to have wanted me enough to work around my delay in joining the rehearsal process.)
I have always celebrated Hallowe’en as the anniversary of the beginning of my show business career, and this Hallowe’en is the 50th anniversary of it.
(I was paid for my role with a savings bond that my father promptly banked...and completely forgot about. When I was back in San Francisco with Can Can in ‘88, he found it again. With interest, it turned out to be worth nearly $2,500! No a bad take for a nine year old who had done four weeks worth of work.)
I cashed a couple of residual checks last week, and I just paid my dues, so I guess I’m still an actor. And as of this Hallowe’en my career spans 50 years. Reflecting on this good fortune has reminded me of some of the shows I am most happy with which to have been associated.
(They would include, but not be limited to:)
Beach Blanket Babylon (now in its 42nd year)
Irving Berlin in Revue, which I co-authored and choreographed, and which ran for two years in SF.
A Kid’s Summer Night’s Dream, which got an Equity production in NY in ’79, and which I co-authored and scored
Patent Leather Shoes (my first original Broadway cast) still making audiences happy decades later
El Grande de Coca Cola (’86 NY revival, with the show’s creators) and which has a hit sequel now, too
Can Can with Chita and the Rockettes (Nat’l Tour)
A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine (SJ Rep, ’89-90, with a dream cast)
Buddy:(the Buddy Holly Story) my third original B’way cast (and the best job ever)
A Funny Thing/Forum ’96 B’way revival,(replacement) Great Time!
Letterman (about 20 appearances, including one in which I caught a 40 yard pass from Joe Montana)
Law & Order (this one impressed the spouse)
Fame (Swiss premiere of a musical based on a film I had worked on in ‘79: A happy working vacation)
Seussical, Fulton Theatre,(I did the National tour, too, but THIS one was a happy experience)
The Voices in My Head Have Formed a Choir and Somebody’s Singing Flat! A show I wrote, scored and performed in at the Edinburgh Fringe in ’07.
Forty Second Street, Fulton Theatre, (simply stunning) always wanted to do it, was worth the wait.
I have been a lucky fellow, to have had a career that has lasted as long as mine has.
And it all goes back to a night when my friend and his father invited me to go to the SAM convention.
And how the words, “May I have a volunteer from the audience, please,” changed the trajectory of my life forever.