How To Make Love the Steve Spill Way
by Steve Spill
Book Review by Jamy Ian Swiss
In the opening pages of his latest book, Steve Spill addresses the reader with a prediction. “I predict you and I are about to embark on a romance.” He also cautions that, “A certain amount of bad taste is unavoidable …” And he adds, “… my feeling is you’ve paid for my book of Love, for love, not sex.”
Thus begins the 270-page extended metaphor that is How To Make Love the Steve Spill Way. Sorry to dash your hopes, but despite the title, this is not Steve Spill’s personal update of the Kama Sutra. But it is a book about relationships: about a magician’s relationship with his art, and with his audiences. And you could not ask for a more experienced and expert guide—or a more original and distinctive one.
In one of the first installments of my Take Two series—#8 to be exact, in December of 2016—I featured Steve Spill, and therein stated that “Steve Spill is one of the most original and creative magicians I know. His performance style is distinctly his own—he doesn’t sound like anyone else.” That puts the truth of it succinctly—and the consensus, I might add, of most of his professional peers over the last thirty-plus years I’ve known him. And now, this highly regarded creator and performer has at last written a book about some of his original, professional material—and more importantly, about how he went about creating it. There have been very, very few books like this in the annals of conjuring literature, and it’s fair to say there have been none exactly like it, because there truly is only one, inimitable, Steve Spill.
An aside: in my review of Asi Wind’s Repertoire I offered a brief caveat, explaining that, despite the fact that in more than twenty years of writing book reviews I have often been called upon to review the works of my friends, “In this case (and in fact in the case of several forthcoming works), I feel compelled to mention that in some sense I might well be an inescapably biased observer.” Steve Spill’s new book is one of those “several forthcoming works,” and since, like Asi, he mentions my name in its pages, I will repeat the caution here. But really, as with Asi’s book, this is not a review that is the result of my longstanding friendship with Steve, although it’s certainly partly a result of my being a longtime fan.
While I’m at it, I will also mention that although my review of Repertoire came out almost immediately following its commercial release, within days of the review’s appearance, the initial print run was entirely sold out—such was its enthusiastic reception throughout the magic community. If you missed getting a copy, here’s a scoop—you read it here first: The second printing of Repertoire by Asi Wind is currently at the printer, and should be available approximately late September. Pre-orders for the second printing should be possible soon—you can keep checking until such time.
When I wrote above that, “you could not ask for a more experienced and expert guide” than Mr. Spill, I meant it—and if you have any doubts, they will be rapidly allayed in the book’s second chapter (or what might be considered the first, since the actual first chapter is more of an extended introduction), in the course of which the author recounts an extremely brief resume of his professional experience. A second-generation magician whose father, Sandy Spillman, was an early manager (and later the Houdini séance medium) at the Magic Castle, Steve was the youngest performer to ever appear at the Castle, within spitting distance of his 13th birthday, no less! He learned sleight of hand from the likes of Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, among other legends in the Castle milieu, and then in his twenties spent about a decade working with Bob Sheets at the Jolly Jester magic bar in Aspen, Colorado, developing his comedy chops as well as his magic. After going East and creating the Bob & Steve show at the Brook Farm Inn of Magic in Chevy Chase (the Maryland suburb of Washington, DC)—arguably the greatest pure comedy magic show I’ve ever seen—Steve hit the road for the next decade working casinos, comedy clubs, and corporate gigs. He worked a lot of top casino revue shows in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Reno, and Atlantic City, including the famous “Spellbound” shows in Vegas. And he also did lengthy tours of one-nighters, opening for name stars like Kenny G and Michael Bolton. And then, about twenty years ago, he created Magicopolis, a unique magic theater and events venue in Santa Monica, California, where he stars in the resident stage show along with his wife, Bozena, and which continues its successful run today. In short: the man speaks from experience, and that experience is, in a word, vast.
I should mention here as well that Spill recounts a lot of his career history in his hilarious memoir, I Lie For Money. Although I haven’t reviewed that volume, I have read it, and I highly recommend it as one of the most entertaining first-person narratives in the world of magic that you will ever have the chance to read. Steve has a superlative memory, a laugh-out-loud writing voice, and a life full of experiences enough to fill the biographies of half a dozen mere mortals. I recommend it. (You can get a copy here.)
But now, at last, to the contents of How to Make Love, in which the author is clear about his goals: “[H]ow to share with audiences who you are, how to integrate comedy, and develop your own original material.” And I believe that he achieves these goals in spades.
Thus, in the chapter, “You Are Who You Is,” the author sets about providing a real-world discussion of the issue of “character.” I find there is a lot of confusion and outright misinformation in the magic community about this subject, and Spill sets a lot of it straight when he says, in considering the oft-quoted Robert-Houdin maxim about magicians being actors, that yes, “you are acting when you pretend to put the coin in your left hand while really concealing it in your right hand … But when it comes to who you are on-stage, magic doesn’t need actors. Magic needs performers that stay true to themselves. The secret is to act like a human being, and too many magicians act like magicians.”
That is the plainspoken truth of the matter. “Character” is not something we paint on, or zip or button ourselves into and out of like a costume. Character is a version of who we actually are—slightly edited, slightly exaggerated, professionally polished—but authenticity is not merely a virtue but a requirement if you’re to be any good at this job at all. That’s the truth of it, and Steve Spill is a stellar example, and tries earnestly to sincerely explain why and how to accomplish it.
In this chapter, the author also touches on the subject of how to learn, and the strengths and limitations of drawing on source materials such as books and video. I like this insightful comment: “Probably more people watch onscreen stuff than read these days because it’s so much easier to have a machine do your imagining and envisioning and interpretation for you. When we read, the process requires us to be actively involved, a better brain workout when reading versus watching, and the process requires a longer attention span and deeper cognitive efforts—we are actively involved in processing the information in front of us.” I find this an excellent insight—and something to keep in mind the next time you hear that claim of the guy who is “a visual learner.” I suggest that Mr. Spill’s explanation explains what is really meant—whether admitted to or not. The “real work” is hard work. Toughen up.
The next chapter, “Seriously … I’m Kidding,” is about comedy. Readers will garner advice here that is rarely if ever offered elsewhere, articulated by a genuine comedy magician, not just another guy who gets some laughs while doing magic. There’s a big difference, and the real comedy workers like Mac King and Steve Spill are few and far between. As the title indicates, Mr. Spill is serious about comedy, and he shares his seriousness here in a brief but meaningful chapter, which serves as an introduction of sorts to the fact that the author’s “comedic point of view is illustrated throughout this book and particularly in the routines described in part two …” He does however state up front that he does “think that we tricksters should at least have a specific point of view,” a few words that actually amount to saying a lot. He goes on to discuss the values that comedy can contribute to magic, including reducing the audience discomfort that the dissonance of magic can induce, and can even trigger hostility in some. He mentions the use of a laugh as misdirection, the importance of opportunities to exploit audience interaction, and then spends a little time considering the difference between prepared responses to events and genuine improvisation. He offers examples from his own experience, and gives detailed practical advice for real world situations. This is priceless advice from a working pro, intended for those who hope to become pros, or pros that hope and intend to continue to improve their work. These are the folks for whom this book is truly written.
The next chapter, “Wired to Create,” is about creativity. Whereas there is no shortage of highfalutin commentary to be found about this often mysterious and inaccessible subject, here the author knows deeply of what he speaks, and yet speaks in practical and straightforward terms. This is not the pseudo-creativity exemplified in the trudging mechanistic approach of Daryl Fitzkee in The Trick Brain, but rather plain speech about genuine creativity and how to exercise your own imagination, including quick examples from the author’s own past repertoire, like a version of the Coloring Book accompanied by “a boyhood story about getting caught looking and scantily clad women, then magically transforming the magazine to a comic book, and back again when the coast was clear.” And then this, from his stoner hippie character “Highdini” act days: “As Highdini I used a spoon with a white plaster lump on it, that’s normally used to pretend to add flour for cake-in-the-hat, and using a version of the paddle move made it look like I repeatedly snorted tablespoons of cocaine … then with a hidden salt gimmick, squeezed my nose and a long pour of booger sugar came out.” As the author repeatedly points out, the point is not whether these enormously imaginative ideas suit you; the point is that this is what creating original material that suits you as an individual and perfectly expresses that individuality.
Then also there’s this confession by way of counsel: “…when I was young, I was terrified of failure. And that fear can stop you dead in your tracks, especially when you’re attempting something creative. Yet, the only way to become successful at something is to fail. And here’s the kicker—to fail over and over and over.”
And with that, we finally reach the second and longer segment of the book, dubbed “Seduction,” and which describes a dozen original Steve Spill stage routines. In explaining these routines, the author offers not only complete methodological details, but also detailed scripts including every word and nuance he can effectively transmit to the page. Again, the cautionary note here is that this detail is not provided with the expectation that many readers will be able to do many of these routines as written; rather, these details help communicate the essence of how these routines were performed and what made them effective, the better to serve as examples of how the reader might indeed be able to take one of these routines and, with sufficient thought and effort, adapt it to one’s own repertoire.
Spill is a fine storyteller, and as in I Lie for Money, many of these routines are described in the context of anecdotes about their history. The first entry is a quintessential example, as the author recounts how on extremely short notice he was booked to fly cross country and perform for a private event hosted by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, attended by the likes of Alan Alda and Martin Scorcese. “With less than fifty-seven hour’s notice, for this one-time only gig, I worked out a special one-time-only hunk to add to my repertoire.” That one-time only routine is a clever signed-bill-in-impossible-location using a freely selected music CD (at an event celebrating the launch of the original Virgin Megastore in New York City). This entire piece is a textbook example of quick thinking, originality, creativity, practicality, and professional execution. It’s also quite adaptable to other themes and presentations and could easily serve a very useful place in the corporate worker’s toolkit.
The next routine, “Citric Acid,” has been a favorite of mine since I first saw Steve Spill perform it in 1985. It is a version of the Bill in Lemon that he developed in the 1970s when the plot, albeit a classic of sorts (associated with the Vaudeville magician headliner, Emil Jarrow), was rarely seen. Dai Vernon, a Jarrow fan, first drew Steve’s interest to the plot when the latter was still in his teens.
Today, the Bill in Lemon has not only become a commonplace of sorts (albeit one still well worthy of performance), but far too many magicians are unaware that they are often doing—or have purchased!—a variation of Spill’s original routine. (Some of the background story appears in I Lie for Money.) Of course there are many possible approaches to methods and handlings for this plot, and in the case of such classics, it’s rare that one can claim that any one particular method is superior to all the rest. For my money, however—this is one of those cases.
Steve generously tipped all the workings of this routine to me way back in 1985, and I wasn’t the only such generously gifted recipient. I never put it to use, partly because I thought his own performance was incomparable—one of several neoclassics that I thought he really “owned” at the time due to his masterful approaches. Now, at last, we get to read, study, and potentially put to use the exact handling that Spill devised, and a full description of the exact version he currently performs at Magicopolis (which I saw most recently in January of this year). It is worth noting, I think, that the routine was originally devised as what the Magic Bartenders working with Bob Sheets over the years and in several locations (Jolly Jester, The Tower, Brook Farm Inn of Magic and the Inn of Magic) described as a “wide trick,” meaning a feature routine (like the Card on Ceiling) for which the lights were turned up, the music turned down, and the piece was performed for the entire crowd. It was also, as Steve points out, “the most perfect magic trick anyone working for tips could ever do, bar none, past, present, or in eternity”—as evidenced by the fact that in his Jolly Jester days in Aspen, nearly every time the trick was done with a hundred-dollar bill, the C-note would end up in the tip jar. (Of course, while much of that is due to the trick, some of it is because Aspen.)
In Steve’s ingenious approach, several spectators are involved—not merely the one loaning the bill—and these spectators are spaced out along the bar, or the theater, providing a terrific opportunity to knit the audience together in their multi-player engagement in the action. Thus the staging is uniquely effective—as is, of course, Steve’s comedic beats and lines. But also, the method and handling represents a pure approach that maximizes the shock and mystery of the effect. Steve’s approach always reminded me of an aspect of Derek Dingle’s work, in which Derek had a knack for pushing a trick’s method to the maximum degree of effectiveness—as in his little-known approach to RingFlite, or the Card in Envelope, or Coins Across. Spill’s routine for the Bill in Lemon is much the same, and by using a signed bill, an isolated lemon, and a few carefully constructed details in both handling and gimmick—typically ignored by imitators—he creates a genuinely amazing and impenetrable mystery that will linger in the audience’s mind and continue to trouble them each time they return to try to think about it. If you study this carefully, and put it to use, it is truly a worth-the-price-of-the-book routine for professional use.
Other routines described—each one in as thorough detail as the next—include a clever and funny version of the McCombical Deck that doesn’t use playing cards; a political version of Billy McComb’s Half-Dyed Silk (isn’t it remarkable how many professional comedy magicians continue to make significant portions of their living thanks to the work of Mr. McComb?); a slightly risqué version of the old Soft Soap routine (and for the countless younger readers who’ve never heard of that—go Google that shit); a version of the Six-Card Repeat done with large green plant leaves; an oddly spooky routine done with cadaver toe tags based on the classic you-do-as-I-do card plot (yes, by all means, do please read that again!); a potentially hilarious performance device enabling you to perform the classic Die Box, complete with all the sucker bits, for adult audiences (and having nothing to do with adult or suggestive themes); the revelation of a thought via the spectator staring into a giant ice sculpture (a brilliant piece of on-the-spot thinking for the use of an ever present sight at high end corporate and private events); and an appealing rapport-building presentation for the Brainwave Deck that Steve currently uses in virtually all of his shows.
At very least, each of these routines serve to provide stellar examples of how to be original and create unique presentations, original tricks or clever adaptations of classics, in order to get your magic to reflect your own unique persona. But in the worth-the-price-of-the-book category, along with Spill’s neo-classic “Lemon Trick,” there are not one but two more feature routines in this category.
One is “Sharp Pointy Things,” Spill’s method and presentation for the Needle Trick. Back in 1985, I saw two performers perform their own uniquely stylized (and now iconic) versions of this routine: Steve Spill, and Teller. Steve recounts how when Penn & Teller first saw the Bob & Steve Show at the Brook Farm Inn of Magic circa 1980 or ’81, Teller and Steve compared notes after the show, mutually acknowledging that each was the only other performer they were aware of that were currently doing the trick. When I saw them both do it in 1985, they were indeed the only two I knew of who were doing it at the time.
And frankly, those two versions still remain, to me, the very best I’ve seen. Both use original handlings that are extremely deceptive. Both are performed in a manner that absolutely reflects each artist’s unique characters and styles. Both are simultaneously comedic and yet powerfully dramatic at the climax. Both use clever original handlings; Teller’s has never been published, and Spill’s is quite possibly the most practical method ever devised for the trick, which fooled me badly the very first time I saw it. Both are, in short, masterpieces.
Spill has previously marketed a very few of his commercial routines, and the Needles is one of them, that was previously released as a DVD, “Confessions of a Needle Swallower.” He points out that, “there are some bits and scraps of pertinent information and scripting in this chapter, gleaned from millions of performances, that for one reason or another did not make it onto the DVD.” (You can see Steve perform a version of the routine in my Take Two feature about him.) Spill has closed countless shows with this piece over the forty years or thereabouts he’s been using it. Need anything more be said?
And yet there is one more feature routine of the book, for which no doubt some have already raced to purchase the book upon its release, in order to discover its secrets. This is dubbed “Go Himber Free,” and describes, in thorough detail, Steve Spill’s utterly unique and original approach to the modern classic, the Linking of Three Borrowed Finger Rings.
I’ve been fascinated by this plot ever since, in my early teens, I had the chance to see Al Koran perform it, on two consecutive nights, in New York City at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel, in a show produced by Tannen’s Magic in the days of Lou and Irv Tannen. The history of this plot has been described elsewhere and needn’t be belabored here; suffice to say the original gimmick was conceived by Persi Diaconis; built by the New York jeweler and amateur magician, Willie Schneider, and marketed by Richard Himber. And Al Koran was the first to put it famously to use on stage to achieve the now classic effect of linking three borrowed finger rings together.
And I’ll be frank. For all the countless versions I have studied, for all the performers I’ve seen present the trick on stage, precious few, in my estimation, do the trick well. Much like the Linking Rings, the Egg Bag, or the Chop Cup, this is not simply a trick relying on a clever gaff, but it is in fact a demanding sleight-of-hand routine that also incorporates a gaffed element. It demands the most of a performer’s ability to execute on all levels: construction, method, technique, presentation, misdirection and psychology, and particularly, spectator management. And few are truly up to the task. (Some execute this routine using a stooge, which rather than failing to be up to the task, to me simply says: In my world, as a magician—you’re fired.)
One of those few is Steve Spill, who has been doing a version of the routine since the 1970s, and who fooled me badly when I first saw him perform it in 1985, and it was that version that I have, ever since, considered one of the finest I’ve ever witnessed. Like the Needles, he was one of very few performing it at that time, and, as with the Needles, his version was one of the best. (I’ll also say for the record that two other stellar versions in my view were those of Bruce Cervon, and Tim Conover.)
But the version Spill fooled me with in 1985 is not the version described in these pages. Rather, it’s the version he fooled me with in January of this year. Because in more than 250 shows a year over the past six years, Steve Spill has used an entirely different and original method. And that method, described in these pages for the very first time, is unprecedented.
Now I don’t want to seem like I’m composing ad copy, and nor do I with to play coy with my readers. But to be fair: the secret of this trick is part—only part, but part nonetheless—of the asking price for this book. And I would consider it unfair to the author, and to purchasers of the book, to explain much more about the method here. And I’ll also add: If you purchased the book, please continue that fairness to the author, to other purchasers, and to yourself—and keep it to yourself.
So what are you getting with this routine? I think it’s fair to say that Spill’s unique approach is also a truly expert one. It is not easy. It is an approach developed after decades of performing a more classical approach to the routine, literally thousands of times before paying audiences. There are so many risks in performing any version of this routine, that in the course of that many shows, one will have been faced with countless challenges and unexpected turns of events—and, one hopes, having successfully navigated all those many pitfalls to reach a successful conclusion. Really, only that level of experience could lead one to discover a method like the one Spill relies on today, much less execute it nightly under fire.
In short, this is not a version that will work for just anyone. Many will likely read it once and say, nevermind. But even for those who do that, if you are at all serious about this plot, studying this manuscript will reap inordinate benefits. There are elements of the performance that are applicable to more traditional handlings, and the author’s core analysis of and opinions about the routine are illuminating and thought provoking. In fact, having my own strong opinions about this effect, I found myself acknowledging all the questions and issues Spill raises – questions and issues that any serious pursuit of this plot virtually demands – but disagreeing with some of his conclusions.
This caused me to reexamine some of my own perspective, and while my mind wasn’t changed, what I found particularly revealing is that different performers’ varying concepts of this routine are often the result of different points of focus—that is to say, different performers end up embracing different priorities in presenting the effect. There is rarely such a thing as a perfect method or handling for any magical routine; every choice of method requires accepting some degree of imperfection at the price of some degree of excellence. In this routine in particular, it seems to me, some of those choices may not always be objectively measurable as right or wrong, or better or worse, but rather different, based on the individual performer’s preferences and priorities. But in order to reach the point where your preferences carry weight and substance, your analysis must be pointed and expert. And to achieve that degree of insight in your analysis, you would do well to study Mr. Spill’s thoughts on the subject, regardless of what method you might end up using.
In the course of these 270 pages, the author is frequently hilarious, profane, and eminently quotable. “You can never tell much by constantly badgering friends and family or neighbors and waiters with your new little trick either. That’s the human equivalent of the dog that humps somebody’s leg every time company comes over.”
Mr. Spill also offers sage advice about both art and commerce. “My recommendation, my message, is don’t be normal. Be you with your magic, and don’t retreat or feel bad if no one gets you at first. … In commerce, onstage, and in life, normal gets you nowhere.”
And this bit of genuine wisdom: “There are magicians who tend to believe that people who become good at something do so because thy seek fame and fortune. This is because these are the sole motives of some people who become magicians. But some people, operating at higher levels of mental health, pursue activities because they actually love them.” In reading this I was reminded of the New York-based magician Noah Levine, who was just recently awarded the Allan Slaight Award for International Rising Star. And the thought occurred to me that while I have known Noah since his early adolescence, I don’t believe I have ever heard him express the slightest desire, or even interest, in achieving fame, or significant fortune, through magic. Rather, he has simply tried to do good work, and continued to consistently pursue doing good and better work, throughout his life. And, wonder of wonders, he is now the star of a successful and unique show in New York City, and has just been recognized with a prestigious award for all that good work. Imagine that!
And this: “In my humble, correct, opinion, there is nothing that isn’t a potential subject that can be expressed with magic, in the same way there’s isn’t anything you can’t do a drama about, or write a song about, or paint a picture of. But the reality is there are some topics that no one on earth can think of a way to uses as a presentation for a magic routine.”
I agree with every word of that, and the first sentence echoes words I’ve written and said for decades. That second sentence is a cogent insight about the confining challenges of every art form—just as there are some ideas that no one has figured out how to effectively express in song or painting form. But unlike so many magicians, Steve Spill has in fact figured out how to address many distinct topics, commercially and personally, in original fashion, and that is a lot of what is offered by way of examples in the second segment of the book.
So what we have here is a remarkable guidebook to the professional performance of comedy stage magic, written—from the heart as well as the mind—by a successful veteran working pro who is also one of the most original and creative magicians of his generation. With unusual frankness as well as expertise—and in a distinctively stylistic and comedic voice—you receive professional guidance about character, comedy, creativity, originality, presentation and scriptwriting, and no less than a dozen professional caliber audience tested routines complete with original presentations, featuring three blockbuster pieces, any one of which could become the feature of your show.
Is that worth $125? I think it’s worth a hell of a lot more, frankly. The production values are admittedly a little bare bones. The book is hardbound with a full color laminated cover. The typesetting and layout is a little rough around the edges. But if this is not a book designed to show off on your coffee table, it is in fact a book to study and learn from and actively utilize in your work and career—to return to as both practical guide and spiritual inspiration. If you’re thinking of going pro someday, if you’re already a pro who wants to improve your work, and wants to keep thinking about these subjects of character, creativity, comedy, art, and commerce, then this could well serve as one of the standout volumes on your shelf for sheer instructive power and usefulness. How much is that worth? I’d say it borders on priceless.
How To Make Love the Steve Spill Way by Steve Spill * 6” x 9” laminated hardcovers * 270 pages * illustrated by the author * 2018 * Price: $125 * Published by and available from the author.