Take Two #8: Steve Spill
In early 1985 I traveled to Washington D.C. to visit the Brook Farm Inn of Magic in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The Brook Farm was a landmark building in an upscale Maryland suburb where Bob Sheets was a partner in a magic dinner theater and bar. The place had a terrific cult following that would pack the house to the limits on Friday and Saturday nights, and where the feature show was “The Bob & Steve Show,” featuring Bob Sheets and Steve Spill. The show ran successfully for years, and people would come back to see it again and again, as well as bring their friends and enjoy watching them experience it anew. The Magic Bar would be packed until the closing hours, a wild scene that included not only performances from veteran Magic Bartender, Bob Sheets, who had years before worked with the original Magic Bartender, “Heba Haba Al” Andrucci, in Chicago, but also from Spill, bar regular Scotty York, and other guest close-up performers. A feature of the bar was the “Upside Down Margarita,” which involved seating a patron in an old-fashioned barber chair, back to the bar, head above the bar, whereupon a margarita would be mixed in the sitter’s open mouth, the head shaken, and the concoction swallowed. (It was the ‘80s.)
My visit was for the purpose of auditioning for the job of chief Magic Bartender for the Inn’s new location in Wheaton, MD, a much larger space with better zoning that would allow the bar to stay open later at night. To make a long story short, I got the job and a few months later would move lock, stock and wife from Brooklyn to Wheaton, to perform five nights a week behind the bar at the Inn of Magic for the next couple of years. It was the world’s largest magic bar: about 35 seats at the bar, plus two-tier bleacher seating for another 150 people. It was a scene. I learned a lot.
Getting to see the Bob & Steve Show, about which I had been hearing for several years, was a memorable thrill. It was just about the funniest, hippest, most original magic show I’d ever seen, the only show I’ve experienced that was in any way comparable to Penn & Teller for sheer laughs and originality. Unlike Penn & Teller, however, Bob Sheets and Steve Spill were both speaking comedy magicians, albeit with very different styles. There’s an old line attributed to the great performer Ed Wynn that says, “A comic says funny things, a comedian says things funny.” Steve Spill was (and is) a comic, and Bob Sheets was (and is) a comedian. Steve is an edgy wordsmith who, much like Mike Caveney, hones every joke to perfection, delivering the lines with laid back deadpan timing, while Sheets is a charismatic clown with a repertoire of funny expressions and goofy high energy. The contrast and combination was simply spectacular. I would eventually get to see the show dozens of times, and never got tired of it—they always made me laugh.
The Bob & Steve Show consisted of Sheets and Spill alternating with their own signature solo material—Bob’s versions of the Cups and Balls and the Malini Card Stab, Steve’s Mindreading Goose and his version of the East Indian Needle Trick—along with several routines performed jointly, hilarious versions of a spectator levitation, and the Substitution Trunk (with Bob in drag as Bess Houdini).
Steve and I hit it off right away. We shared similar thinking about magic, and a passion for serious sleight-of-hand card magic. Steve was a second generation magician who grew up hanging around the Magic Castle long before he was actually old enough to legitimately be allowed in, but his dad, Sandy Spillman, was for many years the medium in the Castle’s Houdini Séance, and the younger Spill was learning sleight-of-hand at Dai Vernon’s knee by the time the student was a teenager, and hanging around the likes of Francis Carlyle and Clarke Crandall. Steve and I quickly found that we were both well read, and loved writing and refining the spoken words of magic performance. We were instant pals, and by the time Steve moved to Los Angeles several months after the club’s relocation (as the new Inn of Magic would now feature a changing calendar of visiting stage acts instead of the resident Bob & Steve Show), our friendship was well established.
For many years thereafter, Steve and I were close and constant magic confidants, and I routinely crashed on his couch when I visited LA to work the Magic Castle. He offered me a great deal of sound advice as I eventually expanded from bar and close-up magic to platform and stage performances.
Steve had already known Teller for many years, and only weeks after I moved to Maryland in early 1985, the Penn & Teller show opened Off Broadway in New York. On a night off, Steve and I took the train up to NYC to see the show, where I met Penn and Teller for the first time, which would eventually lead to long personal and professional associations for many years to come. Steve and I were thrilled and inspired watching Penn & Teller’s ascension to national attention—1985 was the year they hit it big in New York, with rave reviews in the theater press there, feature stories in The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, and a season of repeat appearances on Saturday Night Live, and eventually spots on The Late Show with David Letterman. This is relevant because for the next couple of years, every time P&T would make a new TV appearance, Spill and I would be on the phone that night or next, analyzing every element down to the finest detail. It was a favorite pastime, and an educational one, for many years.
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. The tricks are a mix (much like Penn & Teller’s repertoire) of fresh takes and original handlings for classic effects (like the Bill in Lemon) along with astonishingly original routines like the “Mind-Reading Goose” (widely ripped off and copied) and “Blood From a Stone” (which was used with permission by Penn & Teller on their FX series in the late 90s, Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular, on which I served as a writer and magic designer).
Magic is an art that suffers from a paucity of “effects,” for which there is a plethora of methods by which to accomplish them. Most of the advancement in magic takes place on the methodological side, with improvements and refinements in sleight-of-hand techniques and mechanical technology. Rare indeed throughout the history of magic are the individuals who create original “effects” (the magician’s jargon term for the illusion as its perceived by the audience). I’ve known very few magicians who made a habit of devising original effects in their work; Teller, Tommy Wonder, Gaëtan Bloom, and Scotty York come to mind, along with Steve Spill, a fine example of this rarest of magical breeds.
Steve loves arts and crafts, and there were many times in LA when he would say, “We’re going to the hobby and craft store,” and off we’d go to buy materials for a new idea. By the afternoon he’d have the hot glue gun out and the kitchen table covered in parts, and by evening or the next day a new trick was ready to be tried out in a comedy club, preferably the next night. This routinely blew my mind, as it couldn’t be more different from my own process, which tends to depend on lengthy periods of practice, writing, and rehearsal, not to mention the fact that personally I don’t find much fun in the arts and crafts thing.
A perfect example of this was the day he decided to see if he could find a way to turn a pair of women’s bright red spiked heels into a version of the Chinese Sticks, in which the heels “fall off” the shoes, left hanging by a string, and then they go up and down as per the classic effect. I watched him turn this from an idea into a working prop and then a performance piece in about 48 to 72 hours, the very act of which I found utterly astonishing, notwithstanding the clever originality of the trick. (He also has a great design sensibility, which also shows up, as you will see, in his sense of color and fashion through his changing but always striking appearance over the years.)
Today, Steve Spill, along with his wife and performing partner, Bozena Wrobel, own and operate the fabulous magic venue, Magicopolis, in Santa Monica, where they regularly perform together on stage every week. Steve is also the author of I Lie For Money, an hilarious and illustrative memoir of the life of a professional magician who’s never had another job (unless you count building his own successful magic theater!). Many years ago, when Steve set out on the entrepreneurial path that would eventually lead to Magicopolis, he first considered buying an old theater in San Diego, and I flew out to look the place over with him and discuss the possibility of being his performing partner in the show. That site didn’t work out, and Steve moved on to develop Magicopolis in Santa Monica, along the way meeting Bozena, his partner in life, love, business, and performing. I’m thrilled at their success, and I remain an admirer as well as a friend.
Without a doubt, the best piece of advice Steve Spill ever gave me was this: “Good work is never wasted.” I’ve discovered and rediscovered the profound truth of that statement countless times, and I’ve passed it along to many other creators over the many years since he first said it to me. There’s a lot of wisdom in those five words. Thanks, Steve.
And so, here are a few excellent samples of the comedy magic of Steve Spill. All of these plots are original with him, except for the Needles, a classic piece dating back to Houdini, but for which Steve has developed his own original “presentation” (that’s the script) and method (Teller and Steve developed their routines independently and have been doing their excellent versions for decades). If you enjoy this, I recommend his book, and also his shows at Magicopolis the next time you’re in the Santa Monica vicinity. Tell them Jamy sent you.
Put the phone aside, turn up the volume, and expand the browser. Try to be there in this club, and decide what's better: how funny this guy is, or how amazing is the magic. And believe me when I tell you: I've been fooled plenty by Steve Spill. Here's one of Steve’s signature creations: the Mind-Reading Goose.
Presuming that has whetted your appetite, here is a solid eight-minute comedy spot, including two completely original Spill routines, and then his original version of the classic East Indian Needle Trick.
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