TakeTwo #32: Tommy Wonder
It was 1978 and I was attending the national Society of American Magicians convention at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. The line-up was tremendous; the convention was huge. The memories I carry with me are too many and significant to inventory, but they include my sole experience of seeing Dai Vernon lecture, late into the night, and my first experience of Penn Jillette and Teller, as two-thirds of the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society.
At the close-up show, a man from Amsterdam was introduced as Jos Bema, a name that was unfamiliar to me. He came out and performed three routines, perhaps ten minutes of magic. And at the finish, as we all rose as one in a standing ovation, I remember—I will never forget—the explicit thought that came to me: I may not know who this guy is, but I know I just saw one of the world’s greatest magicians.
That guy would eventually change his name to Tommy Wonder, and indeed, he would become renowned and universally recognized as one of the world’s greatest magicians of his time—and I believe, among the greatest of the greatest of all time. I would eventually have the privilege of calling him a dear friend, with whom I would get to spend a significant amount of time as the years went by, typically at magic conventions around the world. And I would experience the tragic, devastating loss of his untimely death from lung cancer in 2006.
Tommy was—and I do not use the word loosely—an artistic genius. His extensive repertoire was distinctly original, often groundbreaking and even revolutionary. He was an award-winning magician as a close-up performer, stage performer, and author, having written one of the most important conjuring books of the latter half of the twentieth century, The Books of Wonder, a two-volume set co-written with Stephen Minch and published by Hermetic Press in 1996.
Tommy was an artist in every sense of the word. He was equally masterful at what he dubbed the “three pillars” of magic, namely sleight-of-hand technique, mechanical craftsmanship (he was an inventive and skilled builder), and the psychological elements of conjuring. He was an uncompromising perfectionist in pursuing his personal ideal of what artistic magic should look and feel like, and he was a deeply principled citizen of the world magic community. I enjoyed every moment I ever spent with him, ever conversation we ever had, be it in person or by phone. I mourn his absence from my personal world, and the larger world of magic.
Magicians loved watching Tommy work. At the very first 31 Faces North conference in Toronto, a small, invitation-only event hosted by Allan Slaight and David Ben of Magicana, Tommy was the guest of honor. At his featured evening presentation, he performed for a time, and then stopped and said, “Well, I don’t know if this is supposed to be a show, or a lecture, or both … do you want me to explain some of this?” Without hesitation the elite group of magical artists and intellectuals responded virtually as one: No! Don’t explain anything! Just keep performing!
The magic was so beautiful, we didn’t need the secrets. We just wanted to continue the experience. And so Tommy shrugged and continued performing. It was a glorious, unforgettable night.
As it happens, I’ve been able to locate videos of the three routines that I saw Tommy perform at our first encounter in 1978. These performances were recorded some 25 years later, as part of the L&L Publishing Visions of Wonder, when Tommy was already recognized as a mature and revered maestro. The magic calls back that stellar memory of my stunned amazement at the Waldorf Astoria, when I first witnessed one of the world’s greatest magicians, and certainly one of the greatest I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.
These three routines comprise the show I first saw Jos Bema, aka Tommy Wonder, perform. This is some of the most beautiful magic I have ever seen. Please do it the justice it deserves. Put aside the smart phone and watch this material uninterrupted. Expand the browser. Turn up the volume. You will only have the pure experience of the third and final routine once in your life—every time after that will be different. Give yourself over to the experience, and don’t give it anything less than your undivided attention.
I think that it was at the final New York Magic Symposium convention, in 1987, that I first saw Tommy Wonder perform this routine, on a ferryboat that the convention commandeered for a night’s outing on the waters around Manhattan. He opened with this piece, and it fooled me badly. How badly? About nine years later, when I was proofreading The Books of Wonder, a galley of the first volume arrived at my home on a frigid winter’s day. I remember that because I raced into my apartment and, without even doffing my winter coat, tore open the package and rapidly searched the Table of Contents to see if this routine was included. Indeed it was and I jumped to the entry, to learn the secret of what had so thoroughly fooled me almost a decade prior, and had kept me fooled ever since. When I read the piece, it pleased me to recognize that the deception was hard won and deservedly earned. I had been fooled by the very best. You will be too—please enjoy that pleasure, an experience I cherish.
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