Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Let It Snow!

This is a true story. It happened on December 6 of last year.

There is a show I do every year, a holiday party for military families. It takes place in a secure facility within a secure facility - it almost takes longer to get inside than to do the show! But once you're inside, you're in a fairy land of Christmas trees, lights, garlands and cotton "snow." Hundreds of children play games, color, eat popcorn and watch Christmas movies. There are face painters, balloon artists, clowns, costumed characters and elves - mostly volunteers. All this in
what is normally a loading dock.

Around 10:00 am, Santa arrives on a huge fire engine and holds court in the lobby. This is, by far, the most efficient Santa line I've ever seen. Every child gets plenty of time with the Big Guy, yet somehow the line keeps moving. At the end, the lilliputian petitioner has a bag of goodies and a picture with Santa.

During all this, I am doing close-up magic, "pulling" lights from the Christmas trees (the offices have a fierce tree decorating contest), making coins appear, and generally making fun.

Around noon, the 500 or so people line up and get lunch (which is fantastic) while I set up for my platform show. My holidays shows always have some different material, more if it's a repeat client.

This year, I planned to end with a classic Japanese piece, the "Snowstorm in China." This involves cutting tissue paper into a snowflake or other shape, tearing it up and immersing the pieces in water. The sodden pieces are squeezed out and fanned, and become dry confetti, which is fanned into the air and appears as snow.

It's a great piece, and with the right script and music, there's not a dry eye in the house.

It had not snowed yet that year, and so I ended my show by promising to add the one thing that was missing from that holiday season. The piece got a great response, especially from the kids, who rushed the stage to collect bits of the "magic snow" to take home.

As I was leaving the base gate, I had a wonderful view of the US Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. Then I saw something else.

It was starting to snow!

Big fluffy flakes, like something out of a cartoon, coming down with purpose. I could hardly believe my eyes!

Then I thought of those kids going home from the party and seeing the snow - and their parents trying to explain for the hundredth time that it really WASN'T magic.

But maybe it was.

Then I remembered something that has had me chuckling ever since. Earlier that day, as I was entering the first gate,. a Marine corporal, bristling with armaments, greeted me. As he looked over my car, he made conversation. "So what do you do in your show?" he asked.

"I make it snow," I replied.

"No, really."


Now all I could picture was that Marine watching me leave the base - and then seeing the snow.

Sometimes things just come together. I live for moments like that.

Merry Christmas!


Monday, November 30, 2009

What Laryngitis Taught Me

Since today was dominated by my laryngitis, this story came to mind.
I actually learned something from being sick once, and perhaps this will help someone else.

First, please understand that I had Crohn's disease for 15+ years and I know very well when I am sick and how serious it is. I spent 15 years in continuous, sit-on-a-tack pain with a constant low-grade fever. So I've probably spent the majority of my magic career performing sick.

However, on this occasion, I was getting over a cold. Have you ever had this? It's that day where you're no longer contagious, in fact, you feel fine, and you KNOW that you're well again - but your voice is gone. Totally absent. No other symptoms. It's like the cold's final practical joke on its way out.

Well, this happened to me on a Sunday when I was working brunch at Clyde's, and I was frantic. I do talking magic, with lots of storytelling, and how in the world could I perform?

Here's what I learned in a nutshell:

  • I got MUCH better responses from my audiences. Looking back, I realize it was because I was gentler in my approach to the tables. I am 6'4" tall, 250 lbs., with dark hair, a dark beard and a loud voice. when approaching a table, I am standing and my audience is seated. It's easy to forget that all this together can be intimidating. My laryngitis evened the playing field, so to speak, and folks felt more comfortable. I now approach tables with more relaxed body language and lower vocal volume.
  • Many of my routines need few, if any, words. I found I was able to get very far into many of my pet routines with no words at all. This also helped focus attention on the magic, and I got much more applause and laughter. So I have gone back and severely trimmed my scripts.
  • If you simply tell people "My voice is gone," you build rapport very quickly. I think most people have been in that situation. So rather than trying to hide it, I was honest about it. But of course, not being contagious helped!

Hope this helps,

Eric Henning

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How to Have a Stress-Free Holiday Party - for Less!

The holidays, it seems, bring out the best and the worst in us. Holiday parties can be fun, but they can also be exhausting and expensive! In more than 25 years of doing magic at corporate, community and social events, I've seen great and not-so-great holiday parties. Here are some of the ways you can have a great party with a lot less stress and many of these tips will save you money, too!

1. Have it in January! This is the biggest secret of all!
December is full - full of family, school, community, religious and company obligations. Sometimes your party becomes just another burden on overtaxed schedules. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a company spend big bucks for 200 employees, and 40 people show up. Schedules are much more open in January and that's the time when people really need a party! By moving the party to January, when things are slow in the event business, you'll also save on nearly everything: the venue, the food, entertainment, etc.

2. Delegate. You may be only super-human, but you'll have a lot more fun if you figure out what needs to be done and find people to help you. Define the jobs clearly; explain what successful completion of their task looks like ("Our goal is to get everyone to the party without people getting lost"); give them a deadline, and then check back to make sure it gets done. Other people may not do things exactly the way you would let it go. Many times they'll do them better or they'll think of aspects you hadn't. Getting more people involved also increases the group's ownership of the event, which increases attendance. If everyone does one thing, no one has to do everything.

3. Try a buffet. Plated dinners are elegant and expensive and often s-l-o-w. You'll not only get a better value, but people will appreciate having more food choices, and you'll get people fed faster. It's a good idea to have non-dairy, vegetarian and low-sugar choices on the table, and label them as such.

4. Try Lunch. Evenings are prime times during the holidays, so why not make your staff party really for the staff? In many cases, spouses are not having fun in a room where they don't know anyone. By doing lunch, you'll save wear and tear on your guests and save money, too.

5. Pump DOWN the Volume. Sometimes, background music can become dance music long before people are ready to dance. People have to shout to be heard, and the room quickly becomes a cacophony, not a celebration. Make sure that the venue and/or the DJ understands that music during cocktails and dinner must be in the background low enough that people can converse comfortably. Get your favorite music lover to monitor this during the event to make sure as the crowd gets bigger, the music should not get much louder. The older the crowd, the softer the music - don't forget that some people have hearing problems. Also, consider live music a pianist, harpist or jazz guitar during cocktails and no music during dinner can be a welcome relief from the endless parade of golden oldies on CD.

6. Keep it simple. After a long day at work, most people are not up for cocktails PLUS dinner PLUS speeches PLUS door prizes PLUS gift exchange PLUS dancing. And folks with kids are going to be out the door by 9:00 PM, regardless. So keep it simple: some background music during cocktails, a few door prizes, maybe a 20-30 minute magic show during dessert. Keeping it focused makes it easier to stay on schedule, and your guests will thank you

7. Help them get there. It's not "The Amazing Race," so don't make finding your party a puzzle to solve! Don't just add a link to MapQuest or Google Maps - your venue may not be there, or the directions could be wrong. Find someone who is really good with directions, and ask them to write directions in plain English from all major highways, and make a simple map. Include all in your invitations, both via email and in the mail. Test your map person's cell phone to make sure it works inside the venue, and print their number with the directions in case someone gets lost. Have them get to the party early and let their only job be to give directions to people who might get lost. If you really want to be thorough, make signs with arrows to guide people in, and post them at critical turns or ahead of hidden entrances. Your local sign shop will be happy to help you with this, and it can be surprisingly affordable. Just make sure someone takes down the signs immediately after the event.

8. Combine events. If you decide to have your party in January (see Tip#1), you'll have all of your year-end information and can combine the holiday party with your spring awards event. Even if you spend more on this party, you'll have saved big bucks versus having two separate events.

Of course, the most obvious way to reduce the stress and save money on your holiday party is to start planning early and by reading this and acting on it, you're already doing it! Congratulations!

ERIC HENNING is an award-winning magician and public speaker based in the Baltimore-Washington area. For more information on how to make your events amazingly successful, call him at 800-485-0029 or email him at

Article copyright © 2008 by Eric B. Henning. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Al Cohen: The World's Best Magic Dealer

Al Cohen 2001 Photo: Barry Gordemer/NPR

On Monday night, I once again had the pleasure of seeing a lecture by the one and only Al Cohen, this time at the National Press Club. For more than 55 years, Al WAS magic in Washington, DC. His shop on Pennsylvania Ave. (later moved to Vermont Ave. off McPherson Square) was the Mecca of magic in the Nation's Capital. Magicians, both famous and obscure, would go out of their way to visit Washington and stop in to see Al.

The list is so long and distinguished, you wouldn't believe it. When someone questioned it, Al would just smile and point at the ceiling, covered with playing cards signed by great magicians. Doug Henning, David Copperfield, Blackstone (Sr. and Jr.), Fred Kaps, Dai Vernon, Eddie Fields, Lou Tannen, Carl Ballantine, Eugene Burger, Okito, Cardini, J.B. Bobo, Mark Wilson, Bob Fitch, Slydini, Jay and Francis Marshall, Ali Bongo, Don Alan and many more all made the pilgrimage.

The list of celebrities who made a point of visiting Al's Magic Shop reads like a Who's Who from the last half of the 20th Century: Presidents Harry Truman & George H.W. Bush, DC Mayors Walter Washington and Marion Barry, GEN Norman Schwarzkopf, Mohammed Ali, Jay Leno, Joel Grey, Joan Rivers, Avery Brooks, Willard Scott, Steve Martin, Henny Youngman and Ted Koppel...and the list goes on.

While being in the Nation's Capital undoubtedly helped, I know of no other magic shop that can boast of this kind of patronage. When Al retired and sold the shop in 2001, the magic world went into mourning. In 2003, Al Cohen won magic's equivalent of a Lifetime Oscar, the Academy of Magical Arts' Lifetime Achievement Award.

Why? Why would someone who sold magic tricks for a living command such respect and admiration? And what can we learn from Al Cohen?

I first met Al in his shop as a youngster of perhaps 9 or 10. I supposed now that Al must have met thousands of budding magicians, but he always remembered my name and made me feel important. He also steered me right. I can't count the times that I would be looking at some expensive piece of apparatus and he would say, "You don't want that - get this instead," and he would sell me a trick I could actually learn and perform.

You see, Al was in the business for the long term. He knew that if I felt bad about an impulse purchase I might not come back. So he sold me things I could do and books that would help me become a better magician, knowing that I would buy from him for many years to come.

Al has a manner about him that has earned him the moniker "Magic's Mr. Nice Guy," a nickname he detests. But he learned early on that being an amazing magician was NOT the way to sell tricks. "People had to believe that they could do it, too," he once told me, "or they wouldn't buy the trick." So Al developed a style of presentation that was casual, conversational and fun. He was everybody's uncle who can do a few tricks and will teach you one. And that's how he became King of the magic dealers. His subtext was never "Look at me and be amazed," but always, "Look at this cool thing - you can do this, too!"

He seldom presented a trick according to the instructions. He would get a trick in the shop and spend hours, sometimes days, playing with it, experimenting, coming up with presentational gambits until he finally had something he felt would engage his customers and their audiences.

One of the few tricks he did by the book was probably his best-seller: a close-up gambling demonstration from Emerson & West called "Color Monte."

"This trick is great," Al told me, "It has lots of visual surprises, it's easy to do, and it comes with a story, so you know exactly what to say. And the story helps you remember what to do. It's great for beginners." It was also great for sending his son Stan to college. When Stan graduated from Georgia Tech in 1973, he came to work with his father at the shop, eventually taking over doing shows so Al could focus on his burgeoning mail-order business and creating his own products.

Al needed someone to do shows because by this time he had become the favorite magician of Washington's elite, performing at the White House and the most exclusive dinner parties at the homes of the rich and powerful. Years earlier, Evelyn Lincoln, President Kennedy's social secretary, loved to bring Al in to entertain - with a twist.

"There were never more than 4 or 5 couples at a time," Al wrote in his GENII Magazine column, "Memoirs of a Magic Dealer." "The thing that made this quite unique was the fact that she wanted everyone to think that I was just another guest at the parties who happened to do magic."

The irony of all this is that Al never thought of himself as a magician. He told me that he always thought of himself as a salesman who happened to sell magic tricks. Because he wanted to sell a LOT of magic, Al was good, prepared and did everything he could to make the experience of watching magic and buying magic as much fun as possible for the person on the other side of the counter. In the process, he became not only a great dealer but a great magician, too.

In the early 1900's, the great pioneer of close-up magic, Nate Leipzig, famously said, "People want to feel that they have been fooled by a gentleman." No one in contemporary times embodies this more than Al Cohen.

The magic shop is long gone, a victim of online discounters. But today, remarried to the lovely Rita, Al is still healthy and active at 83, and has a renewed interest in magic. We had lunch recently and he told me, "Eric, I am really having so much fun with magic! All those years I was selling it, I never really had time for magic as a hobby. Now I have time - and I'm having the time of my life!"

Time for another lesson.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

My Son, the Entertainer

On my way to a show last night, Ian (3 1/4 yrs old) gave me his new Snake Can and said, "Daddy, you need this for your show!" - It got the biggest laugh in the show.

A week earlier, we were in Fell's Point (Baltimore's colonial seaport where TV's "Homicide" was filmed) and I was planning to do some street, when we walked past a bar with a great electric blues band playing, and Ian started dancing, then break dancing. People leaned out of the windows and applauded.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Man, the Message and the Moment

This benediction by the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowry has to be one of the best speeches/public prayers ever. Possibly better than Pres. Obama's Inaugural Address. This is what happens when the man, the message and the moment come together.

Eric Henning Magician