My Top Ten All Time Favorite Magic Tricks and Illusions

While I like to make fun of magic, I really am a lifelong student and fan of the art.  There were MANY tricks/routines/illusions that could have made this list, but here are ten.

10. Zig Zag Lady Illusion
This is a classic illusion that many people envision when they think of an illusionist. It’s one of those illusions that, even though it has been exposed many times in print and television, it is still baffling to watch. The basic idea is that a girl enters a box standing up, is cut into three pieces and the middle part of her body is slid away from the rest. I’ve never owned this illusion, but always wanted to – if nothing else, just for the classic magic cliche appearance of the thing. It would be a neat thing to have in my house. Here’s the illusion’s inventor, Robert Harbin, presenting it as it was intended – as a talking routine.

And here it is, being performed in the wind quite poorly by a magician who is apparently afraid to look at his audience.  Notice that the audience still says “Wow.”

9. Self-Levitation (as performed on Television by David Blaine)
I learned this levitation when on an old dubbed video I watched when I worked in a magic shop in 1995.  Eleven years later, David Blaine performed it on television and stunned a world-wide audience.  The trick itself is not that amazing when you see it live.  Did Blaine use the camera to his advantage?  Yes.  You can’t perform it like he did there.  But the reason it made this list is simple.  This one trick took the magic-world by STORM.  I was working doing magic 4 nights a week in restaurants in 1996 when this aired and every night I would get asked at least 3 times “Can you float like David Blaine?”  No other single magic trick has had that much of an impact in my lifetime in a social situation.  Taking magic to the “street” made it more accessible to non-magicians and this one trick is the perfect mascot for the “street magic” movement.  In reality, it is difficult if not impossible to perform for strangers on the street without a film crew there to make you a desirable person to be approaching strangers.  I still get asked “Can you make the Statue of Liberty disappear?” referring to a trick that Copperfield did in 1983 which speaks to the power of one trick, but anyone under the age of 30 has replaced that question with “Can you float like David Blaine.”  Blaine is solely responsible for making magic exciting again for young people in the late 90s and into the new millennium.

8. Tom Mullica’s Cigarette Routine
Wow.  I remember watching this routine on “World’s Greatest Magic” and just thinking “There’s no way!”  Years later, Mullica put out some DVDs explaining how to do the act.  Even after that, no one could do it.

7. Multiplying Bottles (Ken Brooke Routine)
This is a classic.  It just LOOKS like magic to me.  I perform it in almost every show.  My routine is similar to the routine that most magicians perform, mainly because we’re all studied the same manuscript from the legendary British Magician, Ken Brooke.  I’ve developed several other original routines for the bottles over the years, but none of them get the impact that Brooke’s routine gets.  Here’s a performance of the Ken Brooke Routine performed by me on “Penn & Teller Fool Us.”

6. Steve Martin’s “Flydini”
This routine is the blacksheep of the list, in that it is the only thing listed here that is solely a comedy act rather than a trick/illusion.  Famous Comedian/Actor/Writer/Director Steve Martin started his career doing magic, and this act still makes me laugh every time I see it.  True inspiration:

5. Floating Ball (Teller)

It’s probably safe to say that Penn & Teller’s show one of my favorite magical acts of all time.  Right now, Teller is doing a trick with a red ball that almost made me cry.  It certainly made me rethink the idea of beauty in magic.  The classic “Don Wayne” Floating Ball has been performed by many of the best, including David Copperfield & Lance Burton (who changed the concept by floating a bird cage).  But I had the chance to see Teller’s version in November and it was far beyond incredible.  By the end of the bit, you actually believed that the ball had a life of its own.  The entire audience sat in complete silence through the routine in utter AWE.  All you need to know about Teller’s performance is in this interview with Teller, A man, a ball, a hoop, a bench (and an alleged thread)… TELLER!

4. Sponge Balls/Sponge Bunnies
Yes. I know. The very mention of “sponge balls” sounds lame beyond compare to the average hipster magician or magic-fan. Everyone wants to be doing magic with real-everyday-items. I certainly understand the argument. That said, I also have performed sponge balls thousands upon thousands of times for everyday audiences and it is one of the most memorable things that an audience member can experience. This is proven to me on a weekly basis when I see an old friend from college who asks me “Hey, do you have the balls with you?” You can imagine the multitude of responses I have come up with over time. I, myself have the ability to suspend my disbelief when a magician performs sponge balls for me and I can actually make myself believe that the magic is happening even though I know how the trick is done. The late Brian Gillis had a really great sponge ball routine. Here’s a video of yours truly performing the sponge balls for United States Army Soldiers in Seoul, South Korea. This video was taken when I didn’t know the cameras were rolling.

3. Sam the Bellhop by Bill Malone
Story tricks can be long and boring. But Bill has taken the old idea of a story trick and turned it into something that is enjoyable throughout, and can definitely be described as “cute.” It’s one of those routines that, if you do it (Malone has released the rights to the routine available for magicians to purchase and perform), people will always ask you to perform it for them again. I once developed a story replacing the characters and places in the story with those in Columbus, OH (my hometown). One day I will re-examine it and make a video for you. Here’s Bill’s version:

2. Cups and Balls (Ricky Jay/Penn & Teller)
Many magicians would be surprised to know that I’ve never once performed a Cups and Balls routine. Often referred to as the oldest conjuring trick in magic’s history, I LOVE a good Cups and Balls routine. Sadly, most Cups and Balls routines are predictable and boring. Here are two of my favorite: a historical look at Cups and Balls by Ricky Jay and a transparent version with Penn & Teller (where, even though they’re showing you how it’s done – you’re still impressed).

1. David Copperfield’s “Snow”
In my show, I end the performance with a satirical story about my father and the stars. It’s basically a spoof on the “Snowstorm” routine that many magicians perform. It is a fact that when 80% of magicians are performing this effect, they are (knowingly or unknowingly) attempting to channel David Copperfield’s “Snow.” Yes, it is mellowdramatic. Yes, it may be a little cheesy. But I’ve seen it several times, both live and on television, and it’s very powerful. Art is designed to elicit an emotional response from the audience. This one does a pretty damn good job.

Here is a video of my spoof routine.