How To Make Love The Steve Spill Way

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If Lenny Bruce were a magician, he would be Steve Spill.

Lenny has long since passed onto that great big comedy stage in the sky, but fortunately our friend Steve Spill is alive and well and has come out with a new book aimed at magicians called How To Make Love The Steve Spill Way. His first book, I Lie For Money, was aimed at a general audience and contained lots of advice on how to live a creative life. It was served along with large dollops of autobiography and spit-take funny stories about the people he met along the path while building an artistic life for himself. In this new book, Steve not only continues his general advice for would-be artists, but also gives up the details of a dozen of his most creative and hilarious tricks. It would be an understatement to say that I think everyone interested in performing magic should read this book.

It’s always a great gift when a wonderful performer tips the secrets of his act, but it’s an even greater gift when the performer himself does the literate and humorous writing chore. Because it’s in that act of writing that Spill divulges his biggest secret: the most powerful thing a performer can do is to find her or his own quirkiness and unique qualities and put them out on display in a performance-oriented way.

When you read one of Spill’s books, you instantly understand what he’s talking about when he says to trust your own personality, because the pages of his books are drenched in the unique persona which he has nurtured. While on the one hand it’s instructive to pick up a Dai Vernon book written by someone like Lewis Ganson, on the other hand, the fact that Ganson, not Vernon, wrote it deprives the reader of real insight into much of Vernon’s personality. With a writer like Steve, though, it’s all hanging out there, and it’s plain as day. You understand immediately that the twelve killer presentations that Spill has detailed are perfect for Spill. Those who are not Steve would most likely fall on their faces if they did his presentations verbatim, but that’s not the point. The point is…who are you?

There are so many lessons to be learned here, not the least of which is the courage of one’s convictions. I read the beginning chapters twice, because the first time through I was laughing too much at the jokes to pay attention to the content.

But if you’ve got as warped and crazy a mind as Steve does (that’s a compliment, I think) there are bound to be doubts about whether anyone else will appreciate what you’re doing. However, Steve’s examples of himself being true to form, along with his constant brainstorming, testing, discarding, and revising of effects, serve as a model of what can be done, and act as a spur to one’s own creativity.

For each of the twelve effects Spill describes, he gives the background story on how and why he created it, and these stories are useful adjuncts to understanding how to create your own effects. The methods are tried and true, and for the most part they probably won’t surprise you with their cleverness after the fact. But that’s not what Steve is after—what will surprise and delight you is the way that Steve takes an effect from column A and a presentation from column Z, and juxtaposes them to create something never seen before, something to amuse and mystify an audience, which leaves them with the impression of a strong magical personality and experience.

What’s in the tricks section? Well it’s a compilation of Spill’s greatest hits—The Lemon thing, the Needle thing, The Himber Ring thing, the drug and hemorrhoid jokes, they’re all there, with full scripts and extra handling  and performance tips explained with loving care. The most audacious routine is one called “Abra Cadavers” which involves, well, a tale of cadavers wrapped in a personal story of tragedy. You would have to be nuts to perform it. I’m happy to report that Spill has done it many times, and tells you how to do it so that you too can be the object of abject speechless horror. I also thought that the presentation given for the UltraMental Deck was one of the best ideas for it I’ve ever come across.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the British magician David Devant expressed his appreciation of his audience with the tagline, “All Done By Kindness.” Likewise, Devant’s American contemporary, Howard Thurston, would prepare to go onstage by intoning in the wings to an imaginary audience, “Thank you, thank you for coming to my show tonight. God Bless You.” And now in the same spirit, as we navigate the twenty-first century, Steve Spill urges us to make love The Steve Spill Way. His love for magic, his love for his audiences and for his unique self are all part and parcel of How to Make Love The Steve Spill Way.

 

A Matter Of Perspective

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(Click to enlarge)

And from a slightly shifted position, a few steps to the left (note the shadow as well):

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“Doble Creu” by Carles Berga

Castell de Montjuic

Barcelona, Spain

See this video for more perspectives:

 

More at Carles Berga

Radio Interview Production Workshop #3: Who You Gonna Call?

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So now that you’ve got your equipment (see here and here), it’s time to get out there and find a guest to interview. The first person I ever interviewed kind of happened by accident. My wife and I were at a small casual screening in upstate New York of an independent film  which was trying to make it big on the festival circuit. I was very taken by the film, and I felt it would be great if the movie got more exposure. After the film, the director talked with the audience about how he had made the film and so on, and I found it fascinating. When we left, I expressed regret to my wife, Linda, that only a handful of people had turned out to this screening. As we were about to get into our car,  Linda asked me why didn’t I try to interview him.

Well, I was then a volunteer at listener-sponsored public radio WBAI, and I had done a bit of work for the news department such as it was, but I had never done a feature interview. But Linda’s words had struck a chord in me, so I turned back, and found the director, and asked if he would like to do a radio interview. I didn’t really know how I was going to do this at the time, but he said yes. It turned out he was flying out to Europe the next day. He said if I liked, we could have a conversation over Skype in a few days. So I did, and that was the first interview. While I was waiting to interview him I asked the host of Arts Express, Prairie Miller, whether she would be interested in running such an interview, and even though she knew I was a rookie, she took me on.

I tell this story for the following reasons: 1) One of the best ways to interview people who intrigue you for broadcast or podcast is simply to ask them. Many times people are flattered and see it as a real opportunity to promote themselves and their ideas. 2) You don’t always need to know everything from the beginning—just enough to get you to the next step is often what will help you carve out your own path. I did lots of things that first interview that I would do very differently now, but it was important to take that first step.

So going directly to the source is an important way to get guests. But of course, in the commercial world, there are often layers of middle-level people when trying  to contact an artist, especially the more well-known someone is, so direct contact at first is not always possible. In that case, if there’s a book I’ve read, or play that seems interesting, I will do a bit of research and see who the publisher’s PR person is, or see who is handling publicity for a given event. PR people are possessive of their clients and they can sometimes be a pain to deal with, but on the other hand, if they feel you’ve treated one of their clients fairly in the past, they can be a source of future contacts, and eventually, they will start reaching out to you. PR people can be dismissive if they don’t feel the media you represent is powerful enough; but on the other hand, you can often make a case for your outlet as being one that would have a special targeted audience for that particular guest.

The ideal interview situation, in my opinion, even with an edited interview for later broadcast or podcast, is face to face. If it is at all possible, that’s what you should ask for, assuming the two of you are in the same city. Of course, you will offer to go out to a place they deem suitable, and you will simply bring along your digital recorder and microphone.  Or, if the guest is amenable, s/he can meet you on your home turf. In either event, you want to make sure that there’s some way of controlling the ambient noise in the room you’ll be doing the interview in, although in a pinch, a bit of ambient background sound can add to the authenticity and charm of the interview. Less desirable, but probably the circumstance I encounter the most, is that of a phone interview, because the guest is in another city, or scheduling does not allow an alternative. I like face to face interviews because it’s easier to create rapport when making eye contact with the person I’m interviewing, and the back and forth between the guest and myself is more natural. It’s also a matter of sound quality—the sound is generally an order of magnitude cleaner and clearer in person as opposed to over the telephone.

That said, as I mentioned, many of the interviews that I do are, necessarily, over the phone. What’s the best way to do that? I can’t say that I’ve found a fully satisfactory answer, though I have found a “good enough” solution. I’ll mention a few things I’ve explored that haven’t been satisfactory for me. I’m not saying that someone with more expertise than myself couldn’t make them work, just that I wasn’t able to figure out how to get clean sound from them.

First, is what I tried in that first interview I mentioned above—Skype. My understanding is that there are plenty of broadcasters who use Skype for this purpose, but for me it was not a very good solution. If you have each side talking into a laptop on their side while Skype is running, there are all kinds of echoes, sound drops, and volume problems. There are apps that automatically record both ends of the conversation, but even with the visual feedback, people just naturally turn their heads away from the built-in computer mics at inopportune times unless they are wearing headsets. Unless you can guarantee some headset on your guest’s side and an external mic for yourself, it’s probably better to try something else.

Another possible solution is to attach an external recording device to your phone. Theoretically this is supposed to record your voice and the incoming voice on your phone. I bought a device like this from Radio Shack once, which came with a little rubber suction cup that you were supposed to apply to your phone. I could never get the thing to work at all.

The solution that I use now, imperfect as it is, is a service called freeconferencecall.com. It is a free website which provides a call-in number which both you and your guest call in to. Through a webpage interface you can then start recording the call, and after you’ve finished you can download an MP3 digital recording of the call. In order to get the most out of it, you and your guest should be on landlines and neither of you should be on speakerphones, otherwise the sound quality is going to be too degraded for broadcast. And before the interview you should instruct your guest to talk directly into the speaker of her or his phone.

The recordings that are made through freeconferencecall.com are recorded at 96kbs which is not the greatest quality, but it will do for two people just talking. I wouldn’t attempt to record music in this way, however. Also, a quirk of this system is that I find inevitably the sound quality is better on one side of the conversation that the other. Strangely enough, I can never predict which side the better audio is going to turn up on. It seems pretty random. Nevertheless, with some post-production massaging with Audacity, you can end up with an acceptable sound quality on both sides.

I’m sure there are other ways of recording off a phone conversation in this kind of situation  that I know nothing about, and would welcome suggestions.

But now that you’ve set up the interview and know how you’re going to record it, you’ve got to prepare to do the interview itself. I’ll talk more about that next time, in a week from now. See you then.

You can read the next installment here:

https://jackshalom.net/2018/08/04/radio-interview-production-workshop-4-time-in-a-bottle/

 

Yesterday’s Gone

 

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The MonaLisa Twins with another summer British invasion hit of the 60s, Chad and Jeremy’s “Yesterday’s Gone.” Ever-Reliable Wikipedia tells us it was Chad’s first published song.

More MonaLisa Twins at MonaLisa Twins

Hugh Laurie Sings The Answer

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Mr. Laurie’s splendid Dylan-like folk singer imitation in which he tells us “All We Gotta Do Is.”  In such trying times as these, we can only be thankful for his clear vision.

Thanks to Youtuber thereallalablue

Jesus’s Magic Square

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(Click to enlarge)

From an exterior wall of the Sagrada Familia Church designed by Antoni Gaudi.

Barcelona, Spain

 

The sum of the numbers in every row is 33.

The sum of the numbers in every column is 33.

The sum of the numbers in each diagonal is 33.

The sum of the numbers in the four corners is 33.

The sum of the numbers in the center 2×2 square is 33.

The sum of the numbers in each 2×2 square in each of the corners is 33.

 

Radio Production Workshop #2: The Hope of Audacity

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If you’ve gotten together your digital recorder, headphones, and microphone as recommended in last week’s post, you’re ready for the most important resource in putting together radio interviews for broadcast or podcast: an audio editing program for your computer.

In the old days, radio folk used to cut and splice reel-to-reel tape just as the old time film editors used to do.  But now, of course, with the wide availability of digital editors, the power to accomplish necessary tasks is so much easier. As I said last week, a good audio editor can help to forgive and solve a multitude of radio sins, and make your segment far more polished. A good audio editor can help you, at the minimum: 1) clean up background noise; 2) remove uninteresting portions of an interview; 3) re-structure the order of an interview; 4) remove verbal tics, hesitations, stumbles, and interruptions; 5) allow for mixing in intro and outros; 6) improve overall sound quality; 7) fit segments into predetermined time limits; 8) add underlying music and sound effects tracks; 9) convert from one digital format to another; 10) select the best parts from a group of different takes; 11) fade in and out, and smooth out contrasting volumes within a segment.

In short, an audio editor is to audio what a red pencil is to a draft of a manuscript. It is your way to revise, shape, and find out what the meaning of your piece is really about. There are many interviews I’ve done where I’ve been more proud of the work I’ve accomplished as an editor than with the actual interviewing itself. The audience will, of course, not see that part of the work, but to me, editing is the most enjoyable and satisfying part of the process.

There are many audio editors on the market and some of them can be quite expensive. One of the most popular is Adobe’s Audition, which has a very clean and intuitive interface, and does just about everything that you would want such a program to do. The problem with Audition, however, is its cost.  Adobe has moved to a vampire squid-sucking rental model for its headline products such as Photoshop, Audition, and Premiere Pro. That is, you can no longer buy these products outright, but you pay a monthly fee for their use. In the case of Audition, the cost is $240 a year.

Yes, it’s ridiculous. If you happen to have access to a computer that uses it, fine. But otherwise, you’ll want another solution.

It’s a little tricky, because some of the other commercial sound editing and mixing software programs do not necessarily have the functionality you’ll need for producing radio. Some software programs, instead, are more oriented to producing and mixing music tracks.

Fortunately, there is a wonderful open source program called Audacity, which is free and available for both Mac and Windows computers. It is truly a great gift from the software programmers who have designed it, coded it, and kept it up to date. The trade off is that the interface is somewhat less intuitive than say, Audition, but if you can use a word processor like Microsoft Word on a computer, then you should be able to learn the basic functions you’ll need on Audacity fairly quickly. And once you do learn those functions, you’ll find that if you wish to explore it further, Audacity has more features and power than even many commercial programs.

Audacity is constantly being updated, so it is important to download the most recent release for your particular computer. The official download page is here:

https://www.audacityteam.org/

As of this writing, the latest version of Audacity is 2.2.2 for both Windows and Mac computers. If you have either kind of computer made within the last 10 years, that’s the version you want, unless you see a later version posted after this was written. It’s easy enough to click on the download and install it onto your computer.

The one annoying part about installing Audacity is that due to patent issues, there are two separate small support programs that you should also download in addition to Audacity, which are not included in the Audacity program itself. These support programs will allow you to import, export, and convert from one digital format to another easily within Audacity. You won’t need their functionality until you need them, and then you’ll be glad you have them; so although they are a bit of a pain to configure, it’s best to do it now, once, and you’ll never have to be bothered with it again.

The two support programs you need are called LAME MP3 encoder and FFmpeg import/export library.

Once you’ve downloaded the main Audacity program, you can download and install those two support programs by following the directions on the following page of the Audacity online manual:

https://manual.audacityteam.org/man/faq_installation_and_plug_ins.html#lame

Focus on the sections entitled “How do I download and install the LAME MP3 encoder?” and “How do I download and install the FFmpeg import/export library?” Follow the directions there, depending on what kind of computer you have. When you get to it, follow the directions that say “Recommended installer package.”

In future posts, I’ll talk about how to use Audacity, but now that you have all your tools, in the next post of the series, next week, I’ll be talking about how to begin preparing for an interview. See you then.

The next installment is here.

Dustin Hoffman’s Celebrity Blow-Up

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The folks at SCTV take celebrity blow-ups seriously–and literally. Martin Short with the best Dustin Hoffman imitation ever. Thanks to masercot for the suggestion.

More SCTV at SCTV

Knuckleheads

 

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Winchell -Mahoney Time was an after-school television show must back in the day for youngsters. I wanted desperately to be a ventriloquist. I remember this exact episode and how funny I thought it was. The ingenious Paul Winchell was the vent, who among other ventures, went on to create the voice of Tygger in the Disney Pooh animated movies. He also got himself a patent for the invention of one of the first prototypes of an artificial human heart.

Thanks to YouTuber vintage video clips

Radio Interview Production Workshop #1: Introduction and Equipment

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I’ve been producing, editing, and conducting interviews on the radio for a number of years now, and I thought it might be interesting to talk about how I go about creating a radio segment from start to finish in a weekly series of posts here. It’s my intention that after this series is over, you should know pretty much how to do what I do. For examples of the kinds of interviews I do, simply put the word “WBAI” into the search bar of this blog, and you should come up with a fair sample.

Let me set the scene here: I do most of my work for a weekly radio show called Arts Express on a listener-sponsored, non-commercial public radio station based in New York City, WBAI 99.5 FM. We are part of a larger network across the United States, Pacifica, which has five flagship stations. There are also scores of much smaller affiliate stations which from time to time also pick up content from the network.

Pacifica has been around since 1960, and because it is non-commercial and listener funded, the scope and depth of what we do is quite different from commercial radio. We are freer to pursue avenues that commercial radio ordinarily would not follow, and there is often a strong political aspect to what we broadcast. Part of the Pacifica Foundation’s mission is

“to engage in any activity that shall contribute to a lasting understanding between nations and between the individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors; to gather and disseminate information on the causes of conflict between any and all of such groups; and through any and all means compatible with the purposes of this corporation to promote the study of political and economic problems and of the causes of religious, philosophical and racial antagonisms.”

On our weekly show, Arts Express, we tend to focus on the intersection of where Arts meets Politics, although from time to time, we’ll talk with a guest who has nothing directly to do with politics. But we generally do 15-minute segments with novelists, actors, directors, poets, musicians, dancers, comedians, artists, playwrights, academics, and anyone else who we think might be engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

It should be clear that the kinds of radio segments I am talking about here are those which are pre-recorded and then edited for later broadcast. I have many colleagues who do live on-the-air interviews during their shows, and that is a very different talent and skill. While I much admire those who can do that, I much prefer to work in a situation where I know I can edit the conversation down to its most essential and interesting parts.

I should add that I am pretty much self-taught. So what follows—even when I seem to be dogmatic–is just how I do things, what seems to work for me, in my situation. I am by no means expert in any of this, and I’m always trying to learn more. Take what you like and leave what you don’t. If you are in a similar situation to me, or thinking about putting together a podcast, or just curious, I hope you’ll find something useful in this series.

So with that background, let’s begin.

First off, what equipment are you going to need? I am very rough and ready, and do most of my work away from the actual radio studios. Fortunately, the medium of radio is pretty forgiving, and the three main essentials for doing this kind of work are:

1) A digital recorder and headphones

2) A microphone

3) A sound editing and mixing program for your computer

That’s really about it. With just that, and an outlet to broadcast your work, you can achieve quite a bit. And later on in the series, I’ll talk about how you may not even need the first two items on the above list!

1) There’s all kinds of money one can spend on equipment, but I have just very basic but serviceable equipment. The digital recorder I have is a Sony PCM-M10 Portable Linear PCM Voice Recorder, which cost me about $225 in 2014; there are certainly equivalent recorders on the market for a similar price today, though for some reason now this particular recorder is much more expensive. You probably want a recorder that can record natively in WAV and MP3 formats, and one that has built-in stereo mics and a playback speaker. Also make sure the recorder is compatible with the kind of computer you have, either Mac or Windows, though I suspect most recorders on the market today will work with either. Make sure that the proper cable is included in order to transfer your recordings to your computer. Typically, this will be a USB cable. Headphones which plug into your recorder are also important, so that you can monitor what is actually being recorded by your recorder. For now, we won’t worry about anything too fancy.

2) Microphones are a tricky subject, but generally you want to make sure you have a mic that is compatible with your recorder. It should be capable of capturing in stereo (even if your segment eventually ends up in mono). Microphones tend to be omnidirectional or unidirectional. I find that for the kind of work I do, the omnidirectional mics are best, although they tend to pick up more stray noise. The mic I use is an Audio-Technica AT8010 Omni-Directional Instrument Condenser Microphone which cost me about $150. A table mic stand and a ball-type foam windbreak for the head of the mic are useful as well. Important is to have the proper cable for the mic that will also be compatible with your digital recorder. Typically the cable does not come with the mic. This may take you a bit of research. The mic cable I use for my equipment is a LyxPro – 3 Ft – 3.5mm (1/8″ TRS mini input) to XLR Female Star Quad Microphone Cable. It is no longer made, but if you look up the specs you’ll know you want something similar to that if you have the other two items I have.

But in a pinch, you can—and I have—used the built in mic on the digital recorder, and I’ve even used just the voice recorder function on my Smartphone in an emergency. Fortunately, with the use of editing software, you can recover from a multitude of sins. So next week I’ll talk about editing software, and begin to talk about how to prepare for the actual interview itself.

Hope this starts to inspire you!

The next installment is here.

 

 

The Happy Wanderers

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I don’t know if this makes any sense to anyone under 60, but I found this SCTV send-up of a small-town Lawrence Welk-type polka music television show hilariously true to form. John Candy and Eugene Levy lead the proceedings.

“There’s Rhythm in My Lederhosen.”

More at SCTV

Shakespeare’s Banana Republics

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I’m not a big fan of clothes shopping, so when I needed some lightweight chinos last week, I ducked into the first store I saw, rifled through the pants on the first table as one walks in the door, and found two pairs in my waist and inseam size. As I carried the two identical slacks to the cashier, the clerk chased after me, asking if I was going to try them on.

I was in a hurry for another appointment, and I know my fit pretty well, so I told him no thanks. He shrugged his shoulders, and I continued walking over to the cashier. The cashier rings them up, and for the two of them it comes to $200 plus tax. I was non-plussed. I have never paid that much for chinos in my life. I would have expected that for such a price they would have diamonds and rubies embedded in the slacks. But I swallowed hard, paid for them, and headed back home with them.

A week later, I still haven’t tried them on or cut out the labels, but I figure, let me see why these chinos are worth $100 apiece. As soon as I start to try to get into them, the awful truth becomes apparent: they are way too small. I can barely squeeze into them. My memory of my correct waist size was, shall we say…faulty.

My wife’s reaction makes it clear that, “No, Jack, that’s not the style, and onlookers should not be intimately aware of whether you dress left or right.” So it’s clear I look even more foolish than usual in those pants. So with a sigh. I’m resigned to exchanging the pants for a better size that would not force me to use a crowbar to get into them.

I’m more than annoyed, since the shop was an hour subway ride away, and this is going to kill a whole weekend afternoon, but I took a book along with me to pass the time on the trip. Turns out it was a pretty interesting book, Tyrant: Shakespeare & Politics by Stephen Greenblatt.

I go into the store, and fortunately I’m able to find some sizes of the same chinos I had bought that look like they might be candidates for fitting me properly. I take them into the fitting room and actually try them on—what a concept!—and one of them fits perfectly this time. So I grab another pair of the same size, and go up to the cashier for the exchange.

As the young woman at the cash register starts to swap my pants for the exchange, she glances at the Shakespeare book in my hand and asks me if it was an interesting book.

“Yes, sure. It’s a very interesting book. It’s got a lot in common with your store. It’s about Banana Republics.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s about the kings and emperors in Shakespeare. The author asks, “What did Shakespeare have to say about tyrants?”

“In what sense?”

“What’s the psychological make-up of a tyrant? Where does that personality come from? How are tyrants allowed to come to power? How do they rule, how are they resisted, and most importantly, how are they finally stopped?”

“Donald Trump.”

“Well, Trump’s name is never mentioned, but it’s clear that that’s who the author is directly pointing to. Julius Caesar,  Richard III, Coriolanus. The lust for power, the appeal to a false populism even as he despises the common people, and the demand for narcissistic approval from all around him.”

“Like King Lear, who had to have the approval of all three of his daughters, or else he would retaliate with vindictive power.”

“Exactly. Are you an actor?”

“No, I read a lot of Shakespeare. I was an English major in college. That’s why now I’m a cashier. Speaking of which, instead of doing an exchange of your pants, I got a better idea. I just noticed that these pants just went on sale yesterday. They’re actually on a two for one sale. So rather than exchange them, I’ll put this transaction in the system as a return of the ones you bought last week, which will give you a credit on your card for $200. Then I’ll ring up these two new pants as a separate transaction so you’ll be eligible for the two for one sale for $100.”

I was beyond happy.

And so, thanks to Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt, and a very kind young woman, I got the right size pants, $100 off my original bill, and met another Shakespeare lover.

A good day after all.

 

“She’ll Have You Doing Things That Ain’t Right, Son”

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Was there anyone cooler than Louis Jordan? Wild singer, saxophonist, songwriter, and bandleader who also had dance moves of elegance and wit to compare with Fred Astaire. Monday morning, the call goes out to “Caldonia.”

Thanks to YouTuber vintage video clips

The Cost

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Whenever I am envious of  the talent and skill of a great performing artist, I like to remember the following story, which the famous one-armed Spanish magician, Rene Levand, told in his book about his magic and life, Mysteries of My Life:

A man sees the great virtuoso cello player Pablo Casals crossing the street. The man, so thrilled to get a glimpse of his artistic idol, dashes across the street and manages to catch up with Casals.

“Maestro,” the man says, almost out of breath, “I just wanted you to know that I’d give my life to be you!”

Casals pauses and then replies drily, “I already did.”

Shin Lim Amazes Again

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Shin Lim’s card magic raises the bar for everyone. It’s rare that card magic looks and feels magical, rather than just an intriguing puzzle or demonstration of skill.  Shin Lim’s performances give me that feeling of wonder.

Thanks to YouTuber Talent Recap