The Unfailingly Interesting Teller

First a letter from Teller I read some time ago about how to be successful:

When we started we HAD no style, no understanding of ourselves or what we were doing.  We had feelings, vague ones, a sense of what we liked, maybe, but no unified point of view, not even a real way to express our partnership.  We fought constantly and expected to break up every other week.  But we did have a few things, things I think you might profit from knowing:

We loved what we did.  More than anything.  More than sex.  Absolutely.

We always felt as if every show was the most important thing in the world, but knew if we bombed, we’d live.

We did not start as friends, but as people who respected and admired each other.  Crucial, absolutely crucial for a partnership.  As soon as we could afford it, we ceased sharing lodgings.  Equally crucial.

We made a solemn vow not to take any job outside of show business.  We
borrowed money from parents and friends, rather than take that lethal job waiting tables.  This forced us to take any job offered to us.  Anything.  We once did a show in the middle of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia as part of a fashion show on a hot July night while all around our stage, a race-riot was fully underway.  That’s how serious we were about our vow.

Get on stage.  A lot.  Try stuff.  Make your best stab and keep stabbing.  If it’s there in your heart, it will eventually find its way out.  Or you will give up and have a prudent, contented life doing something else.

Next is a piece on Teller and patent infringement. It’s hard to excerpt (the whole thing is excellent). But this is necessary:

Because Teller performs almost entirely without speaking, his voice, strong and certain, comes as a surprise. He speaks in prose, in long, languid paragraphs peppered with literary and historical references. (He once taught high school Latin; dissatisfied with the prescribed textbook, he wrote his own.)

And here is a neat part:

There is a lecture about belief that Teller has given exactly four times. He has never allowed the lecture to be recorded in any way. Unless you were in the audience, it has never happened. It is called the Red Ball, after a trick he added relatively recently to Penn & Teller’s Las Vegas show. Before Teller performs the trick, Penn announces to the hushed theater: “The next trick is done with a piece of thread.” Teller then takes the stage, on which there is a simple bench, with a red ball and a wooden hoop in his hands. He bounces the ball. He gives it to a member of the audience to bounce. And then he drops the ball before he somehow makes it roll around the stage and back and forth along the bench, as though on command. Sometimes the ball is stuck to one of his fingers or to the small of his back; sometimes it is several feet out of his reach. He even has it jump through the hoop. All of which makes it impossible for him to be performing the Red Ball with a piece of thread. Penn must be lying. There must be something more to the trick.

In his lectures, Teller explained that the trick did not originate with him. It is based on techniques developed by a largely forgotten man named David P. Abbott, a loan shark who lived in Omaha and did magic in front of invitation-only audiences in his specially built parlor. Houdini, Kellar, Ching Ling Foo, Thurston — all the great magicians of the era made the pilgrimage to Omaha and left baffled. One of Abbott’s tricks involved a golden ball that floated in the air around him. But rather than use a thread suspended from the ceiling, Abbott revealed posthumously in his Book of Mysteries, he ran the thread horizontally from his ear to the wall. By manipulating that thread with his careful hands, he could make that golden ball seem as though it were defying reality. Best of all, he could pass a hoop over it — what magicians call a prover — and eliminate a piece of thread from his audience’s range of possibility, because a horizontal thread had never entered their imagination. They were looking only for the vertical.

And this:

Penn began his patter. He told the audience that they were about to be given a choice. Teller was going to make good his escape — there was no doubt about that, Penn said. Penn was going to start playing a song on his bass, and Teller was going to finish it on his vibraphone, done deal. The choice for the audience was whether it wanted to be mystified or informed. Keep your eyes open if you want to know the secret, Penn said. Keep your eyes closed if you want to be amazed.

Penn began to finger the strings, and on most nights, most of the people in the crowd kept their eyes open. They chose heads. (If you chose hearts, skip ahead to the next paragraph.)

The choice is yours.

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