This Is “The End”
This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend
Jim Morrison “The End”
In magic, it’s all about “The End”. That is what the people remember—the End of the Trick, the Climax, the Big Finish, the Killer Ending, the Finale, the Magical Ending.
Having grown up watching and learning from magicians like Don Alan, Albert Goshman and Del Ray I learned how important “The End” of a magic trick was. Perfect examples are the moment Don Alan lifted the hat and the large chrome plated nut appeared underneath, or the moment Albert Goshman had the spectator lift up the saltshaker and there was a half dollar under it. Albert’s act was a constant stream of endings, one building upon the other, leaving the audience gasping every time that saltshaker was lifted. Or my favorite magical ending…the moment Del Ray had the spectator s-l-o-w-l-y lift up the dice cup with the four dice stacked inside it… in the exact numerical order the spectators had just called out: “Careful… lift it up straight up… don’t knock em over… took me a lot of work!” only to discover…”Nothing!
When I was creating the routine that would eventually become my trademark routine among magicians, “The Cups and Steel Balls” I knew I wanted a killer ending and I found one… but I had a little help. This is the story.
Meeting Dai Vernon, a.k.a. “The Professor”
I first met “The Professor”, Dai Vernon, when I was 21 years old. I had just turned 21, and to a young magician that did not mean you were old enough to drink…. that meant you were old enough to get into The Magic Castle in Hollywood. So as soon as I was of “legal age” I made arrangements to take that trip to Mecca… The Magic Castle. I drove across the country from Pittsburgh to California the summer of ‘74 with my Uncle Joe and his family who were going back home after a summer visit to Pittsburgh. My uncle offered me a seat in the car and we made a 7-day trek across the country. Along the way, we stopped in Las Vegas, visited the Grand Canyon and watched Nixon resign on a black and white TV at a KOA Campground. One week later I was pulling up in front of the Magic Castle in my Uncle’s old Chevy station wagon for my first trip to the most amazing place on earth, The Magic Castle.
I had some heavyweight introductions in the form of Eddie Fechter from Buffalo New York, who had called Michael Skinner, now living in Hollywood, who had called Dai Vernon himself to say: “There is a kid named Gertner who is doing an interesting Cups and Balls routine… you should meet with him.”
The End…To the 1st End
On my first night at The Magic Castle I met The Professor, and later that evening he said: “Mike Skinner said you do a good Cups and Balls routine, I’d like to see it.” And in the downstairs bar at the table Dai Vernon would play cards with Kuda Bux at, I performed my then current version of The Cups and Steel Balls for The Professor.
At that time I had a different ending. I produced the two large steel balls from the end cups, and then as I lifted the center cup I said: “And under the middle cup is the biggest one of all.” When I lifted the middle cup there was an even larger steel ball under it. I quickly said: That’s not the biggest one… this is the biggest one.” And when I lifted up the center cup a second time there was a 3D numeral 1 made out of steel under the cup on a small round stand. I produced a number 1 made of steel… “The biggest one of all!”
Vernon watched the routine and he had two comments. There was one part in the routine where I “mimed” the actions of removing two invisible balls from the end cups and I pretend to place them on the center cup. The Professor said that when I had the invisible balls between my finger and thumb I was holding my finger and thumb too far apart. “You held your fingers like this” he said demonstrating with his fingers 1″ apart. “THAT’S TOO BIG!” The balls are not this big… They are this big!” he moved his thumb and fingers 1/4 inch closer to each other, which mimed the actual size of the steel ball bearings I was using in the trick.
I remember thinking… “Wow, this guy is a stickler for details.” I was holding my finger and thumb one quarter of an inch too far apart for an invisible ball and I just got called on it.
And then he said: “It’s a beautiful routine, it’s beautiful, but that’s a terrible ending! You ruined a beautiful routine with a cheap gag at the end! Get rid of that ending! What you need to do is get a steel ball… get a steel ball that’s just a little bigger than mouth of the cup, just a little bigger than the cup. At the end you palm the big ball and make it look like it drops out of the cup. That’s the ending… that’s the ending you need.”
My mind was spinning. I had just been told by The Professor that the ending to my best trick was “terrible… a cheap gag!” Those words ring in my ears to this day.
Needless to say, the very next day I did not go back to the Magic Castle, but instead I drove around southern California looking for a big steel ball. I was not going to be seen by Vernon again until I corrected the problem. (This whole encounter with Dai Vernon is possibly THE REASON I believe it is always possible to make my best even better.) While finding steel balls in Pittsburgh is easy… but finding a 3″ steel ball bearing in Hollywood, California was not an easy task. The best I could come up with was a shot put from a sport store selling track and field supplies. But of course a shot put is about 4 ¼ in diameter and I needed a steel ball 3” in diameter like The Professor suggested… but it was the best I could do at the moment.
The New “End” to My “Cups and Steel Balls” Routine
I spent the next three days in my uncle’s garage grinding down the 4 1/2″ shot put by hand with a metal file by hand. After three days of solid work I only managed to file it down about one inch… It was now 3 ½ diameter but it was shiny and kind of looked like a steel ball. It was way too big and too heavy but at least it was not a number one and most importantly it was not a “Cheap Gag.”
I drove back to Magic Castle the next day and mentioned to The Professor that I found a new steel ball for the ending. He asked to see the routine again. I performed it using the ground down shot put and the ending he suggested. He watched and at the end he paused and took the cigar out of his mouth and said. “That’s much better… but that last ball… IT’S TOO BIG!… IT’S A HALF INCH TOO BIG! But… that’s much better, much better!”
So when it comes to magical endings I feel honored that it was The Professor, Dai Vernon that personally gave me the ending to my Cups and Steel Balls Routine—an ending that I that I still use to this day.