Master simple magic tricks

How do you turn a shy guy into a master crowd-pleaser? Help an absent-minded daydreamer improve his ability to focus? Or turn a kid who is all thumbs into an ace of agility?

Presto change-o, abracadabra—Try magic! Does this mean you can make all these changes by simply tapping a Cub Scout on the head with a magic wand? Of course not. But if you put that magic wand in a Cub Scout’s hand—and turn him into a magician—you might conjure up some amazing transformations.

And if all the dens in your pack try this trick, you’ll be able to hold a pack meeting no one will forget.

A fun way to learn skills

Cub Scout Magic has been a popular pack theme for generations, for the fun of it, and because of the many skills it teaches the boys. Like many den leaders, however, I was apprehensive when our Cubmaster first suggested this theme years ago.

After all, I had no experience as a conjurer. I grew up playing with snakes in my backyard, but I’d certainly never charmed one out of a basket. My eye is much, much quicker than my hand; I was tied up for two weeks learning the “Man Overboard” rope trick in the Bear Cub Scout Book (Achievement 22, “Tying It All Up”).

Once I finally conquered that trick, though, there was no turning back. Amazed at my legerdemain, the Cub Scouts couldn’t wait to learn the trick themselves.

Our month of magic may have been the easiest month of meetings I ever ran. The boys’ hands and minds were busy every minute; I couldn’t keep up with them. But, after breaking the ice with my first trick, I didn’t have to. Boys worked at home to perfect tricks they could share with their buddies at the next den meeting.

Most exciting of all, every boy was eager to go on stage at the pack meeting to perform a magic trick.

Learn first, then teach

Professional magicians, like Steve Thomas of Manchester, N.H., agree that leaders should build their own confidence by learning tricks in advance of their den meetings. If the leader can’t perform the tricks, how can the boys be expected to learn them?

“Avoid ‘tricky,’ overproduced tricks,” Thomas also advises. “Go for simpler, more achievable ones if you want the boys to perform at a pack meeting.”

As a guest magician at blue and gold banquets in the Daniel Webster Council, Thomas has seen Cub Scouts attempt tricks that depend on too many props or on too much staging. If the equipment fails, the trick fails.

Inexperienced den leaders should take heart, too, in the fact that novices aren’t the only ones who have to practice. All magicians, even the pros, have to rehearse for a long time in order to perfect the tricks and the showmanship that accompanies them.

“Don’t have your Cub Scouts buy every trick in the magic shop,” Thomas warns. “Just get a few and really learn them well, and have fun with them.”

Mark Levy, a Magic for Dummies consultant and co-author of a new magic book, Mac King’s Tricks With Your Head, suggests that there is more to a good trick than quick hands: “The way you perform a trick is as important as the secret to the trick.”

The relationship between performer and audience is the key to success; it needs practice just as much as the mechanical aspects of a trick. “Practice your trick so you don’t even have to think about what to do and say while performing,” Levy suggests.

Then, he says, “Try to say something fun while you’re doing the trick. For instance, if you do the trick from Magic For Dummies where the dinner roll floats around the table [in Chapter 8, Playing with Your Food], don’t say ‘Here I have some dinner rolls, and now I’ll cover the rolls with a cloth.’ That’s boring.”

Instead, Levys says to advise young magicians to come up with some amusing small talk: “These dinner rolls look like they weigh less than normal dinner rolls, don’t they? And they look warm, too. Here, let me put my napkin over them to keep the heat in, and — Wait a minute! What’s happening?” Then, when the magician causes the rolls to “float,” the audience is enthralled.

To get the hang of this vital aspect of a magician’s art, Levy recommends that den leaders have the boys brainstorm several different story lines to go along with the tricks they teach them. The boys can try the ideas on each other and see how a different “patterline” changes the enjoyment of each trick.

Which trick to pick?

Den and pack leaders have plenty of resources for developing magic skills in Cub Scouts. In addition to rope tricks in Achievement 22, the Bear Cub Scout Book features Magic as Elective 13. Leaders should also get the classic BSA manual, Cub Scout Magic (BSA Supply No. 33210), which offers hundreds of tricks using coins, paper, matches, and of course, rope.

You’ll find a variety of helpful books at bookstores and public libraries. David Pogue’s Magic For Dummies, for example, is excellent for den leaders working with aspiring young prestidigitators. And Boys’ Life magazine carries an occasional easy-to-learn magic trick.

Clever tricks using coins and matches offer hours of fun at the den level.

However, if your pack plans a magic show, each den needs to consider tricks that are both fun to rehearse at den meetings and also showy enough for the challenging, multi-age audience of a pack event.

When Steve Thomas performs at blue and gold banquets, he adapts his tricks to Cub Scout themes, using knots and neckerchiefs. Tricks need to be sophisticated enough as well; Thomas has found Cub Scouts to be very clever, and difficult to fool.

“You have to be on your toes, or they’ll knock you right over,” he says, recommending acts with strong visual appeal.

At the pack planning meeting in advance of the magic show, each den leader should sign up for one or two specific tricks, in order to avoid duplication on show night. A combination of impressive classics such as the levitation trick (“The Floating Body,” Bear Elective 13) and stunts using members of the audience as volunteers (mindreading, card-guessing, and math-wizardry tricks work well with volunteers) should keep the show lively for everyone.

There is truly no end to the fun Cub Scouts can have with magic. And while they’re enjoying themselves, they’re also busy developing motor skills, concentration, and coordination, learning some history as they find out about great magicians of the past, and, perhaps most significantly, gaining new confidence in public speaking and performing.

If that’s not magic, what is?

A Scouting magazine contributing editor, Cathy Steg also wrote “Let the (Pack) Meeting Games Begin!” in the November-December 2000 issue.

All in a Day’s Work

In a single year, New Hampshire professional magician Steve Thomas averages more than one performance a day, entertaining audiences in settings that range from corporate meetings to Cub Scout blue and gold banquets to children’s birthday parties. Scouting magazine asked him about the life of a typical working magician.

What’s it like to be a “real” magician?
“We work mainly at night and on weekends, of course,” Thomas explains, because that’s when people want entertainment. “I do schools, even corporate work, about 6 to 10 shows a week. Last year I performed about 325 shows.” His smallest audience is probably a children’s birthday party, and his favorites include Cub Scout packs at February blue and gold banquets.
What has been your most unusual venue?
“I worked on cruise ships between New York and Bermuda, doing one show on the way down and another on the way back, in a seven-day trip. You have to go where the work is, of course. Vaudeville, and the days of regular live venues, are long gone.”
What advice would you give an aspiring magician?
“If your passion is magic, practice, really practice. Take it seriously, but have fun with it. Remember, too, that magic is a business. You have to run a business, not just do tricks all day. The product you are selling is yourself.”
And your most important piece of advice?
“Stay in school!”

— C.A.S.

The Magic Language

Introduce these words to your Cub Scouts, to give them a sense of the special language of magicians. (For more magic lore and history, check out The Illustrated History of Magic, by Milbourne and Maurine Christopher, with a foreword by magic superstar David Copperfield).

  • legerdemain: “sleight of hand,” a deceptive performance depending on quick hands to fool the audience. Literally, “light of hand,” from a French word originating with the Latin “levis”— light, “de”—of, “manus”—hand).
  • prestidigitation: “presto digits”—fast fingers in Latin—is another way of saying “sleight of hand.” A French aristocrat, Jules de Rovere, coined this word in the mid-1800s, to describe his own elegant performances.
  • conjuring: practicing magic—it originally referred to “summoning” spirit helpers to make magic tricks take place; also means to make things appear as if from nowhere, as when a magician pulls a rabbit out of an “empty” hat.
  • hocus-pocus: trickery, magic tricks, or the special magic words used by the magician in order to make the trick happen. Sometimes “Hocus Pocus” was even used as the magician’s stage name. Some sources believe the words were simply “imitation Latin,” nonsense words used by magicians to seem well-educated in the ancient sciences. Medieval Italian performers pretended to appeal to a long-dead wizard named “Ochus Bochus” to help them with their tricks; a German author mistakenly spelled this wizard’s name as “Hogges and Bogges.”
  • escapologist: an expert in the art of escaping. You won’t find this word in Webster’s dictionary, but it was well known earlier in the 20th century, during the time of Harry Houdini, perhaps the most famous magician of all. His tricks generally included fabulous escapes from impossible situations, where he was chained and handcuffed in prison cells, or even submerged in water tanks.

— C.A.S.

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