Blaine appeared as part of the Library’s Live from the NYPL series of conversations and lectures, held in the Stephen A. Schwarzman building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. At the start of the event Paul Holdengraber, the Director of the series, showed a picture of Blaine on the 100 foot pillar, behind the Library, in Bryant Park, where he stood for 35 hours in one of his endurance stunts (Blaine said that he was supposed to be there for 36 hours except he arrived late). The magician talked about seeing hallucinations in the park’s trees and also remembered seeing a group of his ex-girlfriends all gathered together watching him from below.
From there the interview covered a wide range of territory, starting with Blaine’s affection for his mother who raised him as a single parent in Brooklyn. He recalled how she responded in intense awe at his magic, from the time he showed her the first simple mathematical card trick that he learned from a library book. Blaine also talked about discovering Houdini in the Library. “What I liked about what he was doing is that you could very easily tell from the pictures that he was doing things that were real. So it wasn’t an illusion or a magic trick…It was clearly real, and physical and dangerous.
When asked which magician he would like to have a chance to meet and what he would like to ask him, Blaine said that it would definitely be Houdini. “I’d ask him what his main distractions are. He was a work-a-holic. I’d ask him what he wishes he did differently. I’d ask him what his vices are, what his temptations are, what his training schedule is, what he ate. I’d ask if he wanted to learn how to hold his breath much longer. I could teach him. I’d ask him a million things.” Later in the evening, Blaine said about Houdini “when I was a kid I didn’t have a father figure at all, so there was a guy I could look up to. He was doing things that were real and strange and mysterious and difficult. And it kind of allowed me to dream that I could do things in my own way.“
Throughout the conversation there were numerous anecdotes that illustrated how Blaine’s conception of magic developed. Holdengraber asked him about an incident many years ago in which Blaine was arrested for turnstile jumping and taken to jail.
“I was doing a party for Diane von Furstenberg the night before and while I was doing magic all these Upper Park Avenue types were like running around screaming,” Blaine explained. "And as a magician, that’s my excitement, aside from the technical part of it I like to watch people’s reaction.
“The next night, after being in this amazing place and getting these great reactions, I’m in the central booking line and it’s all thugs. . . .You get some of the most hardened guys because they’re between Rikers and here and there so it’s pretty scary. It’s pretty serious. Some of the biggest guys were on the floor playing Spades, so I grabbed the cards from the floor. I said ‘hold on let me just show you one thing.’ It’s one of those situations where you’re about to get your face knocked in or you can deliver. So I start doing magic with cards and immediately they start erupting.” Blaine explained that the commotion attracted the attention of the police at the jail. “Now the cops are in the cell and everybody’s going crazy, and I’m like ‘man this is the show.’ Because I was thinking this shows that even if you’re Upper Park Avenue or you’re here, you can find the best side of all people through magic, and that was kind of the seed of the idea for my first TV special.
“I have an idea, can you guys come up on stage for a second,” Blaine asked.
“Yes, we would be honored to,” one of the women replied.
Blaine asked the women if they would be interested in participating in a magic trick. He then involved them in a somewhat elaborate cards across routine. Although the protestors raised their issue again from stage once or twice, they soon became compelled by Blaine’s performance and their involvement in the trick stripped away the assaultiveness of their protest, diffusing the interruption. Although one of the women questioned whether they would be thrown out of the Library, they were told by Hodlengraber they were welcome to stay and they returned to the audience for the rest of the event (The women claim that the Library has been removing books from both its 42nd Street building and from neighborhood branches. The City’s three library systems have been met with protests over a variety of issues over the last two years, which have been covered extensively elsewhere.)
After steering that incident to a graceful conclusion Blaine then immediately shifted into a trick in which he guided the entire audience through a chain of mental word choices. At the start of the evening Holdengraber introduced Blaine by mentioning the names of several chemical elements which he said Blaine had chosen as words to describe himself. When Blaine was ready to reveal his prediction of the word that should have come to the mind of each audience member, he brought up the element names on a screen and explained that the first letter of each chemical spelled a word, “Indigo.”
The room was silent as the audience struggled to understand the effect. Blaine quickly realized his mistake. “I forgot to ask you to think of a color on the third one. My bad! I left out the most important part.”
Further on in the evening Blaine was asked about failure. “I don’t really see failure. I just see it as another step. Every time you fail I think you get better and better and better, so failure is really good—although it’s better when it doesn’t happen in front of a big room of people. . . .I think failure is almost like the best thing that somebody could have happen to them as long as you don’t look at it as like o.k., I failed, and it’s over.’”
In the hour before the lecture Blaine and a group of invited guests were taken on a tour through the Library building that included a stop at the Berg Collection Reading Room where two curators showed treasures relating to such figures as Houdini, Marlon Brando, Jack Kerouac, Dickens and E. E. Cummings.
The audience at the program included numerous members of the local magic community. Blaine’s friend and mentor Bill Kalush, Executive Director of the Conjuring Arts Research Center, was on hand as was Larry “Ratso” Sloman, the author who collaborated with Blaine on his book Mysterious Stranger and has written books with Mike Tyson and Howard Stern.
At the end of the lecture Blaine spoke about his interest in Miguel Cervantes, the Spanish author of Don Quixote, who he said he felt had influenced the notable Spanish magicians. It was the difficult, gritty life of Cervantes that Blaine found so amazing. Cervanates endured a multitude of physical and psychological slights, from paralyzing war injuries to five years as a slave, before writing one of the world’s classic works of literature.
“As a kid I was always able to endure,” Blaine said earlier in the event. “I could always push myself through difficult things easily. As a kid I was born with my feet turned in. And I was alone a lot because I had a single mother and Brooklyn in the late 70s it was a pretty, you know it’s not like it is now. You could get mugged, beat up, and if your feet were turned in, it doesn’t help.”
Endurance has defined much of Blaine’s work and provided its drama. Now he has endured for nearly twenty years as this generation’s most influential magician. His appearance at the Library provided a surprising degree of insight into some of the factors that have defined his success and his magic.
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