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Old magic society reveals some magicians' secrets to conjure new recruits


Salem, Mass., is where Harry Houdini famously escaped from a jail cell in 1906, and at least since then, the town has attracted magicians. Lately, enrollment in Salem's historic magic society has been dwindling, so members are pulling up their sleeves in search of new recruits. WBUR's Andrea Shea has more.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: You don't see this every day. Nearly a dozen magicians of all ages are packed into a room, armed with rubber bands, props, a cute, brown rabbit and more than a few dog-eared decks of cards.

BILL JENSON: I have a trick right here I can show you if you're interested in seeing. I have four kings here. Name any one of those four kings.

SHEA: Bill Jenson's Houdini-emblazoned tie may or may not play a part in his sleight of hand.

JENSON: That's what they call close-up magic. You do it right under people's noses.

SHEA: Jenson is president of the Society of American Magicians Witch City assembly. He's a retired postal worker and a hobbyist magician. Other society members are professionals.

JENSON: We have some people that are clowns. We have some people that do balloons, bubbles.

SHEA: The National Society of American Magicians is the world's oldest magic organization. In the early 1900s, it boomed under Harry Houdini's leadership. Salem's chapter was founded 50 years ago, but membership has been disappearing. The club blames the pandemic, shuttered magic shops and YouTube, where a lot of newbies go to learn tricks. Now the magicians are holding events like this to woo and wow recruits.

JENSON: You don't want to expose all your secrets, but you want to give them a little taste of something so that maybe they'll come back another time. And then as you move up into the group, we have people who do everything from just a basic card trick to sawing somebody in half.

SHEA: That sounds intriguing to the one young recruit who shows up.

WILL MCGLAUGHLIN: I just think I should saw someone in half in my life.

SHEA: Will McGlaughlin is here with his dad. He's 12 years old.

WILL: I started doing magic because I was looking at Dan Rhodes on YouTube Shorts. And I just saw one of his tricks, and I slowed the video down. And I decided to do some of them on my own.

SHEA: Now he's surrounded.

PETER JACKSON: So, Will, you know how to shuffle a deck of cards?

WILL: Not that good.

JACKSON: Well, that's OK. This is a good learning experience. There's a Pharaoh shuffle, an overhand shuffle, an underhand shuffle. There's the show-off behind-the-back shuffle.

KALI MOULTON: I have you shuffle the deck, or I shuffle the deck. It doesn't matter. I don't need to know what that card is. I want to know what this card is on the bottom. That's my card.

STEPHEN SILVA: That's five years of practice, guys. Come on.


SILVA: Look. Thank you. Thank you.


SHEA: That's 39-year-old career magician Stephen Silva. He grew up in Salem and learned tricks at magic shops. He recently rejoined the society to help keep it alive.

SILVA: There are magicians that have come up that have thought of things that may be kind of exclusive or underground, and so in order to see some of those things, you have to come out and meet new people and learn new magic.

SHEA: Well, Will McGlaughlin is game and says, yes, he'll join the magicians' youth program.

WILL: Well, I did like all the magic tricks, and I'm still wondering how some of them are done.

SHEA: While the magic society only nabbed one new member at this event, its magicians believe more will materialize for the next month. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Shea // WBUR