Fred Siegel is a Professor of English at Drexel and Assistant Director of the First-Year Writing Program. But his professional pursuits do not come in the way of his vocational ones. He is an actor, a comedian, a magician and a writer. He translates his mastery over these fields into his one-man-show called “Man of Mystery.”
“Man of Mystery” is more than mere entertainment—the show masterfully combines amazing magic tricks with autobiographical narratives and comedy to pack an engaging performance and cut close to home for the audience. As the show is written by Siegel, it gives him an excellent platform to truly displays his versatility as an artist. I had the pleasure of witnessing this “man of mystery” Nov. 6 at ComedySportz Philadelphia.
The show’s description on CSz’s website is very tantalizing, stating that, “In ‘Man of Mystery,’ Fred tells tales of dark magic shops, manipulative mentors and his summer telling lies for money on the Coney Island Boardwalk all while performing astonishing sleight of hand right before your very eyes. It’s a funny, freaky intimate magic show you will not forget.”
Siegel’s performance exceeded my expectations – unlike cheap thrills that lack depth, his show provided plenty of moments that engaged the audience with the power of the narrative—one could say that he doesn’t perform, but the audience on a journey. Siegel began his show with card tricks. Throughout the show, he amazed his audience with the depth of his personal narratives (which ranged from humorous to sentimental), his ability to improvise and of course, his magic tricks. During one card trick, a young man from the audience had to pick a card and show it to everyone else except Siegel. He misinterpreted Siegel’s instruction and did not see the card himself. Nevertheless, this did not stop Siegel from running the show. He performed the trick successfully and left the audience filled with awe.
After the show, I was thrilled to interview Siegel. The intention behind this interview was more personal. I wanted to know how this man can do it all. He answered my questions with honesty that, one might argue, is not characteristic of magicians. In a way, he is a paradox. After the interview, Siegel appears ever more mysterious to me than before. He performs the first Friday of every month at 8 p.m., and the last show of the season is Dec. 4. I highly recommend that you get your tickets. You won’t forget this journey with the “Man of Mystery.”
The Triangle: What was your first encounter with magic? And when did you know that you had found your vocation as a magician?
Fred Siegel: Like many kids, I got a magic kit as a present, I had an uncle who pulled quarters from behind my ears, and I saw magicians on television. It was the same for millions of children, but I just kept up with it. By the time I was in fifth grade, I was performing magic for my teacher. In sixth grade, I performed a show for the school assembly. By seventh grade, I was a magic maniac, carrying my bag of tricks to people’s’ houses and doing shows in their living rooms.
TT: Who has been your biggest influence, and are there any contemporary magicians that you follow?
FS: I learned the most from a cantankerous old magic shop owner named Chanin. I hung out in his shop and learned a lot from him. When I think about what I do, I see that he’s imprinted on much of it. As for contemporary magicians I admire, there are many for different reasons. I love Penn and Teller, because they are completely original and their magic makes reference to larger ideas than just “doing tricks.” My favorite comedy magician is Mac King, who has an afternoon show in Vegas. While most comedy magicians are funny but not very mystifying, King is funny and he fools the heck out of everyone. The most inspirational magician out there now is a Spaniard named Juan Tamariz. He’s a great performer, a generous teacher, and he’s diabolical. He’s not well-known here, but he’s a star in Spain, and he’s loved and admired among magicians everywhere.
TT: What is the first thing people people ask you when you tell them you’re a magician?
FS: Can you make my wife disappear? Ha ha…
TT: When you are performing, have there been times when a trick failed? How much margin for error do you keep in mind, and how do you recover if a trick doesn’t go as planned?
FS: Of course tricks fail, but there are different types of failures. You saw one on Friday: the volunteer picked a card and showed the audience but didn’t look at it himself. This was a failure on my part to give good instructions. I was able to bring the trick to a satisfactory conclusion, however, so this was a minor failure but I never did find the card the volunteer originally picked. There have also been major failures. It’s not fun to rip the newspaper to pieces and, instead of having it become whole again, have it fall to the floor in pieces. That has happened to me. Still, I’ve come to believe that it’s only a total failure if the audience sees that you’re upset by it.
TT: How often do you practice? Do you try to learn new tricks to incorporate different elements into your show?
FS: I don’t have a practice regimen the way some people might imagine magicians have. However, every day I fool around with playing cards and small objects. When it comes to set performances, however, I practice the difficult parts of it and do full run-through rehearsals before I do the shows. My wife watches and tells me when I’m doing something wrong. I owe her a lot. As for new tricks, I learn them for fun, but mostly I try to find ways to make the old tricks better. What I put into my show has more to do with the overall story I’m telling than with finding novel tricks.
TT: I think for a lot of magicians, money might be a big part of why they perform tricks. What do you think is the biggest reward for you?
FS: It’s not about money for me. I do magic as a medium for self-expression. I want my show to be unique and personal. I don’t want to be confused for any other magician. At the same time, the reward for doing magic is giving people the experience of wonder. They are looking at something they know can’t have happened and they have no explanation. That can be a profound experience. And it’s an experience that I enjoy having whenever I watch a great magician.
TT: Do you ever disclose how you perform a trick to people outside the magician community, like your family?
FS: My family knows how many of my tricks are performed, but then, I often perform with my family. My brother-in-law escapes from a strait jacket. My wife and sister-in-law communicate telepathically. Or so it would seem….
TT: What would be your advice for aspiring magicians?
FS: I would tell them that a magic performance is about giving a gift of wonder to people who are watching them. If they’re in it to show off, or to show they’re smarter than everybody else, I would urge them to do something else. Too many people have had bad experiences with obnoxious magicians.