(To commemorate the website’s upcoming first anniversary, I thought it would be appropriate to dip into the vault and reprint some of the initial interviews that launched everything. So, in that spirit enjoy this interview with Jim Steinmeyer from our second week)
For many in the world of magic the name Jim Steinmeyer conjures up fantastical visions of some of the greatest illusions of all time. As one of the industry’s premier designers, he is the man behind David Copperfield’s Statue of Liberty disappearance, Disney Theatrical’s “Mary Poppins” and “Aladdin,” and countless other iconic illusions for top magicians throughout the world.
If that weren’t enough, he is a scholar and bestselling author on magic history. His books such as “Hiding the Elephant,” “The Glorious Deception,” and the “The Last Greatest Magician in the World” continue to delight readers with their attention to detail and respect for the art form.
However, it is his discovery by and ground breaking work for Doug Henning that brought us together one Friday afternoon in Burbank. Over a two hour lunch, Jim shared with “The Doug Henning Project” his unique insights, thoughts, and respect for the man that made it all possible.
Can you tell us about your initial exposure to magic and how you started in magic design?
I was a kid in Chicago. I was born in 1958, so I was so many years younger than Doug. There was not a lot of interest in illusions at that time…It had all kind of gone stale…So, for some reason I just got interested in illusions, but I never performed them. I worked with a show outside of Chicago with a guy who did illusions. So, I became interested in how they worked and what they looked like.
So, Doug Henning! Broadway shows were very mysterious things. I knew “The Magic Show” was on Broadway, and there was this magician, a young hippie magician, and you occasionally might see a picture of him. But, you never got any sense of the show. You might see a number on the Tonys if you were lucky. But, then came his first television special which was completely astonishing. It’s very hard to underestimate the impact of that. The fact that it was live was such an amazing thing…
So, I had worked on some magic and some illusions that I had built and didn’t know what to do with. I went to Jay Marshall (famed magician and owner of “Magic, Inc” in Chicago) who was a friend and someone who I was really in awe of. I showed him some pictures and said “What do you think I should do? I’m thinking of sending these to Doug Henning.” It’s the kind of thing you do when you’re eighteen “Is he going to steal it? How do I trust these people? Can I trust them?” Jay basically gave the only sensible advice which was “Send it out.”
So, I did that, and I got a call quickly from Doug which was kind of astonishing because at that time he was a big TV star. He asked me about it and said, “I’d really like to see it and meet you.” He was coming to Milwaukee which was about a two-hour drive from Chicago…So, my mother drove up to Milwaukee and we took the illusion backstage and met him. That’s where I first met him and then we stayed and saw the show.
It was all a little frantic…but I kind of remember the blur of being pushed backstage and into his dressing room then setting the illusion up for him…But, unfortunately that first trick didn’t catch, so I then sent him a manuscript with other ideas in it. From that he selected two for his fifth special in Las Vegas…Then we kind of did this little repeat for a couple years when I was in college where he would say “If you have any ideas send them.”
So, when I was graduating college I was getting a little frustrated because when I would see the stuff six months later when it was on TV I would go “Why did they do that and why did they change that?” So, rather than sending him more ideas I said “You know what? I would rather meet with you. I would rather sit down and really talk to you about stuff rather than sending you a pile of paper.” So, I met with him in Iowa and I went back. A week later he called me up and he said “I’ll offer you one year of work, but you have to move to L.A. It’s going to be six months on a television special then six months on a Broadway show” …So, I did that and that ended up being seven years (at his company).
Be sure to come back tomorrow for Part Two where Jim discusses working with Doug on his legendary television specials and a little musical called “Merlin.”