Speak of the Devil: A Conversation about Tony Andruzzi

Eugene Burger and David Parr
Originally published in Genii Magazine, October, 2000

Eugene Burger: Do you remember the first time you met Tony and the impression he made upon you?
David Parr: I do. I met him in the magic shop — Magic, Inc. We weren't introduced. I didn't find out who he was until much later. He was talking to several people about how, many years previously, he'd come up with a way to produce smoke from his jacket. This was for his comedy act, I assume. The problem was that whatever chemical he used ate away the fabric of the coat. But since it was the best method available, he continued to use it. I remember thinking: That's insane. If it could do that to your jacket, imagine what it was doing to your lungs! I mean, he was breathing the fumes from this stuff! Then again, it was probably no worse than cigarettes.
EB: David. You said that just to make me feel guilty. You knew I was about to light a cigarette. Actually, the effect Tony was discussing was marketed by his good friend, Paul Britt of New Mexico. Whether it was created by Paul or Tony, I don't know. I bought one from Paul in the 1980s and, when I read the instructions, I promptly gave it away! Saying that, I would also add that when you saw Paul Britt perform this, it was purely magical. I met Paul through Tony. I recall sitting in Paul's living room in New Mexico and watching him place a coin into his left hand. When he opened it, there was a wisp of smoke and the coin was gone. It was wonderful! Very magical!
DP: Do you remember the first time you met Tony?
EB: Actually, no, I don't. When I returned to magic in the mid-1970s, I knew Tony as one of the many characters around the magic shop. Then I learned that he had been Tom Palmer. But my first real conversation with him was actually the one recorded and published in my book, Spirit Theater. That conversation was the beginning of our friendship, as was the conversation with Max Maven presented in that same book. Those two conversations really had a remarkable effect on my life, because these wonderful and deep friendships grew out of them.
DP: So what was your first impression of Tony?
EB: Honestly, I saw him as a true Trickster figure — a striking embodiment, a personification, of the archetype of the Trickster, who was therefore, among other things, both a sinner and a saint.
DP: Did your opinion change as you got to know him?
EB: No, my first impression never really changed. Tony was a Trickster. It wasn't a put-on. He lived it. This polarity between being an incorrigible demon on the one hand and a benevolent spirit on the other dominated Tony's contribution to twentieth century magic.
DP: In that he created the Tom Palmer comedy act, and then went to the other end of the spectrum with Masklyn ye Mage.
EB: Yes, and also his influence on twentieth century magic which, I think, has been both positive and negative. Just as Tony gave positive permission, as it were, for many of us to look deeper into our magic and ask better questions, he also gave permission to some, for example, in the Psychic Entertainers Association, to do psychic readings and present themselves to the gullible, who are suffering, as one who has real powers that can help them with the problems in their personal lives. I think that was Tony's negative influence — that he never deeply asked the ethical question. And I think that same duality of saint and sinner also dominated Tony's personal life. It certainly dominated the seven Invocational conventions he organized, wouldn't you say?
DP: Definitely. At times it was hard to tell if it was a magic convention or a Bacchanalia.
EB: It was either, and it was both. Again, an expression of the basic paradox of Tony Andruzzi: The Invocational was part serious convention and part drunken party. And in the middle, having a wonderful time, was Tony, equally serious and happily drunk.
DP: I often marveled at his ability to pull himself together and perform. One minute he was rambling on and on in a haze, goofing around and laughing and shouting, and the next minute he was in his Masklyn persona, dead serious, and performing magic. And when he was finished he was right back to Crazy Tony, the life of the party. I remember one night in particular, very late, when someone persuaded him to do this routine with a rock — do you remember this?
EB: Yes, I do. The effect relied on inducing eye-strain in the viewer, which made the rock appear to be breathing. Some people saw it, and some people didn't.
DP: I didn't. I was too far away. But what impressed me was what happened before Tony started the routine. This buzz went through the room: Tony's going to do something! People ran around gathering props for him: candles, incense, a bowl of water. And suddenly this room, where a loud, drunken party had been happening just minutes ago, was completely transformed: The lights were out, and a circle of magicians was sitting on the floor in the candlelight, in complete silence, listening to Tony's voice. That was Tony's gift, I think. He could command pinpoint focus from an audience. He could spout total gibberish, but you took it seriously because he seemed to take it so seriously.
EB: I'm glad you brought this up, because I feel that it is disappointing that so much so-called Bizarre Magic is presented in a tongue-in-cheek way, where humor dominates the proceedings.
DP: I agree. Why do you think that is?
EB: My theory is that performers are afraid of it. As Antonin Artaud wrote, "no matter how loudly we clamor for magic in our life, we are really afraid of pursuing an existence entirely under its influence and sign." Ghosts and spirits and the forces of darkness and death — that's heavy stuff, right? They're disturbing subjects. Talking about them makes people — magicians included — nervous. Turning the presentation into comedy saves us from facing the horrors of the cosmos!
DP: But it turns the whole performance into an elaborate practical joke. If you're going to walk down that dark path, if you're going to walk through the graveyard at night, you have to go all the way. I really appreciated that in Tony's work. This Masklyn character wasn't messing around. It wasn't a joke. He meant what he said — even when it was in a make-believe language.
EB: I absolutely agree with you. Tony could truly cast a spell. Let's turn now to three ideas that I think were central to Tony's view of bizarre magic. The first is the idea that one must be a magician 24 hours a day; the second is that the impact of a bizarre magic performance decreases as the size of the audience increases; and the third is that Tony did not seek laughter or applause from his audience, his objective was to shake up our sense of reality. Would you like to comment on each in turn?
DP: Well, I'm not sure about the first principle. If being a magician 24 hours a day means that I have to play a character all day, that I have to act a role, I think that's a bit excessive. I mean, what — even in the shower?
EB: Perhaps.
DP: I don't think Tony was Masklyn ye Mage 24 hours a day. Do you?
EB: Well, perhaps 18 hours.
DP: If being a magician 24 hours a day means that magic is a part of me, a part of who I am, then I totally agree. I grew up with magic. It has been in my life and my thoughts since I was seven years old. So it would be true to say that there is never a moment when I am not a magician, because magic is an inseparable part of me. And the public has a certain expectation that we are capable of performing magic at any time.
EB: Which is why you and I carry around gaffed bills in our wallets. But I don't think that Tony was saying simply that we should be thinking about our magic all the time, but that we should be playing the character of a real mage 24 hours a day — if we want to play in the bizarre magic arena. It's a fascinating and important thing to think about. Now what about the second idea, that the impact of bizarre magic decreases as the size of the audience increases?
DP: I'm with Tony on that one. In fact, I think it applies to all human communication. It's like that game where you whisper in someone's ear —
EB: Telephone.
DP: Right. The more people the message passes through, the more garbled it gets. The most effective communication happens like this, you and me, one on one. The challenge of performing bizarre magic for more than one person is to find a way to ensure that at least some of the message, some of the effect, gets through to the rest of the audience. If your goal is to have each individual feel like something weird and mysterious happened to him or her — and I think that was one of Tony's goals — then there really is an upper limit on the size of the audience.
EB: And beyond that upper limit, the awe-inspiring rite becomes something else.
DP: It becomes a performance, a magic show.
EB: Yes. The third idea, that Tony was not aiming simply for laughter and applause, follows from the second idea: that bizarre magic is not a show but something deeper, a conjuring with the very forces of the cosmos. Tony's aim, I think, was to pull the rug from under our concept of reality, to shake us up, to disturb us.
DP: Thank-you Tony! Magic should be disturbing sometimes. It should make people uncomfortable. Of course, that's not an easy goal. It's not a commercial goal. The audience doesn't necessarily walk away smiling and admiring how clever and adroit you are. Instead they have a creepy feeling that what they've just experienced might have been real.
EB: And the impression that there really are deep mysteries in the world.
DP: Tony himself was a deep mystery. After the fire and Gloria's death, he seemed to become increasingly self-destructive.
EB: I agree. Tony had many friends who were devoted to him but, after the fire, he seemed beyond our reach. He had lost his will to live. When I visited him in the hospital, two days before he died, he seemed resigned to dying, almost at peace with it, and told me that of all the doctors who had seen him it was only the woman doctor who told him that he wasn't going to make it past the weekend.
DP: It was a terrible loss. Because I think Tony Andruzzi was one of the hidden geniuses of magic. You know, the fact that Tony abandoned a successful career as a comedy magician to try something very different was really inspiring to me. When I began attending the Invocational conventions —
EB: Did you go to all of them?
DP: All seven. And at that time I was performing magic in comedy clubs, and I was completely miserable. Because I was totally out of my element. Being around people like Tony and you and Max made me realize that comedy isn't the only way to go. I didn't belong in comedy clubs. My skills are suited to something else. So I left the path I was on, and set off on a new path. Tony's example let me know that that was possible.
EB: Yes, that's Tony's final legacy to me as well. And probably for many of those who knew him personally or through his writings. Tony gave all of us permission to take our magic into new and different directions, to walk down different paths. This was extremely important for us and, I think, for magic. As a friend, I greatly miss Tony. He could cheerfully fix anything that I broke and he had a wonderfully devilish smile!
DP: I agree. I miss him too.