"Pick a card," said Danny Ford, fanning a deck of cards face down.
I picked the queen of hearts and replaced it, still face down. Ford shuffled the cards and pulled the queen of hearts off the top of the deck, then shuffled again and pulled her off the bottom, talking all the while. Then he fanned the cards near his face and pulled out ... the jack of spades????
Did he flub the trick? No. He grinned and pulled the queen of hearts out of his mouth.* * *
Danny Ford can do the impossible or so it seems. Pick a card, and he will make it materialize in the center of a shuffled deck. Let him put three coins in your hand, and in a moment, you are holding four. Even as he relaxes, he keeps busy making a half-dollar defy gravity, popping it up from his flat palm to his other hand.
Ford, an award-winning magician who will graduate from Melrose High School next week, does what magicians call "close-up magic," using cards and coins and other small objects. Most magicians prefer close-up magic because it is inexpensive and informal — making the Statue of Liberty disappear requires more resources than most can muster.
While he can make the cards and coins do his will, Ford understands that the real magic is keeping the audience enthralled. "You can sit in front of a mirror all you want and practice moves," he said, "but you can only get so much. You need a live audience."
Ford finds his audience in different places: He performs at private parties and as a street entertainer in Harvard Square, and in April he won over the toughest audience of all — his fellow magicians — and took first place in the New England Magic Contest.
"When I was first going out to Harvard Square, I wanted to do something so amazing and impossible that the audience would have to rethink their religion and reality," he said. "Pretty soon I figured out that the crowds were not watching me because they liked me but because they wanted to see me make a mistake. They were determined not to be fooled." So Ford lightened up his act. "The magic is still the primary function, but it is a lot more about interacting with the audience and having a good time," he said.
When he does make a mistake, he doesn't let on. "When a good magician makes a mistake, you don't know it," he said. "A good magician is able to think through the problem while smiling and come out in some other triumphant way."
Ford faced a bigger problem last year, when he competed for the first time in the New England Magic Contest: He realized when he got there that he was supposed to perform onstage, where his carefully thought out coin trick would be almost invisible. Nonetheless, he pulled it off and took second prize. This year, he designed a routine that would look good onstage. Because he was performing for other magicians, he focused on tricks that were difficult, but also entertaining. It worked: He took first place.
Ford believes magic is as much psychology as hand manipulation. "What's happening and what people perceive to be happening can be two different things," he said. "The story is always better told secondhand. If someone sees a magic show and you ask them a week later what happened, it will be 10 times more impressive. Sometimes they remember things that never happened." The best magicians exploit that. "They understand a whole lot more about how the human mind works," Ford said. "They are able to take things to the next level just by thinking it through."
Ford's career in magic began on a chance visit to a magic store in Faneuil Hall. "A magician was in there, and he was doing magic tricks and selling them," Ford said. "It was a little magic wiggly worm that moves on your fingers." Ford bought the trick, then came back the next day and bought another one. As he was leaving, the magician offered to hire him. "He said if I was going to buy all the tricks, I might as well work there," Ford said.As a salesman/demonstrator, Ford not only learned all the tricks that the store sold, he also overcame his initial shyness and any future stage fright. "If you do a five-hour shift performing in front of people at Faneuil Hall, you get used to performing," he said. "Once you start doing a trick and do it a hundred times a day, pretty soon you can do it in your sleep."
One of the toughest tricks is making a living as a magician. "It's difficult," said Ford. "You have to be lucky, you have to have good publicity, you have to have a great show, but that's not all. I know a lot of people with great shows who are struggling." With some optimism, Ford is heading to Fitchburg State College in the fall, to major in business — so he can handle the money he plans to make. "There are a lot of magicians out there who made a ton of money and lost a lot of money because they didn't know how to handle it," he said.
In the meantime, his apprenticeship continues. Ford works Saturdays in a magic store in Watertown, run by a retired magician. "It's like walking into a time portal," he said. "A lot of the stuff is 50 years old, and it's not being made any more." He cleans the store, then spends the rest of the day researching, practicing, and listening to his boss chat with other magicians. It's not your everyday conversation. "Normal people get together and they hang out," said Ford. "Magicians get together and talk about doing the impossible — making things disappear, making things levitate."
"Basically I have learned that nothing is impossible," Ford said. "If you think long enough about something and you practice hard enough on it, you can make anything possible."