Seance on a Wet Evening

There are two large black footlockers in our garage amongst the magic muddle: if I ever want to panic my wife I just move them a little closer to being inside the house. The content of these trunks consist of the hardware necessary to present the Nick Lewin Celebrity Séance Show.

Inside the footlockers is a strange assortment of objects; black candles, jumbo tarot cards, glowing objects of all kind, a voodoo doll, lazy tongs of various lengths and about a dozen long black poles with swatches of luminous paint daubed cloth attached to the end. Add a bit of theatrical skill, more than a little nerve and the séance is complete.

Those footlockers contain such a strange collection of items that it is amazing that they could create panic in anyone, especially my wife who after thirty-four years of marriage to me, is acquainted with most of the weirdness in the magic world. However panic they have created over the years!

It would take a curiously deranged person to look at the ragged items in the footlockers and say, “There they are, just as I created them!” That particular deranged man, in this case, would be the one and only Eugene Burger. For these props are my realizations of the ideas in Mr. Burger’s splendid handbook for the Séance giver ‘Spirit Theater.’ If you want to present a séance this is the only book on the subject you need to own.

Given a place of honor in my magic cupboard is a superb set of Dr Q locking spirit slates that Eugene passed on to me to feature in the experiment. He seemed to feel you couldn’t be a spirit medium without owning a set of these nifty gizmos. I suspect he is right because the toughest part in any séance is letting the audience know it is finished. The slates can get the message across, so to speak.

I presented my first séance in 1978 at the Ice House in Pasadena. It was designed to bring back the spirit of Buddy Holly. In those days I didn’t have much to scare the sitters when the lights went out. Curiously enough the crack that suddenly appeared in the lens of the thick horn rimmed glasses, borrowed from the Holly family, got the job done nicely and created a splendid reaction in those present.

In fact the gasp from the audience when the cracked glasses were revealed may even have covered the sigh of relief that my wife Susan and I gave when we realized the damn thing was over! There were times prior to (and during!) the séance when I wished I had been in that plane with Ritchie Vallens, the Big Bopper and Buddy when they left the airport on that stormy night to fly to their next gig.

These magical séances are curious things, they leave you elated, depleted and in no uncertain state of mind that this finally was the final one. However as you get hooked on their dark charms there is no such thing as a final séance; hence my wife’s alarm at any sign that those footlockers are moving back into the house.

I have performed about fifteen séances since that first one in Pasadena when we brought Buddy back from that great gig in the sky. Speaking for myself, which I am eminently qualified to do, my favorite was the Lenny Bruce Séance presented at Bally’s in Las Vegas. It was a grand evening of laughs and chills.

Ross Johnson was my co-host for this particular event and Ross is a performer I hold in high esteem. However I had no idea how potentially disturbed he was until our dress rehearsal for the Vegas event; which was held in the Oak Brook suburb of Chicago. Ross began to unpack his personal séance equipment; there was the fetal casket, the pentagram that dripped blood etc. etc. I took a double look at Ross and noticed that his eyes gleamed just a little too much for the superb corporate entertainer I knew him to be. I had assumed that as the crazed comedy performer in the team I would lead the way in any madness. Dream on, Nick!

Ross and I didn’t actually have any effects at all to enliven the dark segment of the séance other than Johnson’s brilliant Q & A and a picture of Lenny Bruce, attached to a length of thread being held by Jon Stetson in the audience. Jon had surprised us by arriving unannounced minutes prior to show time and was thrown into covert duties instantly. Magic Magazine recently spent several pages of a cover story trying to define Stetson. They missed out the most elemental one of all; he is the magician who is most often in the right place at the right time. I bet Jon will tell you the same thing.

Showtime arrived and just as the séance was about to commence a thunderstorm broke out in the gray Illinois skies. A bolt of thunder and a flash of lightning filled the room causing the shutters behind us to bust wide open with a loud clatter. The audience chuckled with the prospect of upcoming fun and games.

Ross and I just looked at each other with wry looks of uneasiness, as we were the only ones present that knew this was an unplanned addition to the event. Even Stetson must have been fairly impressed. He had plenty of time to observe the action as a cocktail waitress had walked through the thread he was holding and caused a premature departure of the 8×10 of Lenny from wall to floor. It fell totally unnoticed to the ground: so much for our big finale!

The séance was a blast and Johnson and Lewin rocked the room, perhaps a little too much, as during the course of the events a grown man fainted and fell from his stool to the ground. The event was powerful and impressive and totally unsuited to its location and audience. I loved every minute of it. Unlike Ross, who had the added pressure of actually living in Chicago!

Two weeks later Ross and I presented the séance again in Las Vegas on Halloween night creating something of a press sensation and twice selling out the 500-seat theater at Bally’s. I have presented other celebrity séances since but this one will always be my favorite.

The very best part of the séance biz is hearing the reactions as people exit the showroom. Some people walk up and earnestly grasp you hand and whisper, “You know! You really know!” Others give you a nudge and a wink and thank you for the fun. The correct response to everyone is an impassive smile and the words, “Thank You.”

If you decide to try out this séance business for yourself my wife will probably be delighted to sell you everything you need already packaged in two black footlockers. Add equal parts magician, mentalist and Elmer Gantry and you are ready to go. Enjoy!

~ by Nick Lewin on January 18, 2010.

2 Responses to “Seance on a Wet Evening”

  1. I am not much for the séance format of magic, although in my younger days I certainly did my share. For me it all started at a children’s birthday show when the hostess asked if I ever worked for adults and did séances, card readings, etc. I was about to say no when an outrageous fee, triple my usual price back then, was offered. I said it would all be faked and that I would need her help in getting background information on all the guests, but that I would be happy to give her an entertaining, mystifying, and spooky show if she agreed to those caveats. With a visit to Magic Inc (where Ross Johnson worked at the time–although I purchased this item directly from Jay Marshall) I bought a medium size antique crystal ball with only a tiny chip on the bottom for just $10 (a steal even back then c.1966); then on to the local drugstore magazine rack for a few mini-books on astrology; and finally a homemade hand-shaped candle with wicked fingers gaffed to sputter and go out one by one from mid-way through to the end of the show, add to this suitable props already owned and I was ready to go. Oh, I also drilled a hole in my Zombie stand to hold the crystal ball and hid a light in my brief case that could be controlled by a rheostat and would shine through a hidden hole in the case up through the hole in the Zombie stand and into the ball with an eerie controlled variable intensity.

    Like your window experience, the unexpected happened, but since mine arrived with better timing, at the conclusion. How it happened is still unexplained The show closed as the last candle finger went out (as planned), but for some reason the roaring fire in the fireplace at the good doctor’s home self-extinguished at the same instant. This mystery was the talk of those leaving and one reason for the big bonus tip too.

    I did a few other such events, one in my own home for a few friends being the most elaborate, but it never replaced my staple school or birthday shows. However later I realized, as you mentioned, that many do take this stuff for the real thing. I do not believe in necromancy although I have come to the conclusion that there is a real evil in this world other than the skin-crawling illusions magicians can too easily replicate. I do not wish to drive any in my audience to seek out either frauds who will scam and rob them as they pretend to contact their loved ones or to seek out any real evil spirits who may be lurking, searching for their very souls, based on a false reality I created. So, I may be more on the side of you wife in the case of your two cases; I too would be creeped-out by such cases that have crept closer to the house.

  2. Nick, Jon told me all about this particular evening via phone, the next day. You’ve written it up beautifully! He had a ball that night and spoke very highly of the job you guys did. Thanks for bringing back a great memory!

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