John Ferrentino. Surfing the magic waves.

This is an extended version of the Vanish Magic Magazine article that I recently wrote about Comedy Magic legend John Ferrentino. I wanted to post this full version of the story as it does contain some things I hated having to edit!

John Ferrentino. Surfing The Magic Waves.

Back in the ’80s, when comedy clubs were at their golden peak, there were a handful of performers whose 8X10 photos would inevitably spring up on the walls of the showrooms. One of them was John Ferrentino. He usually had a hatchet dissecting his head in the picture. John has a fascinating and successful career, continually reinventing himself and adapting his performance to conquer fresh markets with his unique hybrid of comedy and magic and taking it to new places. I recently had the opportunity to interview John and catch up with the latest, somewhat surprising, trajectory in his illustrious career. He also shares some great advice for younger magicians that is sage, simple, and priceless.

Most magicians can trace their interest in magic back to the gift of a magic set; for Ferrentino, this is doubly true. The first occasion was at the age of seven when his Grandfather gifted him an elaborate box of magic tricks. “I started to learn all those tricks until I lost the parts,” says John, “and then I went on to read every book on magic that he could lay my hands on!” However, John’s interest in magic quickly fell dormant as he became absorbed in the process of growing up and learning a “legitimate” trade. Upon graduation, Ferrentino became an x-ray technician at Albert Einstein’s College of Medicine in New York. John was now living in Long Beach (Nassau County — south of Long Island) with a consequential job that paid a salary large enough to enable him to drive a flashy sports car. He seemed to have forgotten magic, but under the surface, his love of magic was still smoldering and waiting to become reignited. 

When he was 23 years old, Ferrentino saw a street magician performing the Chinese Linking Rings on the steps in front of the New York City Library. He was instantly captivated by this performance of the rings and watching the magician perform his routine repeatedly. John went directly to Tannen’s Magic Shop and bought a set of Linking Rings. He spent the next two years working on those six-inch linking rings. “I didn’t know how to do any magic, but I was good at linking rings.” Ferrentino jokes. He told a friend about the magic set his Grandfather gave him, and his friend bought him a small magic set as a joke. Instead of merely laughing, John realized just how intensely his interest had become rekindled. He discovered that a professional magic shop had opened in the local mall. It was called The Magic Shop, soon John was working behind the counter, and eventually became the “house magician” and thus acquired his first paid bookings.

During that Summer, John became a firm favorite at the Tannen’s Magic Camp, where he impressed, and struck up a life long friendship, with a youthful Michael Carbonaro. Before long, Ferrentino started teaching a magic course for the Arts Students at Hofstra University (Long Island). He locked in this job despite a lack of teaching credentials with a performance of Scotch and Soda. “At this time, I was only performing serious magic,” Says Ferrentino. “I did not know that magic could be funny.” It was not long before John discovered exactly how funny his magic could become.

One day Ferrentino’s mother told John that someone had opened up a comedy club in the neighborhood. The club was called “Richard M. Dixon’s White House,” and it was run by a Richard Nixon look alike. Before long, Ferrentino found himself performing at “The White House,” along with six Long Island comedy performers. The group included another young rookie performer named Eddie Murphy. “Those guys were all so funny that I was really nervous about performing my magic show,” says Ferrentino. “At the end of the evening, I walked up to one of the comics and said, ‘You’re all so funny. How long have you been performing?” Ringleader Richie Minervini replied, “About two weeks. Do you want to join us? You can start next week because I have seven comics, and I need to find a serious act to split them up!” Ferrentino said, “Yes!” 

“I started performing at the club doing my serious magic act between all of these hilarious guys, and I did pretty well,” says Farrentino. “Every time the comedians got a show, they would say, ‘Let’s take Ferrentino on the gig because he’s not a threat to us.'” In this way, John formed a strong bond with the young comics who were quickly becoming the powerhouse guys on Long Island. Sitting backstage in the green room with the comedians between sets, they would quiz John on his act, asking him questions like, “How do you do that trick where the cane appears?” “I’d show them,” says John, “but I would add little comments like, it’s easy—$29.95. I just made fun of the magic I was doing to make the comedians laugh.” 

One night working to a particularly lousy audience one of comic said to John, “Why don’t you go on stage and do your act the way that you do in the dressing room, and we’ll come out and sit in the audience.” The audience loved it, and that night a comedy career was launched as John first exposed an audience to his trademark attitude of deadpan sarcasm. Walking off the stage after that show, he remembers thinking to himself, “In the three years that I have been performing, that’s the first time that I have ever really had fun!”

John was still working as a radiology technician, which was a blessing as the comics were only getting paid five dollars a show to work at Dixon’s. Eventually, Richie Minervini opened up The Eastside Comedy Club in Huntington, which quickly became the hotspot for comedy on Long Island. Rosie O’Donnell, Eddie Murphy, Kevin James, and Ray Romano were amongst the talent that came out of the club. Even New York comics such as Jerry Seinfeld and Jackie Mason trekked to the Eastside Comedy Club to perform drop-in sets. Says John, “There was quite a separation between the New York and the Long Island comedians—it was like the Jets and the Sharks!” However, every comic loves a free stage, complete with an enthusiastic audience. “The Eastside Club sort of became our clubhouse,” says Ferrentino, “And no matter where we worked, we’d all end up there at the end of the night.

Ferrentino quickly became a favorite with local audiences and even began to perform larger shows for the New York Islanders ice hockey team. He began expanding his act, mixing dove work with larger illusions such as the Crystal Casket and a Sword Suspension. “I even had special costumes made,” says John. “I dressed like a king-sized Doug Henning!” However, one night while putting his Zig Zag away, he had an epiphany upon realizing that it took an hour to put the prop together and then another hour to break it down after the show. He quickly decided to create a show where he worked out of one bag that contained all his props.

A big break arrived for Ferrentino when Coors Lite wanted to enter the college comedy scene and put together a team of seven comedy acts performing as the Coors Lite Comedy Commandos. This booking extended into a very successful five-year run for Ferrentino. Another breakthrough arrived when he was booked into the 3,500 seat Westbury Music Fair as the opening act for David Crosby and Graham Nash. How the booking came about is a classic showbiz story. Ferrentino’s mother had become extremely sick, and John’s manager called up all the Long Island clubs and arranged for him to work every possible local club, at a discounted fee, so that he could remain close to her.

Meanwhile, ticket sales were moving rather slowly for Crosby & Nash, and the theater manager panicked and decided to sweeten the bill by adding this young comedy magician who seemed to be Long Island’s busiest and most popular entertainer. From all his bookings, the manager assumed that Ferrentino was a huge local draw. “Book this guy,” said the theater manager, and John got his first theater booking. The concert was a big success, and Crosby and Nash asked John if he was free to work with them the following night. 

However, the next night’s show almost didn’t happen because while driving to the gig, Ferrentino’s car overheated and eventually broke down. John had to rent a car and arrived at the venue at 8:00 PM, the exact time he was supposed to begin his show. Initially, the theatre manager wanted to eliminate the opening set, but Dave Crosby said, “Hey, the kid is funny—let him do his show.” So John was ushered out onstage without even having his props there to accompany him; he then performed his first-ever pure comedy monologue until someone passed his case out to him onstage. 

The show went well until John’s final effect, the Sword Through Neck using a girl from the audience to assist him on stage. When Ferrentino demonstrated how the blade passed right through the neck brace, his assistant panicked, she didn’t just panic; she rather obviously urinated on stage much to the audience’s delight. “I thought it was the worst day of my life, says John, “I walked off stage, not knowing what to expect, and Crosby was lying on a couch convulsed in laughter.” He looked up at me and said, “Dude, anyone who can make someone pee themselves with laughter is going to be our new permanent opening act.” The gig was so successful that it eventually blossomed into a series of bookings with different permutations of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young that lasted almost an entire decade. Along with these gigs, and the Coors Lite Comedy Commandos, John was starting to arrive as a performer. 

Inevitably Ferrentino began hitting the TV circuit, starting with 21 appearances on the New York based show Comedy Tonight on the Fox Network. When Rick Messina, the show’s talent coordinator, moved to Los Angeles and became the booker for Comic Strip Live, John was one of the acts he brought with him. At this time, Ferrentino was represented by legendary comedy manager Rory Rosegarten, who inked a deal for John to make 16 appearances on the new comedy show. Ferrentino worked with his friend Joe Silkie to come up with innovative and unique comedy magic sets specially designed for this influential show. In the upcoming years, John made over 50 appearances on various TV shows, which further cemented his standing as one of America’s most commercial performers. In addition to his premium comedy club bookings, John quickly became a highly sought after corporate entertainer.

In 2000 Ferrentino moved to Florida and began to book about four cruise ship engagements a year with Norwegian Cruise Line, in order to enjoy mini-vacations with his family. John’s move to Florida was convenient for his cruise dates, and it allowed him to continue surfing, one of his long term hobbies. He became so popular with cruise ship audiences that eventually NCL made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. By the time comedy clubs were starting to die down, he was booking more and more cruises. By 1994 John was working with the line for six months a year with a peachy two weeks on/two weeks off contract. When Disney Cruise Line launched their “Magic” ship, he was lured over to the company to spearhead their entertainment schedule.

In 2016 Ferrentino was reunited with Michael Carbonaro and helped him create special material for the Conan O’Brien Show. Later that year, John saw Michael and Eugene Berger perform in their Dark Stories show at the Genii Convention in Orlando, and the first germ of a seance show sparked in his mind. During the convention, Max Maven persuaded John to perform at the Magic Castle, which would be for the first time in 30 years. “Working the Castle brought me back my love of magic again,” says John. “After so many years as a comedian, presenting comedy magic, I had almost forgotten why I wanted to be a magician in the first place. Working at the Castle, I rediscovered how much people love magic. It stirred something inside of me, and I realized that people’s belief in magic was a wonderful experience. Instead of my show just being me and a trick, I suddenly knew I wanted some other factor to be involved in my show. I decided to come up with an act that touched on ghosts and the supernatural because people love to be scared!”

John devised a brand new seance show and started breaking it in over the next two years at the Sleuth’s Dinner Theater in Orlando. During this time, he did extensive research, and eventually, the show evolved into a production entitled “Do Spirits Return?” Ferrentino’s seance experience focused on a real-life location in Louisville, Kentucky, called The Waverly Hills Sanatorium. The Sanatorium is considered by many to be the most haunted location in America. Initially, the show included readings, contacts, book tests, and similar effects. The show kept progressing, but it still needed a final twist in the format to complete the storyline.

John’s daughter Lindsey Ferrentino is an accomplished American contemporary playwright/screenwriter. When she saw the seance with her fiancé, Ralf Little, a highly regarded British actor, they came out of it impressed, but feeling that it was just not quite “John.” They persuaded him to focus on a new, more organic direction. John’s approach became subtly redefined as “I do not believe in ghosts, or the supernatural. However, I visited the Waverly Sanatorium because, in my early years working in a hospital, I had heard amazing stories about Waverly. When I visited, I bought a box of stuff that they were selling in an auction, and I took it home, thinking that it might contain some cool stuff to sell on eBay. Soon after that, a lot of weird stuff has started to happen that I can’t explain…..” This delicate psychological change in his approach to the seance paid big dividends, and being John, he even managed to add a few dark jokes into the seance setting. 

John continued working on the seance in collaboration with his longtime colleague Joe Silkie, whom he describes as an encyclopedia of magic. Between them, they packed a great many original ideas into the show’s framework, with everything contained in the show factually based so that when the audience returned home, they could look up and confirm the details. In 2017 John participated in the Battle Of The Magicians Convention in Canton, Ohio, and featured the seance as a special midnight attraction. It was an immediate success, and the magicians attending the convention were intrigued by what they had seen and experienced. Says John, “I had so many people contacting me asking questions, and wanting to learn more about the show that I decided to put together a formal lecture based on the show.” 

In 2019 Ferrentino performed the seance/lecture at the Daytona Magic Convention and the Abbott’s Get Together in Colon Michigan to great results. John also created quite a sensation when he presented “Do Spirits Return?” at the IBM Convention in Phoenix, Arizona. Jeff McBride described the seance in this way, “John Ferrentino shines a new light on the dark arts of Seance Theater. He shows us how to update this often Victorian bound entertainment with new and exciting modern presentations that will reach today’s audiences. John’s experience as a magic designer and prop builder gives us new, ingenious ways to accomplish an extraordinary phenomenon that will leave your audiences breathless.” Later in the year, Ferrentino instructed on the seance at McBride’s celebrated Mystery School in Las Vegas. Where will the seance and lecture pop up next? The odds are that when the world is free of quarantine restrictions, the spirits could be returning with John in a theater or showroom somewhere close to you. Do not miss it when it does.

 

 

I have been a fan of John Ferrentino for many decades now, and I have enjoyed writing this story about him. If you want to get a taste of John Ferrentino’s unique abilities, check him out on YouTube at https://tinyurl.com/y7kks9by  I finished our interview by asked John if he had a useful piece of advice to pass onto our readers about developing their magical careers. He replied, “I’ve always had a very successful career because I stayed one step ahead of what was going on. First, I was performing at Blue and Gold dinners, and then comedy clubs opened up I veered into that. When the comedy club thing started to die down I went into colleges and then when the college bookings started to die down a little bit, I was lucky enough to get some opening act work. When the opening act bookings started to fade out, I started to do corporate shows, and then I was off on another adventure doing cruise ships. I always tried to keep one step ahead of the game.“

I have also enjoyed a 50-plus year career in magic, and consider this great advice. Over the years, I have written fairly extensively about how a successful performer must use the momentum of life to propel his work forward. I like to use the analogy of a surfer riding the crest of a wave to move effortlessly forward. The only thing the surfer needs to do is concentrate on his balance and let the wave will do the rest. Of course, this is something of a theoretical concept to me since I have never actually surfed. However, I hold John Ferrentino as a perfect example of my theory because he has an awesome career, and damn it, he even surfs!


 

~ by Nick Lewin on July 17, 2020.

3 Responses to “John Ferrentino. Surfing the magic waves.”

  1. Excellent web page presentation= cheers=neilmcintyre1935@outlook.com

  2. Nick, thank you for this excellent article about John Ferrentino. You and him are both inspirations!

    Best regards,

    Randy

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