I stand in the wings, just out of sight of the audience. For the first time in my life I know the feeling of stage fright: a fluttering in my chest, my throat tensing, beads of perspiration forming on my upper lip. But right now stage fright is the least of my worries.
What have I gotten myself into? In a moment I will walk out in front of hundreds of people and speak for two or three minutes, something I never could do, even in school. I will shame myself. Will they laugh? How can I get through this? Am I the first magician in the world who has had to face this awful thing? This show will be the most embarrassing event in a life of daily embarrassments.
For as long as I can remember I have been a stutterer, cursed with the inability to speak without embarrassing myself. Even saying my own name takes too many staccato syllables; each machine-gun utterance adding to my shame.
I am fourteen.
I can feel the sweat welling up in my sideburns, starting to trickle down my reddening face.
Now Lucille is introducing me. She smiles and gestures in my direction, inviting me onstage as she exits. I walk to center stage gripping a small red cloth bag. Much as I’d like to, it’s too late to turn back now.
Magic is my hobby and my preoccupation. I practice cutting a deck of cards one-handed all day, every day – hundreds of times – until I have it down to where I can do it blindfolded.
“See this rope, Uncle Sol? Cut it right in the middle. Great! Now it’s in two pieces, right? Watch this! Abracadabra! It’s restored – back in one piece! Now, see this red silk hankie? Watch this! Bam! It turned blue!”
That’s what I said, but what came out was something like: B-b-b-bam! It turned bll-bll-bll-blue!
If you graded my life back then it would be something like:
This year, 1944, is the year a magical change will take place in my discomposed speech, although it will take me many years to understand how this change happened. The journey begins with a subway trip from my home in South Philly.
Just about every Saturday I make the 30-minute trip to Broad Street in the heart of Philadelphia, spending hours hanging out at the magician’s mecca, Holden’s Magic Shop. Here on the second floor of an office building, away from prying eyes, arcane secrets are exchanged, sometimes by kid magicians, sometimes by professional entertainers willing to share some “moves.” These interludes are brief distractions from the center-ring performance of the manager, Lucille Saxon. Never far from the ashtray with lipsticked cigarette butts, she is in constant motion, demonstrating tricks, acting as cashier, stock clerk and above all, keeper of secrets. Without secrets magic cannot exist.
The shop takes your breath away! Display cases crammed full of chests and canes, scarves, cards, coins, buckets, urns, and some objects defying description – paraphernalia with a sole purpose: to create magic that baffles an audience; prices ranged from a dollar to astronomical.
Now a customer points to a deck of playing cards on display. In a graceful sweep, Lucille slides open the case; another nimble gesture accompanied by a smile displays a lone four of hearts. A pass of the hand and the single card blossoms into four aces, which she deftly deposits onto the counter with a look that says “tah-dah!” A clap of empty hands completes 15 magical seconds. Jaws drop. The price is asked and named. The cash register rings. “Four of Hearts to Four Aces” goes to a new home. There are more in a drawer in the stockroom.
And so it goes, week after prestidigitational week. One weekday, on a rare after-school visit, Lucille asks me if I’d like to join a young magician’s club she’s organizing, to be called “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices.” Would I? What a question! And so it comes to pass that thirteen of us, boys ages 13 to 15, meet at her small apartment not far from Holden’s for an organizing meeting. Ground rules are set, pledges of secrecy are made and “The Sorcerers Apprentices” is born. We meet Fridays at a nearby hotel meeting room. Lucille provides snacks and invites a professional magician or an accomplished amateur to amaze us each week. We learn new tricks, new skills and stagecraft. On a weekly basis we each perform a magical illusion and are critiqued.
On the club’s first-year anniversary Lucille has an exciting announcement: the time has come to perform for an audience. A date has been set, a hall booked, tickets will be printed and we will all perform onstage, each to his own abilities. As the meeting ends, she pulls me aside. “Larry, I’d like you to perform a trick from my own show with this comedy patter written for especially for my act. It’s my egg bag routine.” She hands me a single typewritten sheet. The first lines read:
“One-a night-a last-a week, with-a no place to go,
I find-a myself at a ma-geesh-an show.”
The monolog is written in the broken English of an Italian immigrant. The speaker is “Tony,” an audience member recounting how a lady magician fooled him with an egg and a little red bag. Egg is pronounced “egg-a.” Red is “red-a.” Gender has been changed on my copy. “She-za fool-a you” now reads “He-za fool-a you.” She lends me her own red bag and sends me on my way to memorize the patter and rehearse the routine. Every day I stand in front of my mother’s dressing table’s three-way-mirror practicing until I can do the routine perfectly, timing the words to the actions. Alone, I never stutter.
It’s the night of the show. A Lucille Saxon I have never seen before greets us as we arrive at the auditorium. She’s wearing a flowing gown, hair just so, with a little bow matching her gown. I notice she’s all made up for the stage and her graceful hands have fresh nail polish, not a chipped nail in sight.
Curtain time is fast approaching. Backstage there’s a constant swirl of activity; 15 young boys are lined up in order of appearance, anxiously practicing one last time before facing the audience, meticulously preparing tables with props they’ll carry onstage. Lucille rushes toward us: “Shhhh! The audience is coming in! Quiet backstage!” In complete silence we finish our preparations.
It’s my turn. Lucille is introducing me. She smiles and waves in my direction, inviting me onstage as she exits. I walk to center stage gripping a small red cloth bag. Much as I’d like to, I can’t turn back now.
The row of footlights shines up at me, bright and blazing hot. I look out at the audience but can’t see beyond the glare. I gaze out at an audience I can’t see, and speak the words.
“One-a night-a last-a week, with-a no place to go,
I find-a myself at a ma-geesh-an show.”
The routine is short, about three minutes, I think. The egg disappears and reappears in unexpected ways. Once, the audience seems to see through the trick but the joke is on them, the egg is not in my pocket, it has magically flown into the bag. The audience guffaws. Some hands clap. I recite the punch line,
“And I’m-a betcha my life, heeza fool-a you too?”
Applause. I bow and walk quickly into the wings toward Lucille. She leans down, smiles broadly, and congratulates me on a job well done, then quickly takes the stage to introduce the next boy. My head is buzzing with excitement. I did the routine perfectly. I actually did!
I didn’t stutter.
It would take me many years to understand what took place that night.
Not long after the show, Lucille suddenly and unexpectedly left the magic shop and dropped out of sight. I never learned why. The new manager, George, couldn’t or wouldn’t explain her departure or shed light on where she went. I didn’t pursue the subject. Lucille was simply gone.
I drifted away from magic. It remained an interest – as it does to this day—but for several years it took a back seat to school and teen activities. In high school I added to my repertoire and performed in talent shows and occasionally did magic at children’s birthday parties. In the Army I continued performing with only an occasional repeated stutter-syllable.
Lucille, like a coin up my sleeve, had disappeared—along with memories of that night. Like the sleeved coin, thoughts of her would eventually return.
As an adult I read up on stutterers. I learn that stuttering varies by individual but generally most stutterers have particular difficulty when reading aloud in class, when talking on the phone, when meeting new people and when addressing authority figures; the list goes on and on. I was pretty much typical.
When stutterers—even the most severe stutterers—do not stutter is even more interesting to me: They don’t stutter when singing; when reciting poetry; when speaking in a group; when acting or role-playing; when talking in a whisper; when they are alone.
Over the years I gradually stuttered less and less. As an adult I acted in plays, often taking a leading role. I worked in radio and television as a freelance announcer, voicing hundreds of commercials. I conducted sales seminars for major corporations, sailing through hours of public speaking, fluently.
Somewhere along the line, without realizing it, I learned to be a man who speaks with only an occasional and virtually unnoticeable stutter – just like the glib kid who performed that egg bag routine once upon a time.
I am 82 now, father of four, grandfather of five, married to Pearl since 1956 and retired from a busy business career. I have time now to reflect on the embarrassment and shame I experienced years ago – to try to understand those upsetting years when I couldn’t even say my name without a prolonged public struggle. Recently, I have attended support meetings of the local chapter of the National Stuttering Association. To my surprise, even the group leader, a speech therapist, stutters. I am the only one at meetings who does not stutter.
I struggle to understand that which is unknowable. When Lucille gave me her routine, what did she know about stutterers? Did she know stuttering can abate when a poem is recited? Did she know actors who stutter don’t do so when playing a part? Could she have known that for three magical minutes I would have immunity from stuttering? All the evidence points to yes, she knew. And yes, it was a selfless and generous gift to give away part of her act, even if it was for one night.
This is coming nearly 70 years late but here goes: Lucille, thank you! Thank you for that night. Thank you for understanding. Thank you!
And guess what, Lucille? I have my own egg bag now and I can still cut the cards with one hand, only now I have to look.