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Sleight-of-Hand Man

 

Entering the secret world of a Mercer Island stockbroker whose true passion is magic tricks.

 


Photography by Andrew Waits

At a little past noon on a recent summer Sunday, G. G. Green, a thirty-eight-year-old magician whose head is shaved like a cue ball, squared a deck of cards on a booth table beneath a shade tent in Everett. He scanned the crowd and sized up his prospects. Around him baseball fans dribbled into Memorial Stadium, home of the Seattle Mariners’ Single-A affiliate Everett Aquasox. Moms squinted at ticket stubs, dads ponied up for popcorn. Teenage ushers wore cheap top hats in honor of Magic Day, one of the endless promotional gimmicks that make minor-league baseball minor-league baseball.

Despite top billing, Green found himself sharing the shade tent with a local modeling agency and a woman displaying dead human organs. In addition to Magic Day it was Tobacco-Free Snohomish County Day — you can never have too many promos — and the lady with the smoke-damaged organs (“You got your lung…your liver…your brain…” she said) was working the scared-straight gambit. Green straightened his shiny black shirt and went to work.

“You guys like to see a little magic?” he called out.

A middle-aged couple gave him a “Who, us?” look. Green motioned them over.

He opened with a close-up card trick, a quickie to hook an audience. “This is just a normal deck of cards,” he said, fanning the blue-backed deck. “What’s your name?”

“Annie.”

“Nice to meet you, Annie,” he said. “My name’s G. G. Would you touch one of the cards?”

She pulled the king of clubs, displayed it to everyone but Green, then returned it to the deck. “Okay, Annie, what I want you to do is squeeze the deck of cards, okay?”

She complied. “Are you feeling anything?” he asked. “No? Nothing? Well, what happens is, sometimes…” he fanned the deck on the table, creating a picket fence of blue-backed cards with a single crimson outlier, “…one turns red.

Annie’s eyes grew wide

“Now wouldn’t it be interesting if this was your card,” he said, grasping the red one. By now a half-dozen onlookers were scrutinizing his hands. “What was your card, Annie?”

She told him. He turned over the red card. King of clubs.

Annie laughed. “Nice,” she said. And walked away.

This was usually the point where the audience settled in and Green worked through his set list, which he’d written out on a small red card: Chicago Open, Matrix, the Ambitious Card. Instead, people scattered. The national anthem was playing and folks had to find their seats. “Tough crowd to read,” Green said. He’d never gigged at a ball game before. There was an unfamiliar rhythm to it.

Ronald Young, an amateur magician from Marysville, approached Green’s booth. Young, clad in a fancy purple vest, had been strolling the crowd and sneezing a wand out of his nose. “I saw you work,” he told Green. “You’re real good. You must do this for a living.”

Green smiled sheepishly. “Well,” he said, “I do it full time.”

This is one thing G. G. Green can tell you: There is a life in magic, but rarely is there a living.

Green’s real name is Chad Reibman. He’s a financial adviser living on Mercer Island. Every day for the past fifteen years he’s followed the peculiar tempo of the West Coast stockbroker, rising early to meet the New York Stock Exchange bell and wrapping up by early afternoon. He enjoys the work, but it’s work. Magic is his passion.

“When you work up close with people, like I do, you can actually see their eyes dilate when a trick works well,” he says. “It’s like seeing fireworks go off in their mind. You’re able to take people away from their real-life situation for just a little while and let them believe that anything is possible.”

It’s not easy being a magician. People don’t know what to make of you, or what you do. Are you a remnant of vaudeville? An offshoot of comedy? Is magic a performance art, a circus art, or just old-fashioned show business? The roots of the art (or is it a craft? trade?) go back at least as far as ancient Egypt. It’s said that King Cheops, he of the pyramid, was entertained by a magician who could chop off the head of a goose and then make it whole. In a postmodern world full of magical technology, though, the flesh-and-blood magician is an anachronism. We aren’t even sure whether magicians are cool. Cooler than clowns, surely. But when was the last time you rounded up a group of adult friends and said, “Hey! Let’s catch a magic show”?

Reibman knows the dilemma all too well. He practiced magic as a kid. In the 1980s he hung out at Marvin’s Magic Shop in Bellevue so often that eventually the owner figured he might as well put the kid to work. “Marvin used to let me run the shop on Saturdays,” Reibman recalled. “I’d demonstrate all the new tricks we’d get in stock.”

Once he entered high school, Reibman faced a choice. He could be cool. Or he could be a magician. He put away the wand and top hat. Twenty years passed. Things accrued: job, wife, kids, mortgage. Then a few years ago his five-year-old daughter asked if she could have a magician at her birthday party. Reibman dusted off his cards and gave it a go. He loved it. And he was still pretty good.

Reibman played a follow-up show at his son’s preschool holiday party. Some parents asked if he did birthdays and bar mitzvahs. They weren’t joking. Without realizing it, he was building a clientele.

The thing about practicing magic is that there aren’t many places to practice. Aspiring actors can do late-night improv. Musicians and comedians have open-mic nights. For magicians, the options are limited. A local magicians’ association, the Northwest Ring of Fire, meets every month at a fire station in Lynnwood. Third Place Books in Ravenna hosts a “Magic Monday” event on the second Monday of every month. There’s a magic night at Heaven, a club in Pioneer Square, on third Thursdays. That’s about it.

So Reibman decided to go out and create his own scene. He cooked up a stage name — his middle name is Gregory, Green is a play on his wife’s maiden name, and “G. G. Green is easy to remember” — and rented the Youth Theatre Northwest on Mercer Island. He printed posters advertising the gig and salted them around town. The preschoolers, their parents, and friends of parents showed up. Word spread. Stephanie Hippen, manager of the Islander, a restaurant on Mercer Island, invited him to perform once a month. People started showing up at the restaurant to see his act.

Magicians have traditionally been divided into stage illusionists (David Copperfield, Siegfried and Roy) and sleight-of-hand artists. Reibman considers himself a sleight-of-hand man, although those categories are starting to blur. Criss Angel, star of the A&E series Criss Angel Mindfreak, works both the Vegas stage and the Vegas street. David Blaine’s extreme-bodily-duress act is almost a hybrid of stage magic and performance art.

For the sleight-of-hand artist, spectacle comes in small surprises. Sometimes tricks happen so quickly and subtly that it takes a second for them to register with the audience. Reibman’s hands and fingers operate with a professional deftness. He practices a new trick, on average, about 250 times before performing it. “The first thing I’ve got to do is watch myself in a mirror and on video performing the motion naturally,” he says. “In other words, when I put a ball under a cup, what does that look like to the audience? Then you try to replicate that look 250 times.” Without, of course, actually putting the ball under the cup.

 

Because trade secrets are their lifeblood, magicians traditionally go to a lot of conventions and members-only clubs where they can freely discuss the nuts and bolts of their craft. But a new era has opened with the coming of YouTube. “It’s an exciting time for magic,” Reibman says. “You used to read about the greats and imagine their acts. Now you can just call up a video. I remember seeing Tony Slydini” — one of the pioneers of close-up magic — “on TV in the seventies. Now I can watch his work anytime I want.”
(See youtube.com/user/MagicArchives for clips of Slydini and others.)

There really is only one career strategy for a magician: Pound the gigs. Over the summer Reibman played an elementary school in Portland, a summer festival in Bend, a street party in Kirkland, a fraternity rush party in Los Angeles, a back-to-school picnic in Kirkland, a restaurant (the Islander) in Mercer Island, a hospital in Seattle, a corporate awards dinner in Phoenix, the Magic Castle (a private in-the-trade club) in Los Angeles, and a meeting of gynecologists at the top of the Space Needle. “It’s kind of like when I started at my regular job,” Reibman says. “Nobody handed me a book of clients. I had to go out and earn their business, one by one.”

Aside from obvious jokes about the recession’s effect on stock portfolios (there goes 30 percent — poof!), there’s little crossover from the day job to the stage act. “Both are about connecting with people, but in very different ways,” says Reibman. “During the day I’m building long-term relationships. When you’re performing magic, you’re connecting with people in a much more immediate and emotional way. To enjoy an illusion, the audience has to be enticed into a suspension of disbelief. Then when they witness an illusion, it’s like they’re seeing the impossible with their own eyes. It’s an emotional rush, a nice payoff at the end. I think there’s also a kind of subconscious connection to childhood. Kids live in a world where they’re still figuring out what’s possible and what’s impossible. So an illusion can take adults back to the time in their lives when those boundaries were still blurred.”

 

Back at the ball game, it was time for another trick. A young girl skipped up to the table. Her parents followed warily behind.

“Do you guys happen to have a dollar bill I can borrow?” said Reibman, in character as G. G. Green. When the girl’s father reached for his wallet, Green said, “How about a ten? Twenty?”

“Now, what’s your name?” he asked.

“Sierra,” the girl said.

He had Sierra write her name on her dad’s five-dollar bill with a Sharpie.

“There’s been some counterfeiting going on here in Everett, and one of the ways you can tell if a bill is counterfeit is if you’re able to turn it into…” he folded the five, then unfolded it as “…a one-dollar bill.”

A small ooh came from the gathered crowd. Green moved immediately into a series of card tricks, leaving Sierra and her parents a little nonplussed. Um, about that five dollars?

“Let’s try a trick that will work out a little better for you,” said Green. “Let me get out my magic purse.” He revealed a purse that was all metal clasp, no purse. He opened the clasp and retrieved two red foam balls. He did the old cups-and-balls routine for a while, making the balls appear and disappear at will. He worked a soup bowl into the routine. Then, without warning, he turned over the bowl to reveal a lemon.

The show stopped. Green himself seemed astonished to see the lemon. “Does anyone happen to have a knife on them?” he asked. Nobody did, so he rooted around in his bag for a table knife. With the eyes of Sierra and a fully hooked crowd focused on the lemon, Green began to slowly, tenderly, slice the fruit in half. There was something inside the lemon. It wasn’t up his sleeve — it was in the lemon as if grown from seed. Green removed a postage-stamp size wad of paper and slowly unfolded it. It was green. There was a name written on it.

It was Sierra’s five-dollar bill.

See more in the October 2009 issue   →