Larry Jones levitates his wife, Deede Baquié Jones. Joining them on stage in the basement of their home are sons Mark (in the drum) and Lawrence, and daughter Valle, sawed in half. Photo by Stern J. Bramson/University of Louisville Photographic Archives.
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When I was a child, storytelling took place in the basement, in the only room in my house that was ever locked. Inside, the air felt several degrees cooler and it smelled of talcum powder and stale cigarettes. From floor to ceiling, posters of magicians—most from the turn of the last century—lined the walls. The illusionist Alexander wore a feathered turban and glared at me as he held a crystal ball, with the caption “The Man Who Knows.” Next to him, the magician Kassner stirred a cauldron with a witch’s head floating in steam. Nearby, Thurston vanished cars and levitated women, sending one into the sky in a glass elevator.
Across the room stood a bookcase, which, if I pushed on it just right, opened to a dark storage area. Inside, the shelves were lined with shoeboxes filled with fake thumbs, cigarettes, decks of cards. A black hat and white gloves sat on one shelf. Other shelves held scarves that turned into canes, champagne bottles that opened into cigarette dispensers, silver balls that transformed into bouquets of flowers.
The basement’s centerpiece, though, was the stage. That’s where our family performances took place throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Behind blue curtains sat a large cabinet from which my brothers would appear and then, with a few words from my father, would disappear. Across the stage, my father would vanish from a velvet chair and then enter through the basement door a few minutes later.
The most mesmerizing trick, though, featured my mother. As the curtains opened, my mother, dressed in a gold brocade gown and black flats, lay on a divan. Her eyes were closed; her hands crossed at her chest. My father told the audience that he had put her into a trance. Then, slowly, my mother’s body rose off the couch and into the air until, at the command of my father’s hands, she stopped. In silence, my mother hovered over the stage.
As a child I relished books that transported me from my suburban world: “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “The Secret Garden,” “From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” But, many of the most powerful stories came from my father who wove magic’s tales into our family life. Each magic poster—they hung in our den as well as in the basement—had its own narrative, such as “The Modern Priestess of Delphi,” which depicted a witch whispering secrets to a long-haired woman who read people’s minds. We heard about magic’s tragedies, like when the illusionist Chung Ling Soo died after his bullet-catching trick went awry.
Best of all, my father invited his children into magic’s secrets. Not long after we learned to walk, we knew how to sidestep the trap door in the stage floor. By elementary school, I understood how most of my father’s illusions worked. I never told a soul. As a journalist I have joked that being a magician’s daughter taught me to protect sources at a young age. But more importantly, by watching my father practice and perform, I learned that knowing the “trick” is only the first step in seducing your audience into the narrative.
The basement of the author’s childhood home. Inside the glass casket is sister Valle. Photo by Stern J. Bramson/University of Louisville Photographic Archives.
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My father spent much of his youth at vaudeville shows and Tannen’s Magic store on 42nd Street, where he bought tricks and picked up tips from the profession’s elders. Then, when he was in his 30s, after years of practicing magic on the side, my father took a sabbatical from his law firm. He bet a fellow lawyer $100 that he would land a spot on a major TV show or at a New York City nightclub within a year.
It was 1959, the era of black-tie magic. Under the stage name Baron LaValle and with an act he called “Smoke Dreams,” my father appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” In a tux and black dress hat, he smoked cigarettes and pulled cards out of the air. He made live goldfish appear out of his puffs of cigarette smoke. He produced doves from his white-gloved hand.
Next my father performed on “Captain Kangaroo” and his manager offered him a national tour. But he had a wife, three kids, and three more to come in the next several years. My father returned home and magic was reserved for the basement—and for our family.
Over the next two decades, the magic act was the intermission to my parents’ parties. On summer evenings, our house filled with smoke from the Marlboros that my mother placed in silver boxes and the sound of adult laughter loosened by gin and tonics. It was around 11 p.m. when my mother, smelling of Jean Patou perfume and bourbon, long earrings sparkling against her black hair, nudged us awake. “It’s time, angel.”
My brother Stephen was 3 and I was 5, too young to be relied on for impeccable performance timing. Still, we tiptoed downstairs, following my mother past the women in the living room in their cocktail dresses and frosted pink lipstick and men in sports jackets and loafers, around the corner to the basement where my father had set up the show. Stephen and I climbed into our secret spot and listened as the guests, laughing too loudly, flirting, their cocktail glasses still clinking with ice, filled the seats.
I no longer remember the details of the story that went with my brother’s and my trick, except that it entailed missing jewels from a large leather trunk. My father tilted the trunk toward the audience, knocking on all four sides to show that it was empty. Moments later, he opened the top of the trunk again and pulled out his “jewels”—my brother and me, dressed in footed PJs—to the applause of the adults.
Several years later, I graduated to a role I had coveted. I liked that it required more skill and timing on my part. And I relished that the trick was mine and my father’s alone. The prop was a large empty glass casket on wheels in the middle of the room. The story had a fairy-book quality: A king’s daughter, the princess, was lost. The king offered all of his gold to anyone who could find her. At that point in the performance, my father covered the empty casket in a gold cloth to symbolize the king’s wealth. As my father wheeled the casket around the room, he told of the king’s anguish and of a young prince’s determination to scour the countryside to find the girl. Then, with a flick of his wrist, my father pulled off the cloth. There I was. Reclining in the glass casket: an adolescent princess, barefoot, long hair barely combed, in cut-off jean shorts and an Indian-print T-shirt.
At that age, I often stayed to watch the rest of the show. I had seen it all before. But now I watched it through a different lens than when I was younger.
For my entire childhood, my father descended into the basement after dinner and on Saturday afternoons, rehearsing his acts for hours upon hours. On occasion, he asked me to be his critic as he tested a trick. I knew up close how much he relied on timing, on suspense, on the dance of his skilled hands to take his audience’s attention where he wanted it to go. By the time of the performances, he made it seem so seamless, so simple. But, early on, I had learned that beautiful narratives rarely come that easily.
Maggie Jones, a 2012 Nieman Fellow, is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.