My Favourite Illusions: Close Up - Sponge Balls
Toys “Я” Us have gone into administration. As a child I spent many happy hours wandering around the cavernous store near Brent Cross in North West London, wondering how to spend my precious birthday or Christmas money. Thus it was with a twinge of regret that I recently stepped into my local shop, enticed by 40% off signs and the need to buy a birthday present for a 3 year old. (It took every ounce of willpower not to blow my bank balance on reduced Lego sets!) As I mooched about I decided to check out the board games section. Nothing at all took my fancy, but I did spot a magic set aimed at children. Frankly, it was awful. Even with 25% off I thought it was poor value for money. A massive box with little content, it frustrates me somewhat that people are able to churn out something like this – which requires no real creativity as each of the tricks are older than dirt – and make a serious profit. Still, that rant aside the content included what I would view as all of the usual suspects: Cups and Balls, the Ball and Vase, Paddles, and the Sponge Balls. It’s this last one that’s inspired today’s blog.
The sponge ball is an absolute bedrock of magic. If you don’t see it in a child’s magic set you’re almost certain to see its common variation; sponge rabbits. Almost every magician knows at least a basic routine using them and, along with a few other tricks, it’s a great way to learn some basic performance concepts such as misdirection, vanishes, and plotting. However, if you’re watching a professional magician do a sponge ball routine, there is a very good chance you’re a child. To my knowledge, this is a trick almost exclusively performed by children magicians. I’m not talking about amongst friends or when you’re desperate to do something after having exhausted everything else you know and you’re still surrounded by the same four people, but in their day to day working sets, this is not a thing that ‘adult’ magicians tend to use. There is an exception to this rule. It hinges on an unusual final reveal that I don’t want to spoil but I’m not a fan, and I’ll leave it by saying a regular sponge ball routine is one often performed for children, but is magical enough for adults, whereas this take is one performed for adults, but is rather childish.
But why? Why do we resign this trick to a land of jelly and ice-cream? Why do so many of my friends actively disparage an amazing piece of magic? I think that it is because of the inherent childlike nature of a sponge ball. It’s bright, colourful, and balls are played with by children. Compare that to a deck of cards, with all the cool undertones they bring. Gambeling, cheats, casinos, 2AM card games in smoke filled rooms with Micky the Wrench chewing on a tooth pick. Let me put it another way; how many images of a magician moodily throwing a sponge ball at a camera have you seen..?
Sponge balls just aren’t cool. And that’s a shame, because they are so incredibly magical. A sponge ball routine can be far, far more powerful than almost any card trick because it happens to the volunteer, not at them. What do I mean? If you were to chose a card, put it back in the deck, and then I shuffle the deck and find your card, that’s fine. I’m a magician, I’m skilled at using cards, it’s what you expect. You may not know how I did it, but you can come up with a vague idea. Maybe I have a marked deck? Maybe I kept track of your card? Maybe all the cards were the same? Because you, the volunteer, weren’t in control of the situation the magic was happening at you, not to you. Of course, it may be an amazing performance and hopefully the magician presented it in an enjoyable way and you had fun, but it’s a certain kind of fun. This is not the case with a sponge ball routine. In this routine the magic happens in your hands. The magician puts a sponge ball in your hand and then the next moment it’s jumped into your other hand, or it’s changed colour, or it’s multiplied or even changed shape, all whilst it was in your hand.
The strength of this illusion was brought home to me a while back whilst I was performing with Brendan Rodrigues. The two of us were messing about, just doing magic for fun. It was a quiet evening and so we were performing our best stuff for the person working the bar. As it was really quiet, once we had finished our best stuff we moved onto second best stuff. Then third best. Eventually Brendan even did a few card tricks, that’s how quiet it was! Still, at the end of it all Brendan asked her something that I’ve heard him ask a few people, and is a great idea for a bit of audience feedback. ”What trick did you like best”. Brendan had performed his award winning close up routine, an act that shows absolute mastery of coin magic. He had also done some breathtakingly beautiful magic using pens and even a crystal ball. After thinking for a moment she replied that her favourite thing had been the sponge heart routine. That is what stuck with her. It was a lesson to both of us performers, and one I've thought about often.
I’m going to leave you with a magician called Eugene Burger. Sadly he passed away last year, but I had the good fortune of meeting him once. We chatted for a little bit and I was lucky enough to see him perform this routine close up. It showed what a magician confident in their magic can do, how one can make something 'uncool' into a mindblowing routine. Just listen to what his volunteer shouts when he opens his hand at the end. Stupefying good.
Brendan Rodrigues and Paul are both performing at Magical Mischief on April 8th. Get your tickets here.