One of the most important aspects of magic is the presentation. Whether it’s top hats and bunny rabbits or lipstick and eye shadow, it’s all about captivating an audience. Dan Sperry prefers the term anti-conjuror as opposed to magician because, let’s face it, it’s hard to imagine anything but the guy standing in front of your table at a Pizza Hut making a quarter appear from behind your ear when you hear the word magician. Illusionist is another good term, but there’s really nothing more bad ass sounding than anti-conjuror.
Meet Dan Sperry. The man has gained international fame from his appearances on America’s Got Talent and Masters of Illusion. Sperry was headlining Magic Castle in Hollywood before he was old enough to technically get into the prestigious clubhouse. He’s traveled the world and enjoyed a three-year residency in Las Vegas. This isn’t your grandfather’s magic act. This is Dan Sperry’s show, a one-of-a-kind experience for even the most skeptical naysayer.
Don’t judge this book by the cover- there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to Mr. Sperry and I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the world-renowned anti-conjuror fresh off his most recent tour.
MANGLED MATTERS: Who or what initially got you hooked on magic?
DAN SPERRY: I saw David Copperfield when I was four or five years old. My grandparents took me. I had seen other magicians before that, I’m sure, but none really stuck until Copperfield. I didn’t know magic could be that theatrical. There were amazing light shows and just the way he presented the act was mind-blowing. He opened the show with his Death Saw illusion, where he’s locked to a table and an enormous saw is threatening to cut him in half. Well, it cut him in half and there were no boxes, no mirrors nothing. It freaked me out so bad we had to go out to the lobby and we ended up leaving. I never saw him get put back together. I thought he died. That just fascinated me. I was given magic kits as I grew up and I’d buy books on magic from the book fair. It was just something I immediately was drawn to.
MM: You’re a truly self-made professional. As a child, you put your own ads in local newspapers using allowance money and you went out of your way to learn the business side of magic from a local birthday party clown when you were still in grade school. What has been the biggest personal accomplishment of your career so far?
DS: That’s a tough question. I think the biggest one was going to New York City and doing the Off-Broadway show. Right after a big thirteen city tour, we’re driving back home and I’m thinking, ‘Now what?’. I always want to stay busy and relevant. So I get a random email from a guy who saw my show during the tour and was really interested in getting me to Times Square. It’s not exactly an accomplishment, but that was a reward I didn’t see coming and it was really cool.
MM: Throughout your career, you’ve enjoyed extremely successful residencies and you’ve hopped all over the globe. I’ve always been curious when it comes to residencies for performers- does the act or schedule ever get, for lack of a better term, boring for you? How do you keep things fresh for yourself?
DS: It’s very hard for me to stay in one spot for a lot of time. I didn’t really understand how a residency works when I first started out. I just thought, ‘this is cool’ and it’d go on forever. So after three years of the Vegas residency, the show closed and I realized I didn’t really have enough material to support a tour or anything like that. I said to myself, ‘you really gotta work on this’.
Being on the road, I go stir crazy if I’m in one spot for too long. I like the anxiety, the pacing, the madness of being on the road. Tearing down sets super fast, getting on buses, racing to airports. Different cities and different audiences keep it fresh for me. Knowing that I can change things up from city to city is great. I don’t really keep or use a script- audience interaction really drives me once I’m on the stage. The show kind of flows as the audience does. Sometimes things you think are going to work great don’t really connect with the audience and you have to adjust your show to your audience- depending on where I’m at and who is sitting in the seats in front of me, I just go with it. And you have to learn to kill your babies (laughs)- if an act or trick doesn’t work, cut it loose.
MM: I imagine it can be quite an interesting adventure getting through customs or airports sometimes for you. Is there a particularly memorable instance of misunderstanding when it comes to traveling with your gear or sending any of your equipment overseas?
DS: I’m usually really good with talking my way through things like that. A lot of times, you just have to explain the situation or get creative. You learn to be a MacGyver. Flash paper is a big issue sometimes because it’s so flammable and that can cause issues so I tuck that paper into those little Kleenex packets that your grandma walks around in her purse with. Stuff like that. One of the instances that really sticks out to me, though, was going through Canadian customs and I forgot about this awesome butterfly knife that was in a package I sent over to a gentleman. He got a call, the authorities were really not too pleased. I felt terrible and explained the situation to the authorities but they still confiscated the knife. They said they “destroyed” it but you don’t throw away a bad ass butterfly knife. You know they took it home and were playing with it. I mean, I owned up to the situation and seriously felt bad for putting someone through that customs hassle. That was the only time I’ve ever been busted.
MM: It’s not all just magic with you. You also have a pretty kick ass and successful coffee company, called Zombie Java. What led you to start this company? Why coffee?
DS: I’m a coffee addict. I love going to new towns and visiting local coffee houses and stopping at diners for a cup of coffee and a slice of pie or toast, whatever. I’m a coffee aficionado and it’s just really become a passion of mine. I think the big fascination with coffee as a kid is kind of like beer. “You can’t have that”, so naturally, as a kid, you want it! “What do you mean I can’t have it? What do you mean you need it?” (laughs)
I had my first cup at some sort of PTA meeting when I was younger. They had coffee on a table in those big metal coffee dispensers and it’s always just the shittiest coffee when it comes out of one of those things, but I was a kid and I didn’t know any better. There were some kids my age around me and they kind of egged me on and so I got myself a cup. It tasted terrible but I drank a little more and then I started really liking it. From that point on, my mom would let me have like a cup of milk with a small shot of coffee in it at home and it just kept going into adulthood. It’s something I’ve always been into.
We were in Columbia for a show and I just got to thinking, ‘if this magic never pans out, I should get into a side business’. I was in my mid-twenties and was like, ‘I don’t want to be chasing gigs and hoping to still be relevant at sixty years old. I want to have something to fall back on. I want to get into a side gig that I can really invest in and be a part of’. So Zombie Java was born. The name just popped into my head because people are always saying they are a zombie without their coffee, and it’s a fun name to say. (laughs)
MM: How involved are you in the day-to-day operations of the company?
DS: Oh, I do as much as I can, as often as I can. I’m actually going to be going through orders now that I’m back home and shipping them out. I love visiting the factory and really just being a part of it all. The warehouse that packages the coffee has the whole city smelling amazing from a block away on all sides. (laughs) I’d like to get a kiosk here in Vegas at some point.
MM: You are a very vocal advocate for the ASPCA. I’m curious, with the big news coming out recently about the Barnum & Bailey circus retiring their elephants, what are your thoughts on using animals in shows and what was your reaction to the elephant news?
DS: It was really sad for me, you know? I don’t think they needed to be retired. Animal rights groups do a lot of good but they can also do a lot of bad. I know a lot of people on the circus scene and this isn’t the 1800’s anymore. These animals are transported in luxury and they are loved by their caretakers. There were obviously issues back in the day with how animals were treated and we’ve come a long way, technologically and as far as our knowledge and compassion for animals go, to where we can keep these animals comfortable and treat them with the respect they deserve.
With the animals I feature in my shows, if they don’t want to perform on a certain day, fine. Take the day off. Audiences aren’t going to go into a fit of rage if I have three animals on stage instead of four that day. The circus audience isn’t going to care that six elephants are performing instead of eight. If the animals don’t want to perform, that’s fine. You have to respect it and move on to the next day. I know a lot of people who have worked with the circus elephants and I have seen firsthand that they treat them right and with the respect they deserve.
Another thing is, these are smart creatures. They aren’t going to put up with your bullshit. I know a gentleman who works with animals at a circus in another country and he told me a story about this young asshole who was giving some shit to one of the elephants one day and you know what that elephant did? He squished him and that idiot died. If animals are tired of your shit, they’ll let you know.
As far as the animal rights groups go, I felt they should be more diligent and working harder on all of these back alley bullshit animal fighting rings that are going on rather than forcing the elephant issue. You have assholes like Michael Vick and all of these celebrities- I don’t even want to call them that- who are talking about buying a panther as a pet and hosting these dog fighting rings. That’s the shit that has to stop.
MM: With a career that has been so eclectic and impressive, what remains on your professional bucket list?
DS: You know, I really don’t have anything. I see you’re from Illinois- I was a kids’ party entertainer in the Schaumburg, Illinois area for a few years when I was younger. I would fly out to Vegas to fill in for another guy from time to time, but otherwise, I was in Schaumburg doing parties and events in Illinois. When I was offered the full-time gig in Vegas, I took the chance and jumped. But I was totally cool with just doing the kids parties. Seriously. Everything else has just been awesome, a reward that I appreciate every day. I stick to my roots, too- I recently did a show for a group of girl scouts. It’s all about the love and passion of the game. It keeps me busy.
MM: You’ve got two shows coming up on May 21st at the House of Independents in Asbury Park, New Jersey. What is going to make these shows memorable for you and the audience alike?
DS: I’m really looking forward to these shows. I did the same three spots, same acts, over 200 shows in fifty cities over eight months on my last tour as part of a bigger show. So here, with these upcoming shows, I can do what I want. I can dance on my own and just stretch out and spread my wings a little, you know? No one is restricting my time or the content- it’s my own show. I get to try out the material I’ve been working on while I was on the road, too. It’s going to be a blast.
For more on Dan Sperry, his upcoming shows and all things bad ass magic, check out his website
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