The nightclub marquee that announced the charity variety show didn't list a few of the acts. Torgo the Magician was one of them, by his own request. He seemed to be working to keep his name off things and maintain an air of mystery that added so much to his act.
Torgo did not belong to any of the several magician's or illusionist guilds although at one time he had to join a stage performer's union to work in some cities, 'showman' was on his application as his specialty.
The man was very good, not even his assistants knew the full details of any of his tricks and stunts according to his publicity sheets. He used standard over the counter props and gimmicks, then he 'refined' them himself, or so he said, so that nobody would know exactly how they worked.
In the show he was scheduled between a pair of dancing cats and a family singing group. Up to Torgo's presentation the audience had been lucky to stay awake, a few had made multiple trips to the bathroom. But when he appeared onstage from inside a formerly empty box that two young women had carried out and put on a couple of boards so we could see under it and then covered it with one of those velvet blankets, nobody even coughed for fifteen minutes. He did things that could only be described as magic. Not cheap stunts with trick mirrors or flickering lights. Torgo simply wowed the audience without clever patter or fancy gestures. He did his routines workman-like and let the results speak for themselves.
Afterward his assistants avoided questions and autographs and said his entire show was as if it were one entire unit and they couldn't discuss individual parts of it. Then they packed his things and thanked the promoter and said he tried to avoid the limelight off-stage. Then the two women were gone in a large black van as well.
But it was the charity show that brought him to my attention. And led to an episode neither of us is likely to forget.
I am Saul O'Malley. I have been an investigator for the district attorney's office, a private investigator, an electrician, a school teacher, and in the Army I was a chaplain's assistant because I had thought I wanted to be a minister and went to a Lutheran Seminary for a couple of years. However now, I am retired and work part time in the nightclub and amuse myself by writing features focusing on senior citizen issues for a couple of local magazines. I am not a qualified debunker by any stretch of the imagination. But I had dabbled in sleight of hand and card tricks to amuse my grandkids and thought I knew a little about magic. But Torgo's tricks, beginning with his entrance, completely baffled me.
Since I had been working there for a couple of years I knew there was no trap doors on the stage. There was no false bottom in the box, and since the two women had carried it out and unfolded it, he couldn't have already been in it, could he?
I looked at the tape of the event in frame by frame stop action. The people at the tables to either side of the stage could see behind the box, the camera angle showed the boards under it. Then the blanket moved and the magician stood up.
Then a thought occurred to me that marked his act as unusual. Most of the acts I had seen, here, in Vegas, on TV, had made the pretty girl appear or vanish, either by herself or changing places with the magician. Or in the case of the one female magician I had seen, she had changed places with a seriously muscular male assistant in tight pants. Torgo made himself vanish and reappear instead of anybody else.
Now I was very curious.
On my next free day I drove into St. Louis and went to see the manager of the store I went to on occasion for something fresh to entertain my grandkids and their friends.
"Hey! How's the hat?" Bill asked as soon as I walked in.
"Works every time." I smiled and pretended to tip my tophat to him.
"So it was worth the money?"
I laughed, I had spent over two hundred dollars on one prop for one trick. But since then I had used it many times for other things, and had made a large white hamster 'I'm fresh out of rabbits' appear from it, and even worn it to a formal dinner as a hat. "Yeah, I guess so." I shook his hand and he showed me, without prompting, how he made a series of watches appear on his wrist.
"So whatcha think?" He asked me as he took back the three watches he had handed me.
"If I'm ever missing a watch I know who to look for." I laughed again.
We chatted about this and that, and I bought a new coin trick, but then I got to the point.
"Yeah, he's been in." Bill said.
"He was at the club the other night and did some really great stuff." I told him about the entrance and a couple of the other tricks.
"He bought that case here."
"Think I could do it?" I made a few magic gestures.
"Sure." Bill said then he grinned. "With Practice." He repeated his favorite phrase.
We went back to the 'Professional's Room' and he found their display model. He demonstrated one of the basic tricks with the large black hinged box and made a trick bottle appear to the applause of me and another guy who was there looking for some supplies.
I didn't have to pretend, I really was interested in the trick, but the price was a little out of my league today. I told Bill I'd have to save up a little for it. And then he showed me another trick.
I paid very close attention. Torgo had done the same trick, with a few differences. When he finished and we clapped a little I stepped to the box and tried to replicate Torgo's version of the same thing using the prop glass he had dropped into the velvet bag hanging just out of site behind it.
"So how much is the levitation kit?" I asked.
"This doesn't come with levitation. But you can get it in the table version." Bill pointed to a large self-contained unit for a more involved stage show. "You can make everything on the table dance independently."
"Torgo made the pitcher of water he was using levitate under the scarf and pour water into a glass. Then he vanished the pitcher."
Bill looked at the box. "And he used this case?"
"Looks like it to me, I thought it was the neatest thing and I know the kids would love it."
Bill did some hard fast thinking. "He had to have modified it like he has some of his other props. He's done some things to some of his apparatus that defy all logic. But it works. He demonstrated one cabinet to me that I had had refitted to his specifications and I still don't know how it works. And I've got the blueprints for it."
"It's magic." I grinned.
"In his case I'd believe it."
The way he said it gave me chills. But I didn't want to press it right then. I turned back to the case and duplicated the disappearing cup trick. It was a little rough, but I did it.
"Practice practice practice." Bill said as he politely applauded.
I nodded and decided that I had to have the magic case. To keep Bill on my good side and opened up about whatever other secrets Torgo may have.
I hit Torgo's website and then the link to his booking agent and found out he was appearing the next weekend in Kansas City as the dinner entertainment at a convention. It was a stretch but I managed to talk myself into a reservation at a motel across the street. Then I quickly befriended a fellow HVAC installer on the convention floor and purloined a dinner reservation at the last minute.
Tonight Torgo had been billed as 'Simply Amazing Magic' with no name or picture. It could have been anybody from Houdini to Merlin. He followed a very bad comic who spent most of his act apologizing for being stupid. Then I realized that was his act. He was stupid. OK. He got me.
With the same two young women and a few more props Torgo went through about half an hour of some astonishing tricks. I mean it. He had done about a third of them at the benefit so I knew what to expect and what to watch for, and he still wowed me.
The conventioneers had been talking and drinking and socializing. Until he produced a seeming endless stream of ping pong balls from out of thin air.
At first everybody assumed he had them up his sleeve. So he took off his coat. And produced two more. Then he took off his shirt. And with nothing on from the waist up he produced several more real ping pong balls that bounced all over the place as he tossed them to the audience or his assistants or simply up in the air. He held on to about six of them and started juggling them. And then there were four. I had no idea where the two had gone. Now it was three. Then he was taking a bow without a ball anywhere around him.
The applause was deafening.
He did his floating water pitcher with a borrowed pitcher from a nearby table. Then it vanished. Then the glass disappeared leaving a puddle of water on the napkin he had borrowed from another table. There was no hole in the wet napkin (after the show I retrieved that very napkin from a busboy's bin and kept it).
Every trick built on the suspension of belief credit he had earned in the last one.
And something else I noticed this time. He never called for a member of the audience to help him out. Which means there were no plants or confederates of his in the crowd either.
Once again he used very few showy magic gestures and very little stage patter, and didn't employ the various types of misdirection I was familiar with. It was as if he didn't care where you looked, or even where you didn't look, his tricks would work either way. Most of the time his assistants weren't anywhere around where he was working, they were merely there to hand him things and retrieve items from here and there, and, if I may say it, as eye candy. And with every trick's completion, the applause was louder than last time.
At the end of the act I watched the assistants pack up some of the gear. Most of it looked like what I had seen in St. Louis. Torgo's last act had been his entrance from last weekend reversed. They had set up the box on a couple of blocks. He got into it as the assistants passed a closed umbrella under it they covered the box with the large sheet, then put the umbrella in it and put the sheet down. Then after striking a pose, they uncovered the box, and folded it up. Torgo and his umbrella were gone. The women bowed and the stage lights went out.
Once again I had been completely mystified. How had he done some of what he had done?
My instincts said he was just a very good magician or illusionist or prestidigitator or whatever you wanted to call him. Very good.
But still. There was something more there.
I laid in bed in the motel room and tried to remember everything about his act.
I woke up in the morning thinking about his act.
OK. If he was simply that good, he was that good, but I was still curious. And I wanted to see him one more time.
He was booked into a theater in Branson for a few shows.
I called my ex-wife for one reason. She was absolutely in love with Branson, Missouri and was down there about every other month on a bus trip to see somebody. I asked her if there was a trip next week with an open seat. Then invited her to come with me to see this magician I had heard good things about.
Mary and I were a better couple now five years after our divorce than we had been for the twenty years before. When we went out, it was a date with no pressure and no secrets. We had both seen other people, she had been very serious with a guy I had introduced her to one night at the club, but nothing came of it.
Now we sat together on the bus to Branson and talked about all sorts of things. One of which was why I had pulled out last weekend and gone to a convention in Kansas City. I sort of answered the question by referring to some remodeling the club was doing and it seemed like the best way to get some information on new high efficiency systems. She bought it and we talked about the second oldest granddaughter's getting her driver's license and how she was pestering us for a new car.
The bus arrived in Branson at a discount mall and we went shopping for awhile. Then we went to dinner and afterward to the early show.
It was a variety show with a minor celebrity playing host. He told some corny jokes and introduced the acts, including a guy with his acrobatic dogs. Torgo was on before the headlining country music group.
It was nearly the same routine as he had done in Kansas City. I watched closely and still could not catch the gimmicks.
Later on the bus ride back my ex-wife said she had loved it and said it had been worth the ride down to see.
But the more I had seen of him the more suspicious I became. There was something just not right with him.
He was up on stage doing his act making the pitcher float around over the table and pour water here and there. Then all of the sudden he was glaring at me. I went to move back from my seat near the stage but couldn't get up. I was frozen to my seat. The pitcher was over me now, pouring a torrent of water on my head until I was sputtering and gagging on ice water. The people around me thought it was part of the act and clapped and laughed. I knew I was drowning as Torgo smiled at me with satisfaction in his eyes while gallons of water rained down on me.
"You can stop snoring now. We're home."
I blinked awake. It had been a bus-induced nightmare. I was still shaking from it though as I gathered our things and followed Mary down the aisle.
After three consecutive weekends in either big cities or the tourist Mecca of Branson this weekend at home seemed rather dull.
I wasn't on the schedule but I went to the club anyway and talked them into talking me into helping out that night doing odd jobs and filling in at the bar. I needed to do some thinking and the best way to do it was to be mindlessly filling mugs with beer and telling a waitress, who was too old and too tired for the makeup and outfit she was wearing, that she looked spectacular.
I remembered an old maxim I had heard years ago. And it seemed to apply here. "The simplest explanation is probably the correct one."
Over-complicating things was an occupational hazard I had faced many times. I had been trying to explain his tricks with his apparatus. Gimmicks and magnets and strings. All the usual suspects. Maybe I had been looking in the wrong place. Maybe the 'magic' was with the magician.
I loaded the glassware washer and thought about the things he could do to pull off some of his tricks. I conceived marvelous plots. He hypnotized the entire audience and suggested the entire routine as a visualization. Maybe he was actually a futuristic robot using power beams and holograms.
Then once again I was faced with that maxim. I needed more study of him and I didn't think I would be able to get my answers from the audience.
Now was when working for the club came in handy. The next day I caught the entertainment manager and talked her into letting me see who was appearing at the other properties owned by the company that ran our club. He wasn't booked by name into anything in the next month. But then I did some more looking. There was a vaudeville tribute that promised an evening of rollicking entertainment. I wrote down the resort's name and when I got home looked it up. There was a blurb touting the show on their main page with the cheerful notice that choice seats were still available.
OK. I clicked on the link to the ticketing page, then on the one for more information on the acts.
Once again, Torgo's name was there in with the supporting acts and no picture, no 'The Amazing-' in glittering letters. Just 'Torgo the Magician' listed with an American Indian drum and dance group and a 'Hugh the Jokester' under the headlining stars.
I called the hotel and explained that I had worked backstage at a variety show at our club and wanted to know if they needed help directing traffic for the night. They took my name and number and said the stage manager would call me back the next day.
Not only did he need help, he asked me if I could bring a couple of other guys with me.
"Whoever you bring with I'll pay and feed, and you'll get a room for the night so you don't have to drive back at midnight." Were Mr. Thornston's exact words.
I talked a couple of the other part timers at the club into coming with me. Rob was about five years my junior, Steve was in college and had just bought a new sportscar and was dying to take it on a road trip. A hundred miles on the highway, and getting paid for it too, was just what the doctor ordered.
I called Mr. Thornston back and told him about the help I had. He was delighted, then he dropped the bomb on me. "You don't mind crossing picket lines do you?"
"No sir. I haven't been in a union for thirty years."
I wedged myself into the backseat, which wasn't too bad once you were in it, and got ready for the ride. Actually, it was rather comfortable, OK, his music wasn't my music, or Rob's either for that matter, but we both survived. And the car absolutely flew on the interstate.
The strikers were being kept on the sidewalk along the street and we simply drove in like we were just passing through. I did feel a pang of guilt, but it passed.
Mr. Thornston handed us meal tickets and pointed us at the dining room with much thanks for 'saving his backsides' tonight.
Since I was the oldest and nominally the most experienced I was drafted as stage manager. Steve was nominated as head grip for the night. Rob got to be the gopher and traffic cop. We went through the schedule and who needed what while we ate then we took our coffee and walked back to see the setup and find the flowered horseshoe for a skit.
They had packed a lot of acts into two and a half hours. Several large trunks with 'Torgo the Magician' carefully printed on them caught my attention. But I didn't see him or his assistants anywhere around. But looking through the paperwork I did discover that Torgo was basically the man's real middle name, it was really Torgas, which rather impressed me since I thought it was a completely made up stage name.
We lined things up and talked to the first several acts. About an hour before it was to begin one of Torgo's assistants showed up and checked their cases. Her backstage pass said she was Katheryn DeNoss. I recognized her as the one that usually stood to Torgo's left on stage. She wasn't in costume and makeup yet, but she was still very pretty, and very professional.
I asked her if everything was all right and she nodded sharply, "It's all here and the stage looks good. Thank you."
Then I asked her if she needed us to do anything special besides clear the stage from the act before them. "No sir. We'll handle it before and after. Thank you."
There was nothing else to say. I admired her figure for a moment as she held up her costume for tonight and made sure it was good to go. Then as she checked the other woman's things I went to see if anybody had found the flower horseshoe.
The show started less than three minutes late, which from my experience is a miracle worthy the lead spot on that one TV show about divine intervention.
As the night progressed I kept an eye out for Torgo himself. His other assistant, Mae Hughes showed up and changed in the women's dressing room. She was just as pretty as Ms. DeNoss and no less professional. Together they checked the props and apparatus. I knew Torgo had signed out his backstage pass, or at least one of his assistants had signed for him. But nobody had seen him. The assistants didn't seem to be worried so I rousted out Steve and helped set up for the horserace skit, without the wreath. It was corny, and campy, and slapstick, and it seemed to be a hit.
The out of work TV star cracked a few lame jokes and introduced the act before Torgo. I made sure they were out there and going, then I went to see the magician and his crew and give them the five minute signal.
The two pretty women were there, in costume, setting up his stuff. He wasn't anywhere around.
"Is Mister Torgo here?" I asked holding my clipboard.
"Yes sir. We'll go on on schedule." Ms. Hughes said with a stage smile.
"OK. Four minutes." I said checking my watch.
"Thank you." Ms. DeNoss said with the same smile.
Torgo wasn't in the men's dressing room. He wasn't in the restroom. I asked Rob if he'd seen anybody that looked like a magician when he was last out front looking for the horseshoe. He simply wasn't there.
The skit was winding down. Steve and Rob went to help clear the stage. I nodded to the MC who pattered for a minute. The guys cleared the drums and stuff with the help of the group. But then the women rolled out the magic set without assistance.
"Thank you, but I've got it." Ms. Hughes said as Steve tried to help her with a large chest.
The actor was introducing 'Torgo the Magician and his Lovely Assistants Mae and Katheryn' and I still hadn't seen him.
I fought the urge to run out and interrupt him and announce that Torgo was missing. If it was going to be a bust, I wasn't going to stop it.
The two women set the box up on the boards right in the middle of the stage and made a show out of showing there was no trap door under it. Then they covered it for a second with the cloth so the boards and the bottom half of the box were still visible.
And the cloth stood up and was swept away as Torgo bowed to the crowd's applause.
I was flabbergasted.
I know the man on sight and he hadn't been anywhere near the backstage area or the front of the house that I could see from my perch in the last two hours.
Now I could closely observe with a practiced eye his tricks from close range.
And I couldn't tell any more about them than I could from halfway back in the audience in Branson.
There were no gimmicks. It was that simple.
I stared at the floating water pitcher. It was a levitating water pitcher.
I watched the ping pong balls simply appear, then disappear.
I watched him do all sorts of tricks with a rope including his 'skyhook' which I had only seen once before. There was nothing above to hold it, and it ended a foot from the floor, and he climbed it and waved his hand over the end a dozen feet from the floor.
Then for his last trick he did something new. I had seen every variation of the linking rings there was, and I had a set of small ones that I did a few tricks with. But I had never seen anything like this. He wrapped one ring in a white scarf, then the other ring in a red one. Then he threw a blue cloth up in the air and as it floated down he slammed the two wrapped rings together catching it in the middle. Then he held up the result. A brightly colored American flag hung from the two linked rings as the audience clapped and cheered.
Once again it was accompanied by only the talk he or one of his lovely assistants needed to do to introduce the trick.
I couldn't explain any of it. Then the women moved the box back to the middle of the stage, he got into it as they played with his umbrella, then he, and the umbrella, were gone. The women held the box up and showed everybody that he had gone back to wherever he had come from.
I had almost forgotten to get the next group up watching the act. But before it was too late I had the singers lined up and waiting. As Torgo's empty box was being shown to the audience the members of the women's singing group were humming to themselves in anticipation of their big entrance.
Torgo's assistants only needed help getting their things through the throng of middle aged women as a minor traffic jam interrupted the smooth transition of acts. But in a minute they were singing and the assistants were packing and thanking me and Rob for our help. Then they were as much as shooing us away so they could get his stuff into its travel cases.
I went through the place quickly but thoroughly. Torgo was not in the building.
Ms. DeNoss thanked me for my assistance, then they wheeled the cases out to their van. On a hunch I went out as they were finishing up and looked.
Ms. Hughes drove. Ms. DeNoss was in the passenger seat. The back was full of cases and wardrobes and chests.
I think I would have been disappointed to see Torgo riding in the van, but I wasn't surprised that he wasn't there.
But I had to get back and arrange the closing act. A combined act of the Indian dancers and the women singers and the band doing a patriotic tribute. The star was holding Torgo's linked rings, which he couldn't unlink, and flag, but by then the black van with his assistants in it were miles away. As for Torgo himself?
Torgo had left the building.
After the production number I relieved the star of the rings saying I'd give them back to Torgo the next time I saw him.
I couldn't unlink them either. In fact, they weren't welded, they were sold steel cast as a ring. How he had managed this one I simply couldn't figure out to save me.
But I knew somebody that might be able to.
The next chance I had I took the rings, still with flag attached, to Bill in St. Louis.
"He didn't get them here. But I'd love to know where he bought them." Bill said appraising the rings. "In fact, I've never seen anything like these in catalogs."
"Could he have had them made just for him?"
Bill nodded. "But they'd be expensive." He examined them slowly in good light. "I don't even see any casting marks. This is quality work. I think they were cast together like this. I can't tell where they were joined."
"Look at the flag." I told him.
He looked at it, then he really looked at it. It hadn't been sewn onto the rings, it looked like the flag had been woven around them. "No seams, no stitching..." He paused. "How on Earth did they do that?" He put the entire assembly on the counter almost reverently. "OK. I'll say it. I'm impressed. And I'm jealous."
"And I am totally at a loss. How did he pull that off?"
"I was hoping you would the next time he comes in."
Bill's face went through a half dozen expressions in about four seconds. "Well. He never actually comes in. I don't think."
"Which girl does he send?"
"Sometimes both of them. I like Katheryn. She's really something."
I nodded and grinned. "I kinda like them both."
"So you think you're going to get him to teach you his secrets or steal away his help?"
"No. Neither. I'm just curious."
He picked up the rings and handed them to me. "So am I. If you find out where he gets them, even if they're special order, tell me."
Torgo's next few appearances were too far away for me to drive to. But he was soon back in the area to do a weekend set in St Louis. I invited Bill to go with me to see the master at work, and to try to get some insight into how he did his wonders.
We sat about four rows back on the left side and watched the opening magic act.
They were good, as far as it went. The applause was a bit generous. Torgo was next and did basically the same show he had done at the resort. Without his linking flag rings.
After Torgo we sat through the TV illusionist who was prepping his act for tomorrow's special. It was obvious he wasn't playing to the live audience and most of his tricks were overly transparent, but the audience was very forgiving after the sheer power of Torgo's routine.
After several minutes of the Illusionist's act we politely got up and walked out.
Bill stood outside and shook his head. "OK. I'd never looked at his act like that before."
"So what do you think?"
"I think I'll tell you whatever I can about anything you want to know."
End Part 1
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