Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Magic Memories

Yesterday's blog about Christmas memories reminded me of something that happened this past year. Something magical, you might say.

Way back in 2012, I posted about some magic sets I'd found at sales over the years. One of the sets was one I'd picked up even earlier, probably in the early 2000's: the Remco Sneaky Pete's Professional Magic Show.

The set was more toy-like than the Presto sets I'd received as a child, but still featured some neat tricks including the saw-in-half genie and vanishing genie (the genie pulled double duty).

In 2016, a reader named James Warren commented on the blog asking if I'd be interested in selling the set.  I'm not sure if he missed my response, or I missed his to mine, but at the time, I wasn't really interested in selling.  A couple years, later, this past May to be exact, he contacted me again.  This time I tracked him down on Facebook to talk.

As it turned out, this set held a special place in his Christmas memories and even played a role in the direction his life would take.

I don't remember when I stopped believing in Santa Claus.  But I do recall confirming my suspicions with my mother.  We ran the gauntlet that day, dispelling legend after legend. They all fell. Santa Claus. The Easter Bunny. The Tooth Fairy. It was summer and the holidays had passed, so no Easter or Christmas approaching.  I was between baby teeth and molars, so I had no skin (or teeth) in that game either. I don't recall being too upset.  In fact, I recall feeling very "grown up" knowing the truth.

For James, it couldn't have happened at a worse time: Christmas Eve.  But out of the death of one magic arose another.  And ultimately, the event left such an impact on him, he included the story in a book. With James' permission, I present the excerpt below.

Santa Claus and Sneaky Pete 

None of the other school children believed as I believed. Those few who still believed in Santa Claus by age nine seemed nevertheless to lack my passion and utter enchantment. Santa was more to me than a fun Christmas fantasy. Santa was the most wonderful thing in the world, the height of wonder, to which all the rest of days, those long, humid, summer, Pennsylvania days, and those chilly golden autumn days, aspired. Every creeping classroom minute and every school bell had this consolation, that it inched the year closer towards Santa magic. Santa was real.
In third grade I argued with kids on the playground at recess who said Santa was just your parents. They said Santa was just a fat man dressed up in a costume, and that there were a lot of them running around town. I argued that those were not the real Santa. The existence of cheap imitations did not disprove the reality of the Real Thing. Call it Santa apologetics. I didn’t convince anyone, but I was determined that they see the error of their ways, so back in class I tattled on them. I called them publicly to account. The teacher said that Webster’s Dictionary was the ultimate authority on everything, and that to solve this problem she would look up Santa Claus and see what the dictionary had to say. I no longer remember the definition she read, but I do remember quite vividly the last, triumphal thing Webster had to say on the subject: ‘There really is a Santa Claus.’ I settled smugly into my desk chair, confirmed and comfortable in a world firmly upheld by Daniel Webster – and a teacher who didn’t have the heart to break my heart.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on TV, with its phony Santa climax, inaugurated the holiday season. I knew that wasn’t the real Santa, but it was a sign of the One soon to come. Then the lights went up in downtown York, a huge star shining brilliantly above center square, and every pole hung with wreaths and giant candy canes. We went to department stores and sat on plump Santa laps to recite our Christmas lists. I have a picture of one such experience, when I was six and my brother three. We’re sitting on Santa’s lap, both of us smartly dressed in ties and big warm overcoats. My brother is terrified and crying. And I’m sitting there with a big smile. Yes, I was a true believer, and December was the greatest of all months.
Then, finally, that night would arrive. A hush would fall over the house, and, it seemed, over the whole world. Something holy would descend, mingling reverence and awe with childish glee, pregnant with indescribably delicious anticipation. Sometimes that night would come with the falling snow, and nothing could be more wonderful. Riding home from the candlelight service at Christ Lutheran Church, sitting with my brother in the back seat of our family’s big Dodge Dart, I would thrust my face against the rear window and gaze upwards into the black rivers of night, teaming with giant white flakes that swirled like pebbles in current, and I would press my face against the glass, straining to catch a glimpse of reindeer hoofing the midnight gusts, listening for bells, laughter, a whip’s crack. I would stare high up into midnight’s dome, through the scattering white that pummeled the glass, yearning for a flash of red, a silver sleigh’s gleaming blade, a white beard’s trailing. Once I wound the window down and stuck my head right out into the freezing air, fervent in faith to taste that sight, real as the cold blasting my moist mouth. Santa was magic, and magic was real.
At home that night the stage was set: red stockings hanging from the mantel, the tree blinking red and blue and white and green, aflame with tinsel, and the floor beneath the tree conspicuously flat and empty, awaiting the visitation that would fill its cavernous emptiness with piles of colorful boxes wrapped in bright ribbons and bows. Mom put milk and cookies on a side table by the fireplace, and by morning they would be gone – mysteriously consumed. In our family, the whole charade was meticulously staged. To have the opportunity to really believe in magic, to walk in magic, to live and move and have one’s being in magic, if only for a few years, was a great gift. Some people have no hint of what it feels like to live in a magical universe. It was beautiful and lovely, and transported my child’s soul to a realm of transcendent consolation and joy.
It had only one disadvantage, which ultimately proved devastating: it was not real. And I, on the playground debating those children, had a parallel disadvantage: I was wrong.  Anselm wrote that God must exist, since God is that of which nothing greater can be thought; and that of which nothing greater can be thought’ would have to include existence, for if something does not exist, then it isn’t as great as it would be if it did exist. By definition, therefore, God must exist. At the age of nine I must have reinvented a similar argument: Santa must surely exit, because Santa was the greatest thing in the world, and the greatest thing in the world would be nothing if it did not exist. Santa must therefore exist. I was not surprised, therefore, to discover that Santa existed, by definition, courtesy of old man Webster. It was urgent for me that Santa exist. It offered consolation for all those school-weary days, those intolerable boredom days, those terrifying journey days on the bus trying to avoid harassment, and those playground embarrassment days, because of arms and legs scarred with eczema patches. It was consolation for those nights spent trying to sleep while biting a pencil in order to prop open my mouth, since my insanely allergic nose was so clogged with snot that I could not breath through it. It was consolation for those hot summer nights when terrors of the dark forced me to hide under sweat soaked sheets. I had, indeed, other rabbit holes that led to various Wonderlands, television and motion pictures being the most effective. These helped me along week by week, but somewhere in the back of my mind those weeks were all plodding towards the culmination represented by Christmas, pulled there by an immense, luscious, supernatural gravity, to which I seemed particularly sensitive. Yes, the gifts that suddenly materialized under the tree on Christmas morning were a thrill, and for a few weeks these became consolations and little rabbit holes of their own. But the gifts were only manifestations; I was charmed by the whole, underlying magic of the season.
In an ideal world, I would have discovered the truth on almost any quotidian day of the year: October first, perhaps, or March tenth; or, better yet, during summer solstice, when swimming pools and summer vacations had long since replaced the broken and worn out toys of the previous Christmas, when memories of Santa had faded like old jeans in the hot sun. That’s the ideal scenario. In the real world, it didn’t work that way. Instead, I discovered the truth on Christmas Eve night, just as I was going to bed, at the very peak of exalted anticipation, filled with hopes that this might be the Christmas I hear reindeer pawing the roof or wake up to the sound of Santa bounding up the chimney. My parents, perhaps thinking that I was carrying things a bit too far, given the recent incident at school in which I had tattled on my friends for not believing in Santa Claus, decided that I should know the truth. So they told me. They did it from the best of motives, but their timing could not have been worse. It was the most devastating experience of my life. I cried myself to sleep that night, and woke up Christmas morning red eyed, and completely numb. And then, amazingly, just as my world was going dark, a match was struck. A completely unexpected package awaited me under the tree that Christmas. It was my mother’s genius idea. As a girl, she had once been the assistant for a local magician, and she decided to buy me a magic set: the ‘Sneaky Pete Magic Set.’ It was enormous, and filled with colorful mysteries. Most outstanding was a large, ornate yellow plastic box, which could make objects placed into it disappear and reappear. There was also a small red vase: lower a rope into it, pull up on the rope, and the vase would mysteriously cling to the rope. There was a small blue plastic box and a cube with a different color on each of its six sides. Someone would place the cube inside the box, remembering which color is face-up, then place the lid back on the box. The magician would hold the box to his forehead, concentrate intensely, and reveal the chosen color. Best of all, however, was an eight-inch, exotic plastic lady, reclining on a plastic divan. The magician would cut her in half with a metal saber (the only thing in the set, I think, not made of plastic), then lift her triumphantly from the divan to reveal her back in one piece! And still more miracles: a set of three plastic red cups through which little balls penetrated as they traveled uncannily from one cup into another. There was also a plastic (of course) tray which would magically multiply the coins placed into it. These, along with other less visually appealing but nevertheless intriguing tricks, captivated me instantly. I disappeared into my bedroom with Sneaky Pete and had what might be called my first affair. It was love at first sight.
James turned Sneaky Pete into a career, performing for over a decade at Hollywood's private club for magicians, Magic Castle. He now performs magic shows as a magician for hire and is a member of IBM (no, not the computer company, the International Brotherhood of Magicians).

I knew after reading his story, Sneaky Pete deserved a better home than my closet shelf.  After working out a deal with James, Pete headed off to a new home with an old friend.

You can buy James' book "Jesus and the Magician" on Amazon and read the rest of the story.


  1. wow, what a touching story! i love that the magic set found a way to him, and that you were an integral part of its journey, considering your history with magic sets, too. it's the gift that gave twice
    : )

  2. Oh wow what a great story and a great ending with you helping him reunite with a piece of childhood that made him who he is today!! What a nice gift you have shared.


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