Magic Man-ny

It’s all in the hands, magic.

You sense the deception when you see those fingers start to move, crunch into a fist, then blossom into a bare palm. You watch the ball or coin disappear before your eyes and reappear in the magician’s pocket. There is a strange delight in being tricked by a magician.

Manny Sperling has those hands. On his, he wears a gold ring with black stone, a homage to his idol, Harry Blackstone Jr. He wears a gold bracelet and a gold watch with a black leather band. The hands move precisely, but effortlessly. Every motion is calculated, but graceful.

Today he’s doing what he does best, close-up work. It’s not the type of illusion where some TV magician steps into a tornado of flame or encloses himself in a block of ice. It’s just you and the magician.

You stare at those hands, inches away, determined not to let them fool you. But they always do. Manny Sperling’s made a living on it.

“Do you have a dollar bill?” Sperling asks a man in the audience, who cautiously hands him the bill. “This is your dollar bill. As I fold the bill, I’ll ask you if it’s face up or down. While we’re doing this, I want you to keep one important fact in mind: This dollar bill represents an investment in this company and the return you can get in that investment. Are you ready?”

The man nods, a slight grin on his face, perhaps aware of what will happen next.

Manny folds the bill into a small half-inch square. Then, as he unfolds it, after each fold asking the man if it’s right side up or down, we begin to see George Washington has disappeared, replaced by Ben Franklin.

“At this point, this is the return on the investment,” Sperling says. “Unfortunately, I’m required by the rules and regulations of the various magic groups I belong to, to return your dollar bill investment, the way I got it. See the $100 bill? Kiss it goodbye.

The audience laughs, unaware that Sperling has just planted a powerful and positive message about the company he’s working for. It’s what marketing is all about.

“If you put magic with what you want to get across to either your clients or your staff, you heighten the percentage of what they remember because of what they see,” Sperling says. “Magic is probably the most nonthreatening form of entertainment in a client’s booth because people will stop to watch a magic show. They’re pretty confident that they’re not going to get pounced on around your booth.”

Sperling’s love of magic began at age 7, when his father bought him a magic cup and balls set at a local magic shop.

The childhood fascination remained with him as he grew up. After college, he taught speech, drama, radio, television and communications before taking a position as a consultant for an audio-visual company selling closed circuit television or rear screen projection systems.

Today, Sperling’s main act is entertaining crowds of people at trade shows under the company name Magic Concepts. He doesn’t go for the hard sell in his act, but he never lets a captivated audience slip away without delivering key messages about the company he’s representing that day.

“About 80 percent of what I do in the booth is sheer entertainment,” Sperling says. “What’s fun for me is I try to learn enough about the company and its products. Not to be a salesman for them, but many times after I finish a show in the booth, if all of the salesmen are busy, if I notice somebody standing and looking, I’ll ask, ‘Can I help you?’ They’ll ask if such and such is correct about the product. I’ll say, ‘Yeah. Everything I said about the product is absolutely correct and absolutely true.'”

Early in Sperling’s professional magic career, he performed at a water treatment equipment trade show for long-time client JWI Inc. in Holland, Mich. He performed a trick in which he transforms a cup of water into a glob of dry material after a dash of magic dust and a “hocus pocus.” The trick delivered the message that JWI’s wastewater treatment equipment could take waste and sludge from a city’s sewer system and transform it into a dry, environmentally friendly material in one simple step.

After the trick, a soft-spoken man approached Sperling and asked if the information about the equipment was true.

“I told him I knew it was true because I read the literature, saw the equipment and talked with the people in the lab that developed it,” Sperling says.

The man thanked Sperling and left.

Six months later, David Spyker, president of JWI, called Sperling to thank him because the man he had spoken with was a city wastewater treatment operator and had bought a $250,000 piece of equipment. The man turned out to be a magic fan. Otherwise, he never would have stopped at the booth. He had never even heard of the company.

“The thing you need to do at these trade shows is to get the client to cross that magical yellow line into your booth,” explains Spyker. “In our business, you’re dealing with operators of wastewater plant and water treatment plants. These are not high-profile, glamorous occupations. A lot of these individuals tend to be reserved.

“So you have this reserved individual, he may be too shy to step across that line and look into your booth. Manny was able to draw that moment’s hesitation out of that individual, so they stick around to see what he has to say. That’s exactly what he did with this guy.”

Thirty years ago, Sperling and his wife had just finished eating dinner at the home of his accountant and his accountant’s wife.

The accountant asked if they would like to see some magic tricks, to the surprise and delight of Sperling. He had no idea his close friend knew any magic tricks.

“He took out a little table and a deck of cards and for about 20 minutes, he frustrated the daylights out of me,” Sperling says. “To tell you the truth, it fascinated me and frustrated me at the same time, sitting right next to him watching this.”

The evening rekindled his childhood fascination with magic and the feeling lingered for rest of the weekend. The following Monday, fate struck again. He was downtown after a client meeting, and instead of stopping at a nearby cafe for lunch, something caught his eye. It was Snyder’s Magic Shop in Public Square.

“I walked in, and the place was just jam-packed with stuff,” he says. “Unless you’ve even been in a magic shop, you walk in and you can’t believe there’s that much stuff. I bought the trick my friend did and I bought two decks of cards and a book on card magic.

“When I got home that evening, I sat down with the book and the deck of cards for about three hours because I was fascinated by what I was reading and what I could do.”

For the next two years, Sperling practiced magic at home and performed occasional card tricks at parties just for fun. Then the word started to spread. He got a call from a woman who was throwing a mystical membership theme party, complete with a Tarot card reader, a Ouija board reader and a palm reader.

She wanted Sperling to perform a couple hours of close-up magic because she had seen him at a party doing his tricks.

“She asked me how much I charged,” Sperling says. “I had no idea. So I made something up. She said ‘Yeah, that’s more than fair.’ That was my first professional performance.”

The Tarot card reader turned out to be the assistant director of continuing education at John Carroll University, who asked Sperling if he’d like to teach magic in his spare time. Eight months later, he was teaching basic magic in the evenings to classes of more than 20 students.

“Some of the people that took the course were not only students, but salespeople who just wanted to learn enough magic or enough things so while they were out to dinner with a client, they could entertain the client,” Sperling says. “There wasn’t anything else they could do that would turn a formal situation into an informal, fun evening. It breaks down the air of formality when somebody does a little trick.”

If he’s not at a trade show or teaching a magic class, now at Yendor’s World of Magic, Sperling is entertaining at private company parties. He starts off those events blending into the crowd as if he’s one of the guests, but the ruse rarely lasts long, says Alan Schonberg, founder and chairman emeritus of Management Recruiters International.

“Manny is really a very warm, outgoing and empathetic person,” Schonberg says. “Because he is so engaging both before his act and during his act, people just like being there with him. He sizes up the crowd quickly and he plays toward their hot buttons, even when the audiences in some cases are as high as 800 people.”

How to reach: Magic Concepts, (216) 486-4540

Morgan Lewis Jr. ([email protected]) is senior reporter at SBN Magazine.