An Interview with Michael Ammar

Michael Ammar is one of the most influential magicians and cardists in the business, and he’s been that way for longer than many magicians have been alive.

An Interview with Michael Ammar

Michael Ammar pioneered the concept of magician lecture tours, traveling around the US and the world to instruct and teach students of all ages about the art of magic. Since getting started giving lecture-tours in 1982, he’s expanded his brand to include all kinds of material to help magicians be their best—including his latest project, MagicWorks U, coming out this summer.

Club 808: How did you first get interested in magic? Was there an event, a person who influenced you, a show you saw?

Michael: Bill Smith was an active, local amateur magician in my hometown of Bluefield, West Virginia, who really nurtured my early interest in magic. He took me to my first magic convention, which was the 1976 SAM convention in Philadelphia. Rick Johnsson was probably the first professional talent I knew personally, but probably the biggest influence on my personal performance style came from Irv Weiner, aka Mr. Fingers.

Over a 7 or 8-year stretch, I saw him perform at various universities throughout West Virginia, and right away I recognized in his performance a fulfillment of my own fantasies. Working for an audience of over 1,000 people, Irv would walk onto a stage that featured only a card table with a briefcase. He would proceed to thoroughly entertain for 90 minutes, earning 2 or 3 standing ovations along the way, with what would be considered Close-Up at a major magic convention. His act required no special lighting or sound, and everyone who saw his performance felt he was one of the nicest, most amazing people they’d ever seen.  In particular, I’ll always remember a dinner I shared with both Rick and Irv, during which I learned about the influence Irv once had on a much younger Rick Johnsson.

Beyond those early influences, I eventually moved from West Virginia to California in order to be closer to Dai Vernon, known as “The Professor,” and other great sources of inspiration that emanated from the Magic Castle. The opportunity to spend so much time with The Professor, and to immerse myself in the research for and production of the Dai Vernon Revelations video series in 1983 has influenced the trajectory of my career to this day.

Club 808: You’ve written many publications on magic techniques. What makes you want to share the art?

Michael: In the mid-1970s, magic information was very difficult to access, and I was passionate in my quest to learn more.  I would read everything I could lay my hands on, and when I found an author I liked or a knowledgeable mentor that would share with me, I felt incredibly rewarded. To me, information was the greatest gift a person could receive, and I spent years soaking up as much of it as I could.

To me, information was the greatest gift a person could receive, and I spent years soaking up as much of it as I could.

Eventually, it was my turn to pass something on and when I did, to my delight, giving was even better than receiving! But when it comes to teaching something either in print or on video, I think the early frustrations I experienced when I wanted to learn something have helped me know what information would be necessary for a young adult who had nothing else to go on, to completely understand. To this day, when I teach, my intent is to be as clear and complete as I would need to be, for an otherwise uninformed 15-year-old to understand.

Club 808: Which is your favorite trick to perform (or that you’ve written about in your publications)?

Michael: A good question. . . I only wish I had a good answer! It would be nice if I could quantify performances in such a way that I could give a definitive answer, but in reality, what makes a good effect is totally dependent on the audience and the situation in which it’s being done.

For example, if I’m in a room with a flat, white ceiling about 20-25 feet high, I can hardly think about anything else until I perform the Card on Ceiling.  But when I’m on a playground with my 8-year-old son, turning a few wood chips into a few pennies is the most amazing thing his friends have ever seen.
Ultimately, I think the nature of the question itself may be somewhat flawed, because a performance really should be about other people; and not the performer and what he or she might get the most pleasure out of. What pleases me is seeing the pleasure my performance generates.

Having said that, I’ll confess there are certain qualities about certain effects that may be worth mentioning. Effects like  “The Crazy Man’s Handcuffs” and “Coins Thru Silk” play well to both small and large groups. “The Card on Ceiling, “Shadow Coins,” “Albo Card” routines and “Bill to Lemon” make great stories for people to tell, which helps to create and sustain conversations about the experience long after the performance is over. “The Bill to Peanut” always feels satisfying to perform because the method puts a performer so far ahead of the audience it seems like no method is possible, and a performance of the Cups and Balls means I have a sophisticated audience willing to watch pure sleight-of-hand, and I always love that!

Club 808: What about the hardest trick you ever learned?

Michael: A real knuckle-buster I have performed on television a few times is “Roll Over Aces” by Derek Dingle. I have a countdown presentation that makes it particularly challenging. I only give myself 30 seconds and there is no room for error. There is a lot of technical shuffling while simultaneously talking to the audience. It is the kind of effect that requires me to practice several times the day I’m going to perform it, or I can’t do it. All things considered, it was a risky effect to use as a closer for my first appearance on The Tonight Show. Come to think of it, it was risky to open that appearance with the Floating Bill. . .

Club 808: Have you ever had a crazy audience reaction—whether a group or an individual?

Michael: For me, the most vocal reactions seem to be the result of “success” rather than from “astonishment.” There is a special dynamic in place when a magician initiates any given effect, because an audience naturally assumes the magician is always going to succeed. Even when a “mistake” seems to happen during a performance, even if the resolution is surprising, it is, to some extent, an assumed outcome.

On the other hand, if some truly daunting task is undertaken, such as a Card on Ceiling attempt on a ridiculously high ceiling, even a magician can become the “underdog” that wins the empathic, emotional support of the audience. I know I’ve attempted this effect at times when I really didn’t know if it would be possible. Because I’m not a good actor, the audience could tell that in a few seconds, I was either going to look like a hero or a fool. Since neither the audience nor I could tell what would happen, for once, we were all in the same boat of anticipation. In this situation, the reaction upon seeing the card successfully stuck to the ceiling becomes a jubilant cry of victory that exceeds in every way the reaction I could get from causing a card to come to the top of the deck, or the vanish of a coin or the appearance of a lemon under a cup.
In this respect, the Card on Ceiling also becomes the only effect I know in which a failure at a first attempt can end up creating a genuinely greater reaction if you succeed at a second attempt. There’s just something about the total commitment to the effect that increases the drama, because on a second attempt. . . well, nobody wants to go through all this again and have it not work, right? And yet, that first failure proves there’s no guarantee. . . So when you nail the second attempt that creates a reaction you just don’t hear in any other way during a magic show. Of course, you really do have to succeed on that second attempt. . .

But not all reactions should be judged by their volume. For a magician, the most satisfying reaction might actually be stunned silence. This took me awhile to understand what’s happening, because I expected applause. But on a few occasions I’ve had the marvelous experience of having silence from an entire audience for 3 or 4 seconds; which may not sound like much, but it feels like forever. . . followed by unanimous applause!

Club 808: We know you’re working on a new teaching course called MagicWorks U. Can you tell us more about it? What platform will you use—book, YouTube, a cross-media classroom on your website? What’s the goal of the course?

Michael: MagicWorks University is a Life Skills course camouflaged as a magic curriculum.  Something like The Karate Kid, but in reverse. In the movie, a karate student goes through a lot of real life exercises only to discover those same moves could be used in Karate. In MagicWorks U, the students learn magic principles and techniques through various exercises; only to discover those same principles and skills have real world applications.
The first “semester” of MagicWorks U will be 7 sessions of 90 minutes each. The content will be a mixture of live and video information combined with class exercises and performances. The size of each class would be a minimum of 12 and a maximum of 24 students. Currently, I see the minimum age as 13 years old, which basically means I would be talking to them in the same way I would to an adult, and it will be just as suitable for adults of any age.

The Goals of the Curriculum are:

  • To demonstrate the power and versatility inherent in the most basic techniques of Sleight-of-Hand.
  • To reveal the incredible range of effects that can be created when combining these sleights with everyday objects.
  • To recognize the final battleground for the experience of magic.
  • To acknowledge the vital role of non-verbal language during a performance.
  • To learn the overall importance communication itself plays in the experience of magic.

In early 2014 I’ll conduct a few sessions in the Orlando, Florida area, with the goal of using these first sessions to finalize the content that will be rolled out during the Summer Camps.

Club 808: Do you play cards with friends and family when you aren’t doing magic with them? What games?

Michael: I’m a professional sleight-of-hand artist. For some reason, no one wants to play cards with me.

I’m a professional sleight-of-hand artist. For some reason, no one wants to play cards with me.

When I first started performing at Caesars Magical Empire, the management requested I enter the showroom from the kitchen, not the casino.  Assuming, I suppose, I might use my powers for something other than entertainment.
But the reality is, that when I became a professional magician, playing cards, even with friends and family, turned into something of a no-win situation.  If I won, they assume I did something funny. If I lose, they imply I must not be as “good” as they thought!  In the end, it just became easier to do other things….

Club 808: What’s some advice for someone interested in pursuing a career as a magician or a cardist?

Michael: I have a client who has since become a good friend. He was a successful bank president. On the day he first drove me to his home, he told me a story on the way about how he’d always wanted to be a magician when he was younger. As we pulled onto his long, trimmed driveway he said, “I often wonder if I made the right choice.” I looked at his beautiful mansion, and with the appropriate theatrical pause I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Take it from me, you made the right decision.”
I have been asked this question many times and typically, my advice depends on the degree of passion I sense the person has for magic. If someone is asking if he should consider magic as a career, I encourage him to have a solid, stable career somewhere else, and save magic as a beautiful hobby. My banking friend has plenty of security from his “real” career and his perfect escape was an occasional performance for his friends and family on special occasions.
On the other hand, if I hear something like, “I’m going to become a magician, what advice do you have?” That’s different. For me, becoming a magician felt like the only thing that made sense if I truly wanted to be happy.  When someone feels like that, devoting 12-14 hours a day to something doesn’t seem like work, and that’s the mindset it takes to do something like this for a living.
But when you devote hours like that to something that’s a “job choice”… that starts to feel like a lot of work really quick. Ultimately, the ones that “make” it are the ones who still feel like those hours are something you GET to do; not what you’ve GOT to do.

Ultimately, the ones that “make” it are the ones who still feel like those hours are something you GET to do; not what you’ve GOT to do.

Now, when I can tell someone is GOING to do it, I’ll typically give this kind of advice. . . Always remember you will be in Show Business, and you have got to pay equal attention to both of those words. Because if there isn’t any Business, there isn’t going to be any Show; and if there isn’t a Show, there isn’t gong to be any Business. So devote as much time to the study of your business as you do the rehearsal of your show, and invest as much in your business as you would into any prop, and you should be okay.
Also, depending on where you are in your personal evolution, the best way to become a better performer is to perform as often as possible. Teller was the first person I heard reference performance time in the same way an airline pilot refers to his time in the air, and I thought that was a great way to look at it. If you have 400 hours of stage time under your belt, you are going to be a better performer than you were with only 200 hours of stage time. So the earlier in your career you start thinking about this, the more you should focus on increasing your Stage Hours.

Club 808: What makes you stay with magic after all these years?

Michael: Magic is a fraternity like no other. Honestly. I can’t imagine other fields of study where the members go to the trouble of looking one another up while in town – even if they’ve never met. Where they travel for hundreds of miles just to spend a few hours with you. I am humbled by the way I’m hosted in countries all over the world. I’m invited to homes, treated to special dinners, taken on personalized tours, it’s incredible. A friend once told me that a life in magic means you will live like a king without being one—and boy is that true. It’s been an amazing ride and I feel I’m just now hitting my stride! I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Club 808: Anything you’d like to promote or talk about?

Michael: We are in the process of designing a custom deck of cards. It will be called “The Magicians Cabinet” and has a lot of references to classic magic as well as other forms of magic. I’m still mulling over a few ideas with it, but this seems like the perfect place to mention that particular work in progress!

Club 808: Thanks for sharing with us!

If you’d like to find Michael on the web, check out AmmarMagic.com. You’ll find more info about him and all of his resources for aspiring magicians.

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