Today Special : National Smoke and Mirrors Day
Though the origin of National Smoke and Mirrors Day, March 29, is unknown, it most likely is intended both to promote appreciation of the art and skill of magicians who specialize in illusions and to remind us all to be wary of deceptive practices in daily life. Today, “smoke and mirrors” usually means that we’re being hoodwinked into believing something is true or that it is functional when it really isn’t. It’s a reminder that unlike Dorothy, we shouldn’t wait until the end to pull back the curtain to see if what we thought is real is actually masterful fakery.
HISTORY OF NATIONAL SMOKE AND MIRRORS DAY
Skill, secrecy, and deception have been driving the practice of the magical arts for centuries. Archaeologists have found the elementary cup and ball trick depicted on the wall of an Egyptian tomb. Priests were the main practitioners of magic in pharaonic Egypt, where they were seen as guardians of a secret knowledge given by the gods to humanity to ‘ward off the blows of fate’.
Real lector priests performed magical rituals to protect their king and to help the dead to rebirth. By the first millennium BC, their role seemed to have been taken over by magicians (hekau). Amulets were a source of magic power, obtainable from ‘protection-makers’, who could be male or female. Metal wands representing the snake goddess Great of Magic were carried by some practitioners of magic.
The classic technique of “smoke and mirrors” was in use by the 1770s in Germany. Johann Georg Schröpfer manipulated these elements to make it appear that an entity was hovering in the air. Schröpfer relied on a magic lantern, a primitive precursor of the slide projector, which paired a concave mirror with convex lenses and a candle for illumination, to create images.
Schröpfer had established a breakaway Freemason lodge in Leipzig, founded on the assertion that only his group knew the true Masonic truths and only he could communicate with the spirit world. He bought a coffeehouse and renovated it as a venue where he held séances. After his death, other showmen carried on for him, serving up what came to be called Phantasmagoria shows. These shows specialized in supernatural sensationalism.
In 1865, a British academic created one of the most famous mirror tricks, the Sphinx Illusion, which was popularized by magician Colonel Stodare. The illusion claimed to reveal the disembodied head of the Sphinx, which had been cursed by a pharaoh. The underpinning of the illusion is two contiguous mirrors angled so that they reflect a surrounding background material, while the subject merely kneels behind with the head presented above the whole artifice. The detached head appears to float. This fundamental principle of reflection is still essential to deception.
HOW TO CELEBRATE NATIONAL SMOKE AND MIRRORS DAY
- Show us some tricks : Every town used to have a magic shop where kids bought their starter tricks and learned to develop some manual dexterity. It’s never too late to learn! Most of the shops are gone now, but you can go online and watch a video to learn the Spoon Bending trick and other classics.
- Watch Penn & Teller : Check your TV listings for their weekly show, “Penn & Teller: Fool Us.” You’ll be introduced to magicians from around the world who perform for the legendary duo and try to leave them guessing as to what their deception was.
- Google spoiler alerts : Aren’t you dying to know how David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear before a live audience? Many secrets are online now. You can Google the revelations, but be warned — you’ll have to live with the knowledge.
5 FACTS ABOUT MAGICIANS THAT WILL BLOW YOUR MIND
- Dai Vernon fooled Houdini : Dai Vernon bested Houdini’s boastful challenge that no one could fool him with the same trick three times in a row by fooling him eight times in a row.
- Houdini swallowed keys : Harry Houdini performed many tricks that involved escaping from handcuffs by regurgitating keys he had swallowed backstage.
- Criss Angel tops YouTube : Criss Angel is the most-watched magician on YouTube, with more than 60 million people worldwide viewing his “Walk on Water” illusion.
- David Copperfield makes more money : With 18 Emmy Awards for his TV specials, David Copperfield is considered the most commercially successful magician working today.
- Siegfried and Roy produced cartoons : The illusionists who rocked Las Vegas with their big cats were executive producers of an NBC animated sitcom, “Father of the Pride,” about a white lion who gets a gig in the famous act.
WHY WE LOVE NATIONAL SMOKE AND MIRRORS DAY
- Magic recalls childhood : As a young kid, you probably went to a birthday party where a magician pulled a quarter out from behind a friend’s ear. Nothing ever replaces that sensation of being innocent and experiencing something you can’t believe is possible.
- Many magicians are superstars today : Celebrity magicians and illusionists including Penn & Teller, Criss Angel, David Copperfield, Mat Franco, and David Blaine perform on television specials and in elaborate Las Vegas shows. Lance Burton’s Las Vegas show ran for more than 30 years.
- Being fooled challenges us : Even though we know that the magician’s tool kit of “smoke and mirrors” contains misdirection, duplication, false bottoms, and manual dexterity, we enjoy knowing we’ve been deceived and trying to figure out how that happened. Magic makes our brain refuse to accept what our eyes claim to have seen.