Paul Gertner is an old-school magician, and not just because he started practicing decades before a woman named J.K. Rowling penned a few popular novels about wizardry. His signature style doesn't require complicated technology or Vegas-style glitz. He prefers card tricks over levitation.
"It's not a children's birthday sort of clown show," Gertner says about his show, Ten Fingers, A Play of Magic. "It's an adult sleight of hand."
The play follows Gertner's evolution as a professional magician. Like the fictitious Harry Potter and his dedicated followers, Gertner started out with his nose buried in a book. He was stumped after watching a magician perform at his school in second grade. "I could not understand what he did and then I realized you could actually go the library and figure it out."
It all started in his kitchen in the 1950s where he practiced tricks on his occasionally unwilling siblings. That's when Gertner was "bitten by the magic bug," he says.
"The minute you do a trick on someone and they say, 'How do you do that?,' that gives you a sense of power. Then you want to go back to the magic book to get that question again."
Although he learned a great deal from books, Gertner says he had to find mentors and teachers to progress to the next level. Those instructors would share secrets of the trade, which were not easy to find in the '60s and '70s when Gertner was learning.
"You couldn't go into any store and buy a book just because you were interested. You had to demonstrate your skill," he says. "It is like Harry Potter, when you go into the magic shop and they choose the wand for you. Nope, you can't have that one yet, too powerful. It was very much like that."
The second act of the play follows Gertner's professional career, including tricks he performed on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and a few he sold to David Copperfield. The finale centers on the illusion Gertner used to fool 400 fellow magicians and win the gold medal at the Olympics of Magic.
Fooling adults is the best part of his show, Gertner says, because he finds that many adults have given up on being fooled by magicians.
"When they see something happen literally right in front of their eyes, and the $100 bill winds up inside the lemon, or the finger ring I borrow from someone in the audience winds up in various locations, they realize this is magic for adults."
As a corporate entertainer, Gertner loves performing for engineers and doctors who pride themselves on their critical observation skills.
"A large percentage of my audience is very analytical people who come and enjoy seeing the magic because a scientist feels they should be able to figure out anything, and they enjoy being confronted with something they can't figure out."