HERE is a GREAT CLIP of Steve doing stand up Comedy Magic.


Kranzo Interviews Spill

Steve how long have you been in magic and what got you started?

Paraphrasing Vernon…  I’m not a young man.  I’m 56 years of age and have been studying magic over 51 years.  I wasted the first five years of my life.  Some say I wasted over 51 years.  

My father’s father was a tailor in San Francisco.  Around 1910 he sewed some secrets pockets in a magician’s tuxedo.  I don’t know who that magician was, but he was a vaudeville dove worker.  The guy was impressed with the tailoring, besides paying him, he taught my grandfather three simple magic tricks.

My grandfather loved those tricks, he showed them to everyone.  He passed that love onto my father, who passed that love onto me.
My father, Sandy Spillman, was a local media personality in San Francisco.  In the late 1940’s he switched from radio to TV where he became a big fish in a small pond at KPIX channel 5, hosting local quiz shows, talk shows, and doing the news.  In 1960 our family moved to Los Angeles so my father could make his assault on Hollywood.

Dad had some success in Hollywood as a writer, director, actor, whatever.  But it was a feast or famine existence that required a lot of knocking on doors, auditions, interviews, pitches.  Along the way he met Bill Larsen, who at that time was a producer at CBS who, along with his bro Milt, had recently started the Magic Castle.

Bill offered my dad a job as a host at the Castle, which lead to his job as manager, a position he held for twenty years.

You spent time at the Castle when you were young.  You were there when guys like Miller and Vernon were still around.  We always hear stories about those guys.  Any particular memories of hanging with those guys you could share?

Vernon liked to sip brandy, puff on cigars, discuss yesterdays, usually with a little grin on his face… the sort of half smile that seemed to say, “I know something you don’t know,” which was always true.  They called him the Professor, and the Professor had a nick-name for me, he said “Your last name is Spillman but at this point you’re still a boy.  You should drop the “man” and go with the name “Spill,” you’ll have plenty of time later to be a man.  No,no,no.  Don’t do it.  For the sake of magic it’s better to remain young at heart”   The nick-name stuck and eventually Spill became my legal name.

More than anyone, Vernon helped me become a dedicated craftsman and encouraged me to experiment, explore, and find my way by trial and error.  No matter how foolish I looked doing a trick, no matter how poorly I performed some sleight, on the next attempt, he pushed me to be more focused, more confident, more relaxed.       

I spent a great deal of 1969-1972 ditching school and hitchhiking to the Magic Castle Wednesdays around noon.  The Castle wasn’t open in the day, but I’d sneak in through the kitchen and go straight to the Irma Room.

I arrived in time to meet Vernon, who would be finishing up his piano lesson, given to him by Ray Grismer, a retired teacher and expert magician himself, who traded piano lessons for sleight-of-hand instruction.  I was there for the same reason, lessons in sleight-of-hand.  Sometimes I picked up sleights from both of them.

Often the Professor and I would go out to eat, or I’d help him shop.   He drove an old MG convertible with leather seats and a walnut gearshift.  We wouldn’t go far, but it was always an adventure.  The Professor was not a particularly fast driver, but it seemed to me that he often narrowly missed lamp posts, curbs, and other cars.    

He was, however, a great teacher.  I learned dozens of different methods of palming, forcing, controlling cards, false deals, false cuts, false shuffles, double lifts, the pass, the shift, the hop

Charlie Miller was equally at home with coins, cards, or apparatus magic and was probably a much more qualified expert on magic in general than Vernon.   Johnny Thompson likes to say that if Miller had lived at a different time than Vernon, than Miller would be known as The Professor.

As a teenager, my sleight-of-hand creations started appearing in various magic journals and I was particularly honored when one of my tricks was published by Charlie Miller in his monthly “Magicana” column.  

One Magicana was devoted to a card sleight I devised called The Push Thru Change.  Having contributed to other magic publications I knew the drill.  What might take a couple hours to translate into print elsewhere, took Charlie and I days.   I performed my creation many dozens of times, while he watched from every possible angle, laying on his back to my left, standing on his toes to my right, looking from behind me over my shoulder, and so on.

“Now try it with your fingers on top and your thumb on the bottom to hide the elongation of the card during the change.  Instead of palming the extra card at the end, see if you can leave it face up in the deck.”  By the time my little doodad saw print it had been re-worked by Charlie into a masterpiece.

As a performer, Charlie was affable, with a kind of folksy charm that was easy to take.  Holding up an empty hand, “Imagine I’m showing you an invisible spool of thread,” Miller unwound some nonexistent thread.  “Do you see it?”  Two volunteers pretended to hold the ends of a long invisible thread.  “Don’t drop it.”  Charlie placed a pencil on his hand, so the point extended over the end of his fingers and the eraser end was in his palm.  He placed the tip of the pencil over the imaginary thread.  “Now, gently lift the thread and see if you can move the pencil.”  They both moved their end of the thread and the pencil moved upward.

His rendition of the Chinese Rice Bowls was charm personified.  He showed two china bowls and wiped them with a little towel.  One was filled with rice and the two were placed mouth to mouth.  Charlie whistled an Asian sounding tune.  When the bowls were separated the rice magically doubled in quantity.  The bowls were put back together, more whistling and the bowls were filled with water.  He was an expert whistler and the song he whistled, was written just for his rendition of this trick.  

When Charlie was in his late sixties, he started a new career as a performer on cruise ships.  He entertained passengers while developing an interest in ballroom dancing, which kept him in contact with the ladies.

I've always been a HUGE fan of Francis Carlyle and I've heard some amazing stories about him.  What was it like meeting/hanging with Carlyle?

I once saw Carlyle play chess without any chessman or a board. The two men memorized the board and all the positions of the pieces. They spoke the moves to each other. This wasn't a joke, it was a real game.

He loved classical music, particularly played solo on piano, and listened constantly on a tiny tape recorder in his apartment, the Nirvana, where a lot of the old timers like Charlie Miller and Senator Crandall also lived.

He was one of the first to do sponge balls and the guy that gave the trick to Goshman. Everybody wasn't doing it in the old days because you had to cut your balls from foam rubber or natural sponge. It was difficult and time consuming to make a nice round matched set. Goshman came up with a way to mass-produce them and I was with Carlyle when he was handed one of the first manufactured sets. Carlyle was amazed, happy, and depressed all in the course of a minute or two. He couldn't believe how uniform the balls were and that they could be made in any size... and how well they handled.

Then he became angry and depressed when he realized this unique trick would become widespread.  Francis Carlyle had a retention sponge ball vanish like none I've ever seen since, great wrist watch steel, cups & balls with the baby chicks ending... From Carlyle I learned never to be boring and he certainly never was. Fast and funny with that heavy New York accent, kinda like Henny Youngman.

Unfortunately, as you probably know, Carlyle drank terribly and many a time he could be found on the floor of the tiny dressing room behind the close-up room. He would stagger out and in some miraculous way do his act, stagger back behind the curtain and collapse. I always looked forward to spending time with Francis, when he was sober, because I'd always leave with something to think about.

One time he told me he had a formula for settling all the debts in the world. He said it would work with any amount of money, but to make it simple he described it with ten people who all owe each other ten dollars. He said, "The problem is to get the first ten dollars, so you bring them together and they each put up one dollar apiece. Then they give the ten dollars to the first man, he pays the ten dollars to the second man, he pays it to the third man, and so on until the ten dollars gets back to the first man. He returns a dollar to everyone, and they're all out of debt." I think he was drunk when he figured that out.

Have you ever had a mentor or teacher per say?
I had many mentors growing up at the Castle in the 1960’s.   At their best, there were none better than Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller, Francis Carlyle, Kuda Bux, Tony Slydini, Senator Crandall… and so many others, all of whom are rolling in their graves because I didn’t mention them.  I was so blessed to have watched this cast of characters.  It was an incredible time.   I craved their attention and absorbed by osmosis their lessons.  Each one had his own trick, a nuance, a personal way of doing things, a lesson, a gesture, a story, a philosophy, an attitude…  I took something from each of them.

At what point did you start incorporating comedy into your magic?

Right from the beginning.  I did my first public performance at six. The Hesby Street Elementary School talent show.  A small auditorium, stuffed with parents and kids.  I’m in the spotlight, wearing a top hat and a homemade cape.  All eyes were on me. The crowd is listening to every word.  You could hear a pin drop... when I screwed up the vanishing handkerchief trick.

The fake sixth finger I was wearing fell on the ground and, everybody, saw it.   I said, “This trick is really hard to do when wearing a fake finger!”  That was funny coming from a six year old, the audience cracked up, and I was home free.   

In that moment an instinct had come over me, and kind of told me how to get a laugh. I think it made me feel like a sense of humor could get you out of a jam, not only on stage but in life.

When did you start doing stand up? 
In the early 1970’s, long before there were comedy clubs and open micnights.  I practiced and polished my act at non-pay showcases and hootenanny nights all over Los Angeles.  Clubs ran these shows on off nights and people could see me, along with folk singers, angry poets, and comics at the Troubador… The Show Biz, owned by Murray, a guy who became famous for his appearances as the Unknown Comic on TV’s The Gong Show… The Palamino, a cowboy hangout…  hippiecoffee houses like The Third Eye, Whole Earth…    

Did you ever do straight stand up or did you always combine the magic?
Yea, sure.  I’ve always had a few stand-up hunks without magic.  But I’ve never done an hour or two of straight stand-up without magic, not really in my blood.  

Did you go on the road like most working comics or did you stay around LA and work all those clubs?

My comedy club tenure was in the 1980’s.  My home club was the Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, the only LA club that really welcomed magicians on a regular basis.  I met and performed there with Steven Wright, Bill Hicks, Dennis Miller, Louie Anderson, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, before many knew who they were.

A number of national bookers frequented that spot and at that point there were about 500 comedy clubs coast to coast.  I worked around the country at Laff Stops, Comedy Stops, Funny Bones, Punch Lines, Yuk Yuks in Canada and a number of independent clubs and one-nighters.

When I first heard about you it was from the effect Grab and Stab.  Its great magic/mentalism with a huge dose of DARK HUMOR.  Dark Humor seems to be a theme in a lot of my favorite Steve Spill effects.  When did you start adding more of the DARK effects?  Is that something that came out more when you started doing clubs?
It probably goes back to my childhood love of films like The Mummy, Frankenstein, Dracula, Creature from the Black lagoon.  I subscribed to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, evenin my 20’s I used to read all the Stephen King stuff..  

As a young comedy club worker I didn’t have that much life experience to talk about, so when it came to things to do with my magic – the macabre like Grab & Stab or Blood From Stone, the Needles, Voodoo Doll, gave some character to my performances.  I also did a lot of silly stuff like my Mindreading Goose, my Cloroxo character, etc.  

I’ve grown and changed since then.  Nowadays both the silly and the macabre play only small roles in my shows.

There are a ton of guys that would love to be funny.  And a lot of guys that would love to be able to work comedy into their act and create original material like you.  What would be the biggest piece of advice you could give to a young guy wanted to do just that????
Being funny and creating original tricks are two different things and there’s plenty of opportunity for  to make a career at either or both.  The most important piece of advice I can give is not to take anybody’s advice.  Somehow, someway, that individual will find himself.  He’ll see it, he’ll learn it… he’ll do it if he has the capacity for it.

That said, I can share a little bit about how I work.  I usually start with a premise.  Everywhere you go people are talking about how overweight Americans are.  What would it be like if I came on stage weighing 350 pounds, and instantly, visibly, I lost 200 pounds?  And it looked magical, without any apparent props or accessories.  Now I have what could be an interesting effect.  From there I would make a few sketches, jot down some joke ideas.  

It can also work the other way.  Maybe I discover a cool method and create a trick for it.  It works both ways.  During my daily activities funny things occur to me.  Ideas for tricks, jokes, premises...  I write them down.   

Three things:  Don’t be afraid to fail, I’m always thinking of things that suck.  Do as many shows as you can.  Don’t give up.

Please tell me a little bit about making that leap from that to presenting a bigger scale show with illusions etc.....and how the transformation has made you grow.  Would you mind giving a brief description of the show?  Just curious for guys who have never been or are thinking about going.  : )

The best thing about doing a two hour show in my own theater is that I can do what I want to do, and most of the people are coming to see me, or at least they’re coming to see magic.  Magicopolis started back in 1998, and even though it comes with the price of big responsibility and time demands outside the realm performing, these have been my best performing years ever.

I’m not ungrateful for previous years because I’ve felt lucky my entire life, but even the best of my former gigs were always compromises in terms of performing to some degree.  A sacrificial lamb warming up crowds for celebrities, filling slots in tits and feathers revue shows, doing clubs where they’re counting laughs per minute, corporate gigs, cruises...  Always fitting into someone else’s agenda.

But it took those things to have the freedom I have today.  I’d say my entire life is squeezed into Magicopolis and it’s the realization of a lifelong dream.   I do the show with my wife, Bozena, who is an accomplished actress (or one of her three understudies when she’s elsewhere) and we do standup comedy magic together and separate, sketches, drama, danger, mind reading, and the entire show has an autobiographical thread through it.  Even the big illusions like the Table of Terror, Sawing, and so on, all have a very personal stamp on them.  The Levitation takes place in the context of a psychiatrist office scene, Dekolta Chair is part of a séance, etc.

Unlike much of my previous work where to a degree I was hiding behind the tricks, in this show I feel like I open myself up in front of the audience.  Besides the comedy and magic that draws people in…  There are big doses of heart and soul and intimacy and IQ, which is why I think this show has a greater multi-generational appeal than anything I’ve ever done in the past.

You recently started releasing some of your CLASSICs the last few years.  The big one was the Mind Reading Goose.  Recently you released the Blood From Stone which is a fantastic visual gag that Penn and Teller loved and even paid you for its use. 
Yes “Blood From Stone” started as a visual gag, but I put it my show recently, worked on it diligently…  Now it’s become a full-blown routine with about A DOZEN HUGE BELLY LAUGHS.   When I did it way back when, it made a memorable funny impression. NOW IT’S AN ABSOLUTE BLOCKBUSTER!  CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFO ABOUT HOW TO ORDER!!!

I hear that you will also be re-releasing the Eye Popper soon.  I can't wait....LOVE THAT effect
It’s coming but I don’t know when.

Have you been working on anything new?  Whats next?  What are your main goals in and magic?  Ok thats a bit too much.  What are your plans for next weekend?

I’m always working on something new.  If I thought I had done what there was to be done, for me as an individual, a lot of things would be over for me instead of just beginning.  I’m still the fool who believes that tomorrow’s the first day of the rest of my life.  And tomorrow is the first day of the rest of my thinking too.

Right now, I’m about thirty percent in on creating a 100% new one man show to run on Wednesdays and Thursdays at Magicopolis.  It’s a memoir about my journey in magic from a child to twenty-one. I’ve created a number of new bits for this as well as dusting off and revamping some oldies but goodies. Each week I’m audience testing new hunks and my goal is to launch the new show in about six months.

You have worked as a consultant for some famous magicians.  Curious if you have a favorite project you consulted on.

Back in the 1980’s comedian Bruce Baum had a great idea for a short film called “Dr. Goldfarb: Physician/Magician” which aired on FOX’s “Sunday Comics” show.  Bruce was the star of the film and he was hilarious.  

The logo on his scrubs outfit was an “X” made from a scalpel and a magic wand and all the “patients” were other comics.  We had a guy on a gurney cut open and his intestines were rising like the Indian Rope Trick, a Zombie sort of removal of a patient’s hunch back, amputated legs that ran away from the patient.  There were a bunch of great bits and it was a lot of fun to do.

What is your favorite effect you have ever created?
My favorite is always the next thing I’m working on.

If you are put on the spot to do one thing what is it usually?  Either your effect or someone elses.  Doesn't matter.
I’m never really put on the spot because when I’m not working I’m not working. I know there are magicians who are “on” all the time.  That’s not me. It’s nice to be recognized as a magician.  That’s acceptance and it makes me happy, we all want to be accepted and recognized for what we do.

But come on…  I do 250 shows a year.  This is my profession, not a hobby.  If someone asks me to do a trick when I’m out and about, I’m nice, but I’m not a wind-up monkey that performs on command.  I encourage them to come see my show.   

I know a lot of performers in LA but, other than magicians, I can’t think of any who perform at the drop of a hat.  Chris Rock might be stopped on the street for an autograph or picture, but I don’t think he feels obligated to be funny and tell a few jokes.  Bob Dylan is a casual acquaintance, when I see him I would never think of asking him to sing a few bars or write me a poem.

Any chance we'll ever see Steve Spill ROCK a magic convention again or give a Kick ASS lecture????

I never say never, but doing lectures/conventions is not something I have an interest in at this time.

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Thats all for now folks.  Please give me your feedback about this article and let me know if you have any more questions you'd like me to ask Steve.  Thanks guys!