At dusk, a pack of magicians gathered around a long table in a conference room, not far from Salem's “Houdini Way.” They were ready with rubber bands, decks of cards, props and a cute, tawny rabbit.
“Peanut actually does a card trick,” Bill Jenson said of the bunny with a laugh. Jenson is president of the Society of American Magicians (S.A.M.) Witch City Assembly 104. “We're a group of men and women who meet together to talk about magic and do magic for each other.”
Salem has long been a mecca for magic. Master of illusion Harry Houdini famously escaped from a city jail cell here in 1906. But this local chapter of a historic, national magicians organization — once led by Houdini himself — is facing a shortage of members. Now its ranks are rallying with events to conjure new recruits.
As they waited for potential enlistees, Jenson eagerly shared a sleight-of-hand card trick he had up his sleeve. The retired U.S. Postal Service employee is a hobbyist who fell under magic's spell when he was a teen.
“It's great icebreaker,” he said. “You walk up to a table of people, start doing some magic tricks, and then the next thing you know you're getting invited to parties – and they always say, 'don't forget to bring some magic with you.”
Other society members are professionals. “We have some people that are clowns,” Jenson explained, “We have some people that do balloons or bubbles.”
Peter Jackson does standup, and family magic shows with his bunny assistant Peanut. “It's entertainment, and I enjoy entertaining people,” he said. “I get a big thrill out of it, I never tire of it.”
Jackson is the club's treasurer and has been with S.A.M. for 30 years. “You know, at one point we had as many as 60 active members.” Now there are about 20.
The national Society of American Magicians is the world's oldest magic organization. Founded in 1902, it boomed under Houdini's leadership between 1917 until his death in 1926. The Salem assembly's charter was granted in 1975, and the club's magicians have held monthly meetings for decades. They've also hosted lectures with guest luminaries. But a perfect storm of factors has been contributing to a drop in enrollment.
“People are so internet focused now that they're going online and learning things,” Jenson said. “And what they're missing out on is in-person mentoring, the nurturing.”
Jenson also pointed to the pandemic's shutdown of gatherings and the shuttering of magic shops. They hope recruitment sessions will prove their art form is best learned face-to-face, when — or if — some newbies show up.
“You don't want to expose all your secrets, but you want to give them a little taste of something so that maybe they'll come back another time,” Jenson said. “And then as you move up in the group, we have people who do everything from a basic card trick to sawing somebody in half.”
Kali Moulton joined S.A.M. six years ago and said it gave her the confidence to persue a career in magic. “As a kid in the '90s, there weren't any female magicians on TV,” she recalled. “It was male magician, female assistant. I wanted to learn how to do magic, but it didn't occur to me that that was a thing I could do.”
Now Moulton, 36, and her husband own their own company, Sages Entertainment. But she's watched the ranks of largely older gentlemen dwindle. “One way for this whole club to die out is if we don't get new magicians,” she said. “If we don't train new magicians, we don't have younger members to keep the club alive.”
Then, alakazam! A young neophyte walked through the door with his dad. William McLaughlin, 12, said he started doing magic after watching videos by teen YouTube star Dan Rhodes. “I just saw one of his tricks, and I slowed the video down,” McLaughlin explained, “and I decided to do some of them on my own.”
The seventh grader has been practicing, and has performed at his school. But he hasn't been able to find seasoned people to learn from in his hometown of Rockport. In Salem, McLaughlin was suddenly surrounded. One by one, the society's magicians regaled him with a repertoire of finely tuned illusions and some basic techniques.
“So Will, do you know how to shuffle a deck of cards?” Peter Jackson asked. After McLaughlin said he's not so great at it, Jackson replied, “Well that's ok, this is a great learning experience. There's the Faro Shuffle, an overhand shuffle, an underhand shuffle...” The list went on.
Moulton shared the reappearing Queen of Hearts routine that initially attracted her to magic. Stephen Silva broke out some rubber bands that seemingly melted into each other before unfurling a few of his own mystifying card maneuvers.
While the prestidigitation on display came off as effortless, Silva said magic is anything but. “You're trying to hide how difficult it can be, and that's an art in itself.”
Silva, 39, grew up in Salem, learned magic at a local shop, and performs “close-up” sleight of hand at corporate and family events. Even though he lives an hour away in Acton, he recently re-joined the society to help support the membership campaign.
“Magic is a very old profession,” Silva said, “Covid definitely put a hold on a lot of professional magicians careers temporarily, but I think that we're recovering, and as a club we're going to recover as well.”
The magic bug bit Silva when he was about Will McLaughlin's age, and the obsessed professional suspected the potential initiate would join the S.A.M. “I think he's hooked,” Silva said, adding, “If you believe in magic, you'll find it.”
According to the national Society of American Magicians, there are currently 150 active assemblies. Via email, president Rod Chow said he's not worried about the future health of the society. “Although national membership numbers have gone through declines and various cycles in the past, they have remained fairly steady.” In some regions, he added, enrollment is on the rise. “What the Salem event is doing is bringing awareness to this avenue. Being a society of secrets, the S.A.M. may be one of the best!”
When asked if the recruitment performances won him over, McLaughlin paused, then said, “Well, I did like all the magic tricks, and I'm still wondering how some of them are done.”
Then the novice — and his dad — revealed, yes, they'll sign him up for the society's youth program. “When you're in a room it's easier to like realize that how these tricks work,” McLaughlin said. “I just think I should saw someone in half in my life.”
After thanking their audience of two, society vice president Anthony Gangi said it's OK the magicians only nabbed one new member that night. “It got all of us connected again, and I think it's getting the word out about us.”
Gangi and his fellow magicians have faith more people will materialize in the future.
The public is invited to a recruitment event at 7:30 pm on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at the Beverly Public Library. Upcoming lectures take place Oct. 11 with magic innovator Chris Philpott, and Nov. 1 with local mentalist John Stetson.
This segment aired on September 26, 2023.