September 10, 1997
by Jan Galligan
Background Music: Barry Manilow singing 'Mandy'
About the only thing left in the middle of downtown Schenectady is the hulking behemoth called 'Proctor's Theatre', a classic old structure that originally hosted vaudeville, then movies, and now, with some basic cleanup and rehabilitation, is showing movies three nights a week and presenting traveling shows: 'Les Miserable', 'Cats', 'Mummenschantz', Victor Borge, 'The Fantastiks' and the like.
After picking Lillian up from her job at the Fort Orange Club, where she's restoring the ballroom to a more elegant state, getting Lydia at Olga's house after her apple-picking trip to Indian Ladder Farms, stopping at M.J. Designs to buy more stencil brushes for the Fort Orange job, a seventy-five-mile-an-hour drive to downtown Schenectady got us to Proctor's with twenty minutes to spare, so we cruised the lobby looking for food and drink. All we could manage, foregoing chocolate cake and sticky buns, were pretzels, Fritos, Big Red gum, and a couple of flavored Nesteas. "Enjoy the show", said the woman selling us our stash. "You bet!", answered Lydia.
We've come to see 'Penn and Teller', live, on-stage. We've got seats twenty rows from the stage, off to the far left side. 'The Loge', it's called. Row J, seats 51, 53, and 55. Actually, they're good seats, with a good view of the stage, better in-fact, because our loge is raised an extra five feet off the floor, so we can see right over almost everyone in front of us. Lydia is sitting next to the low wall that raises us off the floor, Lillian's in the middle, I'm on the far outside, next to the aisle.
The house-lights dim, the crowd of nearly one-thousand claps and whistles, and I hear the older couple behind me. "Who are we seeing tonight?", says the husband. "Magicians", his wife answers. "Musicians?", he asks. "Magicians!", she says, "you know, magic tricks, disappearing rabbits, floating cards, sleight of hand." "Oh", he says. The curtain goes up and there they stand, in-the-flesh, Penn, the giant bombast, and Teller the dimutive, silent one.
Penn begins a story about how they have recently decided to abandon the field of magic in favor of religion. They are starting 'The Church of Teller'. He explains in a long-round-about way that Teller has been visited by aliens from a distant galaxy and given powers similar to Uri Geller, the Israeli mystic who claims to have the ability to bend spoons with his mind. Teller, Penn explains, was given a much more useful and pragmatic ability, the power to mend polyester with his mind.
Penn says that they are going to provide a demonstration of this new power and that before they are finished they will have enlisted many new converts to 'Faith in Teller'. "But now", shouts Penn, "I need a volunteer from the audience!" I see Lydia shoot her hand into the air. "Preferably a child." Lydia jumps out of her seat. "Maybe about 10-years old?". Lydia is running down the aisle. She jumps up, onto the stage.
"O.K. little girl, what's your name?"
"All right, Lydia, do you believe in magic?"
"Do you have faith in Teller?"
"I don't know", she says.
"Well, Lydia, you will after you see this!"
Teller is standing across the stage from Lydia and Penn, holding a twenty- foot piece of white polyester fabric, which he unfurls, handing one end to Penn and the other to Lydia. Penn tells Lydia to move away so that the fabric is stretched out across the stage, between them. It's looks like a pure white banner, about two-feet high. Penn tells Lydia to watch closely, and Teller ties a knot into the center of the fabric leaving two bows sticking out.
Teller then take the scissors and with instructions from Penn, snips off "the bunny-ears". Then he cuts the fabric down the middle, holding the two pieces together in his hand. Penn shouts to Lydia, "Pull!". They pull and the fabric unfurls, miraculously whole again!
"Lydia!", Penn hollers, "do you have faith in Teller?"
"I don't know", she says.
"O.K., Lydia, then we're going to have to do it again. This time, you'll be the one to do the cutting. Come over here, Lydia."
Lydia moves to the center of the stage, and ducks under and behind the cloth, facing the audience. "No, Lydia, not there", Penn says, "come over here and face the ribbon." She does as he tells her. Penn hands Lydia the scissors and while Teller ties another knot, Penn tells her that she will cut off the bunny ears this time, but cautions her not to cut Tellers hands, because "they're my bread-and-butter." Lydia gives the two bows a good snip and they fall to the stage. "O.K. Lydia, now I want you to cut the cloth in two!" Again, Penn tells her not to cut off any of Teller's fingers. She slashes the polyester into two pieces, which Teller again holds in one hand, waving the other hand in the air, as if Lydia had nearly cut it as well.
"Now Lydia, I want you to go back stage-left and pick up one end of the cloth while I take the other end down here. When I say three, we'll give it a pull."
"Lydia, do you have faith in Teller?"
"Maybe", she says.
"One, two, three!", he shouts.
They pull, and the cloth drops from Teller's hand, again it is intact, stretched tightly across the stage.
"Lydia, is it magic or is it a miracle?"
"Magic", says Lydia.
She heads back to center-stage and this time Penn takes her by the shoulders and points her directly out at the audience. She's smiling but looks a little puzzled. Teller takes one end of the polyester, and Penn the other and they begin to wrap it around Lydia's neck. "Now we'll see who's got faith", chortles Penn. Teller smiles, but it looks a little demonic. "Shit", I think. "I hope this trick works!"
Penn, towering over Lydia, continues to wrap the cloth. He and Teller give it a yank. Lydia winces.
"Lydia!" Penn booms, "Lydia, do you have faith in Teller?"
Lydia wags her head a little, side-to-side.
Penn jerks the fabric tighter; Teller leers at her.
"Jesus Christ! What are they going to do to her?" My mind is racing.
"Lydia! Do You Have Faith in Teller?"
Lydia just manages to shift her head back-and-forth.
Teller is bouncing on his heels. Penn is wrapping the extra length
of cloth around his meaty hands. Shoving his massive belly right up against
the side of Lydia's head.
"LYDIA! DO YOU HAVE FAITH IN TELLER?"
His stomach gives her head a push and it nods, ever-so-slightly.
"Hey you big-fat-creepy-godamn-hairy-baboon! What are you doing with my daughter?" I'm up out of my seat. Lillian grabs my arm.
"O.K. ladies and gentlemen!" bellows Penn, "If this little girl here has Faith in Teller, then when I pull the cord, she'll be as good as she ever was. If not, then she'll be dangling here in mid-air, strangled like a chicken, ready-for-the-oven, as life-less as these bunny ears lying all over the stage!"
"Why you goddamned ape, you can't do this to my daughter! Let her go!" I'm screaming, but no one seems to hear me.
"Now!" shouts Penn, and he and Teller jerk the fabric with all their might. Lydia stands there, beaming. Teller and Penn holding the white polyester bandana, stretched tightly between them.
"Is it magic or is it a miracle?", asks Penn.
"A miracle", says Lydia.
"You're goddamned right", I think. "It's a miracle I didn't jump up there and bust them both right in the goddamned chops."
"Lydia!" intones Penn. "Do you have Faith in Teller?"
"Uh-huh", she says.
The three of them take a slight bow together. The crowd is hooting and hollering. Whistles, screams, shouts, laughter, and the thunder of applause accompany Lydia as she makes her spot-lit way back to our seats in the loge.
The curtain falls.
New York Times
HISTORIANS WARMING TO GAMES OF 'WHAT IF?'by William H. Honan and Jan Galligan
When the gun-twirling sharpshooter Annie Oakley toured Europe with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1889, one of her stunts was to shoot the ashes from the tip of a lighted cigar clenched between the teeth of a volunteer. At a performance in Berlin that year, the volunteer was the impetuous young Kaiser Wilhelm II, who leaped to the stage and offered to play the stooge.
The audience gasped, and Oakley cursed her luck at having been out carousing the night before. The Kaiser cooly plucked a cigar from a gold case, lit it and stuck it in his mouth.
A puff of ashes flew into the air, The Kaiser, who had assumed the throne only a few months earlier, was unscathed.
But, what if her bullet had been off the mark? Would his successor
have pursued the policies that led to World War I?
What if Penn and Teller had been transported back in time to Berlin, 1889 and were doing their stage show about magic and their new Church of Teller?...
"But now", shouts Penn, "I need a volunteer from the audience!" Young Kaiser Wilhelm shoots his hand into the air. "Preferably a young man." Wilhelm II jumps out of his seat. "One who is not afraid to smoke in public." K.W.II runs down the aisle and jumps onto the stage.
"O.K. young man, what's your name?"
"Wilhelm the Second, Kaiser of Germany."
"All right, Willy, do you believe in magic?"
"Do you have faith in Teller?"
"I don't know", he says.
"Well, Willy, you will after you see this!"
Teller is standing across the stage from K.W.II and Penn, holding a rifle. Penn hands Kaiser Wilhelm a cigar, which K.W.II immediately puts between his teeth.
"Ready!" Penn shouts, as he lights the cigar.
Teller raises the rifle and points it directly at K.W.II's head.
"Puff that cigar, Willy!" says Penn.
"Aim!" he shouts again.
"Keep puffing and keep the faith in Teller." Penn tells K.W.II.
A flash of light!
"Oh shit!" shouts Penn.
"Lydia!" screams Teller.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, slumps to the floor, blood pouring from his head. The theatre is ghostly silent. Then someone screams. A great cry goes up. Moans, sobbing, hysteria. A murmuring becomes a chant that fills the room.
"The King is dead! Long live the King!"
"Jesus," Penn says to Teller. "Now what?"
"What if we just go back to New York and pretend this never happened?", answers Teller.
"Dammit," says Penn, "I knew we should have skipped the magic-bullet- cigar-in-the-mouth-William-Tell-Annie-Oakley bit and gone right into the magic-piece-of-white-polyester-tied-around-the-neck-looks-like- it's-going-to-choke-the-stooge-to-death-but-in-the-end-doesn't- and-instead-slips-right-off-leaving-the-victim-smiling-and-the audience-laughing-and-shouting thing instead. How was I to know they hadn't invented polyester yet?"