“He looks like Marilyn Manson. He’s a master magician. And he’s from Minnesota.”
Ross Riahala, Pioneer Press 3/25/15
There’s plenty of shock and spectacle when magician Dan Sperry takes the stage. The Minnesota native dresses like Marilyn Manson, performs backed by noisy industrial rock and pyrotechnics and turns his face mask into a live dove.
But the illusion that put him on the map is almost stunning in its simplicity. He uses just two props, a Life Saver candy and some dental floss. He chews and swallows the mint and then wraps a length of floss around two fingers and uses it to “saw” across his throat. It’s tough not to wince when it appears the floss has become embedded in his flesh. It’s even harder not to gasp when he suddenly yanks it out and there’s an uneaten Life Saver spinning in the center of the floss.
Sperry, who grew up in Litchfield, performed the trick on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” in 2010. He playfully tossed the used floss toward judge (and notorious germaphobe) Howie Mandel, who leaped out of his chair as fellow judge Sharon Osbourne burst into laughter. The clip went viral on YouTube and gave Sperry’s career an unexpected boost.
“I didn’t think much would come of it,” Sperry said during a phone interview from a tour stop in Chicago. “I was just looking for a bullet point on my resume, an ‘as seen on’ I could add. But it exploded, and it widened my demographic. People still talk to me about it to this day.
It also helped Sperry land a place in “The Illusionists,” a flashy touring exhibition featuring seven slight-of-hand masters that opens Tuesday for an eight-show run at St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.
The 30-city tour debuted on Broadway in December for a six-week residency. Reviews were decidedly mixed, with the New York Times dubbing it a “high-tech magic extravaganza … drowning in a sea of cheese.” But audiences loved it and bought enough tickets that the tour earned back its $1.75 million investment in just three weeks. It’s already booked for a return to Broadway next season.
“There was some uncertainty going in,” Sperry said. “We’re not a musical. There’s a live band, with a DJ and guitars and drums. But we don’t have violins and flutes. There’s no singing. And Broadway hadn’t seen a big magic show in 20 years. They ended up adding extra shows, and we had celebrities like Phil Collins and Jerry Seinfeld show up. It was a lot of fun.”
Sperry first encountered the art of magic as a 4-year-old, seeing David Copperfield in Minneapolis with his grandparents. But watching Copperfield seem to saw himself in half proved to be too much for the young Sperry, who was so upset he left the performance early, convinced he’d just witnessed a man murder himself on stage.
His squeamishness didn’t last, though, and Sperry later immersed himself in all aspects of illusion and live performance.
“I was one of those kids who made homemade horror moves,” he said. “One of my buddies wrote them — he now writes for professional wrestling — and I would do all the makeup and blood. There was one time I got in real trouble. I thought I knew how I could safely set myself on fire, but I ended up having to stop, drop and roll.”
The Internet was still in its infancy when Sperry, 29, was growing up, so he learned his craft the old-fashioned way.
“I went to the library and read everything I could,” he said. “I went to the magic shops in the Twin Cities. I ordered out of magic catalogs.”
He performed his first magic show at 10, during a picnic in his hometown. As he grew older, he hustled his way into any and every opportunity, including some time spent as a clown. As a teen, he’d hit First Avenue with his friends to see punk, goth and metal shows and would fund his exploits by entertaining.
“I’d slick my hair back, take out my piercings and put on my church clothes,” he said with a laugh.
As Sperry grew older, he settled into his current look and “shock illusionist” billing. “I was always into theatrical enhancement,” he said. “I remember being in elementary school and jacking my mom’s eyeliner. It was something I always did. It was like art, a canvas. What can I put on my face, or do with my hair, to make myself look more alien?”
At 17, Sperry headlined the famed Magic Castle in Hollywood. He later landed the first of several Las Vegas gigs and, after “America’s Got Talent,” Sperry earned a spot in the first incarnation of “The Illusionists,” which debuted in January 2012 in Sydney, Australia.
With shows booked into 2016, “The Illusionists” is keeping Sperry plenty busy. But in his downtime, he works on creating his next big trick.
“That’s the hardest thing about doing magic. You spend so much time and money researching, building and rebuilding. But you never know if it’s going to sink or swim until you do it for an audience. It’s like everybody thinks their baby is the cutest baby, but there are some people with ugly babies. (An illusion) can evolve into something powerful and amazing, but sometimes you just have to walk away from it if it’s not working.”