Dan Sperry is the darker kind of magician. The self-labeled "anti-conjuror" says his magic is meant to test the limits of his audience's comfort zone -- and Sperry's Marilyn Manson/Edward Scissorhands look alone accomplishes that. But while his tricks sit on the edge of shocking, the illusionist says his goal is never to gross out, only to confound.
A former contestant on America's Got Talent, the Minnesota native has been doing magic since he was not quite a teenager, when he was initially motivated by a David Copperfield live show. In advance of two appearances at Theatre of Dreams in Castle Rock this weekend, Sperry talked with Westword about a clown that helped him get into the business and how ten years after viewing the cult classic Reservoir Dogs, it inspired his famous "Lifesaver trick."
See also: - Five Denver/Boulder kitchen magicians who should audition for Top Chef Season 10 - Explore the dark world of Mad Tatters at their show, Circus: Suspended Release - Western-fetish enthusiasts excited by historic Denver events: Kenny Be's Yard Arteology
Westword: You describe yourself as an "anti-conjuror." What does that mean, exactly? Dan Sperry: Anti-conjuror was a word that I made up as a joke, originally. Then it actually came to be useful later on -- some of the venues I would work a lot in L.A. and New York were nightclubs. I would be opening for bands, and if I were to be billed as a magician, they would eat me alive -- you know, they would be tuned out. It wouldn't matter what I was going to do, they didn't care. Magic has gotten to be stereotyped as sort of hokey.
So it was a word that I ended up using to bill myself and describe what I do by being the "anti-magic" or exact opposite of (the stereotype) -- no sequins or rabbits. It helped me to fly in under the radar. Anti-conjuror sort of perpetuated as a title, and I've kind of stuck with it.
Opening for bands definitely doesn't sound like a stereotypical magician's gig.
I would do a lot of nightclub shows and working with bands and DJs, or work with alternative venues where magic was never presented before. The demographic of the audience that I was going to be performing for was not maybe as welcoming when they heard there was a magician opening.
You say that seeing David Copperfield at a young age inspired you to try your hand at magic. Who or what else inspires the work that you do?
It's a culmination -- not just seeing someone perform like Copperfield but, in general, seeing theater and seeing movies. A medium (like magic) evokes the feelings that you get in a movie or at a theater production or a concert or whatever it may be that you're drawn to.
Some psychological things like my Peter Pan complex -- I just really don't want to grow up. I don't want to be an adult; I don't want to have to get a "real job." Magic lets me have this perpetual, therapeutic, endless possibilities outlook.
There are no rules with magic.
I'm guessing there's no formal schooling or training to be a magician. How did you decide you wanted to become one?
There are a lot of steps to get there. I grew up in rural Minnesota. I'm kind of the last generation that can remember when there was no Internet -- so there was no Wikipedia, there was no YouTube. There was no source that I could instantly learn from. I had to use the library and bookstores and try to track down some magic shops in Minneapolis. It was pretty much a self trial-and--error sort of thing -- starting out doing birthdays and school assemblies.
In a way, I almost think it was a better way to do it -- not to sound clichéd, but it was a real hard-knocks way of learning, because I wasn't instantly exposed. I had to figure out a lot of stuff on my own.
Considering you got into magic because you didn't want to be an adult, you had to be pretty grown up to pursue a career with no given path. I was probably the only twelve-year-old I knew who had a Yellow Page ad. Yeah, I had to figure out how Yellow Page ads worked, what do I put in an ad that makes it effective? Newspaper ads, everything. I had to figure it out. I started working when I was about ten -- I would do little shows around town and mainly for friends and family if they were having a reunion or that kind of thing. They would ask my parents if I could come over and show some magic tricks and maybe I'd get five bucks.
My first real show that I distinctly remember getting a check for was when I was eleven or twelve. I filled in for a clown -- there was a clown who did shows in the area and he really helped me out. I would get the shows that he either didn't want to do or couldn't do. It was like doing four hours of twisting balloon animals and doing little magic tricks at a company picnic.
I only knew how to make, like, two balloon animals that he had taught me to get through the gig -- and because he was a clown, I had to dress up like a clown. That's what they wanted. I had no clown experience, no clown name, not even a clown voice. It was just a really disturbing thing that was four hours in a humid and hot Minnesota summer outdoors. I got like twenty-five bucks for four hours of dried finger-twisting balloons.
That was the first real show and I remember thinking, I made it! Or something. (Laughs) Now, looking back on it, I'm like, what in the hell was I thinking?
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.