David London is a magician. Or so it says on the bill. But when he takes the rickety black stage at Arlington’s Iota Club and Café one warm spring night, he doesn’t have a cape, or a magic wand, or a scantily clad apprentice tied to a knife wheel, or a knife wheel, or knives, or even a Salvador Dali handlebar mustache. He doesn’t even have a bunny. We’ll, he’s got a bunny, but it’s made of Elmer’s glue and toilet paper and wires.
Tall and lanky, London, 26, is wearing Skechers, cargo pants, a faded black T-shirt, Poindexter glasses, and a goofy grin. He does not look like a guy who has been mastering sorcery since the age of 7 or even remotely like a “magician,” the one billed to perform at the ArtOutlet-organized vaudevillian variety showcase of local poets, musicians, and visual artists.
“Raise your hand if you do ventriloquism?” London calls out to the 30-deep crowd. Nobody moves.
London then plops a busted magician’s hat on a stool and pulls out his Frankenstein rabbit. He informs the crowd that the rabbit was part of a ventriloquism act he dropped because ventriloquism is “very, very difficult.” You can hear a bottle cap hit the ground from the bar. He pulls out a mask of his own face to solve the problem, which doesn’t really work because it muffles his voice in the mic, but it’s got a Carrot Top quirkiness that breaks the awkward silence into clumps of giggling.
Next, London does a classic “was this your card?” trick, but instead of cards, it’s “celebrity toenail shavings” in glass vials, and instead of the Queen of Hearts or Jack of Spades, it’s Richard Nixon, Sally Struthers, and Donnie and Marie Osmond. And he never lays his hands on the vials or the pictures. Don’t ask how. It just works, and the audience collectively “woooooooo” in mock spookiness, because they, too, are confused.
Then, just when you think he’s becoming a normal if weird magician, London whips out a loaf of Wonder Bread, a bar of Irish Spring, a tube of Crest, and a rusty vintage cheese grater. In total silence, London makes himself a soap-shavings-and-toothpaste Wonder Bread sandwich, eats it, and then pulls a plastic grocery bag over his head. Then he sucks the bag in his mouth as hard as he can. The effect produces a grotesque snuff film image of a person being suffocated. For a second everyone is transfixed. A women lets out a hushed “Oh my God”; another audience member asks, “What the fuck?”; yet another unleashes a lunatic whale of a laugh. But most people are just silent. Some people leave, others are riveted. He takes the bag off, looks around, and steps off the stage. And that’s the end of his second act of the night. There’s scattered applause.
This is a typical David London show—weird, baffling, arguably magical. Much of what he does refuses explanation and overturns traditional ideas of a magician’s work. Take if from magician Rick Maue: “I’ve been around magic 40 years, and I’ve never seen anybody do the things David does.” Or from Josh Norris, an Arlington-based classical magician who has been practicing the craft for 12 years. “All of my friends who are nonmagicians that go with me to see him, first, they can’t stop laughing. But after the show, they can’t even put into words what they just saw,” says Norris. “They’re just like, ‘Who is this guy and what planet is he from?’”
The problem is London’s from Earth, where people expect magicians to do magic tricks. His increasingly experimental work drops tricks for what the art community is embracing as art. But his magic, not his art, is what pays the bills, and while some members of the magic community champion his artistic divergence, London is trying to pull off an age-old escape act—compromise or starve.
London’s edgy take on a classic profession took hold in a rather conventional place. He grew up in Rockville, the son of an accountant and a social justice advocate.
And he still lives there, at home, with his folks. For while London makes money from performing and travels across the country giving lectures on magic, his experimental work costs money, both in terms of opportunity cost and a growing list of props that now includes loaves upon loaves of Wonder Bread and a wireless kaleidoscope camcorder disguised as a lobster and an accompanying projector.
“There’s a lot of experimentation, and not everything I do makes money. As my projects got more expensive, I needed more income. It’s hard to save when literally everything I make I put back into my art,” says London.
London’s day job is a part-time gig as an optician at David Opticians in Potomac, where he has worked on and off since he was 12. Unlike most opticians, though, he has a tendency to subject unsuspecting customers to his latest act of wizardry while they’re waiting for their corrective lenses. “When he does your basic meat-and-potatoes, pull-a-card-out-of-your-ass or turn-the-four-into-a-Jack trick, they love that,” says David Pollak, the store’s owner. “His card tricks are phenomenal.”
But when London does what Pollak describes as his more “ethereal” stuff, they don’t get it. That “doesn’t work with 12-year-olds in Potomac,” says Pollak. “They don’t know what the hell he’s talking about.” Even Pollak, one of London’s biggest fans and a guy who considers London like a son, has gotten angry, almost insulted, by London’s artistic side. “He did something with a bunch of feathers and eggs. I don’t know what the hell it was. I brought a bunch of people [to one of London’s shows] and I said, ‘What the hell? What did I come here for?’” Pollak says. He worries that London might be sabotaging himself with his experiments. “There’s no telling how far he can go. But I would like to see him be a little more flexible in what it is he’s gonna perform on the stage, so he can attract a bigger audience.”
Like most magicians, London started off doing the meat-and-potatoes stuff. His first trick, in fact, couldn’t have been more textbook. “When I was seven, I pulled a rabbit out of a hat,” says London, adding, “It chose me more than I chose it.” Which sounds like a typical cornball magician thing to say. But it’s true.
As the story goes, the London family was preparing to attend the bar mitzvah of one of London’s cousins. Out of the blue, David requested a suit for the occasion, along with some accessories. “At seven years old, he wants a hat and cane,” says his father, Howard London. “Can you believe that?”
David showed his flair for transgression during the event’s somber candle-lighting ceremony. “Unbeknownst to us,” says Sharan London, his mother, “as we went up to go light a candle, he stepped away, took off his top hat, and pulled a stuffed rabbit out.”
“We didn’t know what had happened until literally the videographer fell off the stand because he was laughing so hard.” When asked where the rabbit came from, London responds, “The hat.”
Next we find a young David London in his classmate’s backyard birthday party materializing a hamster out of a frying pan. He spends all his time hanging out in Barry’s Magic Shop in Wheaton and the now-defunct Al’s Magic Shop in downtown D.C., and he’s doing poorly in school. Then one day, when David is 11, his mother gets a breathless phone call from a very distraught neighbor: “Do you know your son is outside juggling hammers?”
Though London didn’t take to school, he did plenty of studying—on sorcery. And this is where his divergence from classic magic begins. London wasn’t satisfied mastering sleight of hand and juggling. He says he got heavily into the occult, ESP, telekinesis, and alchemy—the dark side. Then, after hitting a dead end at the local library on the philosophy and theory of magic, he decided to create a magazine called Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors. He was 15 years old.
Just like now, he spent every cent he had on his art. The little money he made performing at bar mitzahs and working odd jobs went to fund the magazine, which he produced single-handedly—layout, cover art, editing, printing, subscriptions—out of his father’s office.
London even convinced big names in the magic community to submit philosophical articles on the subject of magic. One of those magicians was the local legend Alain Nu, a mentalist and renowned spoon-bender who honed his craft in D.C. before taking his act to the national stage (Nu did not respond to interview requests for this article). London would find himself years later playing sorcerer’s apprentice to Nu in such performances as when he bent spoons in the Diner in Adams Morgan last fall.“They didn’t bend every spoon,” says Shannon Trexler, the Diner’s assistant general manager. “But they bent a fair amount of them.”
And then London stopped. He dropped magic and enrolled in the Columbia College Chicago film academy, where, to his parents’ delight, he became a near straight-A student, which had a lot to do with what he was learning.
“I was reading about futurism and dadaism, but then I got to surrealism, and I stopped. In Surrealism I found answers to lot of the questions I had about magic,” London says. He joined the artistic-political organization the Chicago Surrealist Group, and somewhere along the way came upon the subject of hypnagogia, the scientific mental state in between waking and dream consciousness.
The topic proved so interesting that he dropped out of school for a full semester to study the matter. He returned to school and wrote three papers on the hypnagogia, plus a manifesto for a new art form called the “Hypnogogic Theatre” based on a dream-logic theory that concluded with a mission statement: He was going to find a way to bring his audiences in to “a state known by all the poets, scholars, mystics, scientists, children and madmen.”
Right around this time he began gallivanting around Chicago’s streets in a Roaring ’20s Fitzgeraldian get-up, a foxy flapper on one arm, pushing around a vintage baby carriage handing out carrots to strangers. Fake carrots. “I just wanted to see what would happen if dream logic was encountered in everyday life,” London says.
London says he still stages such exercises. The D.C. version has him packing a clunky old suitcase covered in foreign decals packed with the following items: collapsible table, collapsible top hat, several puppets, decks of cards, celebrity toenail shavings, reversible black box, a small menagerie of kaleidoscopes, miniature loafs of Wonder bread, “and lots of imaginary balls,” he says. Then he just appears wherever he likes—Metro stations, bus stops, Dupont Circle, U Street NW, Chinatown—and waits for the magic to happen. For him, that’s when people start whispering about his suitcase.
If this sounds a bit self-indulgent, it is. But according to veteran professional magician Bob Sheets, London’s penchant for seeming like he’s living in his own world has always been a part of his personality and is what makes his act unique. “There were once two old ladies at the show and I overheard them [saying] ‘he’s just spent way too much time in his room.’ I see a lot of that,” Sheets says. “Just like those old ladies said. Like kids play with puppets, or girls play with dolls and put acts on and serve tea. You get the sense that’s what he’s doing, but you get to watch.” And then London does something like the bag trick. “Then you go, ‘Well, he’s a little twisted shit isn’t he. That’s sick.’ But the professional opinion is they like him, because he’s edge.”
That edge cuts both ways. For instance, London created two shows in Chicago during his hypnagogia era. The first was The Art of Dreams, a theatrical exploration of hypnagogia through his surrealist films, live music and a little magic. This is where the bag gag comes from. He performed the show across Chicago, Virginia, Illinois, and D.C. That one didn’t work. “I created a show that was not a commercial success,” London says. “Nobody could relate to it at all. You can’t even imagine.”
But Adventures to the Imagi Nation, which he produced for the Chicago Children’s Museum, was good enough that the museum turned it into a running show for eight months. London says the premise of the show was based on hypnagogia theory and was similar to Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan in exploring the imagination as an actual place as well as a state of mind. It inspired wonder in the audience without the use of magic tricks, London says. The success of that show prompted London to push the edge again with older audiences. “Someone told me that what I need to do is create a children’s show for adults,” London says.
London returned to his old job at Pollak’s store earlier this year and relaunched Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors. His aversion to convention hardened. “I’ve become very disgruntled with tricks,” London says. “When people see a trick, their brain immediately tries to figure out the logic behind it, and if you’re trying to figure the logic behind it, it immediately takes you out of the realm where magic exists. Because magic is not a logical realm. So tricks are not necessarily the best way to enter into a magical state of mind.”
One person who understood the distinction is Philippa Hughes, founder of the D.C. art-event network the Pink Line Project. Upon meeting London at an artsy social last December and learning he was a magician, she was initially in a hurry to extract herself from the conversation.
“Well of course, the first thing I thought was David Copperfield,” she says, pantomiming corny magician hand gestures. “Great. A cheesy magician. Let me politely get away and talk to someone else. But it took about 30 seconds to realize that’s not what he was at all.”
Hughes decided to book London for one of her Salon Contra gatherings.
The odd thing, Hughes says, is that it wasn’t the magic tricks that wooed her, it was the showmanship.
“He’s pretty nerdy, but he’s very charismatically nerdy. That’s what fascinated me about him.” She says. “Here’s this nerdy kid who always wanted to be a magician,” she said almost vomiting the word, “doing card tricks. And he turns into this thing where he has people mesmerized. It’s pretty impressive. He embodies exactly what we need more of in D.C.”
Trying to be a magician without doing magic tricks is a magic trick in itself. London says the bag trick is one attempt at escaping the universe most magicians finds themselves trapped in. The bag gag has no logic by design; though it’s his shortest act, it took the longest to map out philosophically—which is saying a lot, considering he’s written a 40-page book on a five-minute card trick he invented. “It’s not supposed to make sense,” London says of the bag act. “I don’t want to give people anything to hold onto.”
Enter the Wonder Bread Experiment. At the Be Bar on 7th Street NW on an April night, London is one of a group of hand-selected artists in “X,” a monthly art happening that tonight is featuring graphic artists engaged in a live design competition.
London has a collapsible wood-top table set up crammed into a corner, loaves of Wonder Bread thrown about, slices of bread crushed and sculpted by audience members. People are crowded around the table , sticking googly eyes on their creations while London looks on wide-eyed and totally psyched, like a mad scientists watching his monster come to life. No tricks. Just people playing with bread. That’s the magic of the whole act. To top off the madness, there’s a two-man camera crew that flew in from Los Angeles filming London’s “experiment” for Current TV. One of the cameramen is a friend of London’s from film school who pitched the story of a magician doing Wonder Bread sculptures and instantly got the green light.
And it is this image of a magician gone mad—throwing the rabbit and hat out the window alongside the classical form—that got the attention of David Fogel, the event’s mastermind and president of D.C.-based multimedia firm EightyEight. “He gave me one of his business cards,” Fogel says. “It was this bag with a card with instructions on how to play with the imaginary ball inside.” The bag is empty. “And it’s like, What the fuck? What are you?”
After the show, in his loft in Silver Spring, Fogel tells me there was a lot of wondering indeed. “Everybody that walked up said, ‘Where’s the magician?’ and I said, ‘It’s the guy in the back with the table of Wonder Bread.’ And they said, ‘That’s a magician?’”
London’s not even sure if he should be calling himself a magician. “I’ve got a marketing problem,” he says. He dropped the word “magician” altogether from his latest show. He couldn’t even find the right words. Finally he gave up and just called it (Insert Title Here): A Night With David London.
It’s a decision he knows will come with consequences. “If I wanted to go out there and do card tricks for a living, I could make a living doing card tricks,” London says. “But truthfully, I want people to hire David London; I don’t want them to hire a magician. So there’s a little unwillingness to compromise there. And Rick [Maue] always says the difference between an artist and a starving artist is compromise.”