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At age 8, after reading a children’s book on Harry Houdini, University of Iowa alumnus Nate Staniforth decided to be a magician. In fact, he became obsessed with the idea, and he never gave it up.
“It’s one thing to have your 8-year-old say he wants to be a magician. It’s another thing to have your 18-year-old say it. It’s sort of like saying, ‘I’m going to be a pirate,’” Staniforth says. “But sometimes you just know something about yourself, and my family has been very supportive, even though I probably terrify them from time to time.”
While earning a bachelor’s degree in history from the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Staniforth tested card tricks and other illusions in the ped mall and performed around Iowa City at fraternity and sorority parties, Public Space One, and Old Brick. He even held the attendance record at the Englert Theatre for a short time. During his senior year in 2005, he took his show on the road to campuses across the country.

Today he’s a full-time magician, traveling seven months a year with two 50-pound suitcases and performing in a different city every night. He worked as a consultant on magic star David Blaine’s latest special and is making a documentary about magic around the world.
Staniforth spoke with
Spectator@Iowa about his stripped-down style of magic, how his UI education helped prepare him for a unique career, and a downright reckless stunt he pulled off while attending the University.
When you read the children’s book on Houdini, why were you so captivated by him?

When Houdini was 10, he decided to be the greatest magician in the world. He accomplished that, becoming one of the first international superstars. He only stood about 5 feet 4 inches tall, but nothing could hold him down. New York City shut down for his escapes because everyone flooded the streets to watch. Houdini came from a poor family from Budapest, and he worked a few jobs to help out, in addition to practicing his magic. He once said something like, “The secret to my success is simple. I work from 7 a.m. until midnight, and I like it.” His monk-like devotion appealed to me, and I became obsessed with becoming a great magician.
How did you go about learning magic?
Growing up in Ames, Iowa, I did shows at Boy Scout dinners, banquets, and pancake breakfasts, and in high school I did magic at venues on the Iowa State University campus. I looked for every opportunity to get up in front of people and perform, and being the only act in town encouraged me to develop my own style rather than emulating other magicians.
Where do you perform these days?

I live in Iowa City, and I spend five months of the year inventing new magic and writing new pieces for the show. The rest of the year, I pack everything that I need to do my show into two gigantic suitcases and travel around the country to show it to people. Colleges, theaters, clubs, private events…right now I’m doing about 100 shows a year, and sometimes it’s 1,500 people in a gym, sometimes it’s 15 people in a coffee shop.

What are some of the highlights of your show?

One of the illusions I borrowed from Houdini is where you swallow a bunch of needles and thread, and when you regurgitate them, the needles are threaded on the string. It’s a way to shock people into paying attention, which is an important skill to have as a performer. As the show continues, it becomes less about fooling people’s eyes and more about trying to engage their minds.

The last illusion of the show revolves around coincidence. I put my wallet on a stool onstage so everyone can see it clearly. I take a Nerf ball and toss it over my shoulder; it is thrown around six times to random people in the audience, and each person calls out a number between 1 and 50. When I open the wallet, there’s a lottery ticket inside—and the numbers on the ticket match the numbers that the audience shouted out.
What kind of experience do you try to create for your audiences?

It’s stripped down—like street magic for 500 people at a time. I don’t tell a lot of jokes, and there’s no dancing or special effects. The goal is to create that sense of mystery and wonder and astonishment, using magic tricks as a way of sharing something with the audience rather than just fooling them. No one likes to be fooled. Politicians fool people. Advertisements fool people. These are not good experiences. But if you go about it carefully, a magic trick can feel really incredible. So the idea is to take magic tricks and breathe life into them so they create a unique experience for the audience that’s less about deception and more about astonishment.

Did your education at Iowa help prepare you to become a magician?

Actually, yes. I minored in religion, and (religious studies professor) Jay Holstein is the best performer I’ve ever met. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how he could communicate his material in such an effective way. My notes from his class are half course material and half observations about his delivery, and how he kept people’s attention.

Also, I teamed up with Student Video Productions on a biweekly special for UITV. It was part street magic, part clips from my shows. With the constant demand for new material, I had to invent and learn magic as fast as I could. It was like boot camp for magicians.

You pulled off a risky stunt while you were a student at Iowa. What exactly did you do?

We wanted to end our UITV show with something big, so we devised an escape in the Iowa River. I’d be locked up in chains and weights, jump off the Iowa Memorial Union Bridge, sink to the bottom, and then escape and swim back to the top.

I trained for six months. I did lots of running, I could hold my breath for three minutes, and I could work the locks in 15 seconds each. I’d chain myself up and take cold showers to practice because I was worried that the cold river water would affect my ability to escape. People in the dorms probably thought I was insane.

The river was 52 degrees at the top, and miserably cold 15 feet down. I jumped in, sank, and unlocked the leg weights—but then I began to float and get dragged toward the propeller of the film crew’s boat. I managed to get out in the end, but it was one of the stupidest things I have ever done—and yes, I got in trouble for it.

Nicole Riehl
video by Nate Staniforth

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© The University of Iowa 2009