For decades, his name was a household word, like Kleenex or Chapstick. Millions of people around the world had watched mystified as he defied physical laws and ordinances, performing remarkable magic tricks that were of equal delight to children, adults, and precocious horses. Today, in one of the great tragedies of modern necromancy, The Great Lumache is a broken man—lost, hopeless—bereft of illusions. An Avant News exclusive interview.
I meet Ralph Sheffield Zucker, the real name of The Great Lumache, at his palatial, dilapidated mansion overlooking Palmer Lake in Colon, Michigan. Our appointment is set for 11:00 am, but I arrive some minutes early, intending to photograph the grounds. The spacious expanse, formerly famous for its roaming lions, cavorting white tigers, card-playing chimpanzees and hacksaw-wielding toucans is now barren, desolate, and pocked with the bodies of live rats and dead rabbits, grim reminders of the barren and desolate mind of the once great illusionist I was about to meet. I decide to skip the snapshots.
I am reminded of the first time I saw The Great Lumache in my childhood home of Tightwad, Missouri. It was the high point of life for almost everyone in the town, a one-day performance anticipated with breathless expectation for months, and Lumache did not disappoint. Appearing as from nowhere on the main stage of the Tightwad Elderly Persons Containment Facility (now a Wal-Mart) in a huge cloud of green smoke, Lumache took us on a whirlwind tour from classical sleight of hand through his own special brand of avant-garde magic. We gasped with astonishment, gaped in terror, cried with delight and retched from the green smoke, which turned out to be toxic. My lung capacity remains at 80% to this day, as the scarring was unfortunately permanent. It’s a memento I cherish every waking moment.
I am cautious as I approach the front door and prepare to ring the bell, half-expecting to encounter some high-tech wizardry that will either startle or seriously injure me, or both, but it is only a regular doorbell. I hear synthetic Windsor bells chime deep within the flecked-paint structure and try to inflate my lungs to their full, reduced capacity to counter my involuntary nervousness. Also some of the voluntary nervousness.
There is a long wait while my heart thumps like a hollow, muscular organ responsible for pumping blood through the blood vessels of vertebrates by repeated, rhythmic contractions. Behind me, a torn flag flaps on a rusty flagpole while the wind seems to sing a solemn dirge in the leafless trees. Then, as if by magic, the front door swings open of its own accord. At the same time a voice croaks in my ear, making me leap two feet in the air straight into a sharp wooden crossbeam, which is painful.
“You’re early,” croaks the voice. When my breathing starts again, I see Lumache, the great magician, standing beside me. He looks much shorter than I remember.
He seems to sense my shock and consternation, and points as if by way of explanation to the cellar trap-door from which he had just emerged carrying a screwdriver and some WD-40, then gestures at the mysterious front door. “It always swings open of its own accord when there’s wind,” he says, and shrugs. “Bad latch.”
I do not know exactly what I expected, but I am nonetheless saddened by the sight that smites my sibilant eyes. Gone is the extravagant, signature star-strewn cape; gone the long, pointed, pom-pom topped cap; gone the spotless white gloves, the flawless bow tie, the unlaced canvas sneakers. Perhaps anticipating the dramatic husk of a burned-out cultural icon, I find instead a small, elderly man in jeans and flannel with watery blue eyes and a stubble like hoar frost on his chin. We push through the door into the drafty interior, Lumache pausing to place the oil and tools on a window ledge by the door. “I’ll fix it later,” he says, and guides me inside.
“I only have a few minutes,” The Great Lumache says. “The Dating Game is on.” He leads me swiftly through the house, strangely decorated with tasteful Scandinavian furniture and apparently random posters from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Everything is covered by a thick patina of yellow-gray dust, ages old, smelling of decay, despair, the dismal plod of time’s Clydesdales.
“I’m sorry about the thick patina of dust,” Lumache says, and briskly brushes off a wicker chair, motioning me to sit. “I just sanded the floors.” He looks me in the eye. “What do you want to know?”
My active mind, so full of eagerness and anticipation, goes swiftly, incomprehensibly blank, and I glare back at Lumache, suspecting he had performed some rapid, unseen act of hypnosis. He sits there placidly, eying the television and checking his watch, and I realize my mind is only blank because I am a lazy journalist. I kick myself for not looking the great man up on Wikipedia prior to the interview.
“Why,” I ask at last, grabbing a sudden lifeline of inspiration, “have you retired from the public eye? Why have you let down your millions of adoring fans?”
The Great Lumache smiles as though he had anticipated the question.
“I thought you’d ask me that,” he says, and folds the tips of his fingers together in a Zeppelin bend configuration, which is quite a feat. Lumache leans back in his chair, closes his eyes in a gesture of inner harmony and strength, and breathes softly and regularly. I poke him with a stick to wake him up.
“It’s simple,” he says, blinking. “I lost my illusions—both literally and figuratively.” Lumache rises in his seat and takes a furtive glance at the TV, but it’s still showing commercials.
“My trade, my calling, my God-given talent was—is—illusion. Deception. Misdirection. The creation of things where nothing is there. The disappearance of things you know to be there. The essence, the fundamentals of magic. What makes magic, or any kind of fictive entertainment enjoyable?” he asks me.
I ponder for a few moments, but Lumache grows impatient.
“Suspension of disbelief,” he says. “You must know—know—that what you are seeing is not real—otherwise you would go insane. But you must be willing to suspend your disbelief—to temporarily turn the rational, inquisitive parts of your mind off—to enjoy the spectacle. Otherwise it’s just science and mechanics, and that you can see on the Discovery channel. Some magic, also.”
“And so your audience has lost its capacity to suspend its disbelief?” I ask rather glibly.
“No, that is not the problem. My audience—the world—has not lost, but rather extended its capacity to the breaking point. The problem is that the audience must use every ounce of that capacity to simply cope with what the world is like today.”
“Look around. Everything is illusion—and that which isn’t illusion is appalling. If you don’t allow yourself to believe the world isn’t in as awful shape as you know—you know!—it actually is, you will go insane. You must suspend your disbelief simply to survive from day to day. In that environment, there is no room for magic. There is no room for magicians. There is no room for me.”
“Plus the suitcase containing all my magic tricks was lost at baggage claim,” he adds. “Don’t fly Delta.”
Lumache sighs heavily and rises, scanning the floor and furniture as though hunting for something—a ray of hope, perhaps? A bittersweet scent of promise in a bleak and uncompromising future?
“The remote,” he says, finding it under a TV Guide. “If you don’t mind—” He gestures at the television with the clicker and flops heavily into an armchair. I pause for a few moments, torn, then nod farewell and make my way back outside to the rats and bunny corpses. I am shaken, but with comprehension and understanding seeping into my throbbing skull I drive slowly through the tight, twisting turns of Colon to finally emerge into the great expanse of questionable promise and fleeting hope that is today’s America.