DAD, AN ADMIRER of the Great Houdini, used to break raw eggs into his hat and insist that one of us put it on. Expecting to be drenched with goo, the giggling victim found the eggs had been transmuted into colorful scarves.
Despite videos and video games, tots and teens are still transfixed by disappearing bunnies and vanishing eggs. In fact, magic is an ever-growing business, with TV appearances by such headliners as David Copperfield, Harry Blackstone Jr. and Doug Henning.
But nothing beats a real live show.
"How many of you believe in magic?" asks Christian the Magician, a local prestidigitator. An army of two-to-13-year-olds at a corporate children's party stares back. The little tykes tentatively wave their hands but most of the older ones seem dubious.
"Do you know any magic words?"
The dam breaks. "Abracadabra. Hocus Pocus. Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches. Shazam . . . "
These incantations are coming from six- year-old Philip, sitting nearby.
"I know another one," he whispers to me proudly. "Rumplestiltskin!"
The show opens with the scarf trick. Christian says "Shazam" and a white scarf floats through space.
"How'd he do that?" asks Philip. His bewildered squint turns into wide-eyed delight when Christian asks him to assist with a trick. The magician hands Philip the magic wand. Elated, he takes it, but the wand falls limp like a dead snake.
"That was a perfectly good wand. I said take it, don't break it," says the tall, imposing magician. Christian takes the wand back and it instantly returns to its stick-like incarnation.
Philip doesn't sulk for long. Christian's next trick is to poke a giant needle through a balloon -- with no pop. Next, he pops two strips of white tissue paper in his mouth, chews them and produces oe endless colored-paper strip from his mouth. Then, he makes a real live rabbit suddenly appear from a hat.
But nothing gives kids a greater surge of satisfaction than calling the magician's bluff. Take the "die box" trick.
"Should we do this trick visibly or invisibly?" asks Christian, stone-faced .
"Visibly!!" choruses the group.
With a single swoop of his arms, the mighty magician lifts the die from under a blue tube into the compartment of a box. "The die has gone from the tube to the box," he says smugly.
"Oh, oh, but I saw it. I saw the dice," says an alert four-year-old.
Then the kids catch on. "Now do it invisibly."
To their amazement, this is exactly what Christian does, but in reverse. Then he takes the trick one step further. He covers the die with a scarf, raises it off the table, and it vanishes in mid-air.
Bewilderment, delight, desire to beat the magician at his own tricks -- all contribute to the tension and release of a good magic show. So does gore.
Who hasn't watched, with glued eyeballs, a poor young woman about to be sawed in half? Audiences are fascinated by mutilation. "It's like going to the stock car races," says Christian.
But magic is just make-believe gore, one mother is assuring herself as her son volunteers for the human-milk-carton trick.
Christian takes a sharp ice-pick and appears to poke it through the top of the boy's head. The boy twitches nervously. Using a funnel, the magician seems to pour milk from a glass into the hole. Amazingly, the glass is empty. No telltale puddle on the floor either.
Which trick goes over best? The gory milk carton? The flying die? One chubby-cheeked toddler sums it up: "Wabbit."
"Kids love any trick involving animals," confirms Christian, as the entire group crowds around to pet "Snowball."
Bitten by the magic bug, I start looking around for a course on magic. Fortunately, Christian is giving one of his tri-annual courses for kids and parents at the Smithsonian. A must for the novice, the course introduces the fundamental concepts -- transpositions, penetrations, vanishes, appearances, mental magic, cut and restorations -- using relatively simple tricks you -- yes, even you -- can master at home.
The great part is you don't need a lot of paraphernalia. Christian shows you the fun you can have with coin containers, scarves, matchboxes, tongue depressors and cardboard paper-towel rolls. For example, decorate a paper-towel roll with contact paper and it becomes a brightly colored magic tube.
Of course you could also stop by Al's Magic Shop downtown if you want real silk scarves ranging from $1.50 to $100. The most impressive is a giant one for $18.50 resembling the king of diamonds. Wands range from black plastic for $2 and glittery varieties for $7.50, to one top-of-the-line model for $28. Why so expensive? It shoots a real ball of fire.
But even the simplest tricks take practice. Magic isn't easy even for the pros. "You have to try to anticipate what could happen in advance. Sure I've had everything go wrong," says Christian. "The best you can hope for is that it won't all go wrong in the same show." MAKING MAGIC
Christian the Magician's next course, specially designed for a parent or adult accompanying a young person (nine or over), will be held at the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center on Little River Turnpike in Fairfax. The five- session course is held at 3:30, every second Sunday from January 27 through March 24. The cost is $60 per adult/child pair ($50 if you're a NVJCC member), and $20 for each additional child ($15 for members). Call 323- 0880 for information. Christian will be giving the same course, which ends with a student magic show, at the Smithsonian, starting March 17. Called "It's Magic," the five-session course is held Sundays at 11. The cost is $52 for one adult along with one young person, nine or over ($42 if you're a Smithsonian member). Call 357-3030 for class location.
If you can't wait, the Montgomery County Department of Recreation is offering a magic course for adults or children starting January 10 at 7 at the Bethesda Community Center. The series of eight 11/2-hour sessions costs $22. Montgomery County is also offering six one-hour lessons for intermediate-level magicians, also starting January 10, but at 8:30. The cost is $11. Call 468-4050 for information.
Open University has two mini magic courses, one starting February 25 and the other, March 4. Each course's two 11/2-hour sessions start at 8 p.m. and cost $20. Call 966- 9606 for location.
Keep an eye on your local community center's program schedule for other magic courses or, if you prefer a one-on-one class, find a teaching magician in the Yellow Pages.
If you're a learn-it-yourselfer, run down to Al's Magic Shop, 1012 Vermont Avenue NW and pick up Bill Tarr's "Now You See It and Now You Don't" in two volumes. Both are guides to sleight-of-hand tricks using cards, coins and balls. Tarr's "101 Easy-to-Learn Classical Magic Tricks" shows you how to make a live rabbit, frog or mouse appear from an empty hat, and how to cut and restore your mom's favorite pearl necklace. With easy-to- follow diagrams, these books are ideal for kids and adults.