The Fishin' Magicians
It is a warm, steamy Saturday afternoon at Bennett Spring State Park. Tents for the annual Fly Fishing Conclave are set up on a wide space of lawn. In the big one next to the casting pools, a game show of sorts is getting underway.
The audience waits as a white-haired, veteran fisherman, his hat bristling with trout flies, reaches into a clear plastic bag, pulls out a small piece of paper and hands it to the emcee. She unfolds it and reads him the question it contains.
"Gar are native only to the United States and are a primitive species whose ancestors lived millions of years ago. The world record alligator gar was caught in the Rio Grande in Texas in 1951. How much did it weigh?"
The fisherman--a sign on his podium says his name is Dave--looks thoughtful.
"Uh, 374 pounds," he guesses. A slide whistle sound from just offstage confirms what everyone already anticipates: he's wrong.
"I'm sorry, but the correct answer is 279 pounds," announces the emcee. "Give Janice one of your bobbers."
Dave hands his opponent one of the plastic fishing floats contained in a pouch he holds. The emcee allows Janice to fish out a question of her own and reads it to her.
"Imagine you are on a fishing trip in June. The temperature is 82 degrees. The sky is cloudy and the water temperature is 72 degrees. Which one of the following would be the best fish bait? A) A worm. B) Mashed potatoes. C) Peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
"Peanut butter and jelly." Janice chuckles. "No, a worm, of course." A bell rings energetically offstage signalling a correct answer, and the audience breaks into applause.
Dave gives Janice another bobber. "I don't think I'm going to do too well here... ." he says to the audience.
No, Dave is not going to do too well. Like dozens of confident contestants before him--experts playing against novices, newlywed husbands playing against their wives, fathers playing against their 8-year-old sons--he is going to lose this round of "Bobberama." He is going to lose because game designers Steve Craig and Amy D. Short--"The Fishin' Magicians"--have rigged it that way.
"Okay, Dave, let's try again," says Short. Dave pulls another question out of the bag and offers it to her. "You can read over my shoulder if you like: "Carp were introduced into the United States from Europe in 1879. These fish are members of the minnow family. The minnow family includes how many species of fish worldwide?'"
Dave offers another incorrect answer, eliciting a groan from the audience. Another bobber changes hands. Short then has Janice draw again, and reads her the question.
"When I go fishing with my friend BOB, I notice a round red-and-white thing that BOBS up and down on top of the water that tells BOB when a fish has taken his bait. What is the round red-and-white thing called?"
"A BOBBER!" shouts Janice. The bell rings, the audience laughs and applauds, Dave hands over another bobber.
"The Fishin' Magicians" is an odd name for a stage act. But for Craig and Short, the act is part of a natural evolution, a combination of two things they have loved for a lifetime--fishing and entertaining.
Their careers in magic began in junior high. Their love of fishing started even earlier. Craig, the son of a Baptist minister, still remembers the prayer he said after his first fishing trip when he was 6 years old: "God, thank you for helping me catch three fish and my dad not catch any." But they didn't take a plunge as "Fishin' Magicians" until February 1996.
Lots of people might dream about getting paid to fish or to make others laugh. Few people, though, would dare give up their day jobs in pursuit of such a dream. Steve Craig and Amy Short, though, could testify to the truth of the maxim: "Do what you love, and the money will follow."
Short is reading what will be the last question.
"You can 'dance' it across the top of the water by the light of the moon. It was first whittled from a chunk of broomstick and had the 'blade' of a kitchen spoon attached. The Jitterbug was first sold in what year?"
Dave furrows his brow.
"1934," he says.
"Oh," responds Short, "that's the closest anyone's EVER GOTTEN!"
"But... " says Dave.
"But it's wrong! It's 1937!"
He hands over his last bobber to Janice, and the game is over. Cheered by the audience for his good sportsmanship, Dave waves the plastic comb Short has given him as consolation prize. "A parting gift," she announces.
Amy Short and Steve Craig (a stage name--his last name is actually Penick) are a married couple who live near Nixa, just south of Springfield. They have worked together ever since they have known one another. Initially, though, that was in the field of mental health--Short was an occupational therapist and Craig a counselor. After several years of marriage, Craig left his position to try his hand as a full-time magician. He specialized in close-up illusions--disappearing coins, card tricks and the like. A couple of years later, Short quit her job and joined him.
"We met working together. We like working together," she explains. She shrugs off a characterization of the career change as drastic. "What we do now is preventive medicine."
For a while they performed both close-up magic and stage shows. As they tried out a variety of comedy bits and illusions, they searched for a unique identity. "Entertainment requires a niche," notes Craig.
"We've never been a traditional magic act, with a gentleman in a tuxedo and a woman scantily clad," adds Short. "We looked for what fit us."
They finally hit on a formula, thanks in part to a little inadvertent prodding from the Missouri Conservation Department, which invited Craig and Short to perform at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center as part of the center's "Family Month" activities. There was one stipulation, though--their show needed to relate somehow to nature and conservation.
"We had done a trick or two using goldfish, but being invited to the nature center motivated us to put together a whole act related to fishing," says Short. "So we became "The Fishin' Magicians.'"
Inventing new illusions and modifying old ones to include material about fishing proved a natural transition for Craig and Short. Both are avid lifelong anglers. Craig started fishing with a cane pole as a kid growing up in Tennessee and Kentucky, and Short--who is from North Kansas City originally--began on an old spin casting rig when she was 5 or 6. She still has it. They used their knowledge of fishing to sprinkle tips and educational facts throughout their performance. More importantly, though, they try to get across messages they believe in--that people should get outside, that fishing is a great way for families to spend time together and that conservation is important.
The nature center appearance went swimmingly, and pretty soon "The Fishin' Magicians" show was the only one they did.
But is a magic act about fishing something everyone can appreciate?
Short had her doubts. "We were doing a show for an association of surgeons and their spouses. I brought a woman up onstage whose first question was, "What's an angler?'"
Craig continues. "We were concerned it would be limiting, but people say, "That was different,' or, "That was refreshing.' A comparison we use is the television program Home Improvement--you don't need to know carpentry and plumbing to enjoy the show."
Craig is now fast-talking and fast-handing his way through a "commercial" reminiscent of the old television ads for slice-and-dice machines or fishing gadgets. As he extols the virtues of "Fishco's Miracle Marinade," bottles keep appearing and disappearing in front of him with astounding speed, until finally there are eight fishy flavors of the marinade. Use them, Craig promises, "and any dish will taste like fish." Most audiences laugh at the line.
All audiences are alike, yet each is different, says Craig. "The best one is any group that is in the mood to have fun. Whether or not they fish is irrelevant." He will acknowledge, though, that fishermen "get the jokes quicker." Craig and Short have entertained their share of anglers; their resume is crowded with appearances at family fishing fairs, sport and boat shows, industry trade meetings and nature centers. That the "general public" appreciates them is evident from the invitations they have had to entertain at business retreats, wedding showers, college special events and the Iowa State Fair.
The fact that Craig and Short left day jobs behind in order to pursue the things they love hasn't made their work weeks any shorter. Performing only takes up 15-20 hours a week, but more time is invested in rehearsing, building props and developing new tricks to fit the theme of the show. "Because it's not a typical act, we can't just go to the magic shop and buy it," says Craig. The biggest change from their health care days is that now their work fills odd hours--lots of evenings and weekends and lots of split shifts.
"We work when everyone else plays, because we're part of their play," explains Short. Lately, they are working a lot. They are immersed in successful careers as entertainers, and--though the occasional recruiter still calls Short to offer her an occupational therapy job--they have no thoughts about going back.
And there is still a little time for fishing. The couple has graduated to fly-fishing now, either at Bennett Spring State Park or, when the window of free time is smaller, on the James and Finley rivers, five minutes from home. "Because of the kind of work we do, we can go during the week and have places to ourselves," says Craig. "And we can do it together."