OUT OF OFFICE: How I Became "The Whiz"
By: Neil H. Baum, MD | Posted on: 01 Aug 2022
Can you imagine the joy of being able to entertain a 5-year-old child and a 95-year-old at the same time? Magic is a unique hobby that allows for just that.
As a youth, I had a deep curiosity about magic. I grew up in a small town, Wooster, Ohio, and enjoyed going to magic shows in nearby cities. Over time, I developed a limited repertoire that I used to entertain others.
During my second year at the University of Wisconsin, I went to the Rose Bowl game in Los Angeles. I stumbled into a joke/magic store. There was an older man at a counter doing magic tricks with cards. I asked for his deck of cards and did a simple trick where I noted the bottom card of the deck (called the key card) and asked the older man to place his card on the top of the deck. The man behind the counter cut the deck and placed that key card on top of his card. I fanned the deck with the faces towards me, noted the card below the key card, and then revealed it in as magical a flourish as possible.
Another customer was standing beside me. Observing the simplicity of my trick, he asked me, “Do you know who this man is?” When I told him I didn’t recognize him, he told me to look at the wall behind the counter. I saw life-size photos of famous magicians, including Harry Houdini, Howard Thurston and Harry Blackstone. I matched one picture with the man behind the counter and I discovered that I had performed a magic trick on the great Harry Blackstone, Sr. What chutzpah! (Yiddish for “extreme self-confidence”)
Mr. Blackstone then showed me a few tricks and offered his book on learning magic. I bought the book, Blackstone’s Magic Anyone Can Do, and it launched my career as “The Wiz.”
I practiced the tricks in Blackstone’s book and added a few card and coin tricks to my limited repertoire. Medical school at Ohio State did not allow time for either the practice or performance of magic. I did enter a few talent contests but was never able to outperform the talents of my fellow students. I did, however, meet another famous magician and inventor, U. F. Grant, who was a descendant of President U. S. Grant.
U. F. Grant suggested that I join the International Brotherhood of Magicians, and he introduced me to the local club in Columbus, Ohio. There, I met several magicians who were willing to share their magic and offer suggestions for improving my craft. I joined the club after a tryout requiring a 15-minute routine. This short performance was intense, as these were seasoned magicians who would be critical of my mistakes. Nevertheless, all went well, and I was welcomed into the brotherhood. I have remained a member for 50 years and have achieved the title of “Order of Merlin” for my long-term commitment to all things magical.
As a med student, I would travel with “my act” to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, doing weekend shows at ski resorts in exchange for a ski lift ticket. My career as a resort magician ended abruptly on my return to Columbus, Ohio. When I opened the trunk of my car, I discovered that my rabbits had frozen to death! I was shocked and saddened, and since that day I have never included animals in any of my performances.
I did receive a favorable response when I volunteered to do a magic show for the prisoners at the Ohio State Penitentiary. There was not much competition, and I had a genuinely captive audience, but they seemed to truly appreciate the diversion my illusions provided.
I moved to New Orleans in 1979. I frequented the Tulane University campus and once attended a talent night competition for undergraduates. A freshman, Gary Mandelblatt, did a magic routine that ended with a torn and restored newspaper trick. I approached Gary and told him that I was an amateur magician who would like to learn that trick. He obliged, and the torn and restored newspaper routine has been my closer ever since.
After medical school, I became interested in public speaking, using magic to enhance my messages. I bring out the newspaper and tear the paper into many pieces. I use this as a metaphor for the current health care system often being torn into many pieces, including conflict between doctors and patients, doctors and hospitals, doctors and insurance companies, and, of course, between doctors and the legal profession. I then talk about the rough edges of the torn paper corresponding to the rough edges that some doctors experience, such as burnout. I recommend that members of the audience consider following a few of the suggestions in my presentation. I conclude by saying, “Amazing magical results are in store for all of you!” as I restore the paper to its original condition. Along the way I had the opportunity to meet David Copperfield (Fig. 1), and perform for such luminaries as Hall of Fame football players Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. (Fig. 2)
Magic was a great icebreaker with my younger patients. It’s a challenge for a 5-year-old patient to overcome the anxiety and fear of a doctor’s appointment. However, using magic, it was easy to win them over after finding that nickel behind their ears!
Often, older patients who learned that I was a magician would request a trick. If I was on schedule, I would ask patients to come out of the examination rooms and into the reception area. I would do a trick, and I would close by saying, “Showtime is over. Everyone, please return to your rooms.”
I encouraged my 3 children to learn a few magic tricks; all 3 showed initial interest, but to date, none have made it to “America’s Got Talent” or “American Idol.”
I also do magic for my grandchildren, who refer to me as “G-Wiz.” On occasion, I am asked to do a magic show at their school. One grandson, just 3 years old, seems to be more impressed with how the magic fools him and less concerned about showing his skill to others.
You might be wondering how “The Wiz” became “The Whiz.” As a urologist, the word “whiz” has a special meaning for us and our male patients. I changed my name to “The Whiz,” enjoying the double entendre provided by adding that single letter.
Well, there you have it, from the origins of “The Whiz” to my present-day devotion to the hobby. Equipped with my small inventory’a deck of cards, some dollar bills and a few rubber bands’I am always ready to perform. At a moment’s notice, my doctor’s hands swing seamlessly into sleight-of-hand. Magic can be mystical, and magic can even be medicinal. I love to dispense it whenever and wherever I am requested. Just ask me.