Pop Haydn in the 21st Century
The BLUERAILROAD Interview
With a Certifiable Genius of Magic
Words & Photographs by PAUL ZOLLO
He’s not of this world. Pop Haydn does not belong in the 21st century, but got marooned here, along with his entire Medicine Show troop, after a botched attempt to duplicate Tesla’s Coil that resulted in an electrical explosion. Along with the entire town, he landed here, in 2005, and ever since has been making his living using his cunning, his mastery of magic, and genius with a con. No one does the shell game like Pop Haydn. He’s also the inventor of the Teleportation Device, which sends matter through space, and the proud owner of the Sphere of Destiny, a crystal ball in which, it’s said, Cleopatra first looked upon the face of Marc Antony.
So knowing all this, it was thrilling to get to go and meet the legendary Pop at the Glassell Park home he shares with his wife and his library, his magic collection, and his souvenirs of a multi-centuried existence. Indeed, upon being granted entrance into his very domicile – there is it – the Sphere of Destiny – in person! Only a few miles outside of Altadena, and we are looking directly into history.
See the man perform, and you will understand why he is mythic among fellow magicians and fans of magic the world over. (Thankfully, there’s a profusion of Pop Haydn routines on Youtube, which you can sample for free, a great privilege for aspirant magicians, as I know well, as my son is one. And has been known to stay up late into the wee hours, poring over one of Pop’s routines with wonder and respect.)
The man performs his illusions with smooth, liquid grace, always a joy to behold. His work is as enjoyable for the ultimate trick – the thing that mystifies us and which doesn’t make sense, no matter what – but also for the easy charm, humor and elegance of a man who has honed this art for, well, for a few centuries. Born in 1849, just a few years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, down in Clarksville, Tennessee, he’s been doing this stuff for a long time. He conducts his tricks and the crowd with the precise yet relaxed demeanor of great violinist, whose Stradivarius, it turns out, is an instrument of his own design. Nothing rattles him when he’s performing – even when audience members attempt to be funny, as they often do – the man is the essence of cool, the Mose Alison of magicians.
Watch him do the shell game for example, in rhythm with rhymes he speaks like a cross between Mark Twain and the Wizard from start of The Wizard of Oz, and you see a master in action, a man in perfect control of every aspect of his performance. That he always deceives us is part of the charm; unlike other magicians who come off as too slick or even smarmy, Pop is eminently likeable. Even after he fools you, you want to hug the guy.
The son of a minister, he almost became a minister himself, and studied at a Seminary with that plan, until one of his professors set him on the path of magic by teaching him about God, as related in the following conversations.
There’s also the story that he got thrown out of the Seminary. Like the myths which surround all great magicians, there’s a mixture of truth and confabulation in every detail in the Pop Haydn bio.
There’s one version, for example, that has him born not in 1849, but 1949 – though most of the rest of the bio is right. Except instead of the volatile 1860s, he came of age in the volatile 1960s, devoted to civil rights and bettering the world. He was the first person ever in Pitt County, during the Viet Nam era, to get excused from service because of Conscientious Objector status, a very difficult distinction to earn, especially in the deep South.
In this version of his life, he is a regular kind of magician who did corporate events and Vegas shows under the name Whit Haydn, until 2005 when Pop emerged.
Whichever version you choose to believe, the truth is better than any of it. Seeing him do his thing live is a revelation. And getting to sit down with him in his kitchen, as I did on a resplendently sunny Sunday in Los Angeles, was a joy. Joined by my son Joshua who sat in silent awe of his idol most of the time until he got the tremendous privilege of advice from Pop on how best to do the Scotch & Soda effect, lost on this civilian, was a joy. We’re still not sure from which century Pop originated, but awfully glad he’s in this one now.
BLUERAILROAD: Your father was a minister, and I understand the first magic you ever saw was performed by a minister –
POP HAYDN: True.
And you were so struck by it, you stayed up all night to figure out how he did it?
Yes, I did stay up all night thinking about how the tricks worked.
Were you able to figure it out?
No, that is the wonderful thing about magic. There is no way to figure magic out, if it’s done right. But you’re gonna try.
Magic is an argument. It’s a syllogism that’s valid. It makes perfect sense. Except that the conclusion doesn’t make any sense at all. But you can’t go back and fix it, because one of the premises that you accept as true is not true. You keep getting the wrong result. And that result is that this has to be magic. Well, that can’t be right. So you go back and look at it. But it adds up to real magic. But it can’t be real magic. Let’s go over this again. You will keep ending up with the same result, because the premise is wrong. And so every magic trick is kind of like that.
We don’t have fraud in nature. The universe is not set up to fool us. If we find facts in nature, they’re usually pretty much what they appear to be. But when humans are involved, there is always the possibility of cheating and trickery. And that’s what magicians are here to remind us about, how easily we can be fooled, when there’s another human being using deception.
Pop in his backyard with the Teleportation Device.
So at that age, when you couldn’t figure out how to do the trick, it didn’t discourage you?
Well, what happens is that you have to figure it out. Basically, there is no logical way to solve it. Logic will not work, because the premises are wrong. And because you know it can’t be true – it is not a true thing – so the only way to figure it out is to invent that trick: how would I go about making someone think they saw that I saw?
So you have to be creative. You have to think inductively instead of deductively. Well, most of us are wired to think logically. We don’t think creatively. Magic forces you to think creatively. It’s like a little Zen koan that’s dropped into your head, and you can’t red rid of it till you solve it. And you can’t solve it until you invent a solution.
Well, you can’t invent the solution because you don’t have the technology. You don’t know the technology of deception. We have a whole deception of camouflage, mirrors, pick pocketing, lock-picking, acting, costuming, lighting, deceit, trickery, lying. All kinds of stuff at our disposal that we’ve studied, that gives us an edge over someone who doesn’t know that technology. Because any technology that is sufficiently advanced looks like magic. Our technology is a technology of deception. That’s what looks like magic to people.
Eric Sevareid, the commentator, saw the Doug Henning show back in the early 70s. His reaction was “I just saw this wonderful magic show and the young man cut ladies in half and floated them in the air, and I have no idea how he did it. But it reminded me of something my dad told me when I was a little boy. He said, `Son, there are only two kinds of people in the world. There are people that can be had, and they are suckers. And the only difference between those two is that a sucker is a special kind of person who will bet you fifty bucks he can’t be had.’ [Laughter] And I think that’s why these magicians are here amongst us. To remind us we can all be had, so we don’t become suckers.”
That’s pretty good, and I think magic has served that part of society. We have taken a lot of superstition away from society, by getting people to think and look for the possibility of fraud. You see a country where the magicians are still thought of as having real powers – like India or Indonesia – those magicians play with that. They act like charlatans and pretend they can read the future, and pretend to know things they cannot know.
Magic serves that function as setting up the dilemma, the tension between superstition – what we believe – and what is real. So it can be extremely creative. Houdini, you know, was he first person to ever put a robot in a movie.
Is that so?
Yes. In The Man From Beyond, he put up a robot. But then Metropolis came and robots became common. Well, now we have robots.
Now we have thinking machines. It sparked creativity. Magic does that to people. And I love the idea of fake machines, and the Teleportation Device is one. Also the Tesla Coil, which I use, which is a real machine but with which, we do fake things.
Your father was a minister, as you mentioned, and I know you studied to be a Priest –
Yes, studied to become an Episcopal minister.
Did your father approve of you doing magic? Was that not considered one of the dark arts, in contradiction to Christianity?
Oh no. To some bible-oriented Baptists and strict religious people, it could be considered that. But most churches don’t have anything against magic. We separate the difference between a real magician – someone who is supposedly in league with the devil – and a magician, who is someone who plays with that. I am an Episcopalian and I don’t believe in that, I don’t believe in magic. I don’t think there is such a thing. I don’t think the devil would actually help you destroy somebody, I don’t believe in that.
How about good magic – like the miracles Jesus was said to perform. Do you believe in that?
Well, I think that happened. Bad things and good things happen that we don’t understand. I don’t think it’s a matter of faith whether it’s a special event from God or not. I tend to be very skeptical most of the time. I believe in God, and I believe there are all sorts of paths to God.
The important thing to me is that no matter how much you believe something, no matter how strongly you believe it, doesn’t make it true. [Laughs] If you realize that, then we can all get along. If you don’t realize that, then we’re all gonna be fighting.
I thought it was interesting that it was a biblical scholar, Reginald Fuller, who encouraged you to be a magician rather than a priest.
Why did he do that? What did he see in you?
Of course, he was probably trying to save the church. [Laughter] He might have had ulterior motives. And be probably did.
But he saw that I had a love of it. He said, “You light up when you do these magic tricks for the faculty and the students. You light up like a fire-cracker! It’s wonderful to watch. Have you ever thought of doing something like that for a living?”
I told him I had done that for a living, on the streets of New York and in Europe. And I said, “I love it, but I want to do something relevant.” This was 1972 and ‘relevant’ was a big word back then. I had come out of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, and I was very political. I very much wanted to change the world and make it a better place. I became a Christian – I was converted back to Christianity at college. I wanted to do something important to make the world a better place.
Well, the professor, when I told him I wanted to do something relevant, took off his little pince-nez glasses and said, “Well, you know it’s not as if God needs you.” [Laughter]
I said, “Excuse me?”
He said, “The good Lord is perfectly capable of saving the world all by himself.” [Laughter] “He doesn’t need your help. If he calls you, if he needs you to be a martyr or a saint, you’ll want to go. And you’ll be joyful about it. But until that time, he’s given you a love for something. It could be silly, like a love for stamp collecting. But whatever that love is, that is the important thing that makes you want to be here. It makes you like the world and find it interesting and keeps you getting up every morning. It keeps you from walking out a window somewhere. When God gives you a love for something, that is His greatest gift. That is talent. And you are supposed to invest in it, follow it. Because you don’t know what His plan is. You don’t know. He might just need you for one little thing, some little kid somewhere who one day will see your show and it will keep him going when he needs to be going. You never know how God is going to make use of your talent. That’s not your job. You’re supposed to do what brings love and joy to the people around you. And you do that by following your bliss.”
That was very sage advice. And he was right. I dropped out of the Seminary and started doing magic fulltime. And I have had a wonderful life doing it. It’s not been very successful financially; we’ve gone through ups and downs, successful some times, and not successful other times, but I’ve always been happy, always loved what I do.
What led you to become the kind of magician you are?
In the old days the magicians were like Houdini, Blackstone, Thurston, Carter. From about 1890 to 1920 was the Golden age of Magic, and these guys created a whole image, a character, of who they were. With an interesting back story that would make him more intriguing to the people, and bring them into the theater.
So you’d see a poster of a guy, and he’d have a pith helmet on and would be in the jungles, like Indiana Jones. And you’re figuring he’s gonna come right onto stage with the lions and the tigers he’s brought back from the jungle, and with black magic learned from witch doctors. They would get the audience programmed and ready for it. And they would use magazine articles like this one to present that character, that personality, to draw people into the theater, to give the magic more of a story, more believability.
Houdini actually created a character that he invented, as the heroic, scientific sports hero. He’s a new kind of hero. He would create that character on the stage with each trick. He would do one trick where he’s escaping from catgut loops and can’t move, he’s all tied up, and has to use his toes to untie the knots. It shows his resourcefulness.
In the next trick, somebody puts the cuffs on too hard, and he will act very dignified and take it and not complain, he was always a good sport, to show that side of his character. Then his ability to face death. So each trick creates an image of people watching of who this guy is, this wonderful hero. But it’s all plotted, it’s all planned out. But then that hero takes it one step beyond, and does something you can’t do by physical means, like escaping from a milk can. They build up that this guy who could do anything – and then oh my goodness, look what he just did – that’s impossible! So they created a superhero who could do that kind of stuff.
We’ve left that out of our magic. The Indiana Jones. The magic at that time was geared straight at the nine to twelve year-old kid’s heart. Like Indiana Jones is. But it affects people our age who have a nine year old’s heart. We love Indiana Jones just as much though we know it’s silly.
At the Pop Haydn show I have created a character that has that kind of back story, and I come onstage with a whole troop of stories. So I have created a character on the Internet all about the Sphere of Destiny. [Laughs]
I don’t like a parade of boxes onstage that do magic. Where you have a box that makes a girl appear. Bring on another box it makes the girl disappear. Bring on another box, it cuts a lady in half. That’s not very magical to me. That looks like a trick box. How does it work is really the only question. We wanted to find magical objects. Like that crystal ball, the Sphere of Destiny. Five inches of solid quartz, flawless, natural quartz crystals worth thousands and thousands of dollars. It has a provenance that dates back at least to the Middle Ages, to the time of the Crusades. But supposedly, it’s even older than that. It’s said that Cleopatra first saw the face of Marc Anthony in that very stone.
Is that right? And here it is in Glassell Park—
Well, they claim it’s in a collection in Istanbul. But that is not the real one. This one is the real one. That one hasn’t had a confirmed, accurate prediction in over a hundred years. This one shoots ‘em out like a magic 8-ball. And that is the story, and I am sticking to it. [Laughter]
The thing is, it’s much more fun when you pick up that thing, and you can tell people predictions. With the stone, we predict how many skeptics there will be in the room.
With the Sphere of Destiny.
Is it accurate?
Always exactly accurate. We write it down on a piece of paper. We say, “Anybody who thinks this is BS, anybody who doesn’t believe in E.S.P., please raise your hands.” We open the envelope and it says there will be exactly eleven skeptics in our show tonight. And two who did not raise their hands. The crystal ball knows everything.
We invite people to write down any question for the crystal ball, and the lady owns the question up in the air, all folded up, and the crystal ball tells you what’s on the question, who wrote it, and what the answer is.
We have a teleportation device. It’s a box with which we can send a dollar bill into a lemon and then into an egg, and the dollar bill is signed, its serial number written down. It goes first into a lemon and then into any number of raw eggs. Oh yes, it’s a lot of fun. It’s gonna be a great boon to mankind.
These days young magicians, like my son here, can see a lot of magic – and learn a lot – from the Internet and Youtube. How did you learn to do magic?
I learned a lot from Dick Snavely, Wallace Lee and Bill Padlock, a bunch of magicians from the area. My father had gone to school with Dick, who was a wonderful magician. My father introduced me to him, and he led me into the right stuff.
Did they share secrets?
Yes. He taught me. They all did. But most of it I learned from books I got out of the library. It was extraordinarily good for you to learn tricks from a book, because translating tricks from books was very good for a magician to learn. To learn geometry, how to create a visual picture of things.
On your bookshelves there is every kind of book – a lot of philosophy, theology. Has this reading enriched you as a magician?
I think everything enriches you as a performer, everything in life. I had a lot of weird hobbies that this new character I started doing in 2005 has put together. I had no idea until 2005 what I would have a use for my interest in con games, 19th century history, spinning rope. All the little skills I’d picked up over the years. They didn’t fit in my magic show. But then in 2005. I was hired to do a show for a western village cowboy festival. They wanted me to dress up like a 19th century gambler and do the shell game for people. Well I thought this would be a lot of fun. Would give me a chance to work the shell game all day as I haven’t done for years, and to dress up in Western garb. I had been thinking about doing a western character. So I got the costume together, and tried working on a western accent. And I couldn’t do one and sound right. So I figured I would just do a Southern accent. So I did an imitation of my granddaddy, who had a thick Virginian accent. And people started to come over. Boy, that voice just cut through the clutter. They all wanted to know who this character was that I was doing.
I thought, wow, this is great! Cause I had worked for 30 years with no accent. I had learned how to speak without any Southern accent when I was 24, cause I wanted to do some acting, and I was told I had to lose the accent. So I did. But now I brought it back.
Is that when you went from being Whit Haydn to Pop Haydn?
Yes, it is. It was about the time that I had become a grandfather for the first time. And I was looking for a name for a con man character. And con men always had avuncular names like Uncle Willie. Pop Kruger. It was more than one thing. You can say, “Hi I’m Whit Haydn, but you can call me Pop.” Say, “Hi Pop.”
Hi Pop! How you doing?
I’m good, how are you son? See, now you are one down. I’m the pop, you’re the son, see? You’re figuring he must be trustworthy, why else would everyone call him Pop? He must be a good guy. As soon as you say, “Hi Pop,” you’re halfway to being claimed. [Laughs]
This is some very old knowledge you’re sharing.
Exactly. That’s where the name came from. They used Dad, and also Pop. And that’s why you hear, “Don’t ever play cards with a man named Pop.” That is because those guys liked those kind of names. Much better than Doc. Everyone knew you don’t play cards with a man named Doc. Because he is a professional. So if you want to tell people you are a professional cheat, you pick a name like Doc. But if you want people to trust you and think you are the old man of the room, you pick a name like Pop.
So many TV magicians we see have no character—
Well, I didn’t either. Until Pop. I was a black bread magician, I worked corporate events, I had no accent, no mustache.
Yeah, I saw your old photos. A whole different look.
Yes, it was a totally different look. When I became Pop, it all changed. I lowered my voice and brought back my accent. My grandfather had an untouched Virginian accent, and my character has been in the West a lot and has a lot of westernisms like ‘howdy.’ He’s also studied rhetoric and been to Seminary, so has a much more educated speech than my grandfather. So I combined different regional accents to get one that would work for Pop, for being out west for the majority of his life, working Medicine Shows. This is where we are getting to know. Then I had to make it sound natural.
Medicine Shows – they were wagon shows which sold cures?
Medicine shows were free shows to sell medicines. Usually sponsored by the medicine companies. Like heroin, cannabis, opium. They really did make you feel better. They had soothing drops for children teething that was opium. In 1906 the Federal Food & Drug Act was passed, which put the kibosh on all of that. The medicines went to fake medicines, placebos. Electrical oils. And there would be magicians, singers, comedians. Blackface minstrels. A blackface was just clown makeup. You couldn’t see a mouth on a black person unless it was painted white. So it would read for the back row, like clown makeup. So a lot of black performers wore blackface, and hated it when they took blackface away. People tend to think of blackface as racist, but it wasn’t so.
You said you were never the kind of magician who liked “box magic.” So when you started, what did you do? Did you invent your own tricks even back then?
When I started, I liked the Linking Rings, because the object itself was the magic object. You could examine them. It’s not a prop, not a machine that does magic. The rope in a rope trick. The prop itself is what is magical. The egg in the egg bag, it’s a magical bag. You could collect a dozen eggs from a hen, put it in the bad, put the bad in your back pocket, play all the way home, and never break a single egg. It’s a magical object. See, if you have a box, you open a door and there’s nobody in it, open again and there is somebody, well , you think, how does the box work? But that’s not the same thing as a magic object, which I like. The stories are better with a magic object. That’s why I like the Tesla Coil, The Teleportation Device, the Crystal Ball, the Egg Bag, Linking Rings, Magic Rope. All those things that have stories.
Can you tell me Pop’s story?
Sure. Pop was born in 1849 in Clarksville, Tennessee. His father was an Episcopalian minister. He went to seminary. And he was thrown out of Seminary. He was 12 in 1861, so he missed the [Civil] war because of his age. Which is good, because he doesn’t have any of the hostility that would come from a Southerner who had been through the war.
He went on a merchant ship east to China and elsewhere, came back in the 1870s, went out west, went to Deadwood and met con-men ad gamblers, got involved with them. Went to Alaska for the Gold Rush, came back here and met Tesla in a poker game in Denver. In Colorado Springs, Tesla set up a lightning factory where he produced the biggest lightning ever produced by a human. Over 100 foot lightning bolt. Over a hundred million volts. Was heard for thirty miles. That was in 1899.
So Pop met Tesla, got interested in that, got into medicine shows, did show biz for the miners. So his character developed, and in 1910 he was hired by Lucky Baldwin, a guy in L.A. who would send electricity to individual homes via radio waves. Which is what Tesla had been working on. He lit up thousands of light bulbs from a mile away. Pop was taking Tesla’s plans and building a giant tower in this little community called White Horse Ranch. To test it. He was gonna provide electricity to everyone in the village. But there was some kind of feedback loop, and the whole thing blew up. The next thing they knew, that whole town, and everybody in it, was still in the southern California desert near Landers, but they were in the 21st century. When the stage didn’t get there one day, they went out to look for it and started finding highways. We were in the 21st century. And I had my whole medicine show troop there. And we had to make a living. And that is why Pop is here, in the 21st century. Though I didn’t come from here.