Gary Dreifus Shares Magic, Passion For Coney Island
[This is a post from my old blog dated August 2015.]
Gary Dreifus teaches Magic for Mature Adults at The YMHA of Washington Heights, where I am a recreational therapist in the senior center. Twice, he allowed a student, an arthritis sufferer, to slice me in half with a chainsaw. I kicked and screamed, to the delight of the geriatric audience. (I wasn’t acting.) After defying death at work, I became friends with Gary, NY1’s New Yorker of the Week. Every time he talked about Coney Island, where he is producer of Magic at Coney, I felt my eyes bulge into light bulbs.
Recently, I told Gary how much I like the Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor league team that plays near the boardwalk. He offered me a VIP pass on one condition: I would be an honorary magician, part of his band of roving entertainers that included Omar Olusion and Oleg the Human Computer. Thrilled, I arrived on a Monday night for a game against the Hudson Valley Renegades. First, Gary taught me the snapper trick. Then he escorted me through MCU Park, where he is a familiar face. “Can you make [my wife] disappear?” a fan asked. “We are in Brooklyn,” Gary quipped. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation:
Ann Votaw: Since I lived through the chainsaw trick, I’m going to ask about your recent heart attack.
Gary Dreifus: I didn’t know I was having a heart attack at the time. It felt fine. I got scared afterwards. I want to incorporate it into my show somehow because: (1) I’ve experienced a heart attack and lived, and (2) there are so many people like me who made all the wrong health choices. When you face your own mortality, you want to save as many people as possible.
AV: Where are you from?
AV: When did you get interested in magic?
GD: When I was a kid. I was active in a community center where there was an old vaudevillian magician, Maurice the Great, who did shows wherever he could get hired. For a fourth grade assignment, I found a how-to book on magic and performed some tricks, badly. Then I followed Maurice after a show. I said, “I’m a magician.” He said, “Are you any good?” I said, “No.” He said, “Did you practice?” I thought, “Practice?” Maurice let me carry his doves back to the car. He was my first mentor. I teach a trick in senior centers in his honor.
AV: You were also an audiologist?
GD: My profession was audiology from 1978 until 2009. I started by teaching sixth grade at the New York School For the Deaf while I was getting my Masters. There were behavior issues. I told them that if they were good, I would teach them magic. So then the kids were like angels.
AV: How long have you been the producer of Magic at Coney?
GD: Five seasons. I have more than 100 magicians in a pool who are terrific and will help out last minute. I thought the game was next Monday, but Oleg the Human Computer reminded me it was tonight.
AV: Do you think there’s a camaraderie among magicians?
GD: There can be. They’re protective of their work, but they’ll give their right arm to help you out. Magicians want to work here. All of the three amusement areas — Dreamland, Luna Park, and Steeplechase, where we are now — had their own magicians and side shows that promoted their magicians. All the big acts in magic came through Coney, including Houdini. The great entertainers came to Coney. You may have heard of Jimmy Durante. Or the Howard Boys, whom you may know as the Three Stooges.
AV: What is it about Coney?
GD: There is so much history. I remember when the Parachute Jump over there was a real working ride. It wasn’t lit up like that. There’s a saying about Coney. For some people, the sand gets in their blood.
AV: That’s beautiful.
GD: I love my job, but I’m at the age  where if I don’t love what I’m doing, it’s not worth it. I’ve loved all my jobs — in audiology, when I taught swimming, and when I worked in my father’s bakery. Go to the DMV sometime. You’ll see who hates their jobs.
AV: You also love magic.
GD: When you were a child and someone turned on the switch, and the room was bathed in light, you were amazed. That’s magic. As a magician, I’m able to bring astonishment back to people who’ve seen it all. That’s just incredible.