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Newsmaker Jack Greenberg: Magic still captivates him after 61 years

Monday, July 17, 2000

By Rebecca Sodergren, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Jack Greenberg was a boy, his mother hired Gene Kelly, then a University of Pittsburgh student, to teach dance lessons at the Greenbergs' synagogue, Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill.

  Jack Greenberg (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Greenberg's mother, Anne Unger Greenberg, made him take lessons from Kelly, but "I was probably the lousiest dancing student he ever had," he admits. The problem was that Greenberg was far more interested in the type of performances that Gene Kelly's brother Fred did -- magic shows.

Greenberg pestered Gene Kelly to tell him about Fred's magic. Kelly responded by teasing him -- showing him a Life Saver and saying, "Here, I'll make this disappear," and popping it into his mouth.

    Jack Greenberg

Date of birth: March 28, 1930

Place of birth: Oakland section of Pittsburgh

In the news: Greenberg was elected international president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, a 15,000-member, worldwide organization.

Quote: (On studying magic as a child) "Magic is a deceptive art by its nature, and I got to study that. It's much better than things kids get into today."

Education: Graduated from Allderdice High School in 1948; received a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1952 and master's in employee relations in 1955, both from the University of Pittsburgh; also took courses toward a doctorate at Pitt.

Family: Wife Carole; two grown children.

Undeterred, Greenberg begged his father, Max Greenberg, for a magic set. His father promised to give him one on his 9th birthday.

The big day arrived -- March 28, 1939. Greenberg received his Mysto Magic Set, but he wasn't allowed to play with it because he had to perform in a dance recital.

"To this day, I can still recall the frustration of having to perform in that stupid recital," Greenberg laughs.

After the recital, he sat up with the magic set most of the night, entranced by the same art that still captivates him 61 years later.

Greenberg, 70, of Forest Hills, was elected international president of the 15,000-member International Brotherhood of Magicians (I.B.M.) earlier this month at the organization's annual convention in Buffalo, N.Y.

He has worked as a research scientist, human resources consultant and professor of human resources at the University of Pittsburgh, but it's obvious that magic is his real passion.

He has collected thousands of books about magic. He also computer-catalogued his magic library, starting almost 40 years ago when few people even knew how to program computers.

By necessity, he has also become a collector of equipment needed to stage his magic shows.

"My wife says I fill the house," he admits.

But much of the clutter consists of pieces that Greenberg has built himself. One such machine, which he self-titled "The Jackpot," creates puffs of smoke and other stage effects. He has learned to work with metal and wood, and he's even had to learn to sew.

"There are some things in magic that you have to fashion from cloth, but you can't go to a tailor and say, 'Make this for me,' because they'll want to know what it's for" -- and Greenberg is serious about keeping his secrets.

He has performed everything from children's parties to stage shows. His primary type of performance now is a living room show geared toward adults, focusing on sleight-of-hand tricks.

But each Halloween, he still fascinates the neighborhood children, staging "Tricks AND Treats" in his home. Trick-or-treating children drop in for a 10-minute magic show. One of the highlights every year is an appearance by an old skull named Herkimer ("Herky" for short) that Greenberg bought at an auction of the personal effects of Tampa, a famous 1920s- and 30s-era magician. Every year Greenberg tells the children that he'll try to make Herky talk, but he can't do it. While his back is turned, the skull flaps his jaws a few times, to the delight of shrieking children, who yell, "He's doing it!" Greenberg always turns around too late and pretends not to believe the children.

He also serves children in another way, delivering school lectures debunking the occult.

His time to perform and lecture, however, will be limited by his yearlong term as I.B.M. president. This year, he and his wife will visit many "Rings" -- local chapters of the organization -- in the United States, England, Italy, Asia and Australia.

His term will culminate with the annual convention next year in Orlando, Fla. An I.B.M. member for 55 years, Greenberg has helped to organize many such conventions, where he says the "top acts in magic" perform. Past performers have included David Copperfield and the late Harry Blackstone. Other activities include seminars, small-group shows, contests, receptions and a dealers exhibit room that is "carefully sealed off from the public," Greenberg says.

But no matter how much administrative duty Greenberg takes on, his first love will be plain old magic, which he has used not only for the public, but for fun in his own family. He still recalls a Hannukah when he pulled rabbits out of a hat for each of his two now-grown children.

"They kept those rabbits," Greenberg reminisces. "They'd put leashes on them and walk them all over the place."

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