He mystified generations with his conjuring, but Vanni Pulé, who has just been elected to the top post of the prestigious International Brotherhood of Magicians, does not believe in magic. He speaks to Ariadne Massa about his bag of tricks.
Plucking a small innocuous foam bunny from his pocket, Mr Pulé conjures its clone with a simple sleight of the hand, and by the time the trick is up he has a whole family of foam rabbits sprouting from his palm.
“It is years of practice, devotion and misspent youth,” he says, laughing as he smoothly navigates from one trick to another.
Magic comes easy to the 62-year-old magician who has dabbled in this intriguing world of illusion since he was 13 and was handed a magic set from Ellisdons, a novelty catalogue company in the UK.
He took them along with him to a catechism class, but too shy to perform in public, he asked an outgoing group leader to do the honours. But the other boy was too busy, so the young Vanni summoned some courage, hid behind a cardboard moustache and gave a 15-minute show.
It gave him “a buzz”, injecting him with enough enthusiasm to cast a spell on his shyness and prepare another act. He headed to Valletta in search of books for guidance and nestled in the bookshelves was Elsden Tuff’s Teach Yourself Conjuring.
“As you can imagine I still have this book... I cannot remember a time when I didn’t like magic. I’ve always liked magic. All kids do,” he says, pointing out that in the 1960s, when no internet existed, access to information was limited, and the few magicians around were cautious about sharing their secrets.
A year after his first successful show, the 14-year-old boy was going around Catholic Action groups and band clubs giving small performances, and in the meantime devoured any information he could glean from other magicians such as Von Fred and George Gatt, known as The Phantom.
He was fascinated with Mr Gatt’s tricks. Not so much the magic per se but the fact that he was on stage without any big props surrounded by people and still managing to get the attention.
“He was not an academic and couldn’t even read or write but he was very clever and made up all the stuff himself. We became friends,” he says.
“I really admired him and he helped not so much as teach me magic, but instilled in me the ethics of magic not to expose secrets, to respect others, to be different, to be original and to be myself, which are more important than the actual tricks themselves. After all, it’s not so much the magic but about the individual. Anybody can learn tricks but people have to remember you.”
He continued building his portfolio of tricks, and at 17, just as he was emerging from the British Museum, he came across a magic shop – that was where he spent most of his holiday; sucking in every move of Patrick Page, who was demonstrating the tricks and who went on to become a popular magician.
All this was happening during his free time, in between studying for his O levels and attempting to assure his parents that magic was merely a hobby – they were not convinced and not keen on how seriously he was taking the art.
One day, when he was supposed to have his head burrowed in Latin books, his older brother caught him practising some new tricks and reported him to his parents.
“My mother came up and threw away everything, squashing the top hat which I had made myself. I couldn’t afford to buy one so I had made it out of cardboard and felt,” he says, adding that he went on to pass his Latin O level and got a place at University to his parent’s delight.
Was learning magic a way of making friends for the reserved youngster?
“Maybe it was, but in hindsight I don’t think magic helps very much with friends. Music was what led to friendships when I was playing guitar and singing at University,” he says.
“With magic, people still consider you to be remote, different... I still find that sometimes.”
Magic was also the path that led him to find his long-time partner-in-conjuring and wife, Mary Anne. It all happened through the contacts he had with The Sunday Times when he started providing cartoon strips for the newspaper.
He joined when he was 20, and soon formed part of a show with Mario Philip Azzopardi as producer and Philip Farrugia Randon as presenter.
At the time, his sister was his helper, but when they decided to take the show to Gozo’s Astra Theatre, his “strict” mother refused to let her tag along. Which is how Mary Anne came into the scene.
The 15-year-old was part of the show as a dancer and singer and she willingly agreed to be Mr Pulé’s helper for the night. The show went so well that he asked her to accompany him in future shows. The spell was cast and they fell in love, tying the knot in 1976.
In the 1970s the nightclub scene was starting to flourish and Mr Pulé got his lucky break when a popular magician that the Nigret club wanted to hire was unavailable. Along came the relatively unknown Vanni Pulé and secured a permanent slot.
The audience was enchanted by his spells and hotels started booking him for shows, quickly filling up his evenings.
His wife went along with him, often bearing the brunt of any tricks that went wrong. Once, during a dress rehearsal for levitation (where the human body rises in the air through ‘mystical’ means) at the Manoel Theatre, Mary Anne fell quite hard, but escaped serious injury.
Another time, the couple were rehearsing for the impalement, where Mary Anne had to “sort of” be balanced on a sword when something happened and “she ended up dangling on the end of the sword”, hurting her back in the process.
Does his wife know all his tricks?
“Pretty much, except I try to keep my ‘assistant’ on a need-to-know basis... She’s been fine with that. However, she’s been with me so long that even if I show her a new trick she knows the principles.”
Not content to perform the same tricks, in 1987 he went a step further and had all of Malta flabbergasted when he guessed the Lotto numbers, live on television.
He had recorded a cassette with the winning numbers and locked this up in a box that was padlocked and sealed with wax. He has never heard the end of this revelation and is still stopped and asked for lottery numbers to this day.
“Of course, it’s cheating. How, I’m not going to say – it’s psychological, mathematical, but it’s cheating. I never won any money,” he says, when asked for an explanation.
More recently he gained notoriety by guessing that Fabrizio Faniello and Glen Vella would win the Malta Song for Europe festival.
Is this also a mathematical deduction?
“No comment,” he laughs, adding “but it’s not real magic. There is no such thing as magic. Otherwise I’d be a millionaire by now.”
A lecturer by profession, teaching English at Junior College, Mr Pulé never saw magic as more than a hobby.
“I never considered it as a career. I could have if I wanted to, but I preferred to open up intellectually. I didn’t want to be limited, and teaching English is very satisfying,” he says.
“To this day I still enjoy discovering the many facets of Shakespeare and new authors.
“I don’t watch football. I don’t even watch the World Cup, nor do I play any board games... I find them boring. Magic is more creative.”
He had numerous opportunities to work as a full-time magician and was even offered contracts abroad, but he stuck to teaching and in between spent the past 30 years doing 12 shows a week. These days, he has cut down on commitments, picking and choosing events just to remain in touch with the ethereal world.
He laughs as he recounts how every scholastic year his new students are excited to learn “the magician” will be teaching them, until they discover “I’m as boring as the rest of them”.
Stopping to mull on his looming retirement, he admits he’s on borrowed time.
“I used to look forward to retiring but when I came to decide I found it so final. I’ll miss the students, the staff...”
Retiring should come easy to the multi-talented man who loves music, can draw and paint quite successfully, and has never tired of learning or inventing new tricks.
He finds magic surpasses all his other passions because he believes it is creative and equips the person with communication and critical skills, which explains why he branched into scepticism; not the attitude, but the methodological search for knowledge.
“Scepticism is not about belief but about evidence. We feel certain things like ‘talking to dead people’, ‘alien abductions’, ‘mind over matter’, ‘ability to predict future events’, ‘mental telepathy’, ‘the Nostradamus predictions’, and so on... are taken as facts when, in fact, after hundreds of years there has been no evidence for them at all,” he says.
“My method is to arrive at the truth as much as possible by examining facts empirically rather than by anecdotal and doubtful evidence.
“I’m very obsessed with the truth. I don’t believe there is real magic. I don’t like Harry Potter at all... personally I find the spells so impossible I prefer science fiction over that. Though, most of all, I prefer realism,” he says.
Hearing a magician say he does not believe in magic is bound to shatter the fairytale world of some. It is a feeling akin to hearing someone say Father Christmas does not exist.
He smiles: “Magic is all about suspending belief, creating a sense of wonder, and challenging the mind.”
Though the Harry Potter phenomenon has not swept Mr Pulé off his feet, he does credit it for sparking a revived interest in magic, the same way American illusionists David Copperfield and David Blaine succeeded in keeping the spark alive and making an impact.
However, his all-time hero is the Italian magician Mago Silvan, who he grew up watching and admiring on television, eventually even striking up a friendship with him.
He is still spellbound by the world of magic that has thrown him onto the international stage, thanks to his membership – since 1969 – with the local branch of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, Ring 202.
Ring 202, known as the Magician’s Society in Malta, still exists, but Mr Pulé has yet to find a protégée whom he can encourage to put together an original act that can be performed to the masses, something he himself used to do.
“That is what I’m missing now. I have a lot of new ideas but have nowhere to perform them.”
Throughout the years he attended conventions where he mingled with other magicians, shared the real tricks of the trade and even secured a regular column in the prestigious brotherhood’s popular monthly publication, The Linking Ring.
Just last month he was elected international president of the brotherhood, which is the world’s largest magic organisation, with 15,000 members in 33 countries. Though he hides it well behind his reserved nature, Mr Pulé is quite chuffed to have been elected to this position, and is excited to inject new ideas, while keeping continuity.
In his interview with The Linking Ring, Mr Pulé admits his shyness meant he never pursued leadership positions, but somehow they always seemed to find him.
It is this same character trait that emerged when Mr Pulé’s family was reluctantly thrust in the limelight last Christmas when the office of his 32-year-old son Konrad at Transport Malta was targeted by a bomber.
Mr Pulé is anxious not to be drawn into speaking about what happened, fully aware that his son, who has since had a baby boy and returned to work, dislikes discussing the incident.
Asked if there has been any breakthrough in the investigations, Mr Pulé says there have been no developments.
“I believe very much in humanity, and unfortunately there are creeps and weird people... You try to be pragmatic and stoical and as detached as possible. And there has been good that came out of this. Although we are a close-knit family, this has brought us closer. Life has to go on.”
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