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Magic

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Egypt has long been considered a land of mystery and magic. Above, the Magical Circle of Anubis is discussed in ‘The Golden Bough.’

By Elof Axel Carlson

In 1890 Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941) wrote “The Golden Bough.” Frazer was Scottish, educated in Glasgow and then in Cambridge studying classical literature (Greek and Roman). He studied mythology, comparative religion and anthropology. His book argues that magic gave rise to religion and religion to science.

Magic assumes there are supernatural powers that some people can invoke or possess as innate gifts. With magic, what seems impossible can be made possible, at least to the observers of magical acts. Most professional magicians deny that they possess such gifts, and Houdini spent considerable time duplicating the tricks and illusions other magicians (and charlatans) used to deceive the public.

Frazer surmises the earliest humans believed in magical acts and associated them into rituals and myths with a belief in gods, often family ancestors, mythic heroes who were founders of a tribe, clan or larger population and sky gods. He believed the idea of resurrection came from the seasonal observation that plants die, scatter seeds and in the spring a resurrection occurs. He calls this “the dying corn god.”

Religion largely replaced magic as the basis for interpreting how the world arose, how society should function and how we relate to our gods. Religion in turn led to science with mathematics replacing numerology, astronomy coming out from astrology and chemistry from alchemy. The pursuit of knowledge from pseudoscience led to a weeding out of the failed experiments and predictions and a respect for more empirical and reason-based studies of the material, living and psychological universe in which we live.

Contemporary historians and philosophers differ with Frazer and among themselves on the origins of science. Some use a Marxist interpretation that farmers and workers laid the groundwork for science by their practical approaches to cultivate nature. Some argue that science is actually a cultural consensus or construction that shifts to new consensus and constructions in response to political and cultural changes.

Most scientists reject these social views of science and favor a material universe that can be explored, interpreted and manipulated with tools, experimentation, reason and data replacing myth, ideology or the supernatural. At issue in these debates are the ways scientists see the universe and their efforts to understand it. Science sometimes overthrows prevailing beliefs seen as truths. More often, it modifies its findings and its implications, incorporating the old as a portion of the new.

Newton’s laws of motion and gravity were not negated by Einstein’s theories of relativity or space-time. They became a more limited application useful for studying Earth and its solar system. Science is limited in what it can predict. We do not know if there are few, many or an unending number of scientific laws that may emerge in the centuries and millennia to come.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

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Some of the scarier masks at Ronjo Magic & Costumes in Port Jefferson Station. Photo by Dave Paone

By Dave Paone

Port Jefferson Station is able to make a claim no other place on Long Island can: It’s home to the last brick-and-mortar magic store in all of Nassau and Suffolk County. Ronjo Magic & Costumes on Route 112 is the last of its breed, yet doesn’t look as if it’ll be performing a disappearing act anytime soon.

The 2,000 square-foot store is stocked with magic trick pieces, novelty items, costumes and a room for performances. The costume articles include wigs, masks and an extensive line of hats that hang from the ceiling. The novelty section is small, but contains the usual gags, like exploding cigarettes, hand buzzers, itching powder and the obligatory rubber chickens.

Last month, Hope Galasso, of Bellport, discovered Ronjo through a Google search and brought her 15-year-old nephew Zack Galasso to the store to purchase a Chinese coin trick for $7.

While Halloween is the bread-and-butter season for costume sales, it’s not the only time they’re in demand. Last year, 19-year-old Suffolk County Community College student Christine Day came into the store with her brother and a friend. The trio was preparing to attend Comic Con, a convention for comics, graphic novels, anime, video games, toys and movies, in New York City. Her brother was dressing as Jack Skellington from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, and her friend was dressing as Beetlejuice. The three of them needed makeup.

Ron Diamond of Ronjo Magic & Costumes, Long Island’s last-surviving magic store. Photo by Dave Paone
Ron Diamond of Ronjo Magic & Costumes, Long Island’s last-surviving magic store. Photo by Dave Paone

Owner Ron Diamond provided them with just what they needed. “We looked great,” Day said.

She also said Diamond was “really helpful” and “inviting,” so when he offered her a part-time job at the store, she took it. Currently she handles data entry, shipment of online orders, and works the counter for costumes and makeup.

Diamond’s lifelong interest in magic began in 1966 when his mother bought him a magic kit called Box-o-Magic for $3 at Billy Blake’s department store in Setauket. Then 8 years old, Diamond said the box contained just a handful of tricks, but enough to get him started.

Diamond continued to learn tricks, but with no magic store nearby, he resorted to learning new illusions from library books, and by age 12, even started to handcraft his own tricks with the help of a classmate.

Diamond got the itch to perform.

So at 13, he recruited a girl named Joanne from down the block to play the part of his onstage assistant. He wanted to give Joanne top billing, and name the act Joron, but his sister, Deborah, said he should call it Ronjo, so he did.

Ronjo’s first public performances were free for local charities in Suffolk. Since the two performers were only in eighth grade, his mother had to drive them to wherever they were performing.

Eventually, the charity work led to paying gigs. Their first was at a birthday party for a 6-year-old, where they made $6. Diamond kept $4, and paid Joanne $2.

A year later, Diamond became more polished and added new tricks to the act, and with it, the price of a show jumped to $35. The clients from the first job called to book him again, but when he told them the new rate, they hung up.

At 15, he thought he could make additional money by giving lessons and selling magic tricks in a retail setting. He talked one of the merchants at the Old Town Village indoor flea market in Setauket into letting him rent space in his booth, where he set up a 2 feet by 4 feet showcase with 12 tricks for sale.

Some of the “sexy” Halloween costumes available at Ronjo Magic & Costume shop in Port Jefferson Station. Photo by Dave Paone
Some of the “sexy” Halloween costumes available at Ronjo Magic & Costume shop in Port Jefferson Station. Photo by Dave Paone

The retail locations kept changing, and with each move, got bigger. Diamond added more showcases with more tricks for sale, and eventually landed his own 13 feet by 100 feet store at the Arcade Shopping Center in Port Jefferson Station at 16 years old. He stayed there for 14 years.

As the years went on, Diamond became a professional magician, but Joanne was no longer in the act, because her father wanted her to get a “real job.” By 1982, he had a crew working for him, including, at times, a driver, a stagehand and other performers including a sword swallower, belly dancer and disc jockey.

On occasion, customers in his store would ask for wigs, makeup and costumes. Since he never says no to a customer, he’d get whatever items they were looking for.

In 1991, Diamond hired Pete Albertson, who was one of his students, to manage the store. He’s been there for 25 years. Diamond purchased his current location in 2000. When Magic Shop in Hicksville closed three years ago, Ronjo became the last surviving magic store on Long Island.

The storefront acquired a little slice of cyberspace and joined the internet in 2003. The website saw tremendous growth over a five-year period, which peaked in 2008, almost to the point where physical store was no longer needed. But all that changed when more and more retailers began selling online, and cyber sales dropped considerably. Now, there are “more websites than customers,” he said.

On the magic side, Ronjo’s customers range from the loyal to the new. Mike Maimone of Port Jefferson Station has been purchasing tricks from Ronjo since he was 12. He’s now 48. He owns nearly 350 decks of cards — each for a different illusion — plus 250 other items for tricks. More than half of them were purchased at Ronjo.

The uncertainty of operating a shop that sells exclusively what amount to non-essential items looms over Diamond and his business, but for now, Long Island’s only magic store is still here.

“Everything here is a luxury,” he said.

‘Gone Fishin,’ 1994, oil on canvas, by Gary Erbe, on loan from Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Cusenza

Trompe l’oeil /trômp ‘loi/ — noun — visual illusion in art, especially as used to trick the eye into perceiving a painted detail as a three-dimensional object. Fr., deceiving the eye.

By Ed Blair

Artists have attempted to beguile the eyes of viewers with clever techniques for centuries. While the actual phrase originated in the Baroque period, when it referred to perspectival illusionism, trompe l’oeil dates much further back. It was, and still is, often employed in murals. It was used in Greek and Roman times, as famously illustrated in the ruins of Pompeii. There was widespread fascination with this type of perspective drawing during the Renaissance, and it enjoyed a renaissance of its own in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Visitors to the Heckscher Museum of Art  in Huntington will have the opportunity to enjoy this artistic style in an exhibition opening Saturday, May 21, where the work of Gary Erbe will be on display. Combining trompe l’oeil realism with modernist tendencies, Erbe has created captivating illusions that are entrancingly intricate and hypnotically absorbing. Titled Master of Illusion: The Magical Art of Gary Erbe, the exhibit spotlights the engaging oil paintings of the artist who coined the term “levitational realism” to describe his work.

‘Those Amazin’ Mets,’ 2006, oil on canvas, by Gary Erbe, on loan from Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Cusenza
‘Those Amazin’ Mets,’ 2006, oil on canvas, by Gary Erbe, on loan from Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Cusenza

A native of Union City, New Jersey, Erbe has been painting professionally for over 40 years. Originally working as an engraver, he made the decision while in his mid-twenties to pursue painting full time. The museum’s exhibition traces the career of the self-taught artist from his early trompe l’oeil works to his more recent paintings that focus on juxtaposed objects and the dynamics of composition, form and structure.

Erbe explained levitational realism as an illusionistic depiction of objects where they seem to hover in space. “I studied the nineteenth century trompe l’oeil works of artists like [William] Harnett and [John F.] Peto,” he said, “but I wanted to be original. I wanted to create an atmosphere surrounding subject matter where it seemed to be floating in space, but at one point I realized that trompe l’oeil had its limitations. I wanted to add new elements of abstraction. I wanted the work to be about ideas, about something I envisioned that was familiar but did not exist in reality.”

Erbe’s subjects are inspired by popular culture and range from nostalgic images of childhood pursuits and national pastimes to American jazz and the golden age of 1950s radio, television and film, to American history, nationalism and contemporary social issues. “The rules of trompe l’oeil do not allow for human figures,” he said. “You can’t fool the eye if a person is in the work. So I occasionally will use silhouettes to give the feeling of a human presence.”

‘The Big Splash,’ 2001, oil on canvas, by Gary Erbe, on loan from Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Cusenza
‘The Big Splash,’ 2001, oil on canvas, by Gary Erbe, on loan from Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Cusenza

Lisa Chalif, the Heckscher Museum’s curator, noted that “Mr. Erbe’s impeccable skill imbues familiar objects with a heightened realism that evokes the pristine, otherworldly clarity of surrealism. Painted from carefully crafted constructions of objects belonging to our shared American experience, Erbe’s work is at once aesthetically complex and profoundly engaging to all.” She added, “I have come to admire the artist’s gracious and generous spirit as much as his remarkable work. The museum is sincerely grateful to the private and institutional collectors who have entrusted us with their paintings, sculptures and constructions. Mr. Erbe’s collectors are passionate about his art, and we are honored to share their works with a larger audience.”

Via extensive solo exhibitions, Erbe’s work has been presented throughout the United States, and he has garnered numerous honors and awards. He has exhibited internationally and participated in a group show, American Art on the Brink of the 21st Century, organized by Meridian International in Washington, D.C., that traveled for two years in the Far East. Erbe’s works hang in a number of museums across the country and can be found in many public and private collections throughout the world. He currently maintains a studio in Nutley, New Jersey.

The Heckscher Museum of Art, located at 2 Prime Ave. in Huntington, will present Master of Illusion: The Magical Art of Gary Erbe through Aug. 28. Meet the artist on Sunday, May 22, from 3 to 4 p.m. as he leads a gallery tour exploring his artwork and creative process. Registration is recommended.

For further information, call 631-351-3250, or visit the museum website at  www.heckscher.org.

‘The 50’s,’ 1991, oil on canvas, by Gary Erbe, from the collection of Ira W. Kent
‘The 50’s,’ 1991, oil on canvas, by Gary Erbe, from the collection of Ira W. Kent

The Ronjo magic shop is full of tricks and costumes. Photo by Jenni Culkin

By Jenni Culkin

Ronjo has a little something magical for everyone. The magic and costume shop has card tricks, coin tricks, novelty items, pranks, juggling props and swords, magicians, knife throwers, ventriloquists, jugglers, balloon artists and party planners. There are costumes, accessories, makeup, masks, wigs and so much more on display from the moment a customer walks through the doors.

“We specialize in entertainment,” said Ronald Diamond, owner of the shop on Route 112 in Port Jefferson Station. “We can do it all.”

Ronald Diamond performs a card trick at the Ronjo magic shop. Photo by Jenni Culkin
Ronald Diamond performs a card trick at the Ronjo magic shop. Photo by Jenni Culkin

Diamond is a professional magician and entertainer who has years of experience working with different age groups. He believes that magic is an art form that serves a purpose higher than just entertainment.

He attributes his success to good business practices, like customer service skills and product knowledge. He also gives credit to the current manager of the store, Peter Albertson.

Born in Flatbush, Diamond’s family moved to Suffolk County in 1966. The shop owner began his adventure at seven years old, when he was introduced to magic and took it up as a hobby. In May 1974, when he was 15, he began to take magic from hobby to profession.

“It made me feel confident,” Diamond said about performing magic. “It helps people with public speaking and it is used as a way to connect.”

Diamond, a husband and father of two girls, lives in the Town of Brookhaven, where he says he can relate to and understand the needs of his local customers. He believes he can spread his confidence and social skills by offering private magic lessons for adults and children and running a magic club during the first Friday of each month. During the nicer weather, Diamond runs a free magic show that accepts donations for designated charities.

According to the businessman, magic can boost even the most distinguished professionals, such as health professionals and lawyers, by helping them develop social connections with the people they work with.

In 1978, Diamond began expanding his store’s specialties to include costumes and other dress-up items, a transition that began when his performers started asking him if he could provide them with a mask or a costume to further entertain their audiences.

“We are not Halloween, we are Hollywood!” Diamond said, sharing his motto for Ronjo’s costumes.

People are impressed by the quality and selection of the store’s costumes, he said, especially when compared with chain stores that tend to carry only three sizes or one-size-fits-all costumes. Ronjo’s shelves have costumes for many seasons and holidays, including the Easter bunny, Santa Claus and some comical green St. Patrick’s Day outfits.

Ronjo also manufactures its own tricks — about 40 right now — and distributes them worldwide, and Diamond has published a couple of his own magic booklets.

In recent years, Ronjo has upped its game, becoming a “green” store that uses LED lighting and prints on both sides of the paper and cards they use.

“This is not a job,” Diamond said about his business. “It is a lifestyle for me.”