In his lectures, Teller explained that the trick did not originate with him. It is based on techniques developed by a largely forgotten man named David P. Abbott, a loan shark who lived in Omaha and did magic in front of invitation-only audiences in his specially built parlor. Houdini, Kellar, Ching Ling Foo, Thurston—all the great magicians of the era made the pilgrimage to Omaha and left baffled. One of Abbott’s tricks involved a golden ball that floated in the air around him. But rather than use a thread suspended from the ceiling, Abbott revealed posthumously in his Book of Mysteries, he ran the thread horizontally from his ear to the wall. By manipulating that thread with his careful hands, he could make that golden ball seem as though it were defying reality. Best of all, he could pass a hoop over it—what magicians call a prover—and eliminate a piece of thread from his audience’s range of possibility, because a horizontal thread had never entered their imagination. They were looking only for the vertical.
The real point of magic, Teller said during those lectures, is “telling a beautiful lie. It lets you see what the world would be like if cause and effect weren’t bound by physics.” It’s the collision between what you know and what you see that provides magic’s greatest spark.
So Teller rigged a thread in his home library, and he put Abbott’s ancient instructions on a music stand—pages that had been miraculously saved from a trash fire years before—and he went to work on making the impossible seem real. Eventually, he decided that the ball shouldn’t float but roll. That would look simpler, but it would be harder. He practiced some more at a mirrored dance studio in Toronto, and at a cabin deep in the woods, and on the empty stage in Penn & Teller’s theater. After every show for eighteen months, he would spend at least an hour, by himself, trying to make the Red Ball obey. (“Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect,” Teller says.)