Saturday, Dec. 1, 2007 | Loch David Crane is waiting for me outside an Ocean Beach coffee shop. His pearly hair flows into his unkempt whiskers. His ride, a three-wheeled homage to the starship Enterprise, rests feet away from his table. Crane’s adorned in a leather jacket littered with patches honoring the various subcultures he’s immersed in — Star Trek, magic and trikes.
Even for a magician, he’s gaudy. Missing him is a difficult feat, and our fellow patrons at the Honey Bear Cottage are failing miserably. One woman comes up to tell him she’s seen his patented Star Trike in a documentary on Star Trek nerds. An elderly gentleman comments on his bright orange suspenders. Various passersby honk at him from their whizzing cars.
It comes with the territory for one of the town’s most noticeable characters, who casts himself Magic Santa this time of year. Crane has been a teacher, a border-watching Minuteman, a perennial mayoral candidate and a magician. Over a cup of coffee and a spin on the Star-Trike, the 59-year-old Crane told me about those adventures and more.
How did you first get involved with magic?
I’ve been doing that since I was about 13. I had a group of friends in junior high school and we’d do a hobby together every summer when we had time off. We used to play Zorro and jump off the garage with bath towels over our backs like capes and practically break our legs. Then we discovered marionettes and puppetry and we did that for two summers, we carved our own puppets and bought miniature stage settings and things.
The year after that we discovered magic. That was a lot more empowering because, at 13, we could do things the adults couldn’t duplicate or couldn’t understand. It helped to give us a lot of self-confidence, at least it did for me. I’ve stayed with it for 40-some years.
How did your first magic show go?
The earliest show that I remember was at the Catamaran Hotel. It was some sort of benefit for some group and I donated the show. At that time I was just doing 10- or 15-minute shows, something where I’d be able to sling a few tricks together.
But it was so exciting to be in front of a real crowd and doing things that made me feel confident and interesting and entertaining them. It’s been exciting since then. The bigger the crowd, the more screams you get, the better the adrenaline rush. Doing parades is even more amazing. That’s why I built [the Star Trike].
What’s the appeal with trikes? I have to admit I’ve never seen a trike before, let alone one built like the (Starship) Enterprise.
All the two-wheel riders, sooner or later, all fell over, whether it was in the parking lot or stopping at a corner or going around in gravel or something like that. It just got more and more dangerous at higher speeds.
The first trike I had was a kit and you could buy the frame and the fiberglass and then you buy a Volkswagen for the front end and build it. I enjoyed that for a number of years. It was a white trike named Jonathan Livingstone Seagull — that will tell you a little bit about when it was built. I had that for a couple of years, then I got in an accident, and I decided I wanted to build one. Because it was so easy doing the kit, I thought, “I want to do one from scratch.”
I started building the Star Trike in the ’70s. I thought it would be a bicentennial project for 1976, but it took way too long for that. It took over three years before I could even turn the key and start the engine, and another couple of years before it had the body and the brakes and everything else.
I also built the Stealth Trike. That has incorporated all the changes I wanted with the Star Trike, I wanted a cockpit, I wanted got more protection, wanted more warmth, but I didn’t want to alter the Star Trike.
How fast does the Star Trike go?
When it had a Corvair (engine), it could do a little over 100 miles per hour. That was quite exciting because it was this 50-year-old technology and just getting it to hold together for five summers was quite a feat. Every summer, something would go wrong. Usually, something small would go wrong.
I had a great old time riding around Europe and going on the Autobahn, going as fast I could. There’s still someone behind you flipping his lights up and down because he’s got a big Mercedes.
What’s the hardest part about the trike’s upkeep?
I’ve got over 300 lights on it, so I need a lot of electrical power. It has deck lights, it has taillights, headlights, turn indicators. The deck has strips with a light every three inches. I found some new taillights with 60 lights in each row, so 180 on the right side and 180 on the left side. So there are almost 400 brake lights going bam!
I don’t ever want to be unseen because I’ve been run into eight times. That’s eight traffic accidents, which is why I’ve got eight gold earrings because I’ve survived them.
Do you remember the first trick you pulled off?
One of first basic tricks I learned was a rope trick called the professor’s nightmare. It’s like playing “Chopsticks” on the piano, everyone knows it, everyone starts with that one and another dozen, and if you don’t master the basic first dozen, you’re not fit for the career.
With ropes of three different lengths — short, medium and long — you wave your hand around it, say the magic word, and they all turn into the same length. I learned not only how to do it with rope, but I learned to do it with chains — dog leashes, in fact. I figured this would be better with the public because they know about elastic and that a rope might stretch or something like that. But they know you’re not going to alter a two-foot chain into a three-foot chain without using heat and tools and a vice and everything else.
It became much more mysterious, even though it was still basically a rope trick. But turning it into a chain trick suddenly became new. Even people who had seen the rope trick — lay people and not magicians, of course — would say, “I understand the rope trick, but I don’t understand how he did that with the chain” because chains don’t stretch.
That was the trick that got me into the Magic Castle in Hollywood. You have to audition to be a member and audition a second and a third time to actually be a performer there. Now, among the magicians in California, I’m known as the guy who does the chains because nobody else does that.
They say magicians never reveal their tricks. Is that something you have to adhere to in reality?
As strictly as I can. But sometimes, like when I saw someone in half, I tell the volunteers backstage what the gimmick is and how it works and how I set it and how I release it. It’s so they know they’re not going to get sawed in half, because it’s a real saber saw and real wood-cutting blade, and if I don’t do two or three things right, it will not only cut through the apparatus, but go right into somebody’s kidney in seconds. So I have to tell one person.
I’m also a member of the British Magic Circle, and their motto in Latin is indocilis privata loqui, which means “unlikely to tell secrets.” It’s one of the professions that thrives on secrets. In cooking, if I have a good recipe I’m not going to give it out to everybody.
I’d rather keep the secrets and not tell them. As I found in my working with the public, they liked to be fooled, but they don’t like to be made a fool of. If you do something that is deceiving and entertaining and challenging, but third-grade simple, and then you tell them about how simple it is, then they will think, “you screwed me with a third grade trick” and they won’t feel good about it. But if you tell them I worked for six years to learn how to do the sleight of hand to do that and it’s a very tough trick, they’ll say, “Ah-ha, I don’t mind being fooled by skill, but I don’t want to be made stupid.”
If I have the illusion of magic, I can ruin it or let it persist. I’d rather let it persist.
What are your other signature tricks?
The card stab, [in which I borrow] a knife, wrap the cards in paper, stab into the deck and find your card. Of course I wanted to control everything at first, with just the right knife and just the right deck of cards.
I used a lot of different types of knives and I found that some work well and some don’t. The very, very sharp ones will sometimes not only go into the card but go slicing right through the edge. So at the end all you’ve got is a cut across the card and the card falls to the floor. I wanted to go in and impale the card so it would stick on it. I found out that you actually need a think blade rather than a thin pen knife or box cutter.
But when I learned how to do it, I’d go to big motorcycle events in Europe and I’d say “I need a big biker with a big knife.” I’d pick this big hulking biker with a huge knife and it would work, and then word got around at all the biker events that, not only is there a magician here, but he’s good.
After a couple hundred times, I could use almost any knife. By that time, you have so many errors that you knew what the errors were and how to cover it up. Then I learned how to do it with an arrowhead and a knife that was made out of an antler horn.
Is there a particularly memorable trick you ever pulled off?
I don’t know. I did a straight jacket escape hanging from the coaster [in Mission Bay’s Belmont Park]. I did it in the 1980s when I was on the Save the Coaster committee, which we ultimately did.
Your first name is German and Scottish for lake, or hole. How does that describe you?
I suppose in the sense that I attract things to me that fill me up.
— Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN