Monday, September 1, 2014

When Penn Met Teller

Running along with the musical numbers in an Othmar Schoeck concert were various “bits of business”— often, Chrisemer cheerfully admits, based on jokes that were not immediately comprehensible to most of those in the audience. In the final year of the concerts, when Chrisemer had graduated and was working in a stereo store in nearby Greenfield, Massachusetts, the bits included an extremely tall teenager riding across the stage on a unicycle as part of Chrisemer’s interpretation of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The unicyclist was someone Chrisemer had met at the stereo store —a recent graduate of Greenfield High School named Penn Jillette, who had completed his higher education at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum  Bailey Clown College. Jillette also participated in the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by juggling some balls above a large bass drum and letting one drop onto the drum on the appropriate beat: “Oh, say can you see [BOOM] by the dawn’s early light [BOOM] . . .”

One of the people who had helped with the staging of that concert was a close Amherst friend of Chrisemer’s who was by then teaching high-school Latin in New Jersey. Even as a college magician doing a silent and rather arty act at fraternity parties, he had taken to using only his last name—Teller. (The act was silent partly as a means of deflecting hecklers and partly as a means of increasing its artiness.) In the lobby at intermission, the silent Teller, outfitted with a cane and dark glasses, sold Othmar Schoeck pencils.

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