Designer: Walter “Zaney” Blaney
Builder: Daniel Summers
The Ladder Levitation allows a magician to use a member of the audience as an assistant. The “assistant” lies on a board supported by two step ladders. The ladders are removed and the assistant and board remain suspended in the air.
History of the effect (as told by Walter Blaney on his site):
In my third year of college, in 1948 at the University of Texas in Austin, a group of fellow magician-students created a magic club we called the “Texas University Magicians Assn.” Together, we presented a big stage show in Hogg Auditorium on campus. I had just thought of a new method of doing something similar to the “Abbotts Super-X Levitation”, and this would be the perfect place to try it out. I built the prop out of used water pipe and some discarded plywood. In one week I had my “pipe dream” completed at a cost of less than ten dollars. It was a big improvement, I thought, as it allowed me to walk away from the floating lady and all around her. My new version duped magicians and lay people alike, and I successfully featured it in my shows for the next fifteen years.
Then, one night in 1954, while performing my suspension I was struck by a thunderbolt of inspiration that would make the trick completely different. What if I did this instead of that? I knew that good ideas are sometimes born during the heat of a performance, and at the end of my show, I might not be able to remember what idea I’d had. Luckily, I was closing with the suspension. I literally ran off stage to get a paper and pencil and draw out my idea.
The next month was spent making a small balsa wood working model of my new suspension. I built a small stage platform, two tiny stepladders and used a rather ugly little 8-inch tall, 12-ounce, plastic doll for the volunteer. Barbie Dolls wouldn’t come on the scene for another five years.
Ten years later, in 1964 I thought I had saved enough money to start the serious work of building my invention. That project turned into a year-long series of experiments. Starting over and over, without success, I soon found that my “dream illusion” was probably not to be. It was a lot harder to make a 120-pound lady float in the air than a 12-ounce plastic doll. I made so many wrong decisions. But I kept going, night and day. Sitting in restaurants, flying on airplanes, I always had my pen and tablet in hand trying to solve the impossible. After each trip home, my newest solutions were put to the test. I only had my garage as a workshop, and no electric tools save one battery powered screwdriver. But as soon as I solved one problem, it seemed to create two more. But the illusion became my “magnificent obsession”. I learned it had to be perfect, or it wouldn’t work at all. Finally one bright and beautiful day in April 1965, it was finished. All the problems had been solved. I fine-tuned everything and knew it would from then on always work perfectly. I had spent nearly all of my spare time for twelve months, and most of my savings— $13,000 in cash. That would be $88,000 in today’s dollars.
I want to thank my daughter Becky Blaney who laid upon “that darn board” over and over as I was inventing it. She would often ask, “Oh daddy, do I have to?” I always smiled and said, “Only if you want to eat.” My younger daughter Carol also was a guinea pig on the board when Becky was unavailable. If neither was at home, I used my set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I used to joke it was probably the smartest “floatee” I would ever have.
Immediately my new illusion was booked to premiere at the July 1965 IBM convention in Des Moines. I was anxious to debut the suspension in front of a live audience.
At last the moment had arrived for the premiere of my new invention. The response was electrifying. I got five curtain calls. There was cheering and whistles like a Pavarotti appearance at the Met. I whispered to the emcee, Jack Chanin, that I thought they were “putting me on”, a gag to make me think my new trick was something special. I finally realized that everyone had been astounded. It was for real. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life.
The following month, Abbott’s booked me for their Get-Together in Colon, Michigan. Again there was the same response as before. It was the main topic of conversation among the magicians late into the night. By then I knew I had a good trick for public shows. It frankly astonished me that magicians would all actually be totally perplexed as well.
The decision was made to keep the modus operandi from everyone. At magic conventions the rule was adopted that no one could view my illusion from backstage. If another act on the bill wanted to see my trick, they had to view it from the audience. And there were many audiences that saw it. I performed the suspension at about fifty magic conventions over the next dozen years.
On January 25, 1973. I was standing in the wings of the NBC Studio in Burbank, California. I took a deep breath and walked onto The Tonight Show stage. Now 20 million Americans would soon see what I could do. I invited a charming young lady up from the audience, Miss Irene Kay, who happened to be Johnny Carson’s secretary. I proceeded to levitate her on my “Anti-Gravity Board,” my original magic invention that Johnny had heard about through the magic grapevine.
While Doc and his orchestra played an upbeat version of “That Old Black Magic” I succeeded in baffling everyone. After I took my bows, Johnny turned to Ed McMahon and said, “That was Walter Zaney Blaney. Now wasn’t that a great illusion?” Ed replied, “Sensational, sensational, the best I’ve ever seen.” It was one of the brightest moments in my sixty-year career in show business.
After the Tonight Show success I got booked on the other TV talk shows: The Merv Griffin Show, then floating Dinah Shore on Dinah!, Kitty Carlisle on To Tell The Truth, and magician Chen Kai’s wife, Carmelita, on the big Siempre En Domingo program in Mexico City, which aired all over Latin America.
In 1981, a young David Copperfield called and asked if I would build and sell him a copy of my “Ladder Levitation” to use on one of his TV Specials. I explained I was flattered that he asked, but it was my signature trick and I preferred to keep it for myself. Undaunted, each succeeding year David called again asking if I might change my mind. When he called in 1985, David was by then the megastar in magic and had taken the art to heights unknown before. That year I finally said, “Okay, David, let’s do it.” I explained I was honored that he liked it so much, that I now felt I had had my fun with it exclusively for over twenty years, and that I would be happy to build and deliver one to him in time for his 1986 China Special.
I got busy and organized a real workshop, this time buying all the necessary power tools. When the first copy was completed David flew me out to his apartment near the Magic Castle in L.A., and I set it up in the small living room after moving the furniture out of the way. Magician Ray Pierce came over with his wife, and I floated her for Copperfield to see. [David] looked at me, and having already paid for my illusion, said, “Walter, I own that trick, and I’m still fooled. Now show me how to do it.”
It was such a pleasure teaching him the moves for the next few hours. When his special aired he surprised me, and everyone, when he lip-synched Frank Sinatra’s recording of “Come Fly With Me” while he levitated a lady from the audience in the air at the beautiful American Embassy in Beijing. This clever and unique presentation on David’s China Special is the best I’ve ever seen.
David kept the levitation in his road show for the next four years. When he appeared on stage in Houston he invited my family and me as his guests, seated front row center. It was a unique experience for me since I had never seen my levitation done live before — from the front. As I watched, I remember whispering to my mother, “Darned if it isn’t a pretty good trick.” David then told the audience that I was the inventor of the trick they had just seen, that I was in the audience, and he asked me to, “Stand up and take a bow, Walter.” I thought this was a very kind thing for him to do. I felt ten feet tall as I stood up in front of my family and friends and David’s packed house.
When I first introduced my illusion I called it “The Blaney Anti-Gravity Board”. For years I clung to that name. However in the magic community everyone kept referring to it as “The Blaney Ladder Levitation.” There was the natural alliteration of the “L’s” in “Ladder Levitation”. Also, for a long time the magician’s differentiation of the words “suspension” and “levitation” had pretty much vanished since Abbott’s had called their suspension the “Super-X Levitation” since the 1940s. When I am personally performing the illusion I still refer to it as my “Magic Anti-Gravity Board… a board that can float in the air. If you lie upon the board you will be floating too.” Lance Burton still uses that patter as well when he performs my illusion.
Some time later Lance performed the Ladder Levitation on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno where he levitated Pamela Anderson. The Tonight Show had a new host and the Ladder Levitation had a new performer but the magic remained the same proving the test of time. Good magic is still good magic no matter the date. This illusion changed my life, took me around the globe and earned me appearances on every major television talk show of my day. It was a wonderful ride. I enjoy watching it do the same for the next generation of magicians.
Photo Credit: Walter Blaney