Las Vegas Sun

January 20, 2019

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Person of Note:

Good ‘magic’ is bloody science

Behind the scenes, ‘Director of Covert Activities’ keeps Penn & Teller safe, audiences in awe

People of Note

Leila Navidi

Nathan Santucci, “Director of Covert Activities” for the Penn & Teller show at the Rio, creates props for the show, which he says is “more like a science lecture” than magic show. “I don’t like magic, I don’t do magic, I don’t go to magic shows,” says Santucci, who handles so much stage blood that his hands are permanently dyed red.

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Nathan Santucci has worked for Penn & Teller (hereafter referred to as “the guys”) for 15 years and 2,600 shows, both on stage and television, and for the past nine years has had the G. Gordon Liddy-esque job of “Director of Covert Activities,” which has many responsibilities, chief among them building and maintaining magic props.

And he hates magic. Just hates it. It has depth and feeling, his hate.

“I don’t like magic, I don’t do magic, I don’t go to magic shows. Anyone who says he’s doing ‘real magic’ — come on, you’re just pulling crap out of a hat,” Santucci says.

Now, what the guys do, that’s OK. He likes that fine, saying, “It’s more like a science lecture.”

“With,” he allows, “magic.”

Most makers of magic props are themselves magicians in the employ of a star magician. Not Santucci. While he was attending UNLV, the guys hired him in 1994 to help set up their warehouse. He’s a stagehand by training and he grew into the job of making magic props. He’s never acquired an interest in sleight of hand and abracadabra.

It’s still tricks and lies (he should know), but it announces itself as such and fandangos on the line between wonder and skepticism. He loves the show, likes working for the guys and admires their intelligence and interest in science. Santucci is particularly proud of the guys’ fraud-exposing work on their Showtime TV series.

There is also a lot of blood.

True story about the blood: When the guys were filming their “Magic and Mystery” world tour (travel is an occasional perk), they wanted to cut a live snake in half and restore it to its whole serpentine glory. Well, this is not an overly complicated trick, prop-wise — Santucci just needed to find condoms, paint, blood and offal. Stuff the condom, paint it to look like a bit of snake and the guys cut the condom, not the snake. Simple.

Well, first Santucci had to find condoms. In Egypt. And when he did find them, the condoms turned out not to be of the finest quality. So there’s Santucci, in the bathroom of a hotel that is of the finest quality, stuffing condoms with blood and offal, only to have them burst — over him, over the sink, the floor and the walls.

And Santucci had forgotten to hang the “Do Not Disturb” sign on his door.

Enter the maid. Exit the maid, screaming.

Enter security.

It ended well, after 15 minutes of arguing in pidgin English. And the prop worked OK on camera.

Santucci — who has many skills, including woodworking, plastic working, milling, welding, painting and SCUBA diving for underwater props — spends most of his days with blood on his hands and his clothes and the seat of his car. It gets everywhere.

Mostly this is because of the trick where the guys use a timber mill-size circular saw to cut their lovely assistant in half.

“It’s unfortunate that I have to kill a hooker a day to make that trick work,” Santucci deadpans.

The blood is stage blood, nearly five gallons of it — a drop in the lake of fake blood the guys use. Santucci’s bloodstained hands and clothes are a permanent bright fabric-dye red.

Santucci, 35, still considers himself a stagehand. His chief pride is that the blood is fake in a show that contains, in its various incarnations, broken bottles, fire, a nail gun and Colt .357s — “a lot of stuff that’s really stupid.”

If he’s done his job and triple-checked all the props, then the props look good (and dangerous) to the audience and, most important, the guys are safe.

Ah, magic.

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