There are some weeks when Fred Siegel severs his arm three, four times on average.
While blood oozes out across the stage, Siegel, playing a mad scientist named Dr. Zombini, hums a little “dismemberment music” — the Frank Sinatra hit “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
Pretty unusual schtik for a university professor.
But Siegel, 46, has plenty of tricks up his sleeve: when he’s not busy directing the freshman writing program at Drexel University, the Center City resident and member of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel can be found running a magic troupe called Fred’s Magic World.
The group, which began in 2001, includes Siegel, his wife Gail Rosen (a memory expert), sister-in-law Deborah Rosen (a psychic), and brother-in-law Eric Van Wie (a Shakespearean actor).
Their “Ed Sullivan-style” vaudeville shows, performed in various theatres around Philadelphia, weave together memory tricks, zany characters and Houdini-like feats of escape.
But rather than just pure magic, the acts are centered around a “narrative line.”
“We try to do our magic in the context of something, instead of, here’s a rope, we’re going to get out of it,” says Siegel.
Siegel, who was born in the Bronx but grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, attributes his interest in magic at first to “Uncle Phil” — “He was the guy who pulls quarters out of your ear when you’re a little kid” — and then later to the fact that “most kids stop doing it. I didn’t.”
Leaning back in his chair for a second, Siegel adds that “if you want to psychoanalyze it,” the reason many children turn to magic is to feel invincible.
“Well, I wasn’t going to get power on the basketball court,” says Siegel, who admits that he wasn’t much good at sports. But magic can give even “an utterly powerless” child “the power of restoration, of healing — the power to do the impossible.”
Siegel remembers his first paid performance — at age 12 — at a Cub Scout banquet, where he pulled handkerchiefs out of a screen engraved with images of Buddha and cracked jokes like “Please don’t boo da trick.”
“It was terrible, now that I think of it. [But] I made $10.”
After what Siegel calls his “prime birthday party years,” the blossoming trickster earned his bachelor’s degree from Temple University, a master’s at Adelphi University and his Ph.D. from New York University, where his dissertation focused on vaudeville magicians.
All the while, Siegel performed every time he got the chance. He joined a (now defunct) dramatic troupe run through Klein JCC here called Studio Y players and was involved with Theatre Ariel for several seasons. He also spent nine years at ComedySportz, an improvisational theatre joint, before eventually forming the group that bears his name.
One memorable summer, Siegel said, he worked weekends as an inside talker at a Coney Island freak show, where he befriended a dwarf who rolled and lit cigarettes in his mouth.
Siegel says that, for the most part, he tries to keep such stories out of the classroom. “But I always do a magic show the last day of class.”
Siegel adds that though he’s “very serious about professional life,” his biggest fear is that he’d have to “set the magic stuff aside” to concentrate solely on academia.
“I’m going to do magic for the rest of my life,” he says. “I’m going to perform as often as I can — and even when I’m not performing, I’ll be thinking about magic and reading fabulous magic books.”