Making Magic with Arduino

Arduino Fun & Games Technology
Making Magic with Arduino


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Mario the Magician: Have suitcase, will perform magic.

Pulling a rabbit out of a hat is a neat trick. But how about wowing crowds of kids with an old suitcase that performs magic, thanks to 18 synchronized, Arduino-powerered servos that whir about, hidden from view?

In many respects, Mario “the Magician” Marchese, with his narrow suspenders and top hat, is an old-school magician. He performs on the sidewalks of New York City with nothing but the power of his voice and a bag full of tricks that looks like old timey, slapstick gags — epaulets that unexpectedly pop up in the air, banners that “accidentally” fall behind him, and spinning ribbons on his lapel.

Mario, 33, has been working as a full-time magician for six years. Previously, he had been a teacher’s assistant in special education and performing magic on weekends. But when he realized he was making more money as a magician, with the support of his wife and now manager, he took the plunge to full-time magician.

“I had to surrender myself to it,” he says. “I ended up falling in love with magic in another way.”

YouTube player

As a professional magician, he realized if he was going to make it, he would to have to start making his own props and tricks.

“The only way to go further with my magic was to make it,” says Mario.

To do that, he taught himself electronics from the ground up.

“My knowledge of electronics fused with my knowledge of magic.”

In particular, to create a routine that he calls the “suitcase machine,” he turned to Arduino, something he’s surprised more magicians haven’t embraced.

“Almost everything in my show is powered by Arduino,” he says in the rapid-fire, enthusiastic speech of his native New York. “If it wasn’t for Arduino, I wouldn’t be doing what I do now.”

He calls what he does “organized chaos”: props and signs and articles of clothing that seem to go haywire in spite of his best efforts. In fact, that chaos is a well-orchestrated show that required a great deal of coding, building, and trial and error to get it just right.

“I’m constantly reprogramming it,” he notes.

And it’s all contained in a beat-up, Vaudevillian suitcase that serves as a giant, highly portable enclosure for his props.

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Now he teaches hands-on magic in schools and performs at New York’s Metropolitan Room twice a month, one of New York’s premier jazz and cabaret venues. Mario has also appeared at Lincoln Center  as a repeat performer in their “Meet the Artist” and “Lincoln Center Local” programs.

But is programming a bunch of Arduinos magic?

“Magic is an experience,” Mario says (in the short documentary above). “Magic is a total moment of being astonished and questioning what you believe.”

Later, in an interview with me, he adds: “I think magic is being able to pull experiences from aspects in your life and make a living at it. That’s more magic to me than anything.”

Mario’s website

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Stett Holbrook is editor of the Bohemian, an alternative weekly in Santa Rosa, California. He is a former senior editor at Maker Media.

He is also the co-creator of Food Forward, a documentary TV series for PBS about the innovators and pioneers changing our food system.

View more articles by Stett Holbrook