There is a lecture about belief that Teller has given exactly four times. He has never allowed the lecture to be recorded in any way. Unless you were in the audience, it has never happened. It is called the Red Ball, after a trick he added relatively recently to Penn & Teller’s Las Vegas show. Before Teller performs the trick, Penn announces to the hushed theater: “The next trick is done with a piece of thread.” Teller then takes the stage, on which there is a simple bench, with a red ball and a wooden hoop in his hands. He bounces the ball. He gives it to a member of the audience to bounce. And then he drops the ball before he somehow makes it roll around the stage and back and forth along the bench, as though on command. Sometimes the ball is stuck to one of his fingers or to the small of his back; sometimes it is several feet out of his reach. He even has it jump through the hoop. All of which makes it impossible for him to be performing the Red Ball with a piece of thread. Penn must be lying. There must be something more to the trick.
In his lectures, Teller explained that the trick did not originate with him. It is based on techniques developed by a largely forgotten man named David P. Abbott, a loan shark who lived in Omaha and did magic in front of invitation-only audiences in his specially built parlor. Houdini, Kellar, Ching Ling Foo, Thurston — all the great magicians of the era made the pilgrimage to Omaha and left baffled. One of Abbott’s tricks involved a golden ball that floated in the air around him. But rather than use a thread suspended from the ceiling, Abbott revealed posthumously in his Book of Mysteries, he ran the thread horizontally from his ear to the wall. By manipulating that thread with his careful hands, he could make that golden ball seem as though it were defying reality. Best of all, he could pass a hoop over it — what magicians call a prover — and eliminate a piece of thread from his audience’s range of possibility, because a horizontal thread had never entered their imagination. They were looking only for the vertical.