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At 15 Steve was promoted to Merlin's Magic Shop, where he worked for three years. "I had loved magic tricks from the time I was six or seven," he recalls. "I bought books on magic. I did magic acts for my parents and their friends. I was aiming for show business from early days, and magic was the poor man's way of getting in: you buy a trick for $2, and you've got an act. So Merlin was my dream come true, because I got to perform magic for people. We sold rubber vomit, shrunken heads, finger choppers, nails through the head, skulls that glow in the dark. We'd make jokes with the customers and spray them with snake cans. We had thousands of gags we would pull, and I used to write them all down on 3-by-5 cards. I still have them. And I have incredibly detailed notes on magic shows I did at Kiwanis clubs when I was 15 or 16. Later I worked at the Bird Cage Theater in Knott's Berry Farm. I'd appear in a skit or do my magic act or a banjo thing. Four shows a day, five days a week. Basic training."
The banjo thing was a big thing for Steve. When he was 18, he heard an Earl Scruggs record and "went crazy." He would put a bluegrass record on the turntable, slow it to half speed and methodically pick out each note. At night he would practice in his '57 Chevy, so as not to disturb anyone. William McEuen, Martin's longtime pal and for many years his manager, attests that "Steve is an original and gifted five-string banjo player. He could have been great." It was while playing banjo in a folk club that he met the guitarist Mason Williams (Classical Gas), who hired him to write for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Later Martin quit the banjo "because I wasn't getting any better. It's like I reached the end of it." In 1980 he gave up stand-up for much the same reason. "I figured: I did it, I know I can do it, and when I was doing it, I did it as well as anyone."
While working at Knott's, Steve met a girl who changed his life, or at least his act. "Her name was Stormie Sherk. She later became a Christian singer and wrote her autobiography. In it she says that her relationship with me was the only one she ever had with a man she didn't end up hating. At the time, I didn't have a clue about this. All I knew was she got me interested in college, made me read The Razor's Edge, things like that. Now I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could." He majored in philosophy at California State University, Long Beach (which Steven Spielberg would attend a few years later). On his 1978 Wild and Crazy Guy album, Martin would joke, "If you're studying geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all . . . but philosophy, you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life." In the mid-'60s, though, he was dead serious: "I was romanticized by philosophy. I thought it was the highest thing you could study. At one point I wanted to teach it."