Choosing And Developing A Comedic Persona

•September 11, 2021 • 2 Comments

per·so·na | ˌpərˈsōnə |

noun (plural personas or personae | -ˈsōnē | )

The aspect of someone’s character that is presented to or perceived by others. A role or character adopted by an author, actor, etc. 

Magicians tend to prefer the fancier word persona when discussing their work; the comedy world seems happy to settle for the somewhat more down-to-earth word character. Comedians spend a lot of time working on their character. Which, trust me, has nothing to do with improving any of their ungentlemanly or lady-like traits. They are making sure they don’t sacrifice their performing persona just for a fast laugh. Consistency counts in comedy, and comedy is only real, then, when you are.  Once the audience thinks they know where you are coming from and who you are, the comedy takes on an extra dimension.

The first thing to do when exploring a potential persona, comedic or otherwise, for your act is to take a good look in the mirror. Try to intuit what an audience physically sees when they look at you; imagine you are seeing yourself for the first time. The persona you choose must work with what is, rather than what you would like to be the case. Do you look smooth and sophisticated or wild and zany? There are many steps and stages between these extremes. The more accurately you can analyze your physical attributes, the more precisely you can calibrate what new persona you can effectively embrace. 

You must zero in on one primary choice when deciding how to re-invent yourself as a comedy magician. Let’s take a look at this initial dividing of the stream.

1 Are you creating an entirely different performing persona for yourself, one who lives and performs by his own rules? You can create an exotic performer to highlight your material. In this area, one thinks of Ali Bongo and his frantic “Shriek of Araby” character stalking around the stage in a fez and curly slippers. Bongo, the performer, couldn’t be more different from his creator if he tried. The crazy antics of a Tommy Cooper or Amazing Johnathan or the mock pomposity of Johnny Thompson’s Warsaw Wizard are other examples of almost cartoon creations that amplify the laughs with their style. Please take a moment now to identify a few other performers who have created a theatrical persona to sell their work to the public.

2 The other way to address who will be in the driving seat performing your show is to take your own personality and then shape it and amend it a little. This method is very common and initially perhaps a slightly more straightforward technique. Comedy magicians who have taken their natural persona and amplified it to “showbiz” level include Billy McComb, Michael Finney, Mike Caveney, Fielding West, and many others. For most performers, this is possibly the straightforward path to follow.

It is pretty easy to divide comedians into these two basic modes with Andy Kaufman, Emo Philips, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Judy Tenuta heading up the performers on the number 1 option. Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Jim Gaffigan, and almost everyone else on the number 2 option. Of course, nothing in life is quite that easy to categorize, so let’s take a look at the all-important middle ground where the best answers are so often to found.

Some of the very best comedy magicians are a composite of both of these performing styles. They are onstage personalities who present a character close to their own but whose persona is much more easily identifiable to an audience. It is often quite tricky to spot where the actual person turns into the performing persona. Everyone who has spent any time with Mac King knows that his plaid suit and slightly hayseed character is a million miles from the guy who wears the suit. However, Mac has crafted a splendid blend between truth and fiction and, in this way, created a perfect vehicle for his performance. Mac took his Kentucky roots and used them to inform and illuminate his performing persona. 

Harry Anderson was doing great comedy magic long before “Harry The Hat” arrived on the scene. However, it is “Harry the Hat” who is primarily remembered by fans of his comedy magic show. When Harry first made a splash in LA as a performer, he dressed in a Steve Martin style white suit. Once he stopped borrowing his wardrobe from Steve, he was well on his way to developing and creating the look and style that would make him a unique performer. The result was one of magic’s slickest personas.

I reference Mac and Harry here very specifically because they are a perfect example of how a particular wardrobe style can establish their persona even before they say a single word. Think about Michael Finney’s larger than life brightly colored costumes or Jeff Hobson’s just this side of Liberace sartorial extravagance. If you can establish your performing persona simply by walking on stage, you are way ahead of the game. Penn & Teller created their own very specific “eccentrics in business suits” branding very early in their career and have never varied from that look since. 

Of course, there is a great deal more to creating a compelling performing persona than the clothes on your back. The important part of these examples is how they immediately demonstrate a powerful visual insight into the performer’s chosen onstage character. Creating the words and actions that flesh out all the important details that turn your character sketch into a full-scale portrait is a more complex process. The carefully chosen “Howdy” that prefaces Mac King’s act is a one-word salutation that reinforces his onstage persona so perfectly that it has almost become a catchphrase. On tiny details like this the construction of a modified persona is made organic and successful.

Let’s discuss how the average magician can create a persona that will move them forward and upward in their career. The keyword in that last sentence is create. There is no excuse for a performer to “borrow” another magician’s persona; to do so is lazy, dishonest, and extremely unlikely to succeed. It is bad enough to steal someone’s material, but there is no defense for stealing a performer’s carefully constructed stage persona.

Looking in the rearview mirror, I can recall quite a few highly innovative magicians who inspired an entire industry of “tribute acts.” Let’s kick off this list of originals with Siegfried & Roy, David Copperfield, Lance Burton, David Blaine, and Derren Brown. All these performers created something artistically and stylistically different, resulting in each of them inspiring magicians worldwide. Sadly, they also stimulated more than their fair share of bad “roadshows.” How can it be someone’s persona if they took it from somebody else?  Whoever first opined that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” was either sadly denuded or had a very dark sense of humor. 

I always enjoy comedy performers who have exotic alter egos, with Barry Humphries’ Sir Les Patterson and Martin Short’s Jiminy Glick at the very top of the list.  During the 70s and 80s, I created a whole series of magical alter egos and thoroughly enjoyed the freedom and learning experience it furnished me. There was my Punk Magician Nick Costello with his leopard-skin jacket and radically punk haircut. Nick Cosmos, the white lab coat wearing “Quantum Magician” from the future was fun too. Then there was my reggae magic show that featured me with my backup singers, the Conjurettes. While none of these radical reinterpretations of my fairly conventional performing persona were wildly successful commercially, they served a useful and ultimately rewarding purpose. By giving myself the freedom to explore such diverse personas, I discovered much about what I could and could not do on stage.

By the start of the 90s, I focused on my own personality and persona exclusively for my shows. However, I had added many different elements that I had discovered during my more experimental work. Each of my previous magical incarnations had particular energy, but since they had all emanated from me, each could be applied consciously to my “Nick Lewin” persona. This technique allowed me to sculpt a much more textured and dynamic performance; I was just being myself but even more so. I realize that my pathway in this was not necessarily one that would appeal to everyone, but I wanted to share it with my readers. I suspect I could have achieved much the same results just by meticulous observation and attention to detail, but then again, I thoroughly enjoyed discovering Nick Costello and his cohorts. 

Getting Creative About Comedy

•July 16, 2021 • Leave a Comment

This blog post contains my five golden rules about invoking the creative mode for your comedy magic show. It started life as part of my notes for a rather wonderful seminar our company sponsored about customizing magic, The seminar featured two of my favorite magicians David Regal and Ray Anderson discussing the creative process. The three of us had a really great discussion that was a smash with our invited roster of international guest. I later released it as a download. 

To pick up the download CLICK HERE

Currently, there is a wave of hobbyist magicians who feel the need to create “amazement” and “wonder” by mixing magic and storytelling to illuminate and enrich their spectators. This is an exceedingly tough thing to pull off if you perform with your eye on the prize of cold cash. It isn’t impossible, but it is very tough. Not too many lay audiences are looking to improve their lives and study philosophy by watching the Linking Rings. On the other hand, most people are pretty happy to add a laugh or two into their day. Never forget how many more people prefer to be amused rather than fooled.

Over the years, I have developed a general formula for creativity that I want to share with you. The four stages of creativity are; preparation, incubation, sudden insight, and manifestation. I have also added a rather crucial bonus stage, as you will see. I have painstakingly formulated this list over time, and I now swear by it. Of course, these steps are not uniquely specific to creating comedy, and you will quickly observe how smoothly these concepts apply to other kinds of magic.

Five Stages of Creativity.

Stage 1  Preparation. Gather facts, information, and existing ideas about your topic and think, think, think. Talk with other performers, read books, and do your research. Churn your ideas, looking at them in every way that comes to your mind, giving your imagination free rein to go where it will. If you are working on an entirely new routine, then see if someone has done something similar in the past, not to borrow ideas, but to make sure you follow a different path. The better the preparation, almost inevitably, the better the outcome is going to be. Remember the words of Thomas Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” However, it is a little scary to think of someone this sweaty working so closely with electricity.

Stage 2  Incubation. Your goal is not going away, so while it’s percolating in your mind, you can play, sleep, and do things that relax you. You have planted the seeds, so now you need to wait for them to sprout. A little time is required for your unconscious mind to give you some input. Things have been set in motion, so now allow them a chance to roam around a little without trying to micromanage them. It is best if you allow all that preparation to settle into a definite plan of action. It can occur on its own; remove yourself from the equation, and don’t let your conscious mind interfere too much.  

Stage 3  Sudden Insight. “Eureka!” When you least expect it, illumination dawns. Historically you might be taking a bath or sitting under an apple tree, however, you won’t find the creative inspiration you were looking for; instead, it will find you. The surprise of this moment is a hallmark of discontinuity. At this point, it is imperative to write that insight down. Very often, when you get that first completed vision, it will come to you in a nicely packaged bundle. It may also disappear as quickly as it arrived, so write it down. I have often been amazed how that first incarnation of a joke or comedy routine hits your mind is the best one. Always trust the initial details you get, you can change or adapt them later if you want to, but if you don’t write them down, you will never have the means to refer back to them accurately. 

Stage 4  Manifestation. Verify, evaluate, and manifest what you’ve come up with. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” In other words, make a product of your insight and then put it into application. Add it to your show and start to fine-tune your ideas to ensure they become fully developed. I have always found that the first time I add a new “hunk” into the show, it goes very well; I think there is a certain adrenaline rush that kicks in with that initial debut. Often the second, third, and fourth attempts bear a lot less fruit. Don’t give up; this is how the creative process works, and eventually, you will find that new material clicks into place just when you least expect it. Don’t be afraid to keep working on a “bit” even when it is starting to feel a little like a losing battle. Sometimes changing a single word or adding a “beat” can make all the difference. Of course, if the material doesn’t start to work within a reasonable length of time, you may need to let it go. The performer who keep stuff in their shows because “This one is just for me…” are definitely on the slippery slope to being disrespectful to their audiences.

Stage 5  Desperation. Desperation is the mother of invention. When you need to get something done, creativity can swoop in like a hawk and save the day. There is nothing like having your back to the wall to keep your feet moving forward. The nice thing about the raw gnaw of acute desperation is how it can speed up the previous four stages. Let me give you a personal example of exactly how this can work out.

One afternoon in about 1981, I was sitting in our Los Angeles apartment practicing my double lift, and the phone rang. When I picked up the receiver, I found I was talking to the talent coordinator for the popular TV talk show “The John Davidson Show.” The booker told me they were filming a show the next day that was a tribute to the popular television series “Hill Street Blues.” Did I have a piece of magic that I could perform that would fit the show’s theme?

 I said, “Absolutely,” and locked in the booking me on the spot. I was, of course, lying and had NO idea what the heck routine I was going to be filming in less than 24 hours. However, if someone offers you a TV shot, your first duty is to say, “Yes,” and then work out the minor details later.

I had about 23 hours to develop a new routine that was good enough to present on national TV. It was my Desperation stage. Rather than panic, I did what I usually did; I opened up the Bible and meditatively read a chapter. In my case, the Bible was my well-thumbed copy of “McComb’s Magic: 25 Years Wiser.”  There was a half-page hidden inside dedicated to combining two standard tricks to develop something entirely new. Billy sketched out an idea about combining the Thumb Tie with the Card In Wallet. I decided that it was an excellent idea and that I might implement something along these lines. I had just passed my Preparation stage. I went into the kitchen, made a cup of tea, and drank it. This was my Incubation stage. I suddenly remembered that I had a pair of unused thumb cuffs stashed somewhere in my magic cupboard and that they were a distinctly police-friendly style of prop. This memory constituted my Sudden Insight stage. I drank another cup of tea and started rehearsing it, the next day I filmed it live, and everyone loved it! That was my Manifestation stage; if only everything in my performing life had gone this smoothly.

It is worth noting that these five stages did not play out in the numerical sequence I outlined earlier. It never pays to expect things to run precisely in the order you anticipate them to do; life doesn’t seem to play out that way. Desperation was the number one item on my agenda. As in all things creative, the golden key to making things go smoothly is a healthy dash of adaptability, combined with plenty of nerve. Within those 23 hours, I had not only filmed a TV show but also created a powerful piece of material that I have used with great success for the last forty years. I hope that I have given you some constructive real world advice about improving your magic. 

This version of my creativity check list was published in Vanish Magic Magazine. I have since totally rewritten it for my upcoming book on comedy magic. I thought this article was still worth sharing though on my blog.

Multiplying Bottles Master Class

•June 29, 2021 • 4 Comments

When I was a teenager I was lucky enough to study with the Legendary British magician Ken Brooke, Amongst the routine he taught me was his Multiplying Martini Routine. I learned it in about 10 half hour lessons, and after the last lesson Ken said to me, “Nicky, you now have a great closing trick for the rest of your life!” How right he was. After 50 years as a professional magician it remains one of the two routines that I use to close my show. Other magicians who have made this routine a centerpiece in their shows are performers as diverse as; Denny Haney, Tommy Cooper, Ron Wilson and Pop Haydn.

I released an excellent video teaching Ken’s powerhouse Multiplying Bottles routine. It also included the many discoveries and updates I have made over the years. I have frequently been asked to perform a real “hands on” and “bring your questions” Master Class to teach this classic effect. I always said, “Maybe sometime…” Well, I recently decided that NOW was the time.

If you are interested in learning exactly how to perform the world’s finest mini-illusion this is your chance.

Amongst other things, you will learn

1.     The exact routine, including the masterful table blueprint that makes the production of each bottle visible.

2.     The correct bottles to use for the routine, and the bottles that don’t work.

3.      All about suitable tables, and important tips on setting and striking the props.

4.     The all important timing and pacing that makes this routine such a reputation maker.

5.      Tricks that work as a perfect lead in to the Multiplying Bottles routine.

6.      How to pack and travel the props safely.

7.       Nick’s powerful updates to Ken’s classic routine that perfectly update the effect for today’s audiences.

8.      The correct way to handle the props in a convincing and natural way.

9.      The full patter needed to sell the effect. What to say and what not to say.

10.     The way to add an extra punch to the end of the effect.

 

If you are interested in attending one of these Zoom Master Classes, contact us and we will keep you up to speed on when the next session will be. Be aware that this class is only for people with a serious interest in learning this classic routine.  If you want to be a part of this unique learning experience us at  LewinEnterprises@gmail.com for full details

 

 

Anatomy of a Joke

•May 30, 2021 • Leave a Comment

Comedy and magic are a splendid blend, and a little bit of humor makes every kind of magic more commercial and bookable in the real world. More people enjoy laughing and smiling than being fooled. A trick is the chief building block in a magic show, and a joke is the primary unit of measurement in any comedic situation. Let’s begin with a brief dictionary definition of a joke. 

Noun

1 A thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter, especially a story with a funny punchline: she was in a mood to tell jokes. A trick played on someone for fun.

Verb

1 Make jokes; talk humorously or flippantly: she could laugh and joke with her colleagues | [with direct speech]: “It’s OK, we’re not related,” she joked.

Joke. The dry dictionary definition always manages to wring out most of the vibrancy of the word with its clinical description. Let’s see if the dictionary’s long time playmate, the thesaurus, can paint a better portrait of the word. I am a big fan of the power of the thesaurus to shed better light on any situation. 

Noun

1 They were telling jokes: funny story, jest, witticism, quip; pun, play on words; informal gag, wisecrack, crack, one-liner, rib-tickler, knee-slapper, thigh-slapper, punchline, groaner.

2 Playing stupid jokes: trick, practical joke, prank, lark, stunt, hoax, jape; informal spoof.

Verb

1 She laughed and joked with the guests: tell jokes, crack jokes; jest, banter, quip; informal wisecrack, josh.

2 They didn’t realize you were only joking: fool, fool around, play a trick, play a practical joke, tease; informal kid, fun, pull (someone’s leg), pull/jerk/yank someone’s chain, make a monkey out of someone, put someone on.

Well, a few exciting new words jumped into the mix here. Let’s expand our current written vocabulary to include some of them. Witticism, pun, gag, one-liner, wisecrack, quip, banter, lark, stunt, trick, and punchline; Yes, we are entering territory now that resembles something bearing more resemblance to what goes on between a comedy magician and his audience.

If you include the aforementioned rib-ticklers, knee slappers, thigh slappers, and groaners, you are starting to get into a positively “Orbenesque” landscape. We will discuss Robert Orben in more detail on some future occasion. To say I have mixed feelings about his influence would be an understatement.

The Perfect Joke

My definition of a joke is “a completed statement, or insight, that amuses someone other than the person that makes it.”  In comedy circles, it is often asserted that old-time gagster Henny Youngman created the classic joke with his signature; “Take my wife, please!” There it is, an almost perfect joke lean, mean, and universal. In just four words or sixteen letters, there is;

1  a topic

2  a premise 

3  a setup

4  a punchline

1  my wife

2  sudden twist of meaning

3  “Take my wife…”

4  “…please!”

Henny’s one-liner is a perfect example of how great comedy is constructed. There is not a wasted letter. If there is one thing that I hold as primal in creating comedy, too many words spoil the joke. Having spent 11 years headlining in comedy clubs worldwide, I have watched many great comics scribbling in notebooks. Their neverending quest begins with finding original ideas to turn into material. Part two in the process is finding the ideal words to make them funny, and this primarily consists of cutting down the number of words by choosing the right ones. One thing I never saw in those 11 years was a comedian reading a joke book!

The bottom line is that any word that doesn’t move a joke forward is holding it back. There are certainly moments when adding specific details or color are an essential ingredient in contributing to the impact of a joke. However, since these words are, in essence, additional material, it is imperative to be exact and precise in applying them. Think of all the times a non-performer has told you a joke that would be “just perfect” for your act. The joke probably seemed to go on forever, and you guessed the punchline before the setup was halfway completed. Since I am primarily writing for magicians, let me put it this way: the words you use should be as sparing and carefully chosen as Dai Vernon’s finger movements were when he was performing a card routine.

Here are a few simple rules to assist in making a joke more successful to an audience. I should point out that in reality, there are no firm rules to follow in comedy any more than there are in magic. However, it is always a good thing to know what the “rules” are so you can break them when you want to. It takes serious performance time to know when old rules don’t apply to a new joke.

Five Golden Rules About Jokes

1 Do not use words that your audience does not understand. They will not appreciate your erudition—they are more likely to be slightly irritated, and this is not a good state of mind for laughing. Say what you mean and make it simple enough that everyone can understand the joke.

2 Know precisely what you are going to say and then say it in as few words as possible. While this approach doesn’t guarantee the audience will laugh, it certainly makes it more likely.

3 Don’t rush your punchline. Your audience must hear what you say and then have time to register why it is funny.  Equally important is to wait long enough after the punchline that people realize they were supposed to laugh.

4 Make the joke appropriate for the people to whom you are telling it. I personally don’t care if you use slightly risqué material but select the right material for the right crowd. Remember that it is impossible to “un-tell” a gag.

5 Be prepared to move along smoothly if nobody laughs at your joke. Now and then, even the most experienced performer tells a joke that doesn’t get any response. There is no reason for it; it just happens. Do not let it throw off your timing.

The Law Of Three

Many things in life seem to align with the slightly mystical law of three, and comedy is one of them. When you are putting together blocks, or hunks, of comedy, it is certainly worth putting them through the law of three filter. A single joke may be great, but it is merely a building block if you are constructing a comedy routine. If you find a topic and a funny joke; it is comedy tradition that you should attempt to turn that joke into a triad. It is strange but demonstrably true that two jokes are a tad too little, and four may be going to the well once too often.

Comedy is a little bit like riding a bicycle. Once you get started moving, you find your balance, and it becomes a lot easier to keep moving. The first joke gets them laughing, and the next two keep them laughing. Of course, all three jokes shouldn’t be constructed in the same manner or have identical premises. However, they can certainly be on the same topic.

An excellent exercise for a comedy magician is to search his act for single stand-alone jokes that are getting a good response and then see if there are two more laughs/jokes to add to the mix. There is a definite rhythm thing going on in comedy, and this is a great way to begin to explore it. Good magic has a definite rhythm also, and it is your job to integrate these two elements into one solid structure. You will learn a great deal by inserting these extra laughs. 

At first, don’t worry much about whether it is fully formed/structured jokes that you are adding. Maybe they are more of a comment or statement about that first joke that is the foundation of your new triad. Perhaps the second joke in the trilogy expands or amplifies the initial laugh. Maybe the third joke is something of a call back to the first. There are plenty of possible options here, and none are right or wrong as long as that initial laugh multiplies into three. As you become more accomplished at this process, you will find that third laugh may even become an applause point. 

This post is adapted from a chapter of a new book I am writing called “Serious About Funny.” I wanted to share a little taste of the book. I hope it gives you some interesting tips on the comedy magic scenario. 

If you are interested in learning more about the art of creating original comedy material, then you might also be interested in the video download of my recent ZoomCast “The Serious Side Of Funny” with Fielding West and Louie Foxx. It is a great 2 hour video that teaches you a great deal about mixing comedy and magic, and it cost a VERY reasonable $9:95.

To purchase it  CLICK HERE

The Magical Times Have ‘A Changed

•March 25, 2021 • Leave a Comment

In 1964 Bob Dylan presented the world with a new anthem, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Fifty-six years later here is an update especially for the magic world, the times they have a-changed. 2020 has been a very grueling year for everyone and a particularly turbulent one for my favorite magic club The Magic Castle. For most of the year, the Castle has been closed due to the COVID-19 virus. During this period the Magic Castle has also been facing a very stressful existential reappraisal of the new tenets of political correctness that are currently being embraced worldwide.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Magic Castle is fighting for its continued survival. As a long-term member that makes me very sad. I want to explore this situation and write a column that treats the Castle as a microcosm of what is happening (and not happening) in the magic world in general. The forces and issues at play here are just as relevant to the local IBM Ring that meets in a corner coffee shop.

Racism, sexism, misogyny, cultural appropriation, and sexual harassment are charges that are currently rocking the Magic Castle. These accusations have become even more complicated since the management seems to have denied and deliberately avoided dealing with them. A segment of our membership has rebelled and wants things to change radically. The club’s closure due to pandemic restrictions has created economic difficulties that make this time of self-appraisal even more difficult. This explosive mix was recently placed in a pressure-cooker when a lengthy article about the situation appeared in the Los Angeles Times and was subsequently reprinted extensively by other national news sources.

The recent LA Times story was one-sided and contains much that I felt was both unfortunate but inappropriate. I thought that it was a “hatchet job.” Both the timing and content of the story led me to this conclusion. I believe much of the damage the story could have caused the Castle has been deflected, with our club closed for the foreseeable future. Today’s urgent story becomes a faint memory with the non-stop barrage of stories that fuel the news media. This does not mean we shouldn’t examine the article’s implications.

At the heart of the Magic Castle situation is the mix of member and management problems that have come to light over the years. There is a very tricky borderline between workplace and performance place culture. However any instances of sexual harassment or racial discrimination are both legally and morally unacceptable. On Friday December 18th, in the wake of the LA Times story, the Magic Castle’s general manager Joseph Furlow resigned after his position became unsupportable. All the other pressing issues raised by members of our club are now being addressed by our excellent new Board Of Directors. I do not envy them their ongoing task but feel sure that they will do an excellent job in tough circumstances.

On one side of the spectrum are the members who resolutely maintain that they have never seen troublesome issues, and therefore they do not exist. I am fully aware that some extremely pressing problems exist. On the other side of the coin are members who have numerous concerns and want them taken care of NOW. Probably the truth, as it so often does, lies somewhere between the two. I have significant concerns that all these various issues can be dealt with correctly while the club is struggling. I am a big believer in the philosophy of choosing one’s battles.

A private club is a rather special beast. I think it is a huge mistake to judge a club by the action of any individual member. Nobody speaks for me other than me unless I say so. Paying one’s yearly dues doesn’t mean you own the club it merely gives you the privilege of being a member. We are duty-bound to respect the decisions of the two boards that we have elected to represent us. The massive attendance at the recent virtual Annual General Meeting indicates that members are taking a much closer look at the views held by our elected officials. This is a good thing. I also believe that a private club should remain private and problems contained within the confines of its membership.

Let me be clear, I am writing this column as someone who has been a practicing magician for 60-years, and a full-time professional for nearly 50-years. I say this not to impress my readers but to expose a colossal potential flaw in my authorship. When I discussed the idea for this column with my dear friend and magical ally Ray Anderson, he reminded me, “Be careful, whatever you say, you are an old white guy saying it!”  While impossible to deny, I don’t believe it completely invalidates my thoughts. I am, however, going to limit my comments to the performance of magic. There are many things that magicians can do to improve the way magic is viewed by the general public. Here are some of my ideas,

Much of the schism between magic and political correctness stems from magic’s innate reverence of the past. Reflect on the Victorian props, designs, and antique patter that are embraced by our community. I recently saw a magician describe a pair of slates as the kind used in schools! Is it any wonder that our ideas of acceptable behavior sometimes fail to meet current standards? Something of the adolescent nerd resides in most magicians. An old Billy McComb joke goes, “I told my father I want to be a magician when I grow up…” He said, “You can’t do both!” Not far from the truth!  When you blend both of these components then a wake-up call may be in order.

What was acceptable 25 or even 10 years ago may not justifiable today. Every performer needs to reassess the content of his show. I recently reviewed a video of my act that was filmed during my five-year engagement at a Las Vegas Casino. There were some moments that while acceptable at that time now made me cringe. I do not subscribe to the current extreme trend of judging a performer by the decisions and choices he made in the past. It is what he is currently doing that is relevant and important. Nothing can change the past. If a performer is learning from their mistakes, then they are heading in the right direction.

As far back as I can recall there has been a strong undercurrent of sexism and racism within the magic world. Magic has historically been regarded as “a guy thing,” largely because it was. Only comparatively recently has an increasing wave of women brought their fresh perspective to magic. Times have caught up with us, and unconscious inherited ism’s need to be reappraised and eliminated. My six-year old grandson was watching me on a recent episode of “Masters of Illusion” when his mom explained that the magician was sawing a woman in half. Zack responded, “Why would he want to do that?”  It seems like a good question. In honesty, most of the glaring problems within magic have improved significantly over the last 50 years. There is room for far more improvement, but deeply ingrained behavioral/psychological patterns can’t be re-imprinted overnight.

No magical topic receives more heated debate than what effects are acceptable to entertain today’s audiences. Every few months a flurry of exchanges erupt on social media about whether that old chestnut “The Baffling Bra” is tolerable performance material. The inevitable defense from some magicians is, “Yes, of course, it is OK, I have done the routine for years, and it still gets a good laugh.” No, it isn’t acceptable. This effect has long outlived its sell-by date; at the very best it shows the performer to be deeply out of touch. The mere fact that people laugh, and the assistant involved accepts it with good grace does NOT make it all right. I am not even going to address the response, “It works for me because I use a man instead of a woman.” Audiences are often very generous with laughter for magicians because — “Heck, they aren’t comedians they are magicians!”

Magicians performing outdated material often decry the current “trend” of political correctness and portentously imply they are fighting a sacred war on a dangerous new creeping social menace. They are probably just being lazy in resisting updating their shows into the present age. They are making magic, seem out of touch and outdated. Performers suffering from this particular derangement syndrome like to quote Jerry Seinfeld’s statement, “I will not perform for college audiences, because they are too politically correct.” I suspect the truth of that matter is that Seinfeld quite correctly perceives he might be too old, dated, and out of touch to get the reaction he feels he deserves from a youthful market. 

These thoughts are the tip of the iceberg of a massive topic. If you agree with me, I am pleased. If I said anything that pissed you off — I am happy about that too. There is no right or wrong in this debate, only participation.

Derek DelGaudio and David Blaine: In and Of Themselves.

•March 23, 2021 • 2 Comments

Magic as theater is a very hot topic recently. Derek DelGaudio’s recent Off-Broadway play “In And Of Itself” has been released in a video format on Hulu, and a much larger audience is finally seeing it. Now seems like a good time to look at how we can best blend theater and magic to create a compelling and workable synergy. We are on the edge of a new approach to magic that has both powerful potential and some definite possible pitfalls. Let’s begin by talking about Derek’s very successful production.

There is a saying that I like to quote “Movies are art, Theater is life, and Television is furniture!” While a little brash, there is much to ponder in that statement, and It flashed through my mind while I watched DelGaudio’s theatrical show repackaged as a TV movie. Maybe this sentiment was one reason I wasn’t quite as impressed by the presentation as I had hoped. “In And Of Itself” has achieved a cult following that is just this side of fanatical, and I can certainly see why. It is an exciting and thought provoking production that is a million miles from the average magic show. Maybe that is its most significant appeal to the (supposedly) more intellectual theater ticket buyer.

Derek’s play/movie was directed by industry heavyweight Frank Oz. I think Oz did a great job of adapting the work, and his decision to include montages of audience reactions from several different performances works exceptionally well. All the additional cinematic material is simple and effective. “In And Of Itself” is being viewed as an intense psychological event by many. It certainly seems to produce a formidable cathartic audience response, one seldom seen in a magical production. DelGaudio and Oz have taken magic and embellished it with a dramatic series of monologues, intense audience participation, and psychodramatic interludes. It has much of the power of a strong mentalism show and a theatrical séance skillfully entwined into the action. To say anything more about the show would be a disservice to future viewers.

One thing that ran through my mind while watching “In And Of Itself” was that we were going to see a great many magicians adding ten-minute monologues, personal revelations, and 20-second gazes into space into their act! This outcome is just as inevitable as was street magic becoming a trend after David Blaine introduced it in his 1997 TV special.  Doug Henning, Siegfried & Roy, and David Copperfield all created new paradigms in magic, but Blaine is the best comparison in this case. Blaine and DelGaudio achieve their impact in a deceptively simple manner.  They each have low-key stage personas that are very “non-magician” like, and their impact does not require stages filled with props, large illusions, or wild animals. Both performers project an exciting potential that “Something Else” may be going on beneath the surface. Whether DelGaudio can expand and develop his persona and performance sufficiently to achieve Blaine’s long-term achievements and success will be interesting to observe.

What makes DelGaudio and Blaine such an absorbing pair of performers is the way that each of them has grasped the powerful impact of how television’s reality programing has gripped the public’s attention and interest. The audience appeal of both entertainers is primarily based on watching how regular folk interact with their performance. This tactic allows the audience to remain one step remote from what is going on but also paradoxically enables them to become even more involved in the action. Initially, I thought that Blaine would primarily remain a TV performer. However, after recently seeing his large scale touring show, I was amazed at how successfully he had managed to expand his performance. Having seen most of the great full evening magic shows in the last forty years, I consider David Blaine to have the most powerful one of all. There is a genuine element of mystery to augment the magic, and his audience loves it.

Magic is currently in a minimalistic phase, with grand illusion in something of a commercial decline. Close-up and smaller scale magic has never been more accessible to large audiences. First-rate video amplification is now available at a very reasonable cost, and it has become quite a game changer. I strongly anticipate that this swing of the pendulum will be with us for a while before things return to an era of bigger is better. The influence of TV shows such as “America’s Got Talent” and “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” have introduced mainstream audiences to a whole new style of magic, and they seem to be enjoying what they see. Mentalism and card tricks are wowing lay audiences in a way that would have seemed incredible a decade ago.

There has been a seismic change in the goals of many professional magicians. It used to be standard fare to hear a magician talk of putting together a big traveling show and taking it to Las Vegas or other cities with massive casinos and large showrooms. However, as I know from personal experience, the travel, logistics, and general satisfaction of “taking your show on the road” is not quite as appealing as it once was. In the ten years that I have been writing stories for Vanish Magazine, I have increasingly heard performers set their sights on creating a personal theater or venue in their hometown or chosen location.

In essence, the custom showroom trend will lead to smaller showrooms with fewer seats and smaller stages. I suspect that many performers will choose to adopt a more “theatrical” dressing for their shows by including a storyline and narrative. Another trend in magic that is readily noticeable is magicians’ sharp increase in awareness of scripting, direction, motivation, persona, and other traditionally theatrical tools of the trade to polish their shows. It might not be a bad thing to look at a few of the potential pitfalls that may lay ahead in our magical future.

Robert-Houdin famously stated that “ A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” I have found this statement to be one that needs examining rather closely. Sometimes a magician is just someone who does a magic show, and often that is quite enough. Also, performing a magic show does not mean you are a capable actor as the skill sets are quite different.  Maybe you are better just perfecting your magic show rather than expanding your canvas into other fields. Most magicians are essentially “One-man bands” and tend to forget that an actor usually surrounds himself with a much larger support system. Let’s look at a few significant differences between being an actor in a play and a magician with a show.

A magic show requires meticulous pacing and content to make it successful. It also involves structure, but nothing like the traditional theatrical structure that supports a play or movie. Usually, the emotional interest for a theatrical production is based on the classic three-act format. Act one introduces the players and sets up the intended resolution for everyone involved. Act two mixes up the actions and creates tension by introducing obstacles that need overcoming. Act three resolves all the problems and leads to a grand finale. There are many variations on this basic theme, but you get the idea.

Many specialized people are needed to maintain the audience’s attention for the length of the play.  This team typically includes; writer, producer, director, lighting designer, costumer, and usually other actors. This team blends their talents to create an event that delivers a full theatrical punch. In a good production, all of these people are experts who excel in their craft. The lead actor may be the central character in the spotlight, but his success results from many combined talents.

I have seen many magicians attempt to be profound but only succeed in being precious. Adding theater to your show does not necessarily mean being deadly earnest and trying to use your magic to illuminate or enlighten your audience. Being heavy handed in your approach does not make something “serious” or “important.”  Putting on a costume does not create a persona any more than reciting patter is the same thing as creating an emotionally involved storyline. I have met many magicians who think they can do everything that David Blaine does, but I haven’t seen any who can duplicate the real Blaine magic. Derek DelGuadio and Frank Oz have also created a fascinating new approach to a magic show. I guess there is just a part of me worried about the Pandora’s Box they may have opened. 

Three More Virtual Magic Shows That Really Delivered The Goods.

•December 16, 2020 • 1 Comment

In America, there is always a multitude of magic shows to attend over Halloween. However, just because live entertainment has ground to a rusty halt, it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t still a wide choice of magical shows to choose from. This year, over the holiday, we watched three different magical shows which is at least two more than any other Halloween in recent years. One good thing about Zoom shows is that they are mighty easy to attend, that and not having to shave to attend.

The virtual Zoom shows that Susan and I participated in over the holiday weekend were the AMA (Magic Castle) Halloween Show hosted by Todd Robbins, The Raven and Migz Halloween Zoom Magic Show, and Justin Willman’s Magic For Humans@Home Virtual Halloween Show. I’m going to break down the three events, and also give some of my thoughts about the strengths and potential weakness of Zoom style magic shows. I think it is apparent that this performance format is not going to be going away anytime soon. While the end of the worldwide COVID crisis will provide a welcome return to live entertainment, the seamless way virtual shows can cater to non-local audiences is a strong selling point. The ease and relatively low production budgets of Zoom shows are another reason that virtual shows should stick around for the foreseeable future.

Helder Guimarães’ The Present, gave a clear example of how financially successful the blend of close-up magic and theatrical presentation can be. During a limited run, the show brought in an estimated 700,000 dollars according to Geffen Executive Director Gil Cates Jr. This is a truly eye-opening figure. Of course, that number is not representative of the actual fee paid to Helder, who was essentially helping to support an entire theater/theater staff with his project. I have no idea how much money Justin Willman raised this Halloween with his three days of multiple shows, but I suspect it was a great deal. We caught one of the four shows he streamed on Friday, October 30th, and during this single show, 820 people were in virtual attendance. At 25 bucks a household, unless my arithmetic is too faulty, that is about 18,000 dollars for just this single performance. Yikes! No wonder Willman has already got multiple Thanksgiving shows lined up. A guest shot on The Ellen Show must have been a real boost to Justin’s numbers in addition to the fans of his Netflix magic show who also tuned in. 

Let me begin by saying that I enjoyed Justin’s show enormously. It was lively, funny, entertaining, and highly successful on every level. In particular, the virtual audience management was exemplary throughout the 75-minute event. The 30-minute pre-show Halloween costume/dance party that preceded the show was a delight all on its own. In the depth of the current pandemic, it was a tonic just to see so many families having such an uninhibitedly good time. Family is the keyword in describing the focus of Willman’s show. The magic was simple enough for youngsters to fully enjoy, and just as importantly no adult watching the show was made to feel they were attending a kid show. There was no attempt to present the show as a “theater event,” it was simply a compilation of fast-paced and visually interesting pieces of magic. On this level, it hit the bullseye big time.

A large part of the show’s success was the immensely likable personality of Justin Willman himself. Willman’s timing is immaculate, and his sense of pacing kept the show moving at a tempo that effortlessly carried the audience along for the ride.  Did any of the magic Willman performed in the show amaze me? Well, not really but then I am a magician. I did enjoy every single effect and was tickled by many of the subtle touches that Justin added to the routines. These tricks were treats, and commercial gems one and all.

Like Guimarães’ show, Willman’s production was geared to gather strength with its “filmed in the performer’s home” immediacy. I would be remiss if I failed to mention how much Justin’s interaction with his virtual assistants added to the audience’s enjoyment. He is a witty performer who thinks on his feet and mixes vulnerability with cheery confidence that quickly wins over his audience. If I sound like a fan, it’s because I am. A few years back we caught Justin performing a one-hour live show, and maybe what impressed me most with his virtual show was how deftly he re-created that live experience for his new Zoom market. This was a great family show and also a real bargain with its 25 dollar ticket.

On Halloween night, after the socially distanced dispensing of some candy to neighborhood kids, we settled down to watch our second Halloween show. The Academy of Magic Arts has made a stalwart attempt to present virtual events for its members while our legendary clubhouse has been shuttered. The Board of Directors and trustees have done a wonderful job of adding some extra bang for our membership bucks. As an out-of-town member, I am particularly appreciative of everything they have done in this area and want to give a special shout-out to Max Maven, Jonathan Levitt, and John Carney who have spearheaded this effort. Halloween is probably the most exciting of all Magic Castle holidays, and attempting to replace it with a virtual event is a pretty daunting undertaking. Todd Robbins and his band of friends gave it a darn good shot and deserve much credit for their achievement.

The AMA Halloween show was hosted by mega-talented Todd Robbins from his desk/office in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen region. Robbins’ lair managed to look more like a Zoom set than most Zoom backgrounds achieve. With his amiably distracted, and slightly sinister eccentricity, Todd performed some magic, told a true ghost story, and hosted the show in fine style. In what seemed to be mostly pre-recorded sets, the show featured segments by a talented cast of performers. Alex Boyce, Jeanette Andrews, Christian Cagigal, and Mark Calabrese all contributed fine magic to the festivities. From my personal viewpoint, the two major standouts in the show were the charmingly chilling vocal styling of Liberty Larsen singing Pirate Jenny and the excellent mentalism of Jason Suran. Both of these performers added a great deal of texture and variety to the production.

I understand the temptation of mixing pre-recorded segments into a live Zoom show, however, in my estimation, it is something of a double-ended stick. Part of the charm of a Zoom show is some of the rough edges and real-time feel. Like most virtual shows I feel the material could have been edited a little more tightly, as video minutes seem to play longer than they do during live performance. The show was a splendid consolation prize for those of us who didn’t get to perform a Halloween gig or visit the Castle. Thank you Todd for a fine show and enjoyable event, it was overwhelmingly enjoyed and appreciated by the AMA membership.

On the Sunday after Halloween, We got to eat some leftover candy while watching The Raven & Migz Halloween Zoom Show 2020. I was impressed by the sophistication that Richard (Raven) Lake brought to the technical aspect of his streaming broadcast. Many cool and effective video effects were on display during the 80-minute show, some jumped out and hit you in the face, while others were more subtle. The show is a nice example of how to apply some special effects and technical pizzazz to make your show stand out. Check the show out for yourself on YouTube at

 https://tinyurl.com/y3qhvt3b

Raven & Migz ( Richard Lake and Miguel Rangel) are a popular Los Angeles magic/mentalism duo that has a unique sense of timing and rhythm which results in a very entertaining two man team. Their performance personas gel in a very interesting manner, and I look forward to seeing where they take their magic show next. The show features guest stars Rich Hurley, Chris Herren as Faust, and veteran pro-performer Rick Gerber. All the magicians did a great job of creating and performing strong magic with some nice twists. The show would probably have been even stronger with some tighter editing of the material featured. In contemporary television, most guest slots are limited to a rapid-fire two-minute guest set, which is something all Zoom shows must become very aware of. However, a fine time was had by performers and viewers alike. If you want to catch Richard Lake’s ongoing Zoom shows you can find listings for them at https://tinyurl.com/yyassrvr I don’t think you will be sorry!

It is fascinating to see how magicians are adapting to the current phase of the worldwide pandemic. Zoom technology is now a very real part of every magician’s professional vocabulary, it seems amazing that back in January of 2020 almost no one had any idea of what it was! Always remember that Charles Darwin didn’t really talk about survival of the fittest, instead he actually referenced the survival of the most adaptable.   

Helder’s Present! Magic goes virtual, and hits the jackpot.

•December 13, 2020 • 3 Comments

On Saturday, October 17th, I was lucky enough to be one of the people attending the Grand Finale of Helder Guimarães’ virtual magic show The Present.

The show was presented in association with The Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and Saturday was the final night of a sold-out 24-week engagement, and I caught it just in the nick of time. During its run the show brought in an estimated 700,000 dollars according to Geffen Executive Director Gil Cates Jr. During a time where conventional theater has all but disappeared, this Zoom show has been extended three times and attracted 6,000 viewers for its grand finale. This final performance was a dedicated fundraiser for COVID-related performer charities and raised more than 150,000 dollars in a single night. Not bad for a pandemic year!

What exactly is The Present? It was a 70-minute interactive magic show presented by Portuguese card master Helder Guimarães. Helder has been performing his one-man theatrical magic show about 13 times a week for an average ticket price of 95 dollars. For each performance, a neatly wrapped package was mailed out to the 25 households that participated in the performance. Inside the box was a selection of props that allowed the home audience to participate in real-time with the onscreen action. The production had a somewhat hokey autobiographical thread, involving Helder’s grandfather, which ties together the wafer-thin storyline that turned the magic show into a “theatrical event.” The show was directed by Hollywood heavyweight Frank Marshall who also functioned in this capacity for Guimarães’ 2019 live production Invisible Tango. Marshall was the producer of the Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and Jurassic Park movie franchises.

The success of The Present had a great deal to do with the artful simplicity of the production. The event was staged in a corner of Helder’s Los Angeles apartment, with his girlfriend Catarina Marques’ providing simple and effective camerawork. Most of the Zoom magic I have experienced has been severely handicapped by the camera being unable to effectively shift focus in order to fully catch the magical action. The Present solved that visual problem in a way that never seemed showy but always natural. Frank Marshall’s direction was deceptively understated, and at no point distracted from the feeling of sitting down with a master magician within his own home. The lighting, props, and costuming similarly made no intrusion on the sense of casual discovery that I suspect intrigued many viewers. The fact that the show even credited a costume designer had me wondering to what degree the production was reaching to underscore its theatrical standing. However, after 251performances the potential to appear too slick or “showbiz” could have been an easy mistake to slip into. I suspect part of Marshall’s skill as a director was making sure that this didn’t happen.

The pre-show excitement of receiving the “Mystery Box” in the mail, which required opening during the show was quite an active factor in building up expectations for the actual Zoom show. Those of us attending the enlarged Grand Finale streaming of the show were able to purchase a scaled-down 15 dollar “Mystery Envelope.” We also paid a reduced 25 dollar fee to merely watch the proceedings in a non-interactive manner. The 25 actual participants in the show could be seen on screen individually during their participation in addition to adding effective human reactions to the proceedings en mass. The Zoom functions were smooth, efficient, and nicely executed. A special shout out to Mel whose initial Zoom greeting and briefing of the participants was friendly and added nicely to establishing a pleasant mood for the show. Her warm personality added a great deal to what could have been a fairly unexciting prelude to the evening’s actions.

One of the reasons that The Present has been such a huge success is that unlike a live magic production in the Geffen Playhouse the show benefited greatly from both national and international press. The Washington Post, New York Times, The Observer, and many other newspapers contributed to an avalanche of overwhelmingly positive reviews for the production. With the devastating effects of the COVID pandemic on the world of theater, it is only natural that friendly media wish to laud any project that bucks the negative trends. The Present certainly took the national zeitgeist and turned the limitations into a powerful marketing/performance tool. At one point 12,000 people were on a waiting list for one of those 25 coveted interactive spots that each performance offered. It is wonderful that Guimarães, Marshall, and the Geffen Playhouse (or as it has been whimsically renamed The Stayhouse) caught performance lightning in a bottle in such an amazing fashion.

Helder Guimarães has been a favorite of Los Angeles magicians since he first started teaming up with Derek DelGaudio at Hollywood’s world famous Magic Castle. In November 2012, these two young performers took their magical skills to the Geffen Playhouse with their magical performance piece Nothing to Hide, which was directed by the Magic Castle’s own Neal Patrick Harris. Helder’s ex-partner DelGaudio recently completed a lengthy and highly acclaimed New York run of his magical play In & Of Itself. The play was directed by legendary director Frank Oz, and Derek and Oz will soon be releasing a video version of the show. It is exciting to see the success of these hybrid magic/theater productions that follow in the footsteps of Ricky Jay’s various collaborations with David Mamet. It probably helps with theatrical ventures like these to have a well-established director onboard. Though in reality, it is more realistic to realize that the true starting point is primarily in having the kind of unique talent that attracts directors of this caliber.

At this point, it is appropriate to discuss the content of The Present, and see why it has appealed so much to audiences who were not necessarily predisposed to enjoy an evening of complex card tricks. The show has seen family audiences, hipsters, regular folk, and celebrities enjoying and participating in the kind of multi-phased lengthy routines that in many ways seem the antipathy of what many would consider “commercial” magic. Helder’s approach to most of these routines involves multiple climaxes that just keep layering impossibility upon impossibility until the spectator is buried in amazement and just has to gasp and applaud. While there is one non-card effect it is fair to say that playing cards are overwhelmingly the focus of the show. 

I sometimes wanted Helder’s effects to be just a little bit more concise and streamlined, but that is just my “less is more” taste. The lay audience absolutely loved what went down. Probably my personal opinions are somewhat tainted by being a magician. It is important to realize that magicians are not the key demographic for this production, if they were then Guimarães would probably still be performing in the Parlor at the Magic Castle!  Having heard and disagreed with many magic “experts” who proclaim that you can’t construct an appealing magic show just containing card tricks I am delighted to say this show proves you can. David Blaine’s most recent TV special proved this same point, and I think it is worthwhile for any ambitious magician to study both these performers and define why they can succeed at this endeavor.

I am not going to go deeply into what effects Helder used to ensnare his viewers, I would only use a lot of words and fail to fully paint the picture. Suffice to say I enjoyed all the individual effects and so did those vitally important 25 “live” participants who acted as our emotional conduits to the action. However, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Guimarães’ excellent handling of Woody Aragon’s Love Ritual routine. As an interactive piece of card magic, this routine is very tough to beat, which may explain why Penn & Teller have used it to close out their full evening show. This particular piece cuts to the heart of what made The Present such a powerful show. The effect embraces separate location interaction turning it into a vibrant shared experience. Those not familiar with Woody’s original effect should be prepared to be amazed.

The magic world has been awash with Zoom magic shows since COVID-19 divided and separated magicians from the audiences that their craft requires. Many of these shows are free but still sparsely attended, and I doubt there will be a huge demand for Zoom magic shows once the pandemic returns our audiences to their rightful spot in front of us. The Present, however, is a huge triumph of the right product at the right time. Guimarães and Marshall return to the Geffen Stayhouse in December 2020 with their next production The Future, and if you missed their last production I advise you to book your virtual place at the table early as I suspect it will be another smash!

The Legend Of The Night The Magic Castle Moved Into The Parking Structure.

•October 29, 2020 • 2 Comments

The older you get, the more you tend to repeat stories over and over again. Sometimes you know you are doing it, and sometimes you don’t. This is not a state of affairs that I see changing greatly for me in the near future. It really doesn’t worry me too much but must be pretty irritating for everyone else. Let me meditate on it for a moment and see if I can locate a major offender in the “to often told” story department. If I write it down maybe I can give it a rest for a while!

I suspect my go-to story would be one of my favorite Magic Castle stories, and believe me Castle stories are a major category all on their own in this particular area! Probably the number one story I tell and retell is about one particular week when I was performing at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. It was a cold, wet, and  wild Tuesday Night- well OK, it was a Tuesday night (it may not have been cold wet or wild, but you do tend to add color and unimportant  details when you tell a story enough times.) I was 22 years old and I was working in the Magic Cabaret, which was a small showroom in the basement of the Magic Castle. The performance area had been painstakingly converted from the mansion’s old wine cellars. The theater had about 40 delightful red plushy theater seats that almost filled the main floor of the auditorium. There was a small platform at the rear of the room where another 10 or 15 people could stand. Of course you wouldn’t want them standing if anyone from the fire department was present. There in lies the crux of the story……

That Tuesday night a fire department official visited the Magic Castle and the next day the Ax fell. I am actually not sure that this is exactly what happened, but it is the way it goes in my personal version of the story. Whatever the actual chain of events, at about mid-day on Wednesday the word came out that the Castle was going to have to be closed that night until various safety codes were updated, and other violations corrected. The Castle’s dining room was fully booked and Wednesday was a busy night in those days. Of course it might not actually have been a Wednesday night, but that is the way I remember it. No-one wanted the Castle to close its doors for the night so a plan was hatched that became a legendary and iconic event.

Our fearless leader, and President, Bill Larsen (or it could have been his brother Milt) decided to move the entire Castle proceedings into the parking structure behind the Magic Castle. A large semi circle of tables and chairs were assembled on the concrete floored structure. Potted palms, and service centers from the dining room were transported to the garage.  A variety of performers from the showrooms arrived dressed in their tuxedos ready to ply their trade in the new makeshift environment. Eventually the Castle’s guest for the evening arrived dressed in the Castle’s signature suit and tie/cocktail dress dresscode. As soon as the tables in the garage started to fill up a steady stream of service began to bring trays of drinks, and plates of food from the kitchen and bars within the Castle. It was business certainly NOT as usual. The air crackled with the urgency of the unexpected.

At a chosen moment, Bill Larsen stepped forward, in his elegant tuxedo, and introduced the various performers who comprised the show extrordinaire that had been assembled for the occasion.   It was a great show because not only did it feature performers like myself who had been scheduled to entertain, but also some big name guest stars who wanted to be part of the unique event. Marvyn “Mr. Electric” Roy was there, as was the great Harry Houdini or perhaps Houdini’s presence was an unfounded rumor thatwas later added to the collective memory of the event. The evening was a huge and triumphant success.

By the next day, the necessary safety changes had been implemented in the Magic Castle, and all the dining, drinking, and entertainment elements were moved back inside the four walls of the actual building . However, a new legend had been added to the unlikely success story that is our venerable magic clubhouse. On a more practical level within a few years that same parking structure had been converted into a seamless extention of the Castle and now it houses the new Palace of Mystery, Parlor of Prestidigitation, Peller Theater, library, and Inner Circle Bar. I was there and that is (pretty much) exactly the way it was.

As you may have noticed my post was as much about the fuzzy memories as the actual facts of the stories we treasure. I was delighted to receive a Facebook post from Dale Hindman who added greatly to the historic events in question. Here it is….

There is some additions to this story. Milt got the call that they had could not open up that night. He got the idea to move things to the parking structure. He called John Shrum, who as the Art Director at NBC for The Tonight Show. John was repsonsible for many of the changes and artistic touches already. John sent over trucks from NBC with the palms, chairs, tables, portable bars, etc. There was a big party already booked for that night, and they didn’t want to cancel them. Bill called Marvyn, as he and Carol were living practically next door. They packed the “act”, came over and performed along with some others. It’s all in Milt’s book as well. Thanks for the rememberance Nick.

What’s Next? (and I don’t mean the trick?)

•October 16, 2020 • 4 Comments

2020 is a year that will cast a long shadow. In America, and almost everywhere else, the entertainment industry nearly ground to a halt. From mid-March onwards, COVID-19 has trumped virtually every form of entertainment other than sitting at home watching Netflix and taking your computer online. Clubs and theaters closed their doors. Cruise ships are languishing in dockyards. Las Vegas showrooms went dark, and corporate entertainment vanished like a birdcage up a sleeve. Magic has taken a particularly critical hit due to the interactive nature that is at the core of its being. Wages and fees have disappeared, as bookings have cancelled with a devastating finality. Of course, you already know this.

Without a crystal ball or an Alexander-like ability to “Know,” we are at the mercy of the evolution of this new and capricious virus. The entertainment industry’s immediate future rests on the novel coronavirus’ subsequent waves, spikes, and recurrences. Anyone who tells you they know what is going to happen next is only fooling themselves. However, this does seem like a suitable forum to take stock of where we are, where we may be heading, and to identify some recent changes that are unlikely to go away too quickly. With fifty years of making a living as a magician in my rearview mirror, I feel as qualified as anyone to have a shot at this process.

One plus point about quarantining has been experiencing how the magic community has reinvented itself digitally with a mass of new meetings, lectures, podcasts, groups, and shows for magicians to enjoy. Most of them are free, which is a handy bonus in the current financial climate. Magicians have also learned a new skill, Zooming. The only time I encountered Zoom before March of this year was when I guested on one of McBride’s Mystery School Mondays. Now, almost everyone in the community has mastered this useful and relatively painless skill. I suspect that this new level of inter-magician communication will outlive the COVID crisis. Most magicians are enthusiastic about meeting up with their cohorts and with Zoom they now have an inexpensive and efficient means to do so.

The early days of the COVID crisis launched an assortment of magicians using Facebook to stream shows from their living rooms. Many of these shows were frankly poor, and technical limitations did nothing to improve the performances. Often these events seemed like a somewhat desperate plea for attention by acts that would otherwise pass under their fellow magician’s radar; however, the situation quickly improved. As things settled down, it became clear that a “Zoom Show” just might become a legitimate way for the average magician to earn a few bucks. However, with one major exception, I have serious doubts whether the merits of a Zoom show will outlast the end of our national quarantine by any significant length of time. Magic tends to work much better live than on video unless your name is David Blaine.

Magicians tend to love their high-tech show trimmings, and a group of magicians who might once have been swapping card moves, are now focusing on iPhone tripods, USB microphones, virtual backdrops, and living room lighting. Some of the virtual show production trimmings are getting better, but the intrinsic impact with magic is usually more focused on the human interactions. The sizzle is fun, but if you want to charge a fee, don’t underestimate the importance of the steak. The recent industry embrace of mentalism has been useful training for these kinds of shows, and a Zoom style presentation can serve this kind of magic excellently. Another strong option for video shows is nonparticipant close-up magic routines, just as long as the objects involved look crisp and in focus.

What doesn’t play particularly well in a Zoom style show? Illusions are a tough sell due to the changes in size involved in shrinking the output down to a computer screen. It takes careful direction and multiple cameras to make illusion look good on a television show. Another serious Zoom casualty is pure comedy magic. Without hearing other audience members laughing, comedy is a lot less contagious than the coronavirus. If you don’t want an audio zoo, then you need to mute the viewers during the performance, and that makes comedy magic a tougher prospect.

The one type of paid Zoom show that I believe will be around for a substantial time is corporate entertainment. It is going to be a while before corporations want to gather all their executives, salespeople, and clients in one big room eating, talking, and drinking. I suspect the Zoom shows that corporate clients will want to employ will require very high-level production skills. These buyers are used to superb audiovisuals, and they will expect their Zoom shows to share this level of expertise.

Most performers are just waiting for their old lives to kick back into place again, and eventually, with stops and starts it will. However, I think it unrealistic to believe that we will not need to tailor our work to these changing times. Audience participation, and interaction with physical props, is going to need to be very carefully restructured for a very long time. Even if the majority of the audience is unworried about these issues, if even ONE person comments, “Oh, you’re not going to touch that are you?” then the entire audience is going to become uncomfortable. The hecklers of the future may come disguised as health advisors.

We are in a brief window of time which magicians should use to re-evaluate the direction of their magic repertoire. While it is correct to anticipate the return of live bookings, I think it is only realistic to re-tune our performance for the new normal. I am currently filming a series of new downloads for our online magic retail company that will feature classic “display” close-up routines that are Covid-19 and Zoom friendly. It is entirely unrealistic to believe that attention to these presentational details are not paramount in re-establishing one’s commercial presence. I am amazed how often I read posts from magicians on Facebook who seem to think that a firm allegiance to their old repertoire and performance style will be acceptable as the pandemic begins to fade. Clients will be impressed by the performer who appears to respect the health and interests of their guests, and will book accordingly. 

One area of employment that has totally ceased this year is the Cruise Ship market. Cruise work is one of the most extensive and highest paying gigs for magicians throughout the world and is going to resume functioning the very day that the cruise lines think they can get away with it. The money that is hemorrhaging from cruise lines is profound. Realistically I believe that re-booting this particular market is going to be extremely difficult. Every time a passenger comes down with COVID-19, the entire industry will face a potentially “close it down” chorus from the media. However, things will get back to normal eventually, and when they do, it will present a new and exciting employment opportunity for a great many entertainers.

With the colossal financial losses sustained by the entire cruise industry, some obvious and predictable changes will occur. Salaries will go down, and longer bookings are inevitable. Performers will also need to present more shows during their engagement, and pre/post show home quarantining may become standard. These changes will create a working situation that will cause many of the more established performers to exit this particular kind of booking rather than take that cut in salary and change in accustomed working conditions. The upside of these developments is that the industry will open up to a great many performers who were not previously working this lucrative and enjoyable market. There are not many opportunities to book a year’s worth of work with a single phone call in magic, but this is one of them. If a performer hasn’t worked on a ship before, he will not experience a wage cut, and will probably be very comfortable doing that extra twenty-minute show. He might even relish a six-month contract. I predict that this will be a “gold rush” for a new booking opportunities. Move quickly though because the fresh blood will soon absorb the overflow of bookings.

I hope you found a few useful angles in this post about What’s Next after our lives get back a little closer to normal. The time to think carefully about your magic is now. Things will improve, so stay safe and healthy!  

 

 

 
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