The Politics of Patter.

•October 17, 2019 • 7 Comments

Patter is an integral word in the magician’s lexicon. Generally speaking, it is considered rather inconsequential

 compared with the visuals that are taking place. The very word itself tends to suggest something rather trivial. If you substitute a word like dialogue, the dictionary gives you something with a little more gravitas. 

 1: A discussion between two or more people or groups, especially one directed toward exploration of a particular subject.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has this to say on the word patter when used as a noun.

1: a specialized lingo

, especially: the jargon of criminals (such as thieves.)

2: the spiel of a street hawker or a circus barker.

3: empty chattering talk.

Used as a verb, my MacBook tells me that to patter is to talk at length without saying anything significant: she pattered on incessantly. None of this sounds too good.

It would be my observation that the difference between pattering to your audience and having a dialogue with them is often the difference in talking at an audience and talking with them. In the magic world, often we are presented with patter that is written and delivered to us in pre-planned ready to go scripts or books. Because magicians are lucky enough to have an almost unlimited repertoire of routines available for our performance, we get somewhat spoiled. When I release an effect to the magic community, I often get negative comments if an entire performance script does not accompany that routine. I usually do supply that script, but not to save the purchaser the job of writing original dialogue. There is another quite substantial reason for my doing so.

A comedy magician or mentalist who creates a commercial and powerful routine has usually thought very carefully about what he will say during its performance. The juxtaposition of words to actions may be an integral part of the inherent misdirection necessary for success. I always recommend when someone is trying to learn one of my routines, that they initially memorize the script I supply. Once you have studied the dialogue for a while, and then they can start to discern precisely why I say certain things at specific times. Once someone grasps the creative structure, then they can begin to change those words and make the routine their own, without losing the rhythms that made it work in the first place.

If you are a comedy magician, it sometimes seems like a good idea “cherry-pick” jokes from a variety of other magicians to improve your show. This performance crutch is understandable when you are starting as an act. However, it is something that will eventually handicap a performer a great deal more than he realizes. Stealing someone else joke is a very different proposition to creating a line that adds to your performing persona, and produces an original laugh. If one continues on the borrowed “cut and paste” comedy path, you begin to lose the mental ability to create fresh and relevant material. You begin to sell yourself short, and that is a shame. You owe it to yourself to be yourself.

If you want to say something funny, or say something worth hearing, during your show; a performer must fully grasp the simultaneously important of what he is doing and saying. They are the dual sides of the same coin, and need to be synergistically harnessed to achieve maximum success. I have seen exceptional magicians whose actions display endless hours of rehearsal, only to be sabotaged by what they say. Although we all speak throughout the day, this in no way prepares us for scripting/presenting our show spontaneously. NO, you can’t “umm” or “errr,” you mustn’t make your dialogue a recitation of the actions that your audience can observe you doing. A statement like “I am going to take this regular deck of cards and place it on the table,” has two inherent flaws in it. 

If a magician wants to add comedy to his show, he must resist the temptation to reach for a book of jokes or comedy lines. He/she needs to analyze what is taking place, and what is in his audience’s mind as it happens. He/she must consider the props that are utilized and especially what makes that moment unique. If the performer can come up with a statement that covers the moment, or better still spots an incongruency within it, then he has the opportunity to polish the moment into something unique and personalized. Often the exact right line comes out spontaneously during a performance. When this happens all the performer has to do is remember to write it down to work on later.

When I talk about “working on” or “refining” a line, let me make an informed analysis on what fundamentally needs to be done to achieve a professional polish. If you write a joke for your show, you should immediately run it through a two-part testing program. Job number one is to make sure the words convey your exact meaning and are that they are words your audience will understand. The next step is to eliminate every single word that is not needed to make your meaning clear. You are going to have to put your potential line into written form to do either of these procedures properly. It is much easier to edit the written word than loose words echoing in your mind.

Having spent eleven years headlining in the comedy club market, I have worked with both good and bad stand up comedians. Let me make it clear—the good ones are those who know how to edit. Comics would sit backstage for endless hours editing their monologues down to a minimum. After honing a “hunk” to the bare bones, it is then possible to make sure that any additional words/ideas are adding something tangible and meaningful. A tiny percentage of gifted comedians can do this in their minds; the vast majority do it in written form. The written joke is the building block of a comedian’s work in much the same way that a magic prop is to the average magician. Comedians are often needlessly scathing in their opinion of the way magicians use physical props to facilitate their work. A great many magicians are just as incorrect in failing to appreciate the importance of correct authorship where a one-liner is concerned.

In the magic community, we are blessed to have an enormous quantity of books, DVDs, lectures, and downloads to help improve our knowledge and skills as magicians. There is probably no other hobby/art form that has more words and ideas available to its rank and file. There are very few books available for professional comedians, there are certainly joke books, but these are intended for the amateur “water cooler comedian.” No professional comedian sits around reading a ten dollar book entitled “1000 Blockbuster Jokes,” to add one to his show. Actual original and commercial jokes change hands at a high price in the comedy world. Maybe this is the reason that comedians are much more aggressive in their reaction to the theft of comedy material.

Magicians who think nothing of spending thousands of dollars a year on props rarely think of spending a few hundred dollars on a one-liner. It is easier to find a joke in another performs act that they like and then appropriate it—perhaps changing a word or two along the way. After enough performers have stolen a joke, it is then considered “stock material” and is re-classified as being available to everyone. This practice highlights an uncomfortable disconnect in a community that has become obsessively committed to crediting creators and originators. One of the most common refrains from comedians (and bookers) is that magicians all tell the same jokes, and it is hard to disagree.

In magic, there is often more than a hint of “patter” being used to fill in time by stating the obvious, a gigantic flaw in goals. A good performer is not on stage to fill up time but rather to make time fly by effortlessly. We have to get beyond the desperately flawed magician’s concept, “How long I can get out of a trick….”   Instead, we need to be thinking how much time can I remove from a trick without impacting the effectiveness. If a performer can cut four minutes of unnecessary dialogue in his show, he might be able to add one or two more applause getting effects. Lay audiences view most of their variety entertainment on America’s Got Talent, and are used to magic presented in 90-second hunks. Unless a live performer keeps this reality in mind, he runs the risk of seeming old hat.

Even a short article like this would be glaringly remiss if it didn’t touch upon the endlessly debated and protested area of political correctness. Magicians tend to have a colossal identification with the past; it seems built into our DNA. We love those old fashioned illusions and Victorian props. Heck, we still use school slates, walking canes, top hats, thimbles, milk pitchers, birdcages, and handkerchiefs. To a certain extent, audiences expect (and in some cases dread) these anomalies, it is a good idea to keep your dialogue more attuned to this century! It is much wiser to eliminate vocal anachronisms from your script. If you say something that you think might be sexist or racist, it almost definitely is! In spite of any personal bias against politically correct jargon, it is an excellent idea to guard against it entering into your show. You are not here to make a brave beacon of an anti-PC statement, and are just going to look old fashioned and out of touch. Keep your dialogue and script contemporary, and it will sound less like old fashioned dated patter. Reading online magic forums, it is apparent that some magicians think they can make the PC culture disappear by closing their eyes to it. They are wrong. 

One of the most overused cliches in magic is that old Robert-Houdin quote, “ A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” I frequently vent about the ways this concept is used to cover indulgent and precious behavior. In this instance, let me agree with it in theory, however never forget that a true actor has a carefully written script that informs the role he is playing. He doesn’t go onstage and patter to his audience, he uses his dialogues and monologues to amuse, inform, and entertainment. It is time to intellectually throw away those wonderfully nostalgic Robert Orben books and enter the post-patter era.

MagicFlix. A great new magic streaming platform.

•September 12, 2019 • Leave a Comment

On July 8th things in the magic world changed rather dramatically. That date was when MagicFlix premiered its 24/7 magic video streaming service. MagicFlix is a platform specifically designed for the magic community. It features no ads or commercials—just the best magic content available curated by experts. It is an exciting new resource, and I suspect it will significantly change the way magicians study magic.

When I was a young magician, there were only two ways to learn magic, reading books, and learning first hand from other magicians. If you worked hard and got lucky then perhaps you managed to find a mentor. This premise was my ground zero in studying magic. I remember the excitement when eventually a VHS tape allowed a magician to see how a move/routine should look in real-time. As technology progressed, the VHS tape was superseded by the DVD, but this did not significantly change how magicians progressed in their learning curve. For me, the best part of learning from a video, instead of a book, was that when perfecting a new card move, and while holding three finger breaks, you didn’t need to try and turn the page of the book with your nose!

Recently the DVD was primarily replaced by video downloads, which often featured more focus on individual tricks. Their mass appeal was fueled by the almost instant delivery of the desired product. Not coincidentally the arrival of the download coinciding with the introduction of the stylish, and sometimes misleading trailers that served to “hook” the viewer on the latest trick to hit the market. The instant delivery and often lower price of a download purchase resulted in something of an “it fooled me, and now I want the secret,” mentality. In my case, and I know I am not alone in this, downloads are often watched just once and then quickly lost in a computer folder. We may live in an era of instant gratification when it comes to buying magic, but it doesn’t offer instantaneous learning skills. 

 It would be foolish not to point out that the gradual, though not total, vanish of brick and mortar magic stores has increasingly played into the learning mix in the last decade. The friendly, knowledgeable owner of the magic shop, with the ability to advise and shape the progress of a young magician also vanished. On the other hand, the fact that individual magicians were able to market their choice routines on the Internet dramatically increased the variety of options to a savvy magical consumer. Another wild card that affected the magic world was the explosion of YouTube, and the positive and negative manner in which it presents magic to both dedicated magicians, and the merely curious.

I firmly believe that the learning progress of a magician is dramatically affected by the method he studies his craft. Does a video teach something more thoroughly than a book? The answer is by no means clear cut. I believe there is still an essential role for high-quality books such as Jamy Ian Swiss’ recent volumes dedicated to sharing the wisdom of Johnny Thompson. David Regal’s latest book “Interpreting Magic” is another excellent example of a book that would be almost impossible to duplicate in video form. The sheer bulk and quality of the material involved is a huge incentive not to jettison the written word for the video camera. In case you didn’t guess it, I still love good magic books. 

Technical progress is hard to deny, and I am the wrong demographic to wholeheartedly enthuse over some of the recent developments in learning magic. However, I believe that different aspects of magic are best understood using different methods. MagicFlix is something wholly new in the magic world, and it moves magic beyond the “download era” into a whole new learning zone. The concept of having a streaming service based on the Netflix model is a very logical and enticing notion. Having thousands of hours of learning material available for a monthly fee, that is equivalent to a single download, is a desirable prospect. As McBride says, “Never before has so much magic content been available in one place for people to learn and enjoy magic for such a low price.”

During a brief visit to Magic Live 2019, I attended the Las Vegas launch party for MagicFlix. It was instantly apparent that this new product was creating a great deal of excitement with the attendees. I have always admired and respected the serious, and studious manner that McBride has revolutionized the business of learning magic with his Magic and Mystery School. It was fairly apparent to me for a while that the next significant development in magic was going to be in the form of a streaming platform. I am convinced that McBride is a perfect steward for this new paradigm. After the excitement of Magic Live abated, I had a chance to discuss MagicFlix with Jeff, and I am delighted to share some of his insights here with Vanish readers.

MagicFlix came into being as the brainchild of Stephane Vanel, who is now the president of MagicFlix Inc. Stephane is an excellent magician, born and raised in Paris, France. I remember catching his show at the Paris Casino and Resort in Las Vegas and thoroughly enjoying his performance. Vanel intuited that the Netflix model would be an excellent pattern for a streaming platform for magic. He reasoned that we needed a Netflix for magic because of the vast amount of magical video available and that it was not being correctly controlled. Vanel realized that with so many DVDs, downloads, and streaming information that there is a need for curated, high-quality content to be available to the magic community. It has taken over two years of careful preparation and hard work to turn Vanel’s enterprising idea into a fully functional reality.

Another key player in the formation of MagicFlix is Warren Irwin, an entrepreneur with over 30 years of experience in global finance. Irwin is Founder, President and Chief Investment Officer of Rosseau Asset Management, a top-performing Toronto-based hedge fund.  Jeff McBride rounds out the triad of players who have made MagicFlix a reality. Jeff’s function is as chief consultant and curator to all things magical on the service. “I can tell good magic from bad magic.” Says Jeff, “I know who is producing original content, and who is ripping people off without credit, most YouTube stuff is just ripping off people with no credit; it’s a zoo!” 

I asked McBride why he considered MagicFlix to be such a timely idea. “We don’t see this as the solution, but the turning point in magic.” Jeff replied, “I have thousands of DVDs, but I don’t have the time of day to open one and to put it into my computer. Modern computers don’t even come with a DVD function anymore. In the future, the magic database of all the finest curated magic content will be at MagicFlix. Magicians can now source it anywhere in the world, and it will stream efficiently and easily. It will become the backroom where people meet and share magic.” When pressed on the timing and reception of the new service, Jeff responded with a quote from the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “Great ideas go through three stages. First, they are laughed at for being ridiculous. Secondly, they are violently opposed. Then they are embraced as self-evident truths.” I suspect MagicFlix skipped the second stage and is quickly becoming comfortably ensconced in that third stage.

When I asked Jeff about the material currently streaming on MagicFlix, he replied, “It’s a combination of top quality training videos, combined with history, performances, documentary, and biographies. It encourages magicians to go to live time events, see live shows, meet the masters, and support local magic communities.” The list of contributors streaming on the service adds some real weight to this statement. Content providers already include Eugene Berger, John Carney, Rich Ferguson, Franz Harary, Kenton Knepper, Amazing Johnathan, Justin Miller, Jeff McBride, Rocco, Dan Sperry, Michael Trixx, Stephane Vanel, Jason Ladanye, Fielding West, Larry Becker, and Paul Gordon. We also feature the entire Greater Magic Library featuring such masters as Karrell Fox, Shimada, Michael Ammar, John Carney, Sylvan, Johnny Paul, Larry Becker, Charlie Miller, Tom Mullica, Johnny Thompson, J.B. Bobo, Billy McComb, Mr. Electric and Daryl. This list is an impressive one, and it is getting bigger and better. 

The magical content on MagicFlix is presented in carefully structured levels, including Beginner’s Magic, Favorites, Most Popular, New Releases, Coin Magic, Grand Illusion, Impromptu Magic, History, Gambling Magic, Ice Breakers, Performance, Philosophy, Interviews With The Stars, Street Magic, Manipulation, Lectures Etc. In other words, if you browse the Card Magic category, you can learn everything from how to do a pinkie count to how to back palm cards. Says McBride, “We have thousands of hours of content already in the pipeline. You sign in now, and 500 videos greet you. There is a great deal of magic on the Internet, but this is a place to learn magic. We also have plans to make a forum and develop the community aspect of MagicFlix.” 

The commercial evolution of Netflix has resulted in the successful creation of some of the most impressive original material on television, so I asked McBride if MagicFlix had similar goals. “We will be shooting new content and have already been doing so.” Said Jeff, “Yes, indeed, we recently shot a video of Gazzo. We are trying to collect the proven masters, and at the same time, we are trying to cultivate the up and coming young magicians that are innovators and are creating new magic for new generations. MagicFlix is trying to embrace the entire magical spectrum but also really place a sense of history and value on the creators. We are also dedicated to proper crediting. Our curators are spending a lot of time on Dennis Behr’s site ( https://www.conjuringarchive.com ) trying to get the correct credits on some of this material. Early in their careers, many magicians shot videos as buyouts for other companies, and what they are doing now is putting their original materials back in the hands of performers by reshooting it and updating it with modifications. It is like writing an original song and selling it to a publisher, and then realizing that there are variations of the song and new songs to being sung. You can write an entirely new album.”

I raised the subject of YouTube to McBride, and as I suspected got a very passionate response. I recently spent quite a lot of time exploring magic on YouTube for a possible article and was somewhat appalled by much of what I found. Here is Jeff’s take on the differences between what a magic student will find in the wild and woolly YouTube universe, and MagicFlix.  Says Jeff, “I don’t believe there are any ballet dancers or opera singers who have learned their craft from YouTube. The great masters of magic are certainly not teaching there. MagicFlix is trying to collect material from people who have been in the business for years and are not just those seeking hits and clicks on their YouTube sites. MagicFlix is not going to be the indiscriminate hatcheting of people’s material that is thrown up on YouTube. I think that is over. We are the antidote to YouTube.

You go to YouTube to watch a great artist like Fred Kaps perform his act and then there is some screaming 12–year old going, ‘Fake, fake, fake. Look at 16 minutes and 22 seconds; he’s got something in his hands!’ There has to be a retreat to a true study hall for magic, a real place where people can study magic, undisturbed by the circus of hellish YouTube hateful comments. We go to magic as our refuge and our healing, and when that is a hostile environment, whether it is a forum, comments, or Facebook, we have to consider delivering better sanctuaries.” Jeff reminded me of one of a Eugene Burger proclamation that is especially appropriate in this context. Burger used to say, “It is not fair in a forum when Max Maven’s font is the same as Spellbinder102 who has been in magic for three years. They should not have the same font size!” Hallelujah to that, as he so often did Eugene hit the nail squarely on the head.

Jeff also gave me a rundown on the way that contributors will receive payment for their product when aired on MagicFlix. “Warren Irwin is a very successful businessman,” says McBride, “He has developed a way to treat magicians very fairly. He realizes how the big producers of magic used to negotiate buyouts, pay the creator 2,000 dollars, and then they go on to make a quarter of million dollars in profits. MagicFlix has a neat solution to the ‘material solution.’ If the people who upload content can prove, they have either correctly credited or have a direct lineage to the material they get to share in 50 percent of the subscription fees. The division of the payment is based on the exact length of time that the viewers/subscribers spend watching their specific video. In other words, everything is based on meritocracy.” In case you are as unsure of that word as I was when Jeff used it, then let me give you a definition.“ Meritocracy: an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth, a system in which such persons are rewarded and advanced.” I think that is an elegant word for an even better idea.

As we spoke, McBride painted an appealing picture of the way that this kind of structure will benefit the participants. “As an artist, marketing is important, but I want to spend time on my art and my craft, and leave the marketing to people like MagicFlix. The service is streaming 24/7 for the content providers and making money when they are dreaming. Isn’t that one of the keys in life to create a product that sells itself so the artist can go back to creating, and dreaming about creating more.” It certainly sounds good to me. By the time I had finished our interview, I had decided to take part in this exciting new venture.

I am looking forward to contributing some original video tutorials to MagicFlix and become part of this visionary project. My favorite philosopher Timothy Leary, who is not quite as universally revered as Schopenhauer, used to say; “One of the chief goals of life is to know what is coming next and to be on the spot to recommend it.” I believe that I will be doing just that in this instance.

 

The Magic of Mentoring,

•July 24, 2019 • Leave a Comment

The Nisus Thesaurus on my computer describes a mentor as: ‘A wise and trusted guide and advisor.’ I think this is a concise and excellent place to begin this essay. Mentoring is a term that is used much less frequently these days than it was in my younger days.

If you have a computer, Google and an Internet connection then you either already know everything or with a few clicks on the keyboard you can do so. If life were really that simple wouldn’t it be grand with everybody an expert. However, it just doesn’t work that way. Computers are wonderful for giving you access to almost any information you need. From making an atom bomb to palming a card, it is all there, as long as you know the right questions to ask. There is an added ingredient necessary though.

This is when a wise, trusted, guide and advisor enters into the picture. He is the one who can help you determine exactly what are the right questions for you to ask. As my favorite fugitive futurist and digital pioneer used to say about politics; “If you can get people to ask the wrong questions then it doesn’t matter what answers you give them, even the truth!” No wonder they locked him up! It’s not about the answers but the questions.

In the old days, information was a very special commodity, if time was money then knowledge was the big bucks. In magic, we searched through books for our information but more often than not, actual wisdom was transferred one on one. In my younger days, it was often the owner of your favorite magic shop who was the first person to help shape and develop your talents and strengths. 

As a young man visiting magic shops and being able to learn from Jon Tremaine, Pat Page and Ken Brooke was a very special privilege that transcended the mere act of buying a trick. When I arrived in America in 1974 you could still go to the magic shop and receive wise and trusted advice from the likes of Jay Marshall, Al Flosso, Jules Lenier or Mike Skinner. Their interest and love of magic far exceeded their desire to merely make a sale. They were advisors.

Nowadays much magic is purchased through the Internet and the personal touch is all but gone. The guys who make a good living selling magic are the good businessmen and not always the true magicians. I say this with love in my heart for them but would you really expect to get the same career guidance from Hank Lee or Joe Stevens that you would from a Ken Brooke or Patrick Page. I think not.

After I left England and Ken Brooke, the next mentor who furthered my career was the inimitable Billy McComb. Billy taught me not just what to do but how to do it and why. I remember Billy explaining to me that when performing the Gypsy Thread to a large audience that you needed to light and sell it larger than life. When you broke that tiny piece of thread your whole shoulders had to move. It wasn’t that you needed that much strength to break it but it allowed the people in the back of the auditorium to realize what you were doing, even if they couldn’t see the thread they saw your shoulders move!

While I am a great believer in the act of mentoring, I am absolutely opposed to the random giving of advice that so often takes place at magic clubs and conventions. Unless you have a special bond with that ‘wise and trusted advisor,’ you can do yourself more harm than good by following every bit of advice given to you. The majority of it is given in the spirit of “I know something you don’t, look at me, I’m cleverer than you are!” 

I run a mile when someone whom I don’t know and respect, comes up to me after a show to tell me how to improve a routine that is probably more carefully assembled than he can even imagine. Nine times out of ten he is going to tell me something that I already know and have dismissed for a very sound personal reason. Therein is the difference between information and knowledge- a meddler and a mentor.

Magic needs more mentors to pass on the knowledge that they have accumulated. When acquired in a careful and considered fashion this knowledge is the personal ‘one on one’ way to improve our art. However, this is only possible by understanding the person you are giving your knowledge to. Otherwise, instead of mentoring you are merely speaking about yourself, to yourself and thus pouring nothing into the void.

True Magic is the Art of Surfing the Waves

•July 10, 2019 • 1 Comment

One of the exciting parts of having been around the magic business full-time for over five decades is that you really start to notice some of the trends that arise in our beloved art form. These trends appear and then disappear, only to arrive back again slightly re-tuned a while later. When you are too deeply absorbed in what is happening at this very instant, it is easy to dismiss the evolutionary recycling that is continuously at work in life. Once you have been around the block a few times, it makes it a lot easier to spot and greet an old friend when he pops up in a slightly different garb. If you do this often enough, and for long enough you sometimes even get credit for being an expert.

The most important thing is to recognize a trend and then jump on board before everyone else does. One of my favorite modern-day philosophers says, “The key to success is knowing what is coming next and being on the spot to recommend it.” However, I have frequently made the mistake in the earlier part of my career of being just a little too fast in staking out my turf. People often fail to appreciate originality unless it is firmly grafted onto something they have already mastered. I had many great ideas that I knew would work but then mishandled them by underestimating the need for the weight of the Universe to carry these ideas into application. Let me give you a couple of simple examples from my experience and then discuss what I consider the current trends that I think have a serious future. You may not agree with my analysis, but if it causes you to formulate your own ideas along these lines, then it will not be wasted pixels.

Back in the 1980s, there was a glorious explosion in the corporate market, and it was a truly golden era for the savvy magician. However, there was a simple caveat to this scenario as the average lay audience thought of magic as being based very largely on the performance of illusions. Siegfried & Roy and David Copperfield were omnipresent in most buyers minds when it came to large industrial entertainments. I packaged corporate shows with great magician/illusionists such as Piet Paulo and Chuck Jones, and I would then add great manipulative performers such as Shimada and Norm Nielsen as the cherries on the sundae. Eventually, I realized that at the heart of these shows was my comedy skills at tying in product promotion, and those big illusions. Being ambitious I wanted a slightly bigger slice of the pie, and I bought 15 classic illusions, and for a decade I made a lot of money in the corporate market performing them.  In other words, I used the prevalent tides and waves to propel my work as a magician into a more successful and profitable zone.

During the 1980s I was frequently making TV appearances, and like everyone else had dreams of creating a smash magical special for that medium. In the early 80s, I wrote an outline for a magic special that took place on the streets of Los Angeles. No stage, no glitter, no assistants and no big box tricks; I called it Gorilla Magic. Along with a very highly regarded producer Michael Sloan, we had a pitch meeting with the head of HBO to try and bring this concept to the small screen. During the meeting, she just looked at us in amazed bewilderment, and then fairly patiently explained that this wasn’t how magic specials were supposed to be and it could never work. At that particular moment in time, she was probably absolutely right. Much as I liked my idea, I reluctantly realized she was right, and the concept was a non-starter. When someone with a great deal of experience, who was in a position to greenlight it, said no — then it was probably time for me to let it go. I could have continued battering my head against an invisible wall; however, I moved on and saved my energy for another battle. 

In 1996 David Blaine took the TV world by storm with a very similar approach to a TV special and Street Magic was born. The timing was just not right when I proposed the idea, and it was perfect for the time when David did. It usually isn’t a personal thing, just the weight and state of the universe that ultimately carries an idea to fruition. You have to be sensitive to where and when the energy is working in your favor and act accordingly. For lasting success in showbiz, it is necessary to keep your eyes and mind open and look for the next trend that might lead you onward and upward. I like the analogy of a surfer staying just ahead of the crest of the wave and achieving a subtle balance that allows him to produce a graceful movement that requires almost no effort on the part of the wave rider. Just being in the right place at the right time and keeping your balance gets the job done.

I could go into many specific details of some of the trends that I have seen sweep through the magic world in the years since I first became a magician, but here are just a few very simple ones. From the iconic white tie and tails of Channing Pollack and Cardini to the casual garb of Henning and Copperfield, it only took a couple of trendsetters to influence entire generations of magicians. Remember when that one weird guy at the local magic club (wearing a pendant with a question mark on it) was the only mentalist in town? Nowadays there are more mentalists than you can shake a wand at. I now sometimes joke with bookers that I am the magician who doesn’t read minds! One year every performer was an entertainer, a quick change in the federal tax deductions and suddenly everyone was a keynote speaker. Before David Blaine, there were no Street Magicians, after David, there were more street magicians than dove acts. I could go on with this list forever, but I want to zero in on what I consider the most interesting current trends that are available for a little career surfing.

After years of lamenting the lack of variety on network television, we are happily back in a golden era of variety programming. The most significant reason for this development is the America’s Got Talent show and the numerous other International variations that were inspired by the British prototype. When the show was launched initially in America, it was all about the BIG illusions and effects. However, times change, and recently various smaller forms of magic have been gaining serious traction and success. In 2015 the series was won by Mat Franco performing what amounted to parlor magic. In 2018 the contest was won by Shin Lim performing his breathtaking close-up magic. Somewhere between finishing my first draft of this story and sending it to my editor Shin Lim just won the AGT: The Champions, 2019 contest; all my congratulations go out to him! This successful segue to the more intimate side of our art form has been mirrored in the acts/routines featured on Penn & Teller: Fool Us and Masters of Illusion. The public has become infinitely more educated in the sleight of hand and mentalism schools of magic, and it has opened up an entirely new market for performers to explore. In my opinion, this is a trend that has been way too long in arriving.

We are currently at a point of time where smaller magic in smaller venues is in vogue, and it is springing up in cities across the country. While the larger touring magic shows, such as The Illusionists still feature plenty of grand illusion they are beginning to feature more intimate kinds of magic simply because the audiences want to see it. There are now many smaller venues with live magic that are popping up and catering to the type of intimate magic that is currently being featured on television. What is even more exciting is that these shows are attracting enthusiastic audiences and meeting with a great deal of critical and commercial success. Steve Cohen has been quite a trailblazer and pioneer in this kind of endeavor, and his style and methods have been adapted and adopted with excellent results by other magicians. The late Ricky Jay was also way ahead of the curve in this respect with his various one-man shows. This trend is now becoming an incredible boon to many sleight of hand performers, and I think we will see this approach continue to escalate for quite some time.

The recent opening of Milt and Arlene Larsen’s Magic Castle Cabaret in Santa Barbara is just the latest and classiest addition to the 30 to 40 seat magic showrooms that are popping up nationwide. To lay audiences, the very intimacy of these micro showrooms is a refreshing development in the way they can observe and participate in magical events. To mention a few other examples of this kind of venue, just in the state of California; Jay Alexander’s Marrakech Magic Theater, Steve Mitchell’s Junkyard Magic and Gerry Griffin’s California Magic Theater jump to mind as powerful success stories. The integral intimacy of these showrooms is a considerable part of their continuing success.

The average magician tends to think BIG when it comes to magic showrooms, and I suspect it has a great deal to do with our being raised on the mystique of the gigantic traveling roadshow’s of Houdini, Thurston, Copperfield, and other luminaries from the last century. It always seemed so enticingly simple, Houdini arrived in town, performed a sensational publicity stunt and voilà the theatre was filled. Of course, there was no internet, television or Netflix to compete with the public’s attention in those truly golden years! It was the arrival of cinema that helped draw the curtain on that era. There were still a few performers who could muster the mass crowds needed to fill a regional theatre; however, it quickly became apparent that there were only a handful of performers who could make that old paradigm succeed in modern times. 

The size of the show/showroom has a direct correlation with how many people are needed to fill the seats in a venue sufficiently for the production to be considered a success. A full-sized theatre with 40 people in it is a disaster; the same audience in a 40 seat showroom is called a sold-out performance, and you are then ready to add a second show in the same night. The tough part of producing an ongoing magic event is never about the mounting of the show, but almost always about getting those paying asses in the seats.

This fundamental economic truth doesn’t even take into account that contemporary audiences currently really enjoy being up close, and experiencing their magic as an “in your face” event. 

This freedom resulting from the downsizing of magic venues has allowed magicians around the country to create their own showrooms, often in unusual places, and fill them with enthusiastic audiences. Even more exciting is that performers can do this in the town where they live, and not have to spend the time, effort and expense of traveling. I consider this an outstanding development and opportunity for the average magician who wants to move from hobbyist to professional performer. The only way to improve as a performer is to keep on performing until you get it right and then go right on developing it until it can’t go wrong. 

Over the years I have produced shows in many locations, ranging from nightclubs, comedy clubs, hotels right up to Las Vegas showrooms. However, I have never had the experience of staging a show to the kind of small audiences that I am describing in this article. I figured that it was time to give it a shot, and I am currently launching a new monthly 40 seat magic show in Austin, Texas. It is a combination of parlor and close-up magic employing video assist and a few other surprises to sweeten the deal. There is no similar show in our hip little city, and I am excited to see how quickly we can get it off the ground and flying. Will it be an instant success? I doubt it, but my guess is that it will fairly quickly build into an excellent show that will allow me and my guest performers to have a lot of fun, make some cash, and create a forum that will result in some lucrative private bookings. I strongly suspect it will quickly build to becoming a weekly event and that is my ideal scenario. You could do the same in the city in which you live—we live in exciting times now that we can explore magic without feeling that you need a truck full of expensive illusions to guarantee an audience. Besides, in honesty, some of those deceptive bases don’t look quite as deceptive as they once did.

This scenario is the latest way that I plan to ride the waves of the latest trends in magic. For over 50 years I have enjoyed performing magic for my livelihood and don’t expect to stop any day soon. I love the entire process of studying magic, perfecting tricks and then delivering them to an audience, but it is especially helpful to control the circumstances in which present your show. I am intrigued by the way lay audiences are now viewing the role and repertoire of a magician, and I am fascinated to see how this response to the current magical zeitgeist will play out. If there is one thing I have discovered in my career, it is that if you allow the current trends to carry you forward, then you are letting the Universe do the heavy lifting for you. A tremendous amount of energy in the magical world is spent in trying to re-create what happened in another era. By keeping your eyes and ears open to what contemporary audiences are enjoying you pave the way for ongoing success. As my old friend and Zen master, Jack Goldfinger observes, “It is easier to wear carpet slippers than carpet the world.” I am not entirely sure exactly what he means  (you never are with these zen masters), but I am pretty sure it fits in exactly with what I am saying here! 


 

It is a CONTROL thing!

•July 8, 2019 • Leave a Comment

Every magician knows what controlling a card is; you put that darn pasteboard where you want it, and then it is available for you to deal with as you desire. The dictionary has a slightly different take on the word control and defines it as, “The power to influence or direct people’s attention in the course of events.” I want to zero in on that second definition and then apply it to the performance of magic.

After fifty years of performing magic for a living, I am sometimes a little cynical when I hear some of the more “artsy” definitions of what people aim to do with their magical skills. On Facebook timelines and magic forums I read, “I don’t want to fool people, I want to create a sense of wonder.” “My job is to create astonishment by displaying miracles,” is another comment that I recently read online. While trying to keep an open mind, this kind of talk tends to make me roll my eyes and shake my head. Phrases like these sound remarkably precious and pretentious to most laymen’s ears. 

Another, and slightly more pragmatic view of performing magic can be summed up with the, “I am not a magician, I am an entertainer” line of thinking. Maybe I am very old school; however, I have absolutely no problem being a magician who does tricks and makes people laugh while he fools them. This concept seems like an excellent way to make a living to me. I like being a magician and am deeply suspicious of jugglers who feel they might prejudice their commerciality by using the “J word,” and insist on being “Physical Comedians.” You can probably guess where I stand on ventriloquists who advertise themselves as “Vocal Illusionists!” If you are not proud of the work you do, forget adjusting the linguistics and get a different job. 

Let me take my line of thinking a stage further. When all is said and done, any professional performer’s real job is about control, and this is particularly true for a magician. We have to be very serious about this control business if we want to make a good living as a magician. Let’s start at the mechanical level; unless we learn to control a deck of cards, then a card trick is probably going to be pretty sloppy. Of course, some of my favorite magicians use their mastery and control of a pack of cards to throw their audiences off by the appearance of being sloppy. The great Charlie Miller was a particular master of this style of manipulative illusion. However, most close up guys aren’t Charlie Miller! Let’s leave the world of mechanics though, and look at performance technique. If the performer doesn’t control the audience, then they control him/her.

When a magician walks out onstage and faces an audience, it behooves him to make control of his audience job number one. If he takes control of the audience in the first few moments onstage, then they will likely keep right along with him on the rest of his journey. Let me be clear here; controlling an audience does not mean bullying them or being overly aggressive with them. One of the subtlest and most effective ways of taking control during a show involves using charm to the wooing an audience into submission. However, control is a definitive and powerful tool, no matter how you achieve it.

That multi-eyed eyed beast sitting out there in the dark, which we call an audience, needs to be carefully molded into a responsive group mind that we can make our own. Billy McComb used the analogy of an audience being attached to the performer by invisible threads passing from their minds and through their eyes, leading to the performer onstage. Billy insisted that a good performer picks up those separate threads of attention and gathers and binds the individuals into a cohesive entity. The performer is then able to influence and direct people’s attention to the course of events he has planned for them, which brings us back to that definition of control. 

For many decades now, my favorite opening effects have been the Color Change Silks or the Spot Card. Why? Because I can do some visual magic, make excellent eye contact, get some laughs, and beat the audience up ever so slightly. In a friendly way, I build things up, break them down, tell the viewers they aren’t laughing/applauding enough, and then stop them when they do react. By the time I have spent my first couple of minutes performing, I have subtlety shown the audience who is boss; firmly but in a courteous manner. 

I sometimes listen to inexperienced performers ponder on how and when they lost control of a show. The truth is that they probably never entirely had control of it to begin with. I performed last year in the Palace of Mysteries at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. One of the hosts came in before our late show with dire warnings about an unruly group who had been creating havoc in the various other showrooms. When I walked out to begin hosting the show, I knew exactly where this group of “trouble makers” were seated. They were sitting in the back of the theatre laughing and chatting in a slightly inebriated, but definitely not a hostile manner. I realized I needed to take care of business immediately or this particular crowded showroom would never fully coalesce into an outstanding audience. 

I solved the problem that had plagued the other Castle showrooms and I did it in about a minute. I started to talk to the audience, and when the renegade group continued talking loudly amongst themselves, I began to speak a little more quietly, and then I stopped talking altogether. I looked in their direction in a mildly puzzled manner, and very quickly, they realized that the only sound in the showroom was their chatter. Suddenly there really was total silence, and I gave that entire group a little smile and then speaking directly to them, I said, “No…Just No!” The rest of the audience were delighted that the problem had been addressed and resolved. The “trouble” group shut up and behaved beautifully for the remainder of the show, they really hadn’t meant to be a problem or disturb the show. 

I didn’t try and out talk this group or put them down in any way. I didn’t pull out some antiquated Robert Orben style “Zinger” or “Heckler Stopper.” I just took control of the problem group and directed their attention to what was actually happening in the room. The full interaction that occurred between us in the Palace that night took far less time to execute than it has just taken you to read about it. After headlining in the comedy club circuit for 11 years, I was keenly aware that only the guy onstage with the microphone should be in charge in a showroom. This errant group didn’t consist of villains or bad people; just regular folk who needed to be brought slightly into line, because they were having to much fun and were spoiling things for other people in the showroom.

One of the men who gave me an invaluable lesson in control was the great mindreader Maurice Fogel. He was a brilliant showman and within seconds would have any audience wrapped around his little finger. One of my favorite Fogel moments was during Maurice’s bullet catch routine. At the height of the pre-feat tension, with rifles pointing at him, and fingers on triggers, Fogel stepped dramatically forward and halted the action saying; “WAIT, it occurs to me that in a moment I may be lying dead, or dying, on this stage; unable to hear your applause! Would it be too much to ask to hear that applause now?” At the peak of the thunderous applause that followed, Maurice cut into the audience’s ovation triumphantly proclaiming; “…Then if that was your applause for a gallant loser, may I assume that should I succeed your applause would be twice as loud!” It always was.

The way Fogel controlled his audiences has stuck with me for 45 years and still inspires me. It was not that he intimidated the audience or in any way overstepped his role as a friendly entertainer; however, he OWNED those crowds. With equal parts charm and chutzpah, he influenced and directed people’s attention with the skill of a brain surgeon. I was always fascinated by the way first-rate mentalist such as Fogel and Al Koran were able to dominate the rather complex proceedings that constitute a mentalism show. Nowadays, practitioners such as Max Maven and Jon Stetson continue to bridle the skepticism of their audiences using their own highly theatrical systems of authority. They make it a fun part of their performance, and to me, it is usually fun that lifts mentalism to another level with contemporary audiences.

It would be inconceivable to write an article on this topic, and not talk about the iconic hypnotist/magician Peter Reveen, who always exerted an ironclad control over his audiences. After his magnificent show, Reveen would stride to the footlights for his final applause, and after his formal bow, he would stand, absolutely stationary, gazing at the crowd as they applauded him. He would just stand there until the audience stood up and gave him a 100% standing ovation. Reveen would remain motionless for 15 or 20 seconds, which is an eternity in stage time, and then he would wait as long as it took. Of course, Peter had an incredible show that deserved a standing ovation, however, he took no chances; he just stood there and silently commanded the audience to their feet. It was a powerful expression of something close to mind control to watch that inevitable ovation manifest itself.

I have taken some time to talk about control issues, which I do not recall being featured much in any books or articles about magic. If you are planning to convince an audience that you can perform any magic, then you should unquestionably be the uncontested focus of attention in the room. Of course, it is worth noting that the performers who are true masters of this control thing almost inevitably have great shows to go along with them. It is essential to make sure your material is worthy of the gravitas or whimsy that is being used to control the reaction to it. Nothing communicates insecurity more than poor material, so go out and construct a strong show, and learn to control the audience. If you do this, then the sky is the limit!  


 

Celebrating the life of Johnny Thompson.

•May 10, 2019 • Leave a Comment

On March 9th there was an emotional Celebration Of Life for the great Johnny Thompson in Las Vegas, Nevada. The event was beautifully planned and executed; it was apparent that the celebration was masterminded and co-ordinated with loving care by Penn & Teller and Emily Jillette. The Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio Hotel housed the event, and it felt so incredibly correct to gather in a packed, vibrant, and enthusiastic showroom, for our last goodbyes to a great showman. It is easy to be sidetracked by Thompson’s expansive knowledge and “gun for hire” expertise, but his performance skills place him high in the pantheon of magic’s greatest heroes. Johnny and Pam were always scintillating performers in the top league of magical powerhouses.

The rather old fashioned term of “people coming to pay respect” was the exact mood of the group attending the Celebration. There was plenty of love, and friendship in the Theater on the 9th. There were laughter and more than a few tears going on in Vegas, and there was a great deal of respect too. In honesty, I am not one much given to attending Celebration of Life events, but I wanted to be there for this one, and I was proud to represent Vanish Magazine. The only similar Celebration event I attended in Las Vegas was at the memorial for Channing Pollack, and on that occasion, I sat with Johnny Thompson! A photographer and video photographer were present throughout the event, and I understand an official video presentation will eventually available at http://www.tomosoni.co 

Everyone attending the Celebration seemed to have decided to keep the taking of personal photos and videos to a minimum, and for me, this was very welcome. I certainly didn’t take any notes, so, therefore, I am just going to give a very personal and partial recollection of my highlights from the evening.

A diverse and distinguished group of magicians and magic lovers were waiting at the doors of the Penn & Teller Theater when they opened at 4:00 pm. Waiting inside was an elegant dessert and beverage buffet, and even better a large area for the group to mix, mingle and say hi to old friends. Inside the theater was a multimedia presentation of personal photographs that Emily Gillette had collected and assembled. I loved the slideshow. By 5:00 most of the guests had gathered in the showroom. Just as a personal guess I would say about 600 people or so were seated in the theatre for the live presentation. David Copperfield very graciously began the Celebration and set the perfect hosting tone. Matt Franco assumed an MC like role, and he did an excellent job of tying everything together.

From 5:00 – 7:00 pm The Penn & Teller Theater was alive and blazing with stories and memories. The “kick-off” to the Celebration was the big screen presentation of the classic Tomsoni & Co. act. The crowd adored this footage, and it was a perfect start to the event. As the Celebration continued there were many fine speakers who’s personal anecdotes resounded strongly with the crowd. It was impressive seeing everyone express their powerful emotion, and there was not a single jarring note in the mix. I was particularly impressed by the thoughtful statements made by Mike Caveney and Jeff McBride. An excellent presentation by Jared Kopf, Alpen Nacar, and Paul Vigil was another real highlight

Everything went very smoothly, and the event was everything one could ever have hoped for it to be. For two hours the speakers were all on target with their tributes and stories, and there was a very inclusive guest list of both live and videotaped remembrances to regale the assembled crowd. Amongst other speakers were, The Amazing Randi, Erika Larson. Fielding West, Jamy Ian Smith, Lance Burton, Teller, Alan Bursky, David Magee, and an almost incoherent with tears Penn Jillette were just part of the team who gave eloquent tributes to Mr. Thompson. As you can imagine there was a series of social gatherings after the formal event took place as people gathered to talk. Just as many Johnny Thompson stories were exchanged during this time as had been shared onstage earlier. It was an evening of exceptional magical companionship eventually turning into a beautiful party that I feel Johnny himself would have much enjoyed.

Later that night on the 9th I was lucky enough to be invited on a personal tour of David Copperfield’s amazing magic museum. The tour is conducted tag-team style by David and Chris Kenner and is a delightful journey through magical worlds that they have lovingly re-created into existence. The attention to detail and David and Chris’ careful narration is an awesome experience. One of my seven compadres on the extensive tour was Jamy Ian Swiss, and I spent some time feeling grateful that before Johnny left us, he had found his perfect scribe in Jamy. The publication of Thomson and Swiss’ magnum opus “The Magic of Johnny Thompson” allowed a considerable part of Thompson’s heritage to be preserved intact for future generations to explore. By the time I got to sleep that night, at about 3:45 AM, I realized that tragic as it is when we lose a magical giant like Johnny, it is reassuring to know we have magic collectors, historians, writers and re-constructionists such as Jamy, David & Chris, dedicated to preserving key achievements of our craft for future minds to study. Thanks, guys.

Johnny Thompson. The Incalculable Loss Of A Giant.

•April 19, 2019 • Leave a Comment

This was the tribute piece I wrote for Vanish Magic Magazine after the passing of magical icon and personal friend Johnny Thompson. I have added a few personal photos to the piece.

One of the toughest assignments that come my way as associate editor of Vanish Magic Magazine is that I usually get to write this kind of tribute upon the passing of legendary magical figures. As the oldest staff writer on the magazine, it makes sense as I have sometimes known these magicians for anything up to half a century. It is never easy, often painful, and especially difficult in the case of John Thompson. However, let me give it my best shot.

It is customary, under these circumstances, to focus on a piece that primarily lists dates and achievements, and in this instance, I am sure many tributes will do that more elegantly than I could. However, in some cases numbers, awards and achievements don’t really give the full scope of the situation. Johnny Thompson (AKA The Great Tomsoni) was born in Chicago on July 27th, 1934 and died on March 9th, 2019. In the 84 years between those dates, John may well have acquired, mastered, and shared more knowledge about every aspect of the magical arts than any other individual in the history of magic. 

To me, and so many other magicians, there was a pure visceral emotional jolt on receiving the sad announcement of Johnny’s death. I heard this news during a lecture I was presenting at a magic convention. Some of us had more knowledge of Johnny’s situation than others, but the moment the announcement was made, there was a palpable sense of grief and loss that hit everyone present. Thompson was a man who whether directly or through his body of work has touched magicians off every age across the entire magical ecosystem. Following the news of the death of Marshall Brodien the day before, it was a particularly harsh punch to the assembly of magicians. 

As was the case with Johnny’s dear friends Jay Marshall and Billy McComb it is just astounding to realize how much-concentrated knowledge suddenly disappeared from the world when each of these three left us. This larger than life trinity of teachers all continuously shared their wisdom and did so based on their powerful love of all things magical. None of them had much regard for bad or lazy magicians, but it didn’t stop them from relentlessly sharing their knowledge with an even hand to improve each and any magician and help raise him to the highest level they could achieve. It is also worth noting that all three of these titans shared and encompassed an expansive mastery of each and every branch of the magical arts. These men’s obsessive love of the art would have made a narrow focus on one specific area of magic an inconceivable limitation of their ability to absorb, synthesize and dispense their exceptional knowledge.  

Within minutes of the announcement about Thompson’s passing, the social media was inundated with heartfelt tributes, treasured pictures, and personal reminisces detailing the love and respect that John created within the magic community. As a performer, creator, teacher, and mentor; it was immediately apparent that Thompson was above all valued as a friend by those of us who were lucky enough to spend some time with him. John had a personal warmth and generosity of spirit that could make even casual acquaintances feel sufficiently embraced that after even a brief encounter with him they felt like close friends. It was an exceptional gift.

I first heard about Johnny Thompson from Ken Brooke in London back in the mid-sixties. Ken thought that Johnny was something very, very special, and Ken was not an easy man to impress. If I am strictly honest when I got to meet Thompson for the first time in the mid-seventies, I thought he was one of the scariest men I had ever met! Little did I know that I would be lucky enough to know him well enough eventually to become a close friend. I certainly don’t kid myself I was his best or closest friends, however, when Johnny greeted you with his signature bear hug and a sloppy kiss, you knew you were lucky enough to be part of an exceptional group.

When you write heartfelt final tributes such as this, one usually ends up falling back on a series of overused words like; legendary, iconic, irreplaceable, beloved, etc. I used two of them in the title and first paragraph. All of these words and many more are 100% applicable to the great Johnny Thompson, but go very little distance in actually reaching the vital relevance of the man himself. However, I don’t want to paint a falsely saintly and schmaltzy picture of John; he had definite (and often outspoken) views and a fiery temper that were vital elements in his personality. Thompson was a font of knowledge, but never in a musty or pedantic way, he was a lot of fun to be around. Whether onstage or offstage there was always an aura of laughter that enriched the environment when Johnny was on the scene. Even when he was being serious John never failed to spot the humor in a situation.

I suspect Johnny would have had zero time for any lengthy or mawkish tribute dedicated to his memory. In 2006 I sat near him at the final tribute, and wand breaking ceremony, for Channing Pollack in Las Vegas. When things were getting a little too “syrupy” in nature, John announced in a beautifully articulated stage whisper, “This is about the time when Channing would have said, ‘I think this is the moment to go outside and smoke a joint!’ ” With one sentence he created a laugh and brought the event back to the ground zero of the man we were celebrating. John was a master of making a moment real; in fact, John was just a master, end of story

On behalf of myself and all my colleges at Vanish Magic Magazine, let me express our sadness at the loss of the irreplaceable Johnny Thompson. No one as unique as John lives in a vacuum and we wish to extend our love and sincerest condolences to Johnny’s wife, and partner Pamela Hayes. As the irrepressible other half of “The Great Tomsoni and Company,” Pam along with Johnny have kept audiences applauding and laughing for many years, and along with Pam, the magic world mourns the loss of one of the magic world’s most beloved figures. 

 
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