True Magic is the Art of Surfing the Waves

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.

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! 


~ by Nick Lewin on July 10, 2019.

One Response to “True Magic is the Art of Surfing the Waves”

  1. Well done maestro you certainly covered a lot of ground you left out the Vaudeville area which was important for me all those guys were my models I like your prediction for the future 50 seat magic venue in every city maybe you can franchise that from Austin

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