The Magical Times Have ‘A Changed

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.

~ by Nick Lewin on March 25, 2021.

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