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. 

Michael Finney Lecturing and Performing in Texas!

•March 31, 2019 • Leave a Comment


“I am a huge fan of Michael Finney’s Hilarious Comedy and great Magic. If you have a chance to catch one of his upcoming lectures then I know you are in for a treat.”

MAGICIANS in San Antonio and Austin. Michael Finney is coming to town and we want to give him a big Texas welcome. Finney’s lecture is in San Antonio on Thursday, April 4 at 7:00PM and in Austin on Saturday, April 6 at 1:00 PM. Your local clubs will have the information. Please Share this info with your magic friends.

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Thursday, April 4 — 7:00 pm — Michael Finney Lecture
Our Lady Of Sorrows Church (Chavez Center)
3107 North St. Mary’s St
San Antonio, TX 78212
210-732-6295

Be sure and park in the parking lot BEHIND the church.
Do NOT PARK in The Lawyers Private Parking Lot.
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Saturday, April 6 — 1:00 pm — Michael Finney Lecture
Heroes Night Out
1150 S Bell Blvd, Cedar Park, TX 78613
Phone: (512) 986-7660

A Fascinating Collection Of Mechanical Antiques And Magic

•March 23, 2019 • Leave a Comment

During my recent visit to Pigeon Forge, Tennesee to perform at the Winter Carnival of Magic, I had a rare treat! A private party was thrown by “collector extraordinaire” and mechanical wiz Steve Gronowski, and he allowed us to explore the incredible collection of mechanical wonders that he has built/repaired and assembled over the years. It was an evening that I will long remember.

Back in the ’70s, Steve was an underemployed electrician in Chicago, with a passion for collecting and restoring some awe-inspiring mechanical devices. Steve hit upon a powerful formula that turned his private collection into a gold mine, he realized that if he restored and sold an antique curio, then he could buy and restore three new items. forty odd years later he has what must be the finest collection of these fascinating devices.

The basement “man cave” that houses Steve’s collection is bigger in size than most homes and features a 60-foot bar that nestles in one section of his fascinating creation. Scattered around the area is a collection of antique devices including a Wurlitzer jukebox, slot machines, and many antique “penny devices” that one only gets to see in movies or photographs. Rather than try and describe the contents, I would suggest you take a look at some of the photographs below. In the unlikely event of becoming bored with this wonderful collection, a selection of gaming tables and a splendid pool table await your participation.

It would have taken a week to have done any justice to exploring his one of a kind collection, but the gracious host that he is Steve has a further delight in store for his guests. Attached to his house are the giant complex and Alladin’s cave of the workshops, warehouses, and storerooms where Gronowski houses and works on his latest projects. I am quite a fan of those glorious Zelda the Fortune Teller machines, it was fascinating to catch a glimpse of her various working at different stages of reconstruction. In some ways, just as astounding as the various devices was the meticulously assembled collection of tools and equipment used in their renovation. I am the kind of guy who can scarcely use a hammer, however, the combined collection of tools and equipment left me speechless.

I had a wonderful time exploring this amazing collection and wanted to share some of my pictures of the evening. If you want to see examples of Steve’s handicraft you can visit David Copperfield’s New York home where David has a fine display of these collectibles. Tokyo’s Disneyland is also home to a large amount of Steve’s amazing antique works of art. I want to thank Mr. Gronowski for allowing me this eye-opening glimpse of a world I scarcely knew existed.

Magic Mondays at the Tavern, in Austin TX.

•February 20, 2019 • Leave a Comment

I am really excited to announce our first intimate magic evening of magic right here in Austin. It is called Magical Mondays and it will take place on the last Monday of each month. The show is housed at the legendary Tavern, 922 West 12th Street (at LaMaar.) The Tavern has been around for about a century and allegedly it is haunted! The evening is a careful blend of magic, comedy, and music. Perfect for audiences of all ages, and a delightful way to spend an evening.

The second floor of The Tavern will contain the miniature theatre, dedicated to viewing cutting edge sleight of hand magic. With only 40 seats available there isn’t a bad seat in the house. There are even two large video screens to enhance some of the visual trickery and card magic. The evening will last about 90 minutes with doors opening at 7:30 and the formal show beginning at 8:00. Since it is Austin we even included a little good music in the mix.

On the 25th I will be performing part of the Las Vegas show I was performing last year at Harrah’s and was featured in my award-winning one-man show the Maxim Hotel in Vegas. I am lucky enough to frequently work with Little Jewford at the keyboards. Little Jewford is most often recognized from his longtime role as Pianist/Sidekick to the great Kinky Friedman.  Little Jewford will also perform some of his hilarious comedy/music specialty numbers. Jewford has been featured in many of the nations finest showrooms, and a couple of sleazy saloons too!

My good friend Gary Plants will be performing a formal close-up show, and what an amazing performer he is. Gary is a magical, author, advisor and performer whose magic prowess is legendary and totally awesome. Gary’s work will be enhanced with real-time video being projected onto two big screens. Gary is in the very top league of sleight of hand artists working in the United States.

Rounding out the bill will be the sleight of hand and busker style performing of San Antonio’s Rolando Medina. Rolando is also a noted expert on scams and carney magic. His meticulous magic will be used throughout the evening.

 

Tickets are nearly sold-out already for our initial gig, but if you act fast there may still be one or two at https://www.tavernaustin.com/magical-mondays

 

 

 

 

Magical Mondays at the Tavern.

•February 8, 2019 • Leave a Comment

We are very pleased to announce a very exciting new magic project here in Austin. On February 25th, “Magical Mondays” will begin a series of magical events at the legendary (and haunted!) Tavern. A combination of close -up, stand up and parlor magic will feature both me and various other magicians performing in this great intimate venue. I believe it will become a very popular part of Austin’s vibrant nightlife. 

On the launch/opening party for “Magical Mondays,” the bill will feature, Nick Lewin’s award-winning comedy sleight of hand magic and the close-up wizardry of Gary Plants. Adding some additional laughs and a dash of music is the inimitable Little Jewford. Seating for the event is limited so if you plan on attending our premiere event contact the Tavern box office at https://tinyurl.com/y9fegh8z

Gary Plants is a truly amazing, and awesome close-up performer whose legendary skills with a deck of cards will amaze and astound any audience. A featured performer on “Crystal Cruises,” Gary will be performing in your face close up magic. Nick will be performing his comedy and magic show that was featured in his one-man Las Vegas show. Little Jewford is often recognized as Kinky Friedman’s pianist and right-hand man and will add his unique talents to the blend.

Tickets to the event cost 20 Dollars and are available from the Tavern Website www.tavernaustin.com

 
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