Fred Becker – Entertainingat Sea

Columnist:
Fred Becker

Entertaining at Sea

Occasionally, I hear magicians speak poorly about those that work on cruise ships. This attitude surprises me. The fact is, much of our kind of show business has moved out to sea. The cruise industry continues to grow, with new fully equipped showrooms that need entertainment nightly.

Nearly all ships use some kind of variety entertainment on each cruise. I would guess that magic is the most common, with instrumentalists and jugglers a tie for second place. On a typical ship you might see a cast of (6-12) production show singers and dancers, a comedian, a magician, a juggler or instrumentalist and a feature vocalist. Many cruises have started to buy “name” acts, as well.

So why is there this bad attitude toward cruise ship acts? I can think of several reasons, some justified and some not.

Could it be because of the isolation required by sea travel? You don’t get a lot of press while working a ship. No one except the cruise passengers come to see you work. You may be a headliner on the ship, but once the contract is over you are relatively unknown. This could definitely contribute to a lack of recognition, but the problem maybe deeper than that.

Could it be that ships are not considered as legitimate showplaces, compared to a hotel casino in Las Vegas? Well, much like hotels, there are all types of cruise ships. There is the Ritz Carlton, then again there’s Motel Six! It would be unfair to judge the industry with a blanket statement that cruises are second class.

Indeed, Kellie and I are currently working on the top rated luxury cruise line of its class in the world. The company has actually defined a new level of service and amenity, to be considered by ContÈ Nast a “six star” facility. Even with this air of sophistication the ship has personality and the guests (we never call these people “passengers”) are fun and approachable. The average cost for a cruise is $1000.00 per person per day, and the current cruise is eighteen days long! It is definitely First Class all the way.

As guest entertainers, Kellie and I have full use of the ship and all its luxury. We live a suite with a double bed, picture window, TV/VCR, video library, a stocked refrigerator, a walk-in closet and marble bathroom with tub! All our food and drinks (even alcohol) are provided. Plus the ship travels to the most interesting places on Earth accessible by sea!

Is this standard for cruise ship magicians? No. Without being a “name act,” this is as good as it gets for me. And it took years to build a reputation in the industry to arrive here. I started by working the mass-market cruises and my living conditions were nothing close to this standard. My first job had me in a cabin that was only a foot longer than the bed and not much wider!

If not the conditions, could the problem with the cruise magicians’ image be; that they’re just not very good? Hmm, this is perhaps a subjective matter. But I’m willing to stick my neck out a little. Again, just as there are degrees of professionalism in any industry, it is hard to paint with a broad brush. That said, one must consider the situation. According to its marketing, the cruise ship attracts a vacationing crowd from a cross-section of North America, the UK and sprinkles of other nationalities. The material you choose must be appealing to that audience. It doesn’t matter what other magicians think of it, your material has to please those people or you don’t work anymore!

At the end of each cruise, the passengers fill out “Comment Cards.” These forms ask them to grade the performance of many things on the ship including the magician! Who else in the entertainment field gets a “report card” for each show? Typically, the passengers rate you as Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair or Poor. These are given a number value and an average “rating” is tabulated after each cruise. You must maintain an overall excellent rating. If you don’t make the grade you’re gone.

So the case can be made that those that work consistently must at least be good for their venue, regardless of their peer’s opinion of them. Furthermore, many cruise lines hire through agents as a screening process. Agents, like Ron Wilson, have strong reputations because they consistently provide the right acts for the right ship. Their livelihood is connected to those comment cards too!

Okay, so what IS the problem then? Well, here’s the deal, to do a good job you need a minimum of 80 minutes of material. Does this material need to be entertaining? Yes. Does it need to be artistic? Not really. Does it need to be original? No. Does it need to be toast of the magic community? Not even close.

That minimum of eighty minutes is a real grabber, too. Not that many acts have that much “A” material, especially three openers and closers. There are some fantastic performers that have 10-20 minutes. Incredible acts, yet when they need to fill more time they can really fall apart.

Having said all that, it maybe changing. Cruise passengers are generally well-traveled people. They have been to Las Vegas, Broadway and the Palladium. They have also been on many cruises. They have seen a lot of entertainment and a lot of magic. This new “golden age of magic” can only be maintained if the performers keep the audiences engaged with quality and novel performances.

I must plead guilty. I was trained on the, “It’s not what you do, but how you do it,” school of thought. “Classics done well” is the way to go, I thought. However, nowadays it is wise to make sure your act doesn’t look like everyone else. Ask any cruise entertainment director about magicians’ videotapes, they all look alike. Same routines, same patter, too many card tricks.

This I believe is the problem with the reputation of today’s cruise magicians. If you have thought of working on a cruise ship, don’t be deterred by naysayers. But at the same time don’t think it is not a professional venue. With eighty minutes of performance material to develop, it is not a job to be entered into lightly!