Mike Rogers – The Church Basement Magician

Columnist:
Mike Rogers

The Church Basement Magician by Mike Rogers

The Church Basement Magician………………… Who was he?…………………. Where is he?

I was raised during the 1950s is the small mountain town of Lander, Wyoming with the closest large city being Denver, an entire day’s drive. Denver was unique, at least in my youthful eyes, for Denver had a magic shop. Trips to Denver were out of the question when I was growing up, for I think I was only there twice during my youth. So what did it matter that a magic shop existed there if I had no opportunity to visit? It mattered because my father did travel to Denver, and it was through his eyes that I enjoyed the wonders of a magic shop. He was not the magician in the family, but he was the family member who most behaved like a magician. He visited, bought and told. I listened and received. It was wonderful.

So what does this have to do with a Church Basement Magician? In my small town if there were family gatherings and community social functions it seemed as if the church basement became the focal point for such functions. If not a church basement then perhaps a grange hall or the VFW meeting room. Since we had more churches than granges, and only one VFW, the church basements would win hands down when it came to places for group social functions. These functions often had entertainment in the form of musical programs, slide shows, and even magic. I was the magician and the magic came from the magic shop in Denver.

So my first performing experience as a magician was on the “Church Basement Circuit.” My guess is it was much the same throughout small town America during that period. I would assume that hundreds and hundreds of magic shows occurred in church basements. Likewise, the magic was probably much the same. Popular effects on the church basement circuit were; Rice Checkers and Silk, Cut and Restored Rope, Clippo, Milk Pitcher, Mis-Made Flag, and an assortment of brightly painted boxes having symbols with no meaning. To me that was magic in the 1950s.

I’m not a magical historian but during the half century that has passed since my church basement days much in magic has changed….. Or has it? I can’t name the frontiers of magic, nor do I even care to try. I can, however, name what, to me at least, have been turning points in the directions magic has taken. I’ll list a few turning points now.

The appearance of the floating ball effect called Zombie has to have been a major turning point, for with the Zombie magic embraced advance technology. I suggest that any who doubt this spend . some time trying to repair a ball cock valve in the family toilet. Upon having done this task you’ll quickly agree that Joe Karson did indeed brush with advanced technology in using part of such a valve as a floating ball. Today, of course, technology and magic go hand in hand, but I think Zombie started it all.

Another turning point had to be when close up magicians actually started being paid to be close up magicians. In the heyday of the Chicago magic bars, which is where I believe commercial close up magic got its foot in the door, the magic bartenders were not paid to be magicians. They were paid to be bartenders and the magic was simply a vehicle for gratuities and added business. Bert Allerton might have been the one to break the trend for he actually got paid to perform close up magic. Every close up magician today should pause for a moment of silence to Bert Allerton when they approach a table and roll out the little close up mat.

Another turning point might be when magicians finally realized that feather dusters don’t look like flowers, no matter how brightly colored. This probably happened at about the time magicians realized that their funny looking props didn’t resemble anything that actually exists in the real world. As a result these funny looking props were replaced with other funny looking props that also don’t resemble anything seen in the real world. Still it was a change.

Somewhere along the line clowns got into the act and decided magic was fair game. Almost as if being a single unit clowns discovered how to make a silk vanish in a thumb tip, stretch three ropes, and perform the Invisible Deck. This was a turning point where magic took a dive.

Mentalists and their methods of presenting their material have also made drastic turns. I don’t know when it happened, but they finally decided that taking 15 minutes to discover or reveal three words just wasn’t good entertainment. Since then mental magic has progressed beyond what anyone might have dreamed. Today some of the working mentalists lead the pack when it comes to magical presentations.

A disgusting turning point might have been when magicians decided it was necessary to wear goofy attire. Sorry to put it that way, but I don’t know how else to call it. Much of the attire worn by magicians is just plain goofy. Period! The appearance of the traditional magician just about doesn’t exist. I wonder why? Pilots still dress like pilots, Doctors still dress like doctors, lawyers still look like lawyers, judges still wear robes, bartenders still wear vests, bellmen still dress like bellmen, chefs still look like chefs, and men of the cloth have made no changes in their appearance. Yet find a magician that looks like a magician.

Another major turning point was when Mark Wilson proved that a big magic show would look good on TV. Today the TV magic specials are the rage. Everyone involved, including those of us who enjoy them, should send a note of thanks to Mark Wilson. He’s the one who started it all.

I’m not certain it’s a turning point, but perhaps, is when magic conventions started becoming specialized or vertical. Today we have close up conventions, mentalist conventions, and kid show conventions. In my eyes this is all quite good, but I say that purely for personal reasons.

There was a time when you eagerly waited several months or longer for the appearance of a major new book on conjuring. These books, for the most part, were written by people who knew how to write, and by people who had actually used the material in a lifetime of performing magic. Somewhere along the line books started popping up faster than corn in a Kansas farmers field, quite often written by magicians having no professional performing experience and by writers who could neither spell nor punctuate. Through it all prices have climbed . (I paid $15 for my first copy of Greater Magic.)

Another turning point had to be the opening of the Magic Castle and the assorted copycat clubs. These clubs have provided a performing venue for hundreds and hundreds of magicians who otherwise may have never had the chance to test their skills.

I could ramble on and on. These are just some of the turning points in magic that come to mind as I sit at the word processor. There are more of course, and certainly of more significance. I wonder, though, if somewhere in a small town in middle America if there isn’t a community function having a covered dish dinner with a magician entertaining in the corner of a church basement. I’ll bet his tricks are: Rice Checkers and Silk, Cut and Restored Rope, Clippo, Milk Pitcher, MisMade Flag, and an assortment of colored boxes. I hope so.