Scott Wells – Are We That Important

Columnist:
Scott Wells

Are We That Important?

I recall hearing Marvyn “Mr. Electric” Roy say something to the effect that regardless how good you become, a magician will never be more than a “middle” act. That is to say that you could open for “big name” entertainers or be somewhere else on the bill, but you’re not going to close for them nor be the feature act. The number of successful magicians who are the exception to this rule can be counted on one hand. Far and away the majority of us must be satisfied with our own little spotlight when we get it.

Magicians have big egos and we have a tendency to think of ourselves a little more special than we really are. Sure we may rub shoulders with “celebrities” on occasion, but that does not make us into celebrities. The fact that we perform in front of the footlights doesn’t make us overly special. We just happen to have a skill which is a little different from our neighbor.

Perhaps the point of what Marvyn Roy was trying to get at was that magicians are often interchangeable with one another. That is, most of us just beat our neighbor to the magic shop. Our performing styles may be different and that’s what sets us apart from the other magicians. But how often have you heard someone complain that the last magic convention show had too many zombie balls or linking rings? Anyone could be a magician if you have a little time and a little money to pay for the business cards.

We are constantly hearing about ethics and stealing from other magicians . . . their ideas, their lines, their tricks, even their style. How many “Lance Burton” clones have you seen? This is the reason that many professional comics on the comedy club circuit don’t like magicians. First of all we must rely on props whereas they only use the microphone. Second of all, our tricks are old, tried and true standards given the rare twist, and our lines have pretty much all been heard before, whereas their comedy is all original and topical. Even Mr. Electric’s act is a twist on old effects (e.g.; light bulbs strung from the mouth was originally shown as threaded needles from the mouth.) Sure the premise may be new, but the effect is old.

We may be doomed to forever being the “middle” act because there are only nine basic effects (see Fitzkee’s Trick Brain) and everything is just a variation on those basics. After just a couple of shows, our audience can say that they have seen it all. I’m afraid that is what booking agents and producers think also when they are looking for something new to bring in an audience night after night.

We are limited in effect but not in originality. We should expand our minds to become more creative. There is no copyright on creativity nor originality but that may be the problem. It is easier to “lift” someone else’s idea rather than come up with our own. Professional comics recognize this “feeding frenzy” magicians seem to have on one another. Don’t you think that our audiences are at least as intelligent as those of the comedians? They have come to expect something fresh, original, and topical. Audiences are fed new material every night in their homes from the electronic box sitting in their living rooms. Hundreds of staffs of copywriters come up with funny, entertaining lines and situations every week for their sitcoms. When is the last time that you have rewritten your material to give it a fresh look?

The audience may think that the first magician they see is the funniest guy that they have ever seen, but when they see the next magician and then another, they begin to subconsciously compare them with the ones previously seen. They begin to see and hear similarities with each of them and before long they begin to think “well, I’ve seen one magician so I guess that I’ve seen them all.” And that’s a sad state of affairs. It is getting more and more rare to find that audience who seems starved for entertainment and who has never seen a professional magic show.

Another problem is that audiences often come to see an act because the theatrical production is casting a celebrity they like or that they like their music and they have that artist’s recording(s). A magician’s problem here is that we have nothing tangible to leave with our audience . . . no records, CD’s, nor video taped movies that they can watch or listen to over and over. We can only leave them with a (hopefully) pleasant memory of an enchanting evening (and maybe a T-shirt, poster, or photo). The audience is coming to hear and see their favorite celebrity perform, not the magician. They have probably not heard of the magician before they entered the theatre. Unfortunately, they will probably remember him for about as long.

Like television, we should have at least one thing that our audience can remember about us and our show. TV executives feel that a sitcom is successful if there is one good joke that is told around the water cooler the next day at the office. Likewise we as magicians should have one good, strong effect that will keep our audience talking long after they have gone home. Dai Vernon’s advice comes through loud and clear, to do one thing better than anyone else and to practice that one thing until it is yours.

So what can we do about this state of affairs? Perhaps the first thing that we should do is to recognize where we are in this profession and how we fit in with the alternate forms of entertainment. We should find a niche that fits our performing style (e.g.; close-up at restaurants, stand-up for corporations, stage shows in Las Vegas) and do he best that we can. Keep it fresh by updating your lines and your props. That doesn’t mean to keep adding new “tricks” but to keep your show topical and meaningful to your audience. If you want your audience to remember you, then give them at least one thing that they will talk about around the water cooler the next day at the office.

Andy Warhol said that “everyone is famous for 15 minutes in their life.” As professional magicians, our goal should be to get a little extra time.