T.A. Waters – Columnist T.A. Waters

T.A. Waters


Column Three: HOKEY POCUS

What follows will of necessity be something of a ramble — but bear with me. As I was leafing through the April issue of MAGIC, I came across a letter from one Artie Kidwell, complaining about how much skin Jinger Kalin had shown on the March cover and in an interior photograph. A cold fear gripped my heart as I realized one of two things must have happened: either my issue had been incomplete or damaged, or brain-rot had finally set in — because I didn’t remember seeing any such revealing pictures. I checked the issue and looked at the pictures of Jinger; I studied them very carefully for quite some time, and I hope you appreciate the thoroughness with which I research this column. If anyone cares to look, they’ll see that the cover shot shows about a two-inch wide strip of cleavage to the belt line, and about a five-inch bit of her lower thigh is exposed. In the picture on page 43 we see a bit more leg and a glimpse of bare shoulder… …after recovering from this meticulous study, I checked Mr. Kidwell’s return address to see just where in Kentucky his monastery is located, but none was indicated. Mr. Kidwell characterizes himself as an “old toad” — I dunno: we’re told that toads, when kissed by the right woman, can transform into princes, but Kidwell seems so upset at the sight of female flesh that he’s unlikely to let one get near enough — so if toad he is, toad he shall remain. Seriously: I read his letter, looked at the photos, and thought WHAT PLANET IS THIS GUY ON? Does he ever turn on the TV, see Baywatch — or NYPD Blue — any of a couple of dozen night-time shows, to say nothing of the soaps, ALL of which show a lot of unclad bodies? Has he looked at a cover of Cosmopolitan? Does he even see the Sunday newspaper lingerie or bathing suit ads? [Example: the 5/21 LA Times, p.5 — a full-color, full-page ad for The Broadway department store. It features two attractive women in bathing suits which, while conservative by California standards, show a lot more skin than suit; this in a Sunday paper with a readership of millions, and not remotely unusual.] Does Mr. Kidwell, in fact, see much of the contemporary world at all? However, I am not picking on Mr. Kidwell for his opinions on costuming in magic; I am picking on him for something ELSE he says in his letter. “Magic,” he tells us, “has always been entertainment for the entire family.” Really? Who found that out? SOME magic has been “family entertainment” — and so have some movies, and books, and songs, and dancing, and so on through every other area of show business. Some has been — and a whole lot has NOT been. It would not be unfair to say that the great majority of work in most areas of entertainment has dealt with romantic and sexual themes; even murder and mayhem run a distant second. There’s a reason for this: for most of us, love in its many aspects is the most important thing in life — and if love indeed makes the world go round, then sex could be considered the ball-bearings. Art reflects life, sometimes magnifies it — and the themes of love and sex are at the core of much of art, and of show business. In the real world of show business (or the real world, period), the photos of Jinger can be appreciated for her remarkable beauty but the notion that they are too revealing is laughable. By contemporary standards they are positively demure. So why does Mr. Kidwell — who is probably not alone in his opinions — think sex shouldn’t be a part of magic, since it is a part of virtually every other area of show business, from children’s shows (seen Xuxa?) to grand opera? Well, it’s part of a deeper problem — a very serious problem — or I wouldn’t be spending all this time on it. Take out two playing cards — let’s use the Queen of Hearts and the Joker. Put them face-up on the table side by side. Now angle the Queen slightly so that its corner covers the Joker index; got it? Fine. With this visual aid, imagine show business to be the QH and magic to be the Joker: the area where they overlap is about how much they have in common. It seems to me that there’s magic — and then there’s all the rest of show business, with very little crossover. Why do I think this? Got a week? Well, let’s try. Much of my performing background is in classical drama, primarily Shakespeare. Now here is performance material in which the dialogue does not change, the settings and costumes vary not that much — yet, if you saw a production of OTHELLO in which I performed, then fired up your handydandy TimeScanner and looked at productions of that same play from 30, 60, 90 years before — you’d immediately be able to tell that they were being performed in different eras. In the same way, most of us can look at a film, even a genre western, and form a fairly accurate estimate of when it was done, simply by looking at the style. Let’s take something more recent, but conservative: country music. In the last dozen years, while keeping to its tried-and-true themes, the presentation and performance of country artists has changed almost out of recognition. It’s the same with most areas of popular culture, to a greater or lesser degree; they change with the times. But not magic. Why not magic? It seems that the answer is inherent in the question — and the answer is that MAGIC IS NOT A PART OF POPULAR CULTURE. Rather, it’s a separate little world with its own species (and subspecies) that, as in a lot of bad science fiction, occasionally intersects with the real (i.e., non-magic) world. Also as in bad s-f, the results are usually not pleasant. If this weren’t true, then magicians would think that they ARE a part of show business — and then, like every other aspiring performer, they’d realize all the things they have to learn to BE in show business. They’d understand they have to learn voice control and projection, stage movement, make-up — the basics of any kind of stage work. Then, of course, there’s lighting, and scripting and direction, and music, analyzing performance space — and if they don’t want to learn these things, most of them arts in themselves, the performers have to find and hire people who CAN do these things — if they want even a chance at any kind of show business career. (I assume it is understood by now that I am discussing theatrical stage performance; close-up, trade or corporate work is not directly relevant to this discussion — although there is some, uh, bleed-through.) Magicians don’t do this; barring the (maybe) few dozen exceptions we can all name (!), magicians somehow get the idea that they’re omniscient, and that purchase of a Square Circle is a mystical transaction that gives them all the knowledge they need. In a way, they’re right. It has long been a belief of mine, admittedly untestable, that if you found a singer or dancer or actor of the competency-level of the AVERAGE PROFESSIONAL magician, the singer/dancer/actor could NEVER get hired; they wouldn’t be good enough to ever get work. So, yeah, that magician who just bought the prop may be “good enough” to get by, to get work — but not good enough to do magic any good. For those who are in show business just for the money (and going into performance work primarily as a way of making money is as bizarre a notion as I can imagine), magic is probably a pretty good bet; after all, they won’t be judged as though they were in REAL show business. It is easy to understand, finally, why so many people in magic want it to REMAIN outside popular culture — because if it is brought into the culture, it will be judged by the culture’s standards — and they too will be judged by those standards. This separation from popular culture is what makes it possible for a magic show to appear on Broadway in the 1980s and have a reviewer congratulate the magician for “…a wonderful re- creation of a hokey old-time magic show.” The reviewer never had a notion that the performer thought he was being contemporary. This is what makes it possible for magic to be dismissed by so many — including people WITHIN it — as only “family entertainment” or “something for the kids.” This is what makes it possible for magic-oriented nightclubs and showplaces to ALL be decorated in the style of 100 to 100 years ago — because, after all, isn’t that what magic is? A performance art from a bygone time that has no relevance to today? Ricky Jay was able to take his knowledge of magic history and use it to enhance his show as he educated his audience to the idea that magic, performed by an artist, can indeed be a living art — and he stood the New York theatrical world on its ear. Look through his reviews: the only times you will see words like “hokey” or phrases like “old-fashioned” are to describe what it ISN’T. While some of his presentations referenced magic’s past, the production reflected the values of contemporary theater — with the direction of David Mamet and the lighting by Jules Fisher… …but, of course, when you think of the money Ricky could have saved by doing the lighting and direction himself, it was probably a tough call…! Because of its relative rarity, magic will never be a performance art of the prominence of music and dance, and this is as it should be; after all, how magical or mysterious can something be if everyone does it? It would be nice, however, if those who decide to go into professional magic decide also to go into professional show business, and realize that when you’ve mastered the effect, that’s the first step, not the last. Professional magic has in its ranks some performers who can stand with the best from other performance arts; I respect them, and love what they do to show their audiences that magic is indeed a worthy art of wonder. I just wish there were more OF them — and less of those who think magic is all you need to know to be a magician. There is, I suspect, no easy solution to this problem; I do have some thoughts and opinions about it, even less pleasant than what you’ve just read — and how surprised are you? — but I will save those for my NEXT column. Anything else? Oh. Yes. Jinger, you ARE beautiful. T. A. WATERS ADDENDUM: In the May issue of MAGIC, following on the theme of Mr. Kidwell’s screed, is a letter from a Mica Calfee, whose son, interested in magic, received a subscription to the magazine; Calfee didn’t intend to give the son “…a girlie magazine.” The son, we’re told, is 15 YEARS OLD. My theory is that the kid wants to learn magic so he can finally escape from the barrel where he’s been kept… …but I could be wrong.

TAW Copyright (c) 1995 by T. A. Waters. All rights reserved.