T.A. Waters – Columnist: T.A. Waters

T.A. Waters

ON THE WATERS FRONT a column of information and opinion by T. A. Waters



The answer is — no.

Honestly, I TRIED to be good. I tried to be very circumspect in my previous column, regarding the November NBC-TV special in which exposures of magic were a prime feature. I did not indulge in name-calling, tried to keep my comments general, and thought that I’d said all I needed to say on the subject. I had planned very different subject matter for this second column.

Then the latest Genii appeared. In it are a couple of pieces dealing with the show: Richard Robinson against, and Gary Ouellet, not surprisingly, in favor. I thought Robinson’s piece was sadly amusing, but Mr. Ouellet’s response was anything but amusing.

I have no wish to be forcibly inducted into the ranks of the Society for Flagellation of Decedent Equines, but perhaps — just perhaps — there is a little more to be said. What follows is an Open Letter to Mr. Ouellet; I’ve no doubt that, should he wish to respond to it, Joe Stevens will be happy to put that response up on GeMiNi.

Dear Mr. Ouellet:

Let’s begin by defining our terms. To quote a few lines from the definition of EXPOSURE given in a magic encyclopedia of a few years ago: “Perhaps a clear definition of exposure would carry the element of NON- SOLICITATION; in other words, that the exposure is being presented to an audience — in newspapers, general magazines, films or television — which had not specifically sought it out. Another element might be serious intent on the part of the recipient, the revelation of magical information not being given simply to satisfy idle curiosity.”

My words, but hardly a new definition or distinction; it was pretty much the view of the Magic Circle when it tossed out David Devant not because Devant had written a book, but that excerpts from the book had appeared in a general magazine. That view of what constitutes exposure has been followed with slight variations by most magicians of this century.

I trust that you will understand that, by that definition, CLOSE-UP ILLUSIONS, your book still available in magic shops, is not an exposure; neither is my ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MAGIC AND MAGICIANS, available in general-interest bookstores. However — by that definition, with which you may not agree, what happened on the television show clearly WAS exposure, and your mention of the material having previously appeared in books and magazines was irrelevant. Let us suppose that every single item exposed on the show had been exposed a few weeks earlier in TIME magazine; would that justify doing it again on television? An element of your defense seems to be that “Hey, it’s been done before…” — which seems to me an extraordinary argument for a lawyer to advance; I hope you’ve never tried this approach in a courtroom.

You comment that the “…greatest source of exposure continues to be incompetent magicians and not the likes of THE WORLD’S GREATEST MAGIC.” Lousy magicians may be a source of spectator dislike of magic, but this almost always comes from boredom rather than revelation of secrets. Besides, there have been incompetent magicians since forever, and there’s only been one TWGM show thus far; can we confidently expect that if the show becomes a yearly event, it eventually WILL be the greatest source of exposure?

You seem to imply that professional performers were all in favor of what you choose to call the “teaching” segments, and the only ones who disliked the segments were “…hobbyists… armchair dabblers… collectors… historians… critics…” Pausing only to wonder how this kind of thinking will endear you to readers of your books and purchasers of your effects, most of whom fall into the categories you named…

…I can only surmise that you and I travel in very different circles of magic. I do not, at this particular moment, consider myself a professional performer by any means — but I am fortunate enough to know a number of the top-ranked magicians in the world. In my conversations with them I have yet to hear from a single one that the exposure segments were a good idea — and, as you perfectly well know, this includes some performers who were ON THE SHOW.

(That you may not have heard negative comments from some pro performers is hardly surprising; you are, after all, in the position of hiring, or influencing the hiring of, acts for the next edition of the show, and for you to expect open criticism from those hoping for employment is more than a little ingenuous.)

It is pleasing to hear that you were able to stop exposures on other television shows, and unfortunate that you were apparently unable to perform the same service for a show on which you were listed as a co-producer.

I think you might agree with me that the three most important and influential magic acts now in the business are David Copperfield for stage touring shows — Siegfried and Roy for major Vegas productions — and Ricky Jay for theater. I do not pretend to have perfect knowledge of the careers of these gentlemen, but to the best of my knowledge they have attained their eminence without ever finding it necessary to expose magic to hang onto their audiences.

You say that network specials on magic had all but disappeared. To belabor the obvious, TV networks are not charitable institutions, and their decisions are ruled primarily by two factors: star power and economics. David Copperfield is not a star because he does television specials; he does television specials because he is a star. He may, in fact, be the only national star in magic, and thus it is hardly surprising that he is the only one who regularly does specials.

So we come to economics, and TWGM: lacking star power — except for Lance Burton’s cameo and Siegfried and Roy’s little hello, clearly more courtesies to you than career moves — it provided the network with two hours of television for what was, on the evidence, a budget that wouldn’t cover Copperfield’s wind machines; the network could hardly lose money on a show that didn’t cost any.

You tell us that “…the show (World’s Greatest Magic) helped the careers of every magician (sic) who appeared…” — but you don’t share with us how you came to that determination. You also tell us that it helped to increase the popularity of magic as an art form; it would thus appear that our social circles of laypersons are as different as those of magic, because that certainly wasn’t the reaction of many who spoke to me.

Your critics you describe as “…self-appointed spokespersons (who) live in a cocoon, not realizing what is happening in the real world of show business, happy to hide in the ‘exclusive’ world of magic club meetings (or even more insulated world of computer bulletin boards)…”

My, my. Unsure whether that dig is aimed at Robinson on Spidernet or me on GeMiNi — and not much caring — I have to wonder whether you realize that some of your critics are indeed professionals, or have been, and may have as much concern about the future of professional magic as do you. I am careful to note, at the beginning of each of these columns, that the opinions expressed are mine alone; I make no claim to be a spokesperson for anyone. Likewise, I think it would be unwise for you to assume, because you have a co- producer credit on a bargain-basement TV magic show, that you’ve been appointed spokesperson for any opinions other than your own.

Denigrating those who disagree with you by the employment of such phrases as “…incestuous swap league… old boy’s club… (members of) a cult…social misfits…” and so on is less than useful, except insofar as it indicates your unwillingness to address serious questions regarding magic as a performance art.

Would you like some of those questions? Well, what shall we talk about? I know! We’ll talk about what went on during a show called THE WORLD’S GREATEST MAGIC.

Was there a magic director or technical advisor for the show? If so, to look at just a few examples, where was he or she when:

  • Max Maven was made by the producers to do an effect that had recently been exposed (!) in a national magazine — which, after his introduction as a psychic, made him look silly and seriously undercut his later piece. Maven is capable of strong and effective mentalism of his own creation, so why was he reduced to doing this curiosity?

  • Fielding West did his gag version of the floating lady which, while funny, informed the viewing audiences that stooges were being used in the show, and undercut Brett Daniels’ later serious presentation?

  • Juan Tamariz, one of the great close-up entertainers of the world, was asked or permitted to do an interminable card trick which was dismissed by viewers I spoke with as “…a little trick car…”?

  • Tom Mullica was filmed OUTSIDE, by the pool, so one couldn’t see the smoke of the cigarettes — and if you object to cigarettes, why have him do the bit at all?

  • Brett Daniels went up the steps to do his excellent levitation and, because the director was not told to move in on the shot, the ball switch was excruciatingly obvious?

  • the Interlude illusion of the Pendragons was shot from the side, rendering it for the most part meaningless?

  • the marvelous Bill Malone did a version of Sam The Bellhop which may have impressed magicians because of the continuous shuffles, but to laypersons was like that trick Uncle Bill does at parties — instead of the stunning card work of which Malone is more than capable?

  • Alain Choquette did Gypsy Thread with the lights turned out — an interesting approach to magic which might well have been used elsewhere in the show? (And, again, might have benefited from judicious editing or reshooting, particularly when the load was taken).

No criticism of the performers mentioned is intended or should be inferred; EVERYTHING I have talked about should have been noted and corrected by the magic coordinator, who should have been in the production meetings before the shoot and in the booth during it. As anyone who has been in the business for more than a few minutes should know, the most elementary rule of magic on television is: YOU CANNOT MISDIRECT A CAMERA. You must, therefore, control the camera movement by specific direction, just as you would control a spectator’s attention by misdirection; the same goes for editing.

Mr. Ouellet, I am a member of no magical organization; other than the recent Desert Seminar, through the hospitality of Joe Stevens, I have not attended three magic conventions in 30 years; I do not go to magic club meetings, and may have even less interest than you in the ‘social’ side of magic. Since I left the military at age 20, one area or another of the entertainment business has been my primary mode of making a living for most of my life. I will not bore you with my resume, but I assure you that I am deeply committed to magic as a PERFORMANCE art, and am alternately amused and angered by your claim that anyone who didn’t view TWGM as a “positive milestone” for magic “…just doesn’t get it.” What I DID get was a long article from you in Genii in which you did not offer a single shred of proof that the exposures enhanced the ratings for the show, which appears to be the only bottom line you can see. If the exposures didn’t help the ratings, there’s no excuse for their inclusion; and if they did, it implies that magic is not enough of a performance art to stand on its own merits.

It would seem that my view of magic is a bit more positive — and a bit less cynical — than your own. I do not believe the exposure (the ‘teaching’) was necessary; funny, but I’d just bet that Copperfield, and Ricky Jay, and Siegfried and Roy don’t either — as I noted earlier, on the evidence of their own shows, that seems likely.

But maybe we’re wrong, Mr. Ouellet, and you’re right.

I hope not.



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