T.A. Waters – On The Waters Front

T.A. Waters

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



The exposing of magical secrets to the public is hardly a novelty; it has probably been around at least as long as the existence of mass media, and there is no reason to suppose it will ever go away. However, some recent events — and the fallout from them — suggest that there may be some aspects of the exposure problem that perhaps have not been completely thought out.

Following the November airing of “The World’s Greatest Magic” on NBC-TV, in which several effects were exposed, there have been a number of comments and reactions in the magical press and in conversations, ranging from laudatory missives to angry letters-to-the- editor to attempts at justification by some of those involved in the program. Let’s examine some of the propositions set forth by these writers.

1. THAT TEACHING MAGIC MADE THE AUDIENCE APPRECIATE IT MORE. First of all, no “teaching” was going on; teaching presupposes students, and there were none — only viewers. It also presupposes a learning process; the mere providing of information is in no way teaching. Secondly, the effects exposed were largely or entirely dependent on the knowledge of a secret; it was clear that no skill of any kind was required, but merely being privy to this secret. (I will return to this point further on.) Thirdly, to the best of my knowledge there has never at any time, anywhere, occurred any study or research indicating that the exposure of magic enhances its public image — but there is considerable anecdotal evidence to the contrary.

2. THAT SOME VIEWERS MAY HAVE BEEN INSPIRED BY THE SHOW TO BECOME MAGICIANS. Leaving aside the obvious question of whether more magicians is necessarily a good thing for magic — though it may be for those of us who sometimes write and create for the magical marketplace — this is a completely unprovable speculation. It is at least as likely that a young potential magician, viewing the special and being initially impressed, would be quite literally disillusioned by the exposures and resolve to turn his or her efforts to an art form where accomplishment might be respected.

3. THAT MANY FAMOUS MAGICIANS HAVE EXPOSED MAGIC. And what was it your mother may have said to you? “If your friend jumped off a cliff, would you do that too?” We can’t know the motivations of some of these magicians, any more than we can know how exposure was defined in their time. Some were simply publicity- hungry, like Houdini; some were bitter at their treatment by other magicians, like Jarrow; and some, like Devant, wrote books which were then excerpted into magazines, and these excerpts were the exposures. Magicians have exposed magic for all kinds of reasons, ranging from a genuine belief that exposures do no harm to a desperate need for a few more minutes of television time; there are innocents and there are sleazebags, and it isn’t always easy to tell the players without a scorecard. In any case, to even begin to justify questionable behavior on the grounds that leaders in your field have done it is at best a dereliction of moral responsibility for your own actions, and at worst an admission of guilt.

4. THAT ANYONE OFFERED A SPOT ON THE SHOW WOULD HAVE ACCEPTED IT, REGARDLESS OF THE EXPOSURES. Well — no. Without any effort at all I can come up with the names of several top-flight magicians who would have refused, of whom Johnny Thompson, Ricky Jay, and Chuck Fayne are only the most obvious examples. It must be pointed out that we do not know the motivations of those who did appear; they may have honestly thought the exposing would do no damage. It would, however, seem clear that they were not motivated by monetary considerations; I am told — though my information may not be correct — that the performers appeared for scale. (This does suggest an amusing question: if these were indeed the world’s greatest magicians, and they appeared for minimum wage, what will the performers on the NEXT special, presumably the next-to-greatest, have to do? Offer kickbacks?) (We might also, in this connection, propose this experiment: imagine fifteen of the world’s most successful singers — Sinatra, Pavarotti, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Whitney Houston — make up your own list — being asked to appear on a primetime network special for scale. Unless it was an awards show or a benefit for charity, can you imagine this happening? I can’t.) Related to this point there is the following:

5. THAT THE PERFORMERS WERE UNAWARE OF THE SPECIFIC MATERIAL THAT WOULD BE EXPOSED. Theoretically possible, but highly unlikely. Skulking about my Hollywood digs and having little to do with the social world of magic, I was aware of particular items to be revealed some days prior to the taping; I find it difficult to believe that those on the scene were less informed.

6. THAT PROMISING TO EXPOSE THE SECRETS KEPT VIEWERS TUNED IN TO THE SHOW. At last we get to a point that might have some reality to it — but even here there is no way to prove it, because we don’t know what the results would have been if there had been no exposures. As magicians, we tend to think that laypersons are as fascinated with magic secrets as we are, but this is not necessarily the case. However, we can make one supposition that seems reasonable: that the producers of the show, if they bought into this notion as a way of keeping viewers hooked, clearly didn’t have much faith in the ability of the performers to hold the audience on their own. If the decision-makers felt that more than a dozen of what they were calling the “worldís greatest” performers couldn’t keep viewer interest, it is not unreasonable to assume that they didn’t think much of magic as an art form. (One could find evidence to support this assumption in the almost nonexistent production values.) Even if we concede that exposing magic would keep viewers tuned in — well, a show featuring attractive women in the nude would keep me tuned in, but it doesn’t mean I’d necessarily care about any other aspects of the show. This is an extremely cynical use of supposed public curiosity about magic. David Copperfield has achieved excellent ratings without exposing; this would seem to indicate that magic can hold viewers on its own, without need for exposure — if you have a first-class product.

7. THAT MAGIC WILL SURVIVE EXPOSURES. Will it? All we know for certain is that it has survived thus far — but times are changing, within and outside magic, and the ways information is put forth are changing as well. This GeMiNi medium is but one example of that. Without wishing to become too morbid, or to equate human suffering with the vagaries of an art form, I should point out that many people in our troubled society survive attacks, sometimes with bruises and scars — until one attack too many; and then we ask why the attacks were allowed to go on until the resultant tragedy. Other arts have been trivialized into oblivion, and there is no reason to suppose magic is immune to it. In any case, justifying or excusing exposure on the grounds that, in the speaker’s opinion, magic will survive it — this is as creepy and unpleasant a thought as I can imagine.

8. THAT PEOPLE DONíT REMEMBER EXPOSURES ANYWAY. The theory behind this argument arises from the fact that several effects and illusions, exposed in the past, are currently being used in various Las Vegas venues. To the best of my knowledge, no one has done a study to find out if people who have seen exposures do or don’t remember them; in the absence of such studies, this sounds to me like wishful thinking on the part of the exposers and their apologists. That these illusions are being used doesn’t necessarily mean that they are fooling all or part of the audience; magicians far too often interpret spectator politeness as performer competence. This justification, like the previous one, has a creepy quality. If you throw a punch at me and it misses, should I smile and say “No harm done…”? And are you innocent?

9. THAT THE SECRETS EXPOSED WERE FOR ‘SIMPLE’ TRICKS. I promised, back in #1, that I would return to this general point; first, however, I should point out that at least a few of the items were by no means ‘simple’ or unimportant — Phoa Yan Tiong’s Cut And Restored Silk (once featured by Henning on a TV special) and the tray technique for vanishing an item. This latter technique is used in many effects, ranging from the disappearing water bowl to versions of the duck vanish. All of this, however, is beside the point — and the point is that to a layperson this division between the simple tricks we ‘teach’ and the difficult ones we perform IS NONEXISTENT. By definition a layperson knows nothing about magic. If, therefore, the layperson is shown two tricks — and one is explained as being ‘simple’ — the layperson has no reason at all to suppose that the explanation for the other trick isn’t just as simple. If, on national television, viewers see a number of effects exposed and all of the secrets are elementary — why should they think that the tricks that aren’t revealed are any different? I have recounted elsewhere how a layperson watching Ricky Jay’s brilliant card work assumed a deck of TV Magic Cards was being used; to you or to me it would be clear that no trick deck ever invented could accomplish Ricky’s effects — but laypersons do not have the knowledge to make that determination, and therefore the ‘trick deck’ explanation is perfectly reasonable. And how do we define a ‘simple’ trick? On the basis of the TV show, we might cynically say it’s any trick that we donít ourselves perform. More to the point, one performer on the show featured an effect that HAD been recently exposed in national publications. Did it harm him? I spoke with two laypersons who had learned the trick and wanted to know why they couldn’t be on television as well.

* * * It will be obvious that in the preceding section I have tried to avoid personal attacks on any of those involved with the show. Let me say again that I have no method for peering into their souls, and no knowledge of how they made the decision to take part in the production. For me to criticize them on the grounds that they did not act as I would is therefore petty at best and specious at worst. Still — it would seem that a number of curious rationalizations have been flowing forth. In some cases this appears to have been an attempt to justify actions with which the person is uncomfortable, and in other cases perhaps a way of not biting the hand that feeds you but licking it, in the hope it will feed you again. I offer the above as a counterpoint to those rationalizations, and invite comment on the points discussed. A point to keep in mind: the exposure of magic is always a double exposure — of the trick, and of its exposer. Isn’t magic fun?

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