ON THE WATERS FRONT a column of information and opinion by T. A. Waters
THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN THIS COLUMN ARE THOSE OF THE WRITER, AND MAY NOT NECESSARILY REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE STEVENS MAGIC EMPORIUM OR GEMINI.
Column Six: HOW ELSE?
In the wonderful act of Carl Ballantine, there’s a moment where he causes the lid of a small basket to float up toward his hand. His other hand comes out with a pair of scissors, snips at a point between basket-lid and hand — and the lid drops to the floor. When the audience laughs, Carl looks at them, shrugs, and says, “How else?”
How else, indeed. For a long time I have contemplated writing a monthly column for a magic magazine. It would, in tribute to Mr. Ballantine, be titled HOW ELSE?, and its subject matter would be both current and classical magic effects that share one characteristic: they don’t fool laypersons.
Certainly there would be no difficulty in coming up each month with the material for such a column — a LONG column — but some other difficulties were readily apparent. Some readers might object: “Hey, when *I* do that trick, it fools them.” We’ll discuss this point in a few moments.
A more practical objection would be that no sensible editor of a magic magazine would run such a feature, since often as not it would be at cross purposes with advertisers in the magazine. Even so impractical a person as myself can understand that a column which tends to alienate a significant portion of readers AND advertisers is not in a magazine’s best interests, whatever value it may have to magic as a performance art.
This particular column, however, is a one-shot deal, so it can’t even theoretically do much harm — and while it appears on a service run by the Stevens Magic Emporium, no one in the Stevens organization has ever tried to influence my writing in any way — except for Amy prodding me to do it a little more often! I am not likely to encounter this kind of freedom anywhere else, so I take this opportunity to get this out of my system: catharsis for me — perhaps some amusement for you.
Perhaps we can best begin with my favorite quote from all of magic literature:
AUDIENCES ARE FAR FROM BEING AS DUMB AS SOME PERFORMERS SEEM TO THINK. — Ted Annemann
You might want to have this lettered on a sign, and placed above wherever you keep your rehearsal space. Annemann was, I think, not offering an opinion here; he was making an observation based on compelling evidence. And what is that evidence?
It’s that so many performers do magic that almost never fools anyone — effects so transparent that the audience is insulted. They don’t just do these tricks once — they do them for years — and since the audience doesn’t rise up in a body and walk out, the performer thinks he or she is fooling them.
Annemann’s particular bete noir was the Mutilated Parasol; it was beyond his comprehension how any performer could believe that this prop, bearing little resemblance to any umbrella the audience had ever seen, could fool anyone. Bruce Elliott, who reviewed many shows for Annemann’s JINX, concurred in this assessment. Indeed, I’ve never met a layperson who didn’t know after a single viewing EXACTLY how the effect was performed.
Another example is the Dove Pan. When I was nine years old I was given a P&L Chick Pan for my birthday; I still have that Chick Pan — but by the time I was ten-and-a-half (all right, I’m a slow learner) I realized that it was a prop that wouldn’t fool anyone.
(Some years ago I mentioned this to a friend who at the time was doing kid shows. He disagreed, saying he got a BIG reaction from the kids when he produced the live rabbit from his monster dove pan. I suggested that sometime he try it by just lifting the lid and revealing the rabbit, not doing the trick at all. The next time I saw him he admitted that the reaction had been identical.)
Interestingly enough, the original versions of both these effects WERE deceptive. The Mutilated Parasol (or Sunshade) used a real parasol, and the lid for the Chafing Dish, which later became the Dove Pan, was far too thin to contain a load. BUT……the original Parasol required some skill to perform; it wasn’t automatic in working and didn’t require a mechanical and therefore marketable prop. Likewise, the progenitor of the Dove Pan required a special table, and could not be done surrounded.
These were very baffling effects — but there was no broad-based commercial magic market for them, and so they died. Thousands of Dove Pans and Mutilated Parasols have been sold: they’re profitable for the seller, and practical for the performer — they just don’t fool anyone. The two items I’ve just mentioned are, unfortunately, not even close to being isolated examples. Let’s look at some others from past and present.
I am told that the most popular apparatus trick — in the sense that it is the biggest seller among such items in magic shops — is HIPPITY-HOP RABBITS — which is, as you all know, a sucker trick aimed primarily at children. Does it fool children? Have you asked?
I have. Few of them come up with the exact method; most assume that the heavy covers just switch one set of cutout rabbits for another. When I point out that the covers are sometimes shown empty, the kids patiently point out that the rabbits are so thin that you couldn’t see them lying inside the covers — and there, of course, they are getting close to how the effect actually works. The important point is, whether they’re precisely right or wrong, the kids aren’t being fooled for a moment; they haven’t seen anything they consider even remotely magical.
A recent effect that has become very popular among magicians is that in which a threaded needle is passed completely through the center of a matchbox, which is then shown to contain a solid brass block. I saw this effect shown to a layman in Hollywood Magic: his response was, “Wow, that’s really something! What, does the block have a trapdoor in the center?” I trust I need not comment further on this.
We talk about suspension of disbelief in stage performance — but the way audiences experience it is nothing compared to a magician’s state of mind when he or she enters a magic shop, or reads an effect in a book or magazine. To quote briefly from a recent tome of mine, MYSTERIES:
“…nothing else would explain the many effects in the literature and on the market that are simply not very mystifying. Eugene Burger tells the story of a close-up performer who did a standard card-to-wallet routine for a small group: after the performer’s departure a woman at the table explained the effect in detail. As Eugene asks, ‘Who was fooled in this encounter?’ Just because an audience may be polite is no reason to suppose they’re mystified.
A related point has to do with ego: the magician thinks, ‘Hey, when I saw the trick it fooled me — so of course it will fool my audience.” Not necessarily; it does happen that dumb magicians perform for smart audiences…’
In that same book I mentioned the current popularity of “invisible thread” tricks; there are now on the market all sorts of intricate thread delivery systems, involving ingenious take-up reels and the like.
But let’s get real (pun intended): do you actually think that a spectator, seeing a dollar bill floating in the air, doesn’t KNOW it’s on a thread? We can engage in all the artistic hand-waving; we can even pass little hoops around the bill; and with all that it’s quite possible that we will mildly puzzle the spectator as to just where the thread is — but it’s a thread; they know it’s a thread. How else?
It is worthwhile to note that some of the most baffling magic I have ever seen involves the use of a thread; employing it as a SECRET device — rather than as the only possible explanation — Gaetan Bloom has come up with a number of brilliant applications for it, ranging from mentalism to coins-through-table. His applications are so seemingly completely unrelated to the effects that he could probably tell the audience he was using a thread and they wouldn’t believe him!
As long as I am shooting at everything in sight, what else? Ah, yes — “interactive magic” of the kind popularized by David Copperfield in a number of his television specials, and used by others as well. I’m talking about the put-your-finger-on-the-screen-now-move-it-around kind of thing — much of it stemming from either the Newton/Gardner VOICE FROM ANOTHER WORLD effect, or a Karl Fulves card effect titled HEX SQUARED.
In the proper intimate setting, one-on-one, and given the proper presentation, it is possible for these effects to mystify; they don’t, usually, but it’s theoretically possible.
But — television viewers are not total idiots, the success of “MARRIED…WITH CHILDREN” to the contrary. They realize that if 20 million of them (let’s be optimistic) all end up with the same result, it has to be some sort of mathematical principle. They may only vaguely intuit this — they may not know precisely how it works — but at its very best, the interactive piece is to them a puzzle. Amusing, maybe; peculiar, sure; but a puzzle — and puzzles and magic have nothing whatever to do with each other.
There’s nothing wrong with showing puzzles on television; Scott Morris used to do it all the time. What IS wrong is doing them on a magic special and presenting them as magic or mentalism — because if these things are supposed to be magic or mentalism, and the audience KNOWS that they are nothing more than puzzles — guess what that makes them think about the REST of what they see?
“Hey, when *I* do that trick, it fools them.” Sigh. Does it, really? Have you asked? Are you sure?
Oh, okay — maybe so, and if that’s the case, that makes you one of the few exceptions. Most magicians live in a dream world; they think they are mystifying people when, quite simply, they aren’t. It’s the psychological equivalent of the quirk some have of blinking when they make a move — thinking, perhaps, that if they don’t see it, nobody else will.
Magicians go out on stage and wheel around the boxes sitting on top of tables so thick they could be rented out as condos, and think they’re fooling the audience; they use identical twins in several illusions, secure in the knowledge that the public at large has never heard of twins or doubles; they hold three cards together and think the audience will believe they’re holding only a single card; they suddenly do a bit of staging totally at variance with everything else in the show — because the method requires it — and think the audience won’t notice; they do tricks that even the most dimwitted spectator realizes are stooged, and then expect the audience to believe that later helpers are innocent audience members; they write stuff down on a little piece of paper, instead of the blackboard anyone else would use, and think no one will wonder why; they do illusions easily explained by stage traps, but somehow expect that since they know they’re not using traps, the audience will too; they put a ball on a stick and expect the audience to think it’s floating (exception for Tommy Wonder duly noted); they use a prop that looks like nothing this side of a toy store for aesthetically challenged tots, and expect the audience to believe it’s the magician doing the magic, not the prop; they…..aren’t magicians; they’re people on stage, with props. Sometimes, at best, it should be billed as Magic By Bekins; move this box, move that box.
“Hey, when *I* do that trick, it fools them.”
Let’s say it does. In the hands of a highly skilled performer, some so-so or even bad tricks can be made into something good — but should they be?
Some years ago, when I was consulting for a Well Known Magician, he would show me an effect and ask my opinion. Sometimes I would say, “I don’t think it’s a very good trick.” The WKM would respond, “I can make it play.”
I would then point out that this was not the point at issue; of COURSE he could make it play, because he was a brilliant performer. The point was, indeed, should he? Wouldn’t his performing skills be better applied to something more worthwhile?
And even if this exceptional performer could make a bad trick into something watchable, does that somehow make it into a good trick? I think not.
This question relates, curiously enough, to a debate that has been going on in mercenary soldier and assassin circles for at least three hundred years — and probably three thousand: how do you judge the worth of a weapon? Is it by how effective it is in the hands of, say, a master assassin — or how effectively it can be used by rank-and-file combat troops? In other words, do you judge it by its best THEORETICAL potential — or by how well it is likely to be ACTUALLY used? An assassin might pick a Hammerli 503 Match Rifle with an optical scope sight (no, assassins don’t user lasers) — but this single-shot weapon, with its weight adjustment mechanisms, would be wildly impractical for the soldier in the field — and, given field conditions, would average out to be LESS accurate. The debate continues.
In magic, we’re not likely to kill anyone — unless you count boring them to death — but there is some direct relevance. No question that thousands and thousands of magicians can actually get through the technical requirements of performing Hippity-Hop Rabbits — and therefore, in terms of how it is ACTUALLY used, one could say that it’s serving its purpose. It isn’t fooling anyone, but as with a lot of magic that may not be its purpose; it may simply be a prop to be used in filling up so many minutes out of a show, so the performer can collect his or her fee. By that reasoning, it’s a perfectly worthwhile effect.
If, however, you want to hit the bulls eye every time, you can’t do what may work for the “average” performer; you need better tools, a more efficient weapon, if you will.
There are a lot of people making magic their profession because it seems to them an easy way to make a living — and, given that aim alone, they’re perfectly correct. Magic is one of those novelty arts that, unfortunately, allows anyone who can stumble through it with even a slight modicum of ability the means of making a living. When such people hear magicians talking about how difficult a particular effect is, how they worked on it for a year or two before putting it into the act, they genuinely don’t understand, because to them magic is easy. You buy the prop, you read the instructions, you find or steal a few lines to go with it — you go do it and you get your check; what’s the problem?
For them, there IS no problem.
For the rest of us the problem is that magic — true, mystifying, wondrous, entertaining magic — is very, very hard to do. Magic, done with a sense of art, is one of the most demanding of all theater arts. Given good basic material, it is still extremely difficult to create a magical experience; without that good material, it’s impossible.
The basic notion of magic is that it is the seemingly impossible; that may seem a tautology, but so many in magic seem to have lost sight of it. It isn’t making spectators laugh; it isn’t impressing them with dance moves; it isn’t parading pretty assistants around the stage. Magic is making the audience believe they have seen something impossible happen — and so it must begin with mystery; not a puzzle, not a peculiar box, not an excuse for gaglines, but mystery. If the magic isn’t baffling, IT ISN’T MAGIC.
Near the beginning of this harangue I quoted from Ted Annemann, who knew a little bit about how to truly baffle an audience. Let me conclude with another quote, from someone else who knew a little something about magic and theater.
A REAL MAGICIAN’S TASK, IT SEEMS CLEAR, IS TO ABOLISH THE SOLUTION, THE POSSIBILITY OF *ANY* SOLUTION…REMOVING FROM MAGIC THE ELEMENT OF WONDER IS NO LESS DISASTROUS THAN MUSIC WITHOUT THE ELEMENT OF PITCH. — ORSON WELLES
“Hey, when *I* do that trick, it fools them.” Well — I hope so.
Copyright (c) 1996 by T. A. Waters. All rights reserved.
Waters/Gemini Column Six