Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) is considered the father of modern magic, and his writings inspired many of the magicians who paved the way for our contemporaries. Ehrich Weiss renamed himself Harry Houdini in honor of the man and Robert-Houdin’s shadow is still felt today. In this video, Paul Daniels does a beautiful routine based on Robert-Houdin’s “Marvelous Orange Tree.” I would say that he recreates it, but Paul does honor to the trick while presenting it, but applying his own light style.
Some time ago, I was in a discussion, and I brought up advice given to me about busking and who gave it to me. Now, the advice was that if I wanted to make money busking, that I should give up on doing magic and just twist balloons. Though this advice is valid, and it was given to me by a fellow magician who does more than just magic when he performs, it’s not advice that I want to follow and mainly because I want to do magic. So, yeah, I’m gonna go the hard way through. When I mentioned this, though, one of the prominent members in the group replied that, well, the one guy would say that, but he’s not a real magician. The comment stunned me, and I didn’t reply at the time.
The entertainment industry is full of egos, and the magic community is no different. Face it, to get in front of people and perform, whether it’s acting, performing music, dancing, or doing card tricks, takes a certain amount of confidence and bravado. Even more so if you’re going to be paid and hope to continue getting gigs. Skill is a given, but to a certain degree, a lot of tricks don’t require a whole lot of skill to perform, just a lot a showmanship to be done well for people.
I do mention the part about skill because I do occasionally see top magicians make an appearance on television on one chat show or another performing tricks that are so well-guarded all it takes is a trip to the library to find out how they’re done. (Please don’t get me started on YouTube and how much you can find there showing how a trick is done in such a way that it’s embarrassing and painful to watch. Worse than all the drunken karaoke renditions of “Friends in Low Places” I’ve endured.) Even in cases where a gimmick does the work, thus, removing the skill factor, it does take showmanship to make the moment seem like a miracle.
Any way around it, though, practice is needed.
Now, in a way, each performance can be practice. New lines can be picked up, especially when the routine isn’t silent. But even in a silent routine, timing and crowd reactions to moments is learned, especially when the routine is new. Routines and acts are always evolving. Case in point, Howard Thurston, one of the greatest American magicians, paid attention to his audience. If something got a good reaction, he made note of it to keep in the act, even to the point that if it was a heckler who got off a particular good line, he would have one of his crew in the audience as a stooge to repeat the line in later performances.
Admittedly, though, once you start performing in the magic community, there are going to be two main types of people you will perform for: laypeople and other magicians. And really, the technical difficulty involved in a show to entertain magicians might not necessarily get as good a response with a crowd of laypeople. Even Shawn Farquhar’s performance for our I.B.M. Ring 1 President’s Dinner was not filled with illusions that I didn’t know the secrets of. Other than his final routine, I knew the tricks he was performing. Then again, even though the dinner was for a magic club, there were plenty of spouses and family members in attendance. Shawn, being an excellent performer as well as magician, was able to put on one hell of a show. I’ve not heard any complaints from anybody and even heard some people who weren’t sure it was a good idea to bring him in (mainly being cost-conscious) admit they were wrong. I’ve certainly not heard any complaints that Shawn didn’t perform magic.
Boris Wild did a lecture a while back (I didn’t get to see it, but I have the lecture notes) called “Creativity & Impact.” It focuses on those two aspects of creating an act and designing it for the best impact with an audience. I took quite a bit to heart and am working with the concepts in building my current act. One line does stick out, though, and that’s “To optimize the impact of your performance and have the best possible reactions from the spectators, you have to make sure they are interested in what you do.” Boris’ “Butterflies Act” moved me to tears. He knew what he wanted to do to make the act as strong with the audience as he could. In that act, he focused on the concepts of love and loss, but when he does other card tricks, he aims for just as strong of reactions, just with other emotional strings. Hell, if Boris did “Hippity Hop Rabbits,” he’d be playing it for as strong a reaction from the kids. (Note: “Hippity Hop Rabbits” doesn’t seem to be Boris’ style, but playing a routine for maximum impact certainly does.)
Going back to the “non-magician” who was discussed, the man performs magic in addition to a good amount of comedy and non-magic bits in his routines. He’s had some pretty strong gigs and gets even more because of his reputation. He has the audience eating out of his hand when he performs. The one who said that about him is even more prominent in the area and has a lot of gigs and also has the audience in the palm of his hand. If one had called the other an asshole, that’s fair. It would have never bothered me. You don’t have to like everybody you know in this business, but, you know, call it straight.
After reading through some message boards to see how other people responded to the question, “What is a magician?” I’ll leave it to the words of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, considered the father of modern conjuring: “A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.”
I challenge anybody to say it better.