Sunday, November 27, 2005

Great Magic Reads #2. "Conjure Times"

Question: Who was the first American born professional magician?
I bet you’ll never get this one.

Give up? (You are gonna love this.)

The first American born professional magician was a man named Richard Potter.
Richard Potter was the son of a slave.
And yes, he was black. (Bet you didn’t see that one coming?)

Richard Potter was born on the country estate of Sir Charles Henry Frankland. His mother, Dinah, was born in Africa and kidnapped by Dutch slave traders and purchased by Sir Henry in Boston. It is possible that Richard was actually the son of Sir Richard because he was of mixed race.
At the age of ten Richard signed on to be a cabin boy with a Captain Skinner but only worked one Atlantic crossing. Arriving in Liverpool Richard accepted his pay and told the Captain that the life on the sea was not for him.
Not long afterwards he stumbled upon a fair and was taken by a Scottish ventriloquist and magician named John Rannie, who just happened to need an assistant. They traveled Europe together until the year 1800 when they went to America.
To make a long story short, they toured America until 1810, when Rannie told the crowd of his show that he would soon return to Scotland and Richard Potter would take over his show. In January 1810 the two performed together for the last time and on November 2, 1811 Richard Potter, a son of a slave, became the first American born professional magician.
By the time he died at age 52 in 1835, he had toured America, purchased a farm, married and had three children and lived a comfortable life.
Interesting, huh?

This story begins the fascinating book Conjure Times: Black Magicians in America by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson. A book filled with stories of successful magicians, many whose names have been lost to history. A read through this book is a fascinating history of entertainers who were considered of an inferior race but making successful lives and influencing others.
Let’s take the case of one Fetaque (pronounced “Fee-take”) Sanders. Grandson of sharecroppers, son of an insurance salesman with influential ties in Nashville, Fetaque volunteered at a magic show at the tender age of 9 and was instantly hooked. At age twenty he left Nashville to find his own way and became a successful magician as well as a very popular “Spook Show” operator. His influence is found today in the works of Sammy Smith, just to name one.

Then there is Charles Green The Third. Quite possibly the most successful trade show magician around today. How about Clarence “Chandu” Hunter who, while being a success on his own, was also responsible for starting out the careers of Jack “Goldfinger” Vaughn (No, the other Goldfinger) and a young boy named Arsenio Hall.
Of course, you cannot have a book about Black Magicians without mentioning David Blaine. (Although he claims at time to be Puerto Rican, or of Russian/Italian descent.)

Conjure Times: Black Magicians in America by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson is a stunning book, filled with stories of magicians who should be more well known than they are. An interesting notion in the book is that these men, as performers, were also very popular with white audiences. (Interesting, huh?) This is a lost history of Magic and a must read for anyone who wants the full picture of the depth of American Conjuring.

Conjure Times: Black magicians in America is available from by clicking HERE. by clicking HERE. Through Abebooks by clicking HERE.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Review: " Penn & Teller: Off The Deep End."

Review. “Penn & Teller: Off The Deep End.”

Last Sunday the world was treated to one of the boldest experiments in TV specials. “Bad boys of magic” Penn & Teller presented “Off The Deep End”, a magic special filmed under water. That’s right, under water.
Quite frankly, it’s the type of concept that could only come from a man who wrote a noir mystery book from the point of view of a stuffed monkey puppet and his partner.
Unfortunately, no matter how bold the plan was, the show fell flat on presentation. Why? Because there really wasn’t enough stuff to fill out an entire two hours.
Think about it, they presented a good five minutes on how to make people scream for the camera (an obvious stab at David Blaine). They got people to give wonderful quotes on air by showing that they prompted them. Interesting yes, but not entertaining.
And I think that sums up most of the special. Yes, it was interesting, but very little was entertaining.
For example, you now know how to do a four ace card trick on the beach. Ok, fine, but when exactly are you going to be able to do it? And even if you found yourself on the beach with a pack of cards, are you really going to bury the four aces with shells for markers? It was a trick that didn’t need to be in there because it didn’t advance anything except the idea that the exposure was a real one so they could set up the last joke exposure at the end. Quite frankly, it slowed the whole show to a crawl.
Ah yes, the exposures. In my last post I defended Penn & Teller’s exposures as a ruse to raise the hackles of magicians and to act as a kind of mis-direction to the audience. In this special the exposures were used the same way, allowing you to see how real tricks are done so you will believe the final “exposure”. (Which, by the way, was a joke.)
Unfortunately it didn’t feel that way. Because the show was done mostly under water there was no speed, just slow swimming, and the exposures just felt like exposure for exposure sake. It was as if they were saying “We expose, it’s what we do and is what we are expected to do, so we will expose.”
Even once the final gag “exposure” is done with, and you realize that the other exposures were just a set up to a punch line, it still just feels wrong.
The reason, I believe, it feels wrong was a question of speed. In my last post I used the idea of Penn & Teller’s exposure of the classic cups & balls, the fact that they use clear cups and actually tell you what they are doing but you actually never see what is happening and are just blown away by it. That trick requires a certain amount of speed to work, in this special speed was impossible so the exposures were, for the most part, just too damn slow.
Even the big illusion, making a submarine disappear, was too slow. It took forever for the blanket of bubbles to get high enough to cover the sub, too much build up. By the end, while I thought it was pretty neat, it still took too much time.
Not to say there wasn’t good magic in the show. Remember Teller making a glass goldfish bowl filled with fish appear? I know how that trick is done above water, and it requires a certain amount of mis-direction and speed. Teller had neither and yet there it was. I’ve watched the tape over and over and still cannot for the life of me see how he did it. Plain and simple, it was good damn magic; something the special could have used more of. (I won’t go into the pain given by the so-called “music” of guest Aaron Carter and that horrible song he sang about Penn & Teller.)
So, in the end, it was just a mediocre special with some wonderful moments. It should have been an hour shorter but then if I was given two hours on prime time TV I guess I would have stretched it out too.

For more on Penn & Teller, visit their web site at

Next post: Penn & Teller review my TV special. Oh wait, I don’t have one. A fact they will just repeat over and over for two hours.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

So, What Do You Think About ... Part 2. Penn & Teller.

Ah yes, the bad boys of magic. How can I possibly relate my thoughts about the act, the controversy and the accusations against this dynamic duo in one simple blog entry. Surely to do them justice I must take several entries and examine in detail all of the accusations laid against them. To give a balanced report and allow both pro and con points of view.
What the hell do I look like? Dan Rather? (although some say I am the spitting image of a young Ed Bradly.) I know it is fashionable these days to believe that some guy who has a blog suddenly becomes a legitimate journalist, but that's a crock. I am no more legitimate than ... Actually, I'm not going to go there. Sorry.
What I can give you is my thoughts and feelings, and one little piece of information I have kept to myself until a type of electronic forum, perhaps a diary of sorts, presented itself. Until that happens, I'll just write a blog about it.
You see, unlike most non-magicians and most magicians, I get Penn & Teller's joke. No, not the jokes on stage, the big joke. The theoretical joke. The joke that they have based their careers on, call it a conceptual joke if you will.

But first, a bit of history.
Penn and Teller first performed together in the early 1970's. They formed a group called "The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society." (Best name ever!) Penn juggled, Teller did silent manipulation and a man named Weir Chirsamer played the music. They performed in this form from the early 70's to the early 80's.
And that is when the real magic happened. Penn became the mouthpiece, Teller the silent partner. The act became "Magicians fool you and treat you like you are an idiot. We're gonna let you in on the secret and fool you anyway."
Broadway, TV specials, world tours and Las Vegas. They are one of the most successful magic acts of our generation.

They say that Penn & Teller expose tricks. They would be right. Penn & Teller expose tricks. They expose sleights. They expose like a master exposer on the most exposingist day of his life (Which just happens to be the national day of exposing).
Some people think of this as a bad thing.
Let's take the cups and balls. Everyone knows the cups and balls. Three cups, one ball. Ball penetrated cups, ball moves from cup to cup, big balls appear under cups etc. etc. etc.
Penn & Teller do it like this. Three cups, made of clear plastic, and balls made out of tissues. They then do the cups & balls all the while Penn is telling you what they are doing. Move for move, Penn is describing it and you (and this is the best part) do not see a damn thing.
Clear cups, no gimmicks and full instructions and you don't see A DAMN THING!
That is magic my friends.

Of course they have their detractors, and this is the best part. You see, Penn & Teller take the audience under their wing, they say "Don't worry, we're on your side." Magicians don't like this and are therefore falling into the trap. You see the big joke I talked about earlier is that Penn & Teller are pulling the leg of magicians. It's a big magical practical joke on us, and we all fell into their trap.
Penn & Teller say "We expose" and magicians go "They expose. Off with their heads!"
Penn & Teller say "We were kicked out of the Magic Castle" and magicians go "They got kicked out of the Magic Castle! Off with their heads!"
And we fall for it. Brilliant!
Oh yes, Just to knock their defenders down a peg, they actually have exposed. I've got it on tape. Plain old exposure. It happened, really it did.

Penn & Teller are genius. That what I think about that.

Next Post: Now Teller & Penn I don't so much like.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

A Plea For Originality!

An interesting review of a stage play in Toronto was published in the Toronto Sun this week. It was for a play titled “My mother’s Italian, My father’s Jewish & I’m in Therapy.” The plot of the play is, basically, a man is in his therapist’s waiting room and, well, I guess he goes over everything he should be saying to his therapist.
Some interesting quotes from the review.
“There is a point – and sadly, it comes very early on … when you find yourself wondering whether or not you’ve seen this whole 90 minute show before.”
The most telling quote is this:
“But, finally, what’s missing is freshness. How stale is it? There’s one joke involving a comatose drunk, a witty lass and a blue ribbon that I remember hearing almost 50 years ago at a church camp in the middle of Alberta.”
So what happened here is a guy put together a show of old jokes, wrapped them around a stale premise and now is on tour with it.
I cannot think of a better reason for originality than that. Think about it, if this guy can tour with old jokes then imagine how well you would be received with original material.

In 1999 I went to my one and only magic convention. The International Brotherhood of Magicians convention in Buffalo. I had a wonderful time during the three days I was there. (No thanks to the good people at the Adams Mark Hotel, who decided that all Canadians had to be out on Sunday night rather than Monday morning like we had originally booked, sending at least one friend of mine IN A WHEELCHAIR out to fend for himself. But I digress.)
One thing that bothered me was the competition, specifically the junior competiton. There were about five performers in that category that performed at the nighttime show, and four of them did dove acts. Not just dove acts, but the same dove act. The same props, the same table, the same moves at the same time, the only thing that was different was the music used.
I can only tell you how boring it was to watch the same act over and over again and pretend to enjoy it. Thank god one of the performers did something unique. (Well, unique for that night.)
Of course, when the winner was announced it was one of the dove workers.

Originality is not just a word or a concept; it is what we all should be striving for. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to invent new tricks and effects (although that is one way to be original and is surely good for the art of magic.) It does mean though that you should make your presentation as original as you can.
Let us take, for example, any ambitious card type routine. (The ambitious card is a trick where a chosen card keeps jumping to the top of the deck, mostly under different and more difficult circumstances.) Everyone has some form of ambitious card routine, and everyone has their own way of performing it, but really, how many of these presentations are as original as we think?
If you begin the trick by saying the chosen card is “…an ambitious card, which means it is always jumping to the top of the deck.” Then you are not being very creative. (And yes, I have heard this line of patter before from a very un-original magician.) Think about it for a moment, why is the card jumping to the top? Maybe it is a “trained card”, or maybe it is a “magnetic card” or possibly there is some outside force propelling it.
One of the most original performances of an ambitious card effect is done by Joshua Jay. In his trick “The Remote Control” from his book “Joshua Jay’s Magic Atlas” (page 139) Jay presents a trick where a card is chosen and lost in the deck. He then shows a television remote control and offers it to a spectator. When the spectator pushes the channel up button, the card rises to the top, when he presses the channel down button, the card goes to the bottom of the deck, and finally when the changer stops working you open the battery compartment and the chosen card is found folded up inside.
The effect was written when Jay was seventeen, so his patter was about becoming a man because he has his first T.V. remote. (I don’t know how he presents it now.)
Talk about originality at work. Taking a trick as old as dem dere hills and presenting it in such a unique way. With the added extra bonus of having that particular trick forever linked with the Joshua Jay name. This is what we must all strive for in our performance.

Next Post: More on originality. (Based on an essay published in 1936 by Reginald Gilderblat. I just changed the names.)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Great Magic Reads #1

Shattering Illusions by Jamy Ian Swiss

Jamy Ian Swiss is a professional magician, specializing in close up magic with cards. He is also an artist who has thought quite a lot about his chosen art form. Those thoughts, and the conclusions he has come to, are collected in the essays that make up Shattering Illusions.
And they are important thoughts.
Take the introductory essay, titles “Why Magic Sucks.” (A bold title at that.)
“The fundamental task of magic is that of fooling the audience. In fact, the most basic definition of magic might be this: To be a magician, one must fool the audience.
But the problem is that for far too long magicians have stopped at that sentence and gone no further.”
Really, does there need more to be said? But more he does say.
“… For fooling the audience is, in and of itself, no measure of greatness. A magician who has learned to fool the audience is little more than a musician who has mastered the scales, a painter who has learned his brushstrokes, an actor who has learned to remember his lines and not bump into the furniture.”
Yes, words that seem so simple that they shouldn’t even have to be said, but they do need to be said, for we all need a reminder that magic is greater than just a game of “Ha ha, fooled you.”
Yet this is only a beginning, for over the course of the book Swiss passionately gives voice to the need for honest scripting and the joy of card tricks as well as history lessons on, of all things, the rise of the magic bartender. (It’s a lesson more important to the history of American magic than you would think.)
And his essay on the “Too Perfect Theory” is necessary reading and should be handed out freely at every magic store with every sale.
Mr. Swiss is honest and passionate about his beliefs, and along the way you too will become passionate. He is a good teacher and all he asks is for us to be attentive students.
I am not going to give a rating here, but I am going to tell you that if you wish to be a serious student of magic, then you need to read Shattering Illusions.

This is where I say I have met Jamy Ian Swiss, and I did once many years ago at a lecture in Toronto. (Not his lecture.) He was crowded by people who wanted to see his Pass. (Only magicians would ask to see a move instead of a trick.) I took a moment to introduce myself to him and mentioned how much I enjoyed his writing.
“What I like best is that you not only inform but challenge me to think about what you have written.” (Yes, I am a bit of a suck up.)
“That is exactly what I try to do.” He replied.
Shattering Illusions informs you, challenges you and most of all makes you think deeply about you, as a magician, and the magic you do.