Magic Café Columnist
SF Bay Area
This column is partially inspired by Dennis Michael's post “Why is it that only a small section of society likes magic?" (thank you for the thought-provoking question, Dennis), and partly by several posts regarding Lance Burton's show closing. As much as I enjoyed Lance's show a few years ago, unfortunately (being in my line of work) I do have to accept the fact that show biz is driven by the Almighty Buck and not by sentiment. But moving on, here's more personal opinion form the desk of a columnist...
Dariel Fitzkee, in Showmanship for Magicians, quoted an agent as saying, “If your principal can so present a magic show that it once more appeals to the masses, he will be greater than Thurston, or Herrmann, or Houdini.... and he'll make a fortune.” And this was written in 1945. That's over half a century ago.
I can't argue with that quote. In my own lifetime, I've seen not one but two performers of magic do just that. One was Doug Henning and the other was David Copperfield.
Why am I leaving out Lance Burton and Sigfried and Roy? Simply because (and I'm saying this in spite of admiring their work more than I can even explain) they became fixtures in a make-believe city: two more huge shows controlled by the same corporations that made the city a “destination.” Doug and David, on the other hand, toured and had to pull audiences from the general population, just like Thurston and Herrmann and Houdini.
Yet, in the context of show business (with the accent on business), all of them were extremely successful. And that's where the ugly specter of relevance makes its appearance.
Theater has been struggling with this for centuries, and it's a major issue in the movie and TV industries. It may be a great story, but if “today's” audiences can't relate to it, it won't sell. So the “artistic” side fights with the “business” side to determine what the money will be spent on. It's the ongoing battle of the creatives versus the accountants. And the same thing happens in the publishing industry, where maybe one book out of several thousand gets published.
It's one of the things they never told us in school, and probably one of the reasons why so many artistic types get frustrated and turn to alcohol or drugs. Being a creative genius is fine, but it's gotta sell. If it doesn't sell, artistic types tend to take it personally.
But going back to the topic of relevance: I had a revelation yesterday. I wrote in another column that, going back as far as we can tell, stories have been about people. Even the Epic of Gilgamesh (which is around five thousand years old) is about a character wanting to find immortality—which just happened to be relevant in a period pretty much dominated by the gods.
But nowadays we can argue that there's this whole new generation of nerds and geeks that lives and breathes for the latest techno-toys. I've heard about some people that go to bed with their iPhones or BlackBerrys so they can text each other in the middle of the night. From a knee-jerk observation, we can say that they spend more time with those toys than with other people.
But do they?
The whole idea of iPhones and BlackBerrys and blogging and Twitter and whatever else comes up tomorrow is that people (yep, even the kids!!!!!) want to communicate with each other. Those toys are just tools that allow us to communicate with others across a distance.
“just got up hate dat”
“i hear you dude me 2”
“gotta go PIR”
Sure we play games with these toys, and have lots of apps, but what are they used mostly for?
Texting and listening to songs.
Texting is communicating with other people, and songs are about people.
What does pulling a bunch of colored scarves out of a box have to do with people? Not a whole heck of a lot. Which brings back that agent's comment about appealing to the masses.
Okay, so what appeals to the masses? What did Sinatra, and the Beatles, and Elvis, and Michael Jackson, and nowadays Tina Turner and Lady Gaga sing about?
It ain't rocket science: it's “The Business of Show” selling a product.
So where am I going with this?
What I'd like to explore is what, exactly, was it that made Herrmann, and Kellar, and Houdini, and Thurston, and others, relevant to their times. Where was the connection?
And BTW, I just noticed something really interesting. As I was writing this, the built-in spell checker underlined Herrmann and Thurston and Kellar in red, but left Houdini intact. Which means Houdini is in the built-in dictionary, but not the others, Why is that? What was it about Houdini that, to this day, his name is remembered? What did he do that was so different?
Let's start there. I've read any number of times that his full-evening show, later in life, wasn't so good. In fact, a few writers have said flat out that he was a terrible magician. Yet his name, almost a hundred years after his death, is in computer spellcheckers.
Houdini's schtick, once he caught on to it, was that he could escape from anything. HE could escape. Nothing could hold HIM. Houdini was all about Houdini: a man who could do the impossible. He turned himself into a larger-than-life character in the same vein as today's superstar celebrities. Next time I'm in line at the supermarket and see some of the rag sheets on the displays, I'm going to try to imagine what they would be saying about him today.
Because he would be on them all the time, just like Jen, and Brad, and Oprah, and JLo, and lots of others. Heck, he would probably have a crew of writers making up stuff about him.
Houdini connected with his audiences (and with his times) to such a degree that people were telling stories about him, while he was alive and after he died, passing them on to the later generations who passed them on to even later generations.
But let's go back a little farther. Actually, let's go back a lot farther.
From what I've read over the years, the strolling wizards in the old days weren't going around saying, hey, lookit what I can do with these WALNUT SHELLS AND PEAS. They were saying LOOK WHAT I CAN DO. I'm a wizard. I can do magic. When a guy could stand there in a street corner, in a country where food was always a struggle, and produce sausages at will, HE became very relevant. People took an interest in HIM.
Not long after the Industrial Revolution, a lot of magic performers began styling themselves “Professor So-and-so.” The “in” thing among the society types at the time was to hang out in “scientific” circles, and to go watch “scientific demonstrations” for amusement. Robert-Houdin, among others, presented part of his show as “experiments” in natural phenomena; his automata weren't presented as magic, but as scientific gadgets.
Fast-forward to the turn of the twentieth century. China was relevant, so we had Ching Ling Foo and a host of imitators. Then Howard Carter discovered King Tut's tomb, and the interest in Egypt (which had waned away after Napoleon's time when the Rosetta Stone was found) came back with a vengeance. So Carter the Great (no relation to Howard) and others went out with their Egyptian mysteries.
But, at the same time, there were those who stuck with the “old relevances” and eventually went out of business, replaced by the “new relevances.” We still saw some “Professors” in the 20's and 30's, but by then they had become almost a parody if not a joke.
Fast-forward to today. What movies and TV programs and singers and comedians and other entertainers are considered “hot?” Those who play to what's important today. Those who can capture the imagination and feelings of their audiences by engaging them with current themes and questions and today's reality of life. “Leave it to Beaver” was a hit in its day, but it's considered quaint and irrelevant today.
I've been thinking a lot recently about live theater (which is what I do for a living), and people's perceptions and assumptions about it, and why people today go or don't go to live theater, and I'm seeing a lot of similarities between it and magic. Not just the shows themselves, but how they're presented and sold to the public as either “the arts” or as “live entertainment.” That's going to be the topic of my next column, but, in the meantime, here's a minor challenge:
Can you think of a reason why today's audiences would think that pulling colored silks out of a box, or making a card or coin go from here to there, or putting a young lady in a strange colored box and doing something to her is as relevant today as Houdini's work was back in the 20's, or as Lady Gaga's songs are today?
Magic Café Columnist
SF Bay Area
Today I received the following PM from Michael Baker (regarding the last paragraph in the post above), and, with his kind permission, I'm posting it here. I think he pretty much hit the nail on the head.
Your question above should be considered rhetorical, but the answer that solves the mystery it is intended to display is built into your question. Relevance.
Plain and simple, anything is justified as worth putting before an audience if it contains relevance. The audience must be able to connect with what is being presented to them.
Of course as you have already stated, the strongest connection is going to be people. However, I have a theory that may help understand this.
This will always hold true because vanity will always be in vogue. The connection with people is never about THEM, but always about "me, myself, and I".
People instinctively connect themselves to other people, as a manner of comparison to themselves. Assume we are talking about a character on stage (whether live or otherwise). Why would we watch such a character?
Some relate to the character by direct comparison, or empathy. "I know how they feel, because I feel the same way." This is a way of validating one's very existence.
Others relate to the character by way of envy, lust, desire, admiration, etc. "I want to be like them," or, "I want to be with them, or near them." This is a way of elevating one's own self worth.
Still others relate to the character through fear or disgust or even pity. "I am afraid of what may happen to me," or, "I am glad I am not like them." Following the philosophy behind keeping one's friends close, but keeping one's enemies closer, such fascination with such characters is a manner of control of one's own existence through vigilance, or survival instincts.
I'm sure with some in depth thinking, there would be other connections that could be illustrated, but I would bet they all have relevance because of the ego.
Theater is a two-sided coin. It is about both exhibitionism, and voyeurism. The presenters do so for any number of reasons: art, money, social commentary, etc. But the viewers are there for one reason: "What is in this for me?"
Characters and productions succeed or fail largely because of the connection they have with the audience, the relevance.
When you hear a performer say that he is "connecting" with the audience, he is merely revealing a part of them, to themselves.
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