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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Notes from a Designer's Logbook - by George Ledo » » On inspiration and adaptation, part II: What I learned by watching Channing Pollock (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

George Ledo
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Like many others who remember him, I was very saddened by the news of Channing Pollock’s passing a few days ago. I didn’t know him personally, but he was my inspiration back when I was a teenager in the late 60’s. I studied him closely (as in taking notes, timing the act, and writing down the audience response) every time he went on the Ed Sullivan Show or Hollywood Palace. This was in the Pre-VCRassic Age, so I never did get to tape him.

I saw another side of him at the Desert Magic Seminar in ’88 or ’89, during “An Afternoon with Channing Pollock.” He came across like a genuinely nice man, and it was fascinating to watch Siegfried and Lance just walk out on stage during his talk and exchange thoughts and war stories about how much Vegas had changed over the years. A very enjoyable afternoon.

Anyway, I started thinking about this last night and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to write down how I went from watching his act to developing my own. I learned a lot about inspiration and adaptation from that exercise, but it wasn’t until many years later that I actually realized it.

I hate it when that happens.

First, a quick back story. I started out in magic like most of us, doing a series of unconnected tricks one after another. Then, at some point, I decided I needed to find my own niche and started looking around for ideas (my original inspiration had been Houdini, but I didn’t want to go into escapes). I tried several different things, including a clown magic act and an “Eastern” style loosely based on Sorcar, which later developed into an act named “Magic from the Land of Fantasy.” But, as I grew into my late teens and decided I wanted to go to Vegas and then go touring, I realized I needed to do what the “real” magicians were doing.

I loved Channing’s TV act and said to myself, well, okay, I’ll go in that direction. Bite the bullet and learn the card fans, and bite the other bullet and get some doves. But as I studied him, worked at my own act, and watched lots of similar acts, I realized something very important: I wasn’t Channing Pollock. And none of these other acts were Channing Pollock either.

None of us could be him, any more than he could be any one of us. We were all different people. We were not peas in a pod.

Channing studied with Ben Chavez and picked up the “slick night-club magician” style from him, but then went on to develop his own character, and was hugely successful at it. I decided I had to do the same.

So I went back to the original source (something I discuss at length in the first Inspiration and adaptation column), and went from there. I didn’t know who invented the cards-and-doves act, but I knew it had been around for years, so it wasn’t original to Channing. I read everything I could find on silks and doves and discovered that some of his effects had been published back in the 40’s. This was a relief, because I really liked the snap-out silk production, and I found it (I think) in one of Keith Clark’s books.

And then came the fun part.

I realized that I was a nineteen-year-old kid. Even in white tie and tails (and even though I actually looked good in this outfit) I still looked like a nineteen-year-old kid. I didn’t look like Channing, and I didn’t have his presence. So, for me to stand there ramrod-straight like him while doing my miracles would have made me look like a nineteen-year-old kid with a broomstick up his ***.

So that had to change.

Then, somewhere, I read something to the effect that he was famous for not smiling during his act -- something I hadn’t noticed on TV because I was too busy watching the magic. Okay, so that had to change too. I was years away from looking “sophisticated” enough to hold a straight face gracefully under the circumstances, so I decided I had to smile now and then.

By this time I had read everything I could find on showmanship and presentation for magicians: Fitzkee, Hull, James Reneaux, Maskelyne & Devant, David Bamberg, Nelms, and others. I was beginning to think about who I was on stage just as much (more?) as about what I was doing. And, again, studying Channing’s TV act gave me some ideas.

I liked the cleanliness of his act, without a bunch of boxes and tubes, but I did not want to use an assistant to bring stuff in and out: something I read (in Fitzkee?) about magicians being the only performers who use servants on stage really hit a chord with me. So I needed a container type of table, and this led to my designing a small, bar-like table with strategically placed shelves and dove cages.

One thing I decided to focus on was the idea that one effect would flow into another, instead of just following it. A produced silk would be used for something else, and a produced bird would vanish, and somehow the table would be involved. My split fan routine was adapted from Ganson’s Routined Manipulation series, so that was pretty much set, and doing it in gloves gave me a little more stage business. I developed a way to open the fans to almost a full circle as they were produced, and it worked very well, but I still needed to routine the bird part.

At any rate, and to cut to the chase, I finally worked out a sequence that started by forming a cone out of newspaper and pouring some milk into it. I then reached into the cone and pulled out a large white silk. After crumpling the cone and putting it aside, I shook out the silk and another one appeared tied at the end. I repeated this a few times, then gathered up the silks and produced a dove, which then went into a paper bag. I inflated the bag, walked to the footlights, and burst it, then crushed it and tossed it into the air. Then when I caught it, I pulled another white silk out of it. A dove appeared out of the silk, and then a cane appeared in my other hand. The bird hopped onto the cane and I walked off.

This was all done silently, to carefully cued live music, and with a fair amount of visual back-and-forth with the audience: a look here, a smile there, a raised eyebrow somewhere else. The bird vanish in the paper bag, especially, was an exercise in leading the audience down a path and having them respond exactly the way I wanted. All my silks were white instead of the usual red, green, yellow, and other colors usually seen at the time. The pacing was about the same as Channing’s, but the entire presentation was quite different: I was a nineteen-year-old kid, not a suave, sophisticated guy in his forties.

As I continued to do the act, I worked out a few additional timing things and bits of business that actually made the act a little shorter while appearing to be longer. I never did figure out how to transition smoothly from the cards into the first dove production (from an evening scarf) and then into the milk thing, but the act worked, and it received a very strong reaction every time I did it.

Reading back through all this now, I realize how I started out wanting to do a similar act to Channing’s. But then I realized I wasn’t him, adapted my act to who I was, and finally developed a completely different approach. And it all came together by going back to the original sources: the white-tie-and-tails night club act of the thirties, and several commercial or published effects that Channing was using.

I never did take that act to Vegas. For some reason I decided that the backstage creative part of the business was more fun than being on stage, so I went instead to college and grad school to become a set designer. That’s a whole other story.

But I’ve been using this “going back to the original source” approach for years and years in my career, and I find it works very well for me. It makes me feel free to get inspiration from anything I want, but then forces me to be creative and come up with my own end product. As I said in one of my columns here, being creative is not about finding loopholes or quantifying (to one-tenth of a percent) how different you have to be in order to avoid being accused of copying. Being creative is work: hard, honest work where you really want to do your best with what you have.

And I learned all this by watching and studying you, Mr. Pollock. So I thank you.

BTW, if any of you are curious as to what I looked like Smile back when I was putting this act together:


Ah, yes, here I am at the ripe old age of nineteen with "Dammit," one of my doves. How she got that name is a whole different story...
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

Latest column: "Sorry about the photos in my posts here"
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