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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Ever so sleightly » » Making the cups and balls interesting (9 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

Doc Svengali
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I never cease to be amazed by the frequency of patter for the cups and balls that goes something like this:

"I have here ball number one, ball number two and ball number three, and cup number one, cup number two and cup number three. I place ball number one in cup number one, ball number two in cup number two and ball number three in cup number three. Now all I have to do is snap my fingers and ball number two disappears from cup number two and joins ball number one in cup number one..."

This is of course the formula for making the cups and balls the most boring trick in the world. Long before the end of the above paragraph, every member of your audience is on their cell phone checking their email.

The behavior of three balls and three cups is not inherently interesting. The magician must make it so. In order to do so, the plot must be about something other than cups or balls. If you are Ricky Jay, Marc deSouza or Johnny Thompson, it is about the history of magic. If you are Suzanne, it is a parable about three travelers. If you are Bill Malone, it is about the adventures of three sailors.

If props have no more meaning or identity than "ball number one" and no motive or reason to engage in an action sequence (e.g. move about from cup to cup), it will be difficult to create or keep the engagement of your audience. I believe that many magical effects can be enhanced if, for example, one anthropomorphizes some of the props (in this case the balls) and assigns them personality characteristics, motives or behavioral propensities that account for the subsequent plot line of the routine. In my own cups and balls routine, the three balls become three named characters (Moe, Larry and Curley), who are assigned specific personality eccentricities and propensities which are then acted out in the routine that follows. In this way, there is motivation and meaning to the action sequences. We know that Larry, for example, is a party animal who constantly seeks out the company of others, and is found congregating with his friends in various circumstances.

These are just examples to illustrate the point that finding a way to assign motivation and meaning to the sequences of a magic routine promotes engagement and greatly enhances the entertainment and the magic.
Pete Biro
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Hard to believe, but I explain the cups and balls dates back yo King Tut and I tell them the original looks and sounds like this: I then talk in crazy double talk. like."KEEZNO MANPOT SALNAK FOOJO LABWEEK" --- etc. AND IT PLAYS WELL FOR ME. Smile
Mark Levenson
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Doc S -- very good point. The prelude to "I have here ball number one..." is of course "This is the oldest trick in magic." Lance Burton redeems that opening with a joke ("Moses used to perform it at bar mitzvahs.") But I often think the audience's silent reply to that line is "then get some new stuff." An alternative to coming up with a story or characters around the cups/balls is to treat the act like a wordless dance set to music, letting the movement of the balls tell the story. Jacques for example. Or make the magician the character, a la Yann Frisch. Or remake the entire setting, e.g. Tim Ellis (also silent w/music). I think the basic point applies to many tricks: Do it the same way everyone else does it, and your audience has no reason to stick around to see how you do it.
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Here's how I "get Into" my cups and balls routine, which typically is the second trick in my close-up shows and hospitality suite shows. I open with The Miser's Dream, Why The Miser's Dream? Well, I will tell you that my first mentor, the late Gene DeVoe taught me that "You can't entertain 'em until you have their attention!" and the Miser's Dream is LOUD and Flashy. That's why I open with gets the audience's attention so that they focus on ME.

There has been a lot of thought on my part on not only making my entire presentation interesting, but, more importantly entertaining, so to get into the Cups and Balls, my patter is: "Now that I have your attention....<pause for a tick and smile>........and that you know I am a REAL Magician...<pause and smile again.....with a little curtsy>.....<this is important> <I repeat this as I am closing>........"Let's start at the Beginning....and the Beginning of Magic was the trick known as The Cups and Balls, a trick by which all Magicians over the ages have been judged for their skills by..."

And then, into my Cups and Balls Routine.........

I strongly suggest NOT using patter which DETRACTS from the fact that you are performing a trick which is HARD TO DO and REQUIRES SKILL.......Just DO IT LIKE A PRO.....and the Audience will know!
Tom G
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Good thoughts Rainboguy. In talking to Bob White who was close to Charlie Miller and Dai Vernon, he said that Charlie said that the Vernon routine was perfect the way it was. Although Bob doesn't like the wand spin vanish, just don't get him going on the "false explanation."
Mr. Woolery
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I think there's great truth to the statement that if the audience likes you they will enjoy what you do. I think Lance Burton's routine is wonderful. He displays his character well, the joke about how old it is doesn't detract from the potential entertainment of an ancient trick. I mean, as an audience member, my thought is more along the lines of "if something has been around since Moses was doing Bar Mitzvahs, it must be pretty good." Staying power says something positive. If you told me "20 years ago, everyone did this trick, but they all moved on to newer stuff and I'm still doing this," I could see where you'd tell me to get newer stuff. But cups and balls is so timeless that talking about the history of it adds to it, in my opinion.

Vernon's routine, Ammar's, Payne's, Michael Vincent's, Pete Biro's (at least the version I saw on his site several years ago), all are fairly descriptive. Yet all are excellent entertainment because the performers are, themselves, entertaining. That makes all the difference.

Dick Oslund is fond of saying that magic is not inherently entertaining. It is only a vehicle for entertainment. I'd point out that words are not inherently entertaining, but comedians make a living standing up and just saying words.

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I disagree that a narrative makes the cups and balls more interesting. People really aren't capable of keeping track of that many new things at once and the cups and balls is packed full of effects. If you layer that with a complex story one of those two elements will be forgotten by most spectators. If its going to be something that just gets forgotten when the final loads get revealed then whats the point?

Obviously it should be entertaining, but I'm not sure story telling is the most effective method of accomplishing that.
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Here is the bottom line: MAGIC is stupid. It makes no sense. Period. End of story.

What makes magic interesting and worth watching is the presentation. Want proof? Try watching Bill Malone do Sam The Bellhop with the sound off. It's just a guy shuffling the deck and turning cards over. Now turn the volume back up and all of a sudden, it's freaking hilarious.

Go to the other extreme and watch McBride do his masks without sound (no music, nothing) It's just a puzzle. Turn the volume up with the background music and now it's more interesting. Now, a story unfolds.

What's the reason for this post?

It's all in the presentation.

The Village Idiot
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Something very important to keep the audience interesseted is Change. If you the same effect three times, it might get boring (doing it with the first ball, repeat it with the second ball and then doing it again a third time....*yawn*). If you intend to repeat an effect with the second ball, have something else happen. Even to your own "surprise". Watch Tommy Wonders Cups and Balls. So many surprises.
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Could painting the balls..... like into little earths... blue planets with land.... this could set someone right up into a little story...
I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately...trying to do something a little differently with the C&B....
walid ahumada
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Magicians pretty much know what is going to happen as soon as we see the cups, but we don't know how it's going to be presented, however lay people will not put to much attention on the patter, at the end of the day all they wonder is where the big loads came from??
“Magic becomes art when it has nothing to hide.” BEN OKRI quote
Mad Jake
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Three performances I've seen by pro's are John Mendoza, Ricky Jay and Michael Ammar. I really liked their presentations. I troll YouTube looking at other peoples C&B routines. Some have been down right deplorable and others genius. I would love to see Rainbow's routine, actually anyones routine. I agree that here I have one ball and now it's two blah blah is often seen, but usually by performers just getting into or comfortable with the cups and balls. At least that's my opinion. When you start to watch other styles is when the lightbulb comes on. You see that you can stray from the norm and weave s story around 3 Cups and 3 Balls. I especially enjoy John Mendoza's closing to his routine, I never expected it. I won't mention it here because I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it.

As I was learning from my dad and watching others I knew I had to have my own knack for it so I have worked slowly on new moves and surprises. You can also use unconventional things, just ask Kent Gunn, my father showed me his routine book and what a creative mind Kent has. Do not be afraid to think outside the cup. Another magical genius with cups is Tim Starr, I love his final load.

Just my 2 cents I thought I would throw in.

Jake Jr.
For quality Paul Fox Cups spun on Danny Dew's Paul Fox tooling visit us at
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I watch people do the cups and balls and they get them out say what they say about them then they do something like take all the balls and put them a way. then they show they have all returned back under the cups. But two things that annoy me is first up not enough attention is put on the cup begin empty so people kind of miss whats going on. And second son as the third cup is lifted showing the third ball the magician is moving on talking about something else. these moment really need to be digested buy the crowd.

So yes as we theme and get creative we need make sure we highlight and celebrate the magic we are performing.

Anyway I have a bad flu and on medication so I will stop rambling, hope there sense in this some where?
Enjoy your magic,

and let others enjoy it as well!
Mark Levenson
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Agreed. If the magician treats his effects as magic rather than as demonstrations of skill or superiority, it's easier for the audience to treat them as magic, too. Watch Rene Lavand with The Three Breadcrumbs. Lavand alternately shows delight and surprise at the appearance of the missing ball in the cup--slightly, subtly--which emphasizes the magic and adds to its "magicalness."
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