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The Most Important Thing In Magic

Magicians have long lamented the blasé attitude directed at their beloved form of art. “Magic doesn’t get the respect it deserves!” we cry. Agents groan, “Oh. Another magic act. Martha, are we recycling our toner cartridges like we should? Let’s try to save a tree this month, even if it is one of those peculiar plastic trees.”

“Magic is a high Art!” we continue. “Why don’t people mention us in the context of painters, songwriters and singers, film makers and actors, choreographers and dancers, or mimes? Okay, we can forgive that mimes thing.” Scenes from Woody Allen’s “Broadway Danny Rose” waft into view.

The reason, my friend, is your uncle. The Evil Uncle Bob. Yes, it was that abominable incarnation of a relative, Uncle Bob, that was the demise of Magic. Uncle Bob is why Magic has never risen properly to an art form of reasonably high regard. Like the crazy aunt locked in your attic, few people talk about Bob, but everybody knows he is there.

Oh, Bob never meant any harm. Just because he has forced your family to make thirty-seven piles out of an innocent deck, made everyone count and subtract innumerable times, and (almost as often as not) found what you think might have once been a selected card of some sort, he didn’t intentionally try to hurt us. Watching Uncle Bob muddle, fluff, and prattle away for an hour or so didn’t cause any unusual bleeding or discharge. It was no more boring than trimming the hamster’s toenails, and if you studied the endless piles of meaningless cards, you couldn’t tell where the smell was coming from- exactly.

No one knew what a vile villain Uncle Bob really was. It wasn’t because he balanced that old deck like a pig on a snow-shovel. It wasn’t because Bob never fully recovered from that charisma bypass he had as a small child. It wasn’t because he normally didn’t get that card until the third or fourth try. Baseball players’ batting averages aren’t any better. But Uncle Bob unwittingly did a horrific thing, a thing so despicable, so disturbing, so invasive, and so vile that we can never forgive the damage he has done. Uncle Bob defined Magic.

Like Al Goshman and a large bowl of vegetable beef stew, Uncle Bob made a lasting impression. There have been thousands of Uncle Bobs over the years, and hundreds upon hundreds of boorish bumblers like him. Bob’s adopted brother, El Whizzo, called himself “a professional magician.” El Whizzo said he was a magic man of remarkable talent and skill. How were we to know that fighting with a dented Dove Pan for ten minutes, only to produce a flimsy, flaccid, dry-rotted rubber chicken … was not the BEST that Magic could be? Everybody assured us that this was Magic, and we had no point of reference to know better. El Whizzo was mildly more amusing than Uncle Bob, and the peeling paint on Whizzo’s wrinkled station wagon did say “MAGICIAN,” as best as we could discern. He must have been the real deal!

The Most Important Thing In Magic: When you perform Magic, when you call yourself a Magician, you define what Magic is, and what a magician is for your audiences. Not only for the moment, often for years to come. You define Magic not only for your audiences, but also for the friends of your audiences that hear of your performance. You define Magic not only in formal shows, but in casual exhibitions as well. It is far more responsibility than most of us normally consider it to be. Magic is instantly elevated or snappily scuttled, based on what we do. Just like the sickening specters that take form at the whisper of Uncle Bob and El Whizzo’s names, the strikingly vivid memories of Magic as a fabulous performing art and entertainment medium can displace and dissipate them. If it is to be, it is up to . . .

So, many folks think of Magic in terms of the worst "magic" performance they have personally seen, yet we can individually change that by making them love and want something they thought they hated.


Randy Wakeman

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I have a theory as to why karaoke singers don't cheapen the music industry. People can refuse to go to karaoke night at their local bar. However, it's hard to get away from Uncle Bob with his dog-eared deck, who insists on inflicting himself on his intended audience.
Tom Cutts
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You did alter your perspective toward the end so I assume you would agree, the fault lies not at the feet of Bob but at the feet of the artists who failed to provide the Artistic Example.

Yes, horrid musicians and horrid painters and... all exist. The difference is that the real artists in those pursuits have a greater communication with the general public

That is what magic lacks...and that is what Randy calls for.
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I believe we can all make a difference.
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I agree that the Evil Uncle Bob has been a problem (especially when it comes to The Magician's Choice Force!), but I think that there is another problem. There is a catch phrase that, I think, was started by Marshal Brodien. It states, "Magic is EASY, once you know the secret!" Ludicrous! Magic is NOT easy just because you know how a trick is done. By saying that you also say that magic is NOT a skill that requires years of practice. That phrase says that magic is not an art that requires talent, but that it is something trivial that ANYONE can do. Smile
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One thing that struck me. I was watching "30 Seconds to Fame" on Fox.(I know, I know...) Smile

Anyway, there was a young magician doing silk to cane, etc. While technically proficient, it left me cold. Why? HE ONLY HAD 30 SECONDS TO PERFORM! I believe magic should be able to touch the audience in an emotional way. Houdini did it through "Is he going to die trying to escape?", Copperfield does it through elaborate stage effects that still tug at heartstrings, such as "Flying". Blaine does it one-on-one where the audience identifies with the person Blaine interacts.

That's the difference from what ol' Uncle Bob goes after. He is like the four year old yelling to his parents, "Look, look what I can do!"

Think of your audience FIRST, then yourself. Your craft will be better represented from it.
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I enjoyed reading your comment. We can all learn from what you have said. We do have a responcibility to do the best we can when we do magic.

Dolini Smile Smile Smile Smile Smile Smile
John O'Shea Dolan
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Having seen this thread before going shopping this morning (aside: You were busy this morning, Randy!), as my wife and I drove around I asked her what she thought was the reason that magic doesn't get the same respect as other arts. She has a good layman's (laywoman's?) point of view, which I didn't taint by telling her Randy's. She had a few good points to consider.

First, how many times have you introduced yourself as a magician, only to have someone say that they'd better guard their wallet or watch? Consciously or unconsciously many people associate magicians with charletains, con artists, thieves, card cheats, and snake-oil salesmen. This is hardly surprising, for these have all contributed to the techniques employed my modern magicians. If you couple this with the presentations employed by many magicians (see any thread here concerning Three Card Monte) and you'll see why many people associate a magic performance with being outsmarted, being cheated, or being made the fool.

Second, many religions have well-established strictures against anything even resembling the occult, the miraculous, and graven images (e.g., court cards). This is not unlike some religion's rules against dancing, for example, but is more widespread.

Third, there are the unpracticed, unprofessional professional magicians out there who give everyone a bad name. (She finally got to one of Randy's examples.) It is interesting that I returned to magic some nine years ago because I saw a performance by a professional who was awful and I knew that I could do a much better job and thoroughly enjoy doing it.

I agree with Randy, we can all do something to improve the image of magicians, by being the kind of entertainers our audiences will want to see again. Anything we can do to further that attitude will benefit us all.
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On 2002-08-04 11:25, RandyWakeman wrote:
...you define what Magic is...It is far more responsibility than most of us normally consider it to be. Magic is instantly elevated or snappily scuttled, based on what we do.
Well said, sir. If only more "magicians" would take this to heart, magic would, ideed, receive the respect she deserves. Unfortunately, in most cases, these types of essays tend to be "preaching to the choir"--the folks that need them don't listen, and the folks that listen are not the offenders.
"Love God, laugh more, spend more time with the ones you love, play with children, do good to those in need, and eat more ice cream. There is more to life than magic tricks." - Scott F. Guinn
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On 2002-08-04 18:25, S2000magician wrote:
as my wife and I drove around I asked her what she thought was the reason that magic doesn't get the same respect as other arts.
First, how many times have you introduced yourself as a magician, only to have someone say that they'd better guard their wallet or watch? Consciously or unconsciously many people associate magicians with charletains, con artists, thieves, card cheats, and snake-oil salesmen. This is hardly surprising, for these have all contributed to the techniques employed my modern magicians.

Hello $2000,

Congratulations on being lucky enough to have a bride that will discuss magic! I'm glad to hear there are a few saintly women left in the world!

Hardly surprising, indeed, when (in card-land, anyway) some of our most glorified figures are thieves, if not murderers.

There has always been a certain romance with conmen, hustlers, and "advantage" play.
We seem to perpetuate that public perception in large measure, as anything "gambling related" we do is anything but a gamble.

For better or worse, the respect we give the Art reflects right back at us.
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There are, I'm sure, just as many lousy musicians and painters and writers as there are magicians. Maybe the difference is that musicians and painters and writers can practise their arts for their own pleasure and don't need an audience - they don't usually wander around, pockets bulging with instruments or paints and brushes or manuscripts looking for someone to impress.
There are clubs where amateur musicians can go and play - easy to avoid if you don't want to hear them. Likewise with artists and writers groups.

I don't know how prevalent these Uncle Bob's are/were (I don't recall ever seeing one), but the present attention on David Blaine has seemed to create a lot of guys who go out 'loaded for bear', as the saying goes, looking for innocent bystanders to inflict their tricks on. And, like their role model, they are, perhaps, too interested in impressing rather than entertaining their victims. There's more to life than having pretty girls saying: "You must be a god!" (I think).

He asked me if I liked card tricks. I said "No." He did three. (W. Somerset Maugham)
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Shala-Ra knelt beside the prostrate figure in the dimly lit Quonset hut. He ran his hand lightly over the nearly foot long gash in the youths leg. The lion mauling had been vicious, but not fatal and even though the wound was red and angry with infection it was draining well and should heal without incident. It would however leave a nasty scar. A life long reminder of the folly of hunting alone on the veldt.

Shala-Ra reached into his medicine bag and withdrew a handful of powder which he had concocted from a rare root that only he knew how to find. This he sprinkled liberally on the open wound knowing that it would speed the healing and ease the pain.

Before rising he gave the boy a sip of a elixer made from an infusion of leaves and herbs that his grandfather had taught him to brew. This would break with the fever and help the boy to sleep.

Shala-Ra walked over to the child’s mother and handed her the gourd containing the healing liquid.

“If he wakes” he told her looking into her worried brown eyes “Give him more of this”

“Will he live?” her voice quavering, as she took the gourd,

“He will live” said the medicine man as he gripped the distraught mothers shoulder reassuringly “He will live”.

The woman sniffed, attempting to stifle the tears that had been welling up throughout the whole horrid ordeal. She led the tribe’s holy man out into the bright noonday sun.

“Thank you” she said taking the Shala-Ra’s weathered hands in hers. she looked the wizend old man in the eyes and asked

“By the way are you available for little Tim-mee’s birthday party this weekend?”
“I will check my schedule and get back to you” said Shala-Ra as he headed off to the dying Binga-Do’s tent to assure her soul’s entrance into the great hereafter.

This never ever happens!

There is a horrible misconception, propagated by many Magic History books that the modern magician is descended from the great Holy men and Temple Priests of old.

That once we were advisors to Kings and Emperors and worshipped by the masses.

The truth however is that we occupied a much lower level on the social food chain, somewhere near the bottom with jugglers, bear baiters and other novelty acts.

We utilized the Priest’s and Holy Men’s methods but not their position.

Until the Nineteenth Century the term “Magician” was used to refer to someone who was thought or purported to have real magical powers. The Doctor Dee’s and Count Cagliostro’s were looked upon as men possesing these abilities much like the Uri Gellers and John Edwards of today.

These men occupy a higher place in s the social scheme than the common every day conjurer. I seriously doubt that John Edwards has ever been asked to do a birthday party.

We have been looked down on through the ages because we just do tricks, we are fakes and cheaters. We lie and cheat for a living and therefore are not to be trusted.

Up until a hundred and fifty years ago our venue was the street. We were viewed by the public then much the way we view street people today, little more than beggars and vagrants.

We were reviled by both the Church and the Ruling Class because we were outside of the rigid social structure. We produced nothing and fed off the labors of others like social parasites.

So considering this long and tawdry past I think were doing pretty good.

Magic today has never been stronger. In Vegas there is hardly a casino that doesn’t boast a magic show. We can now count the number of Magicians with multi-Million Dollar Contracts on the fingers of two hands instead of one. We have at least one new magic special a year on network television. Books, Videos and new tricks abound. Internet Chat rooms and bulletin boards are crammed full. Magic is alive and well.

As for respect. That may or may not come but is it really that important? I must admit that I am disappointed whenever some one say to me after finding out that I am a magician that “Oh the children must enjoy that”. But at least we are now thought of automatically as children’s entertainers rather than vagrants or parasites.

Respect will come eventually but only after we ourselves start respecting magic and taking it seriously.

As soon as major illusion builders stop selling thousand dollar effects labeled as “easy to do”.

As soon as the practitioners of the craft stop buying every new trick that comes along and concentrate on mastering the ones the already own.

As soon as we stop thinking of magic as tricks and effect but as pieces of theatre it can be.

How can we expect to take magic seriously when we ourselves do not?

We have come a long way in the last hundred years but we still have a long, long way to go.
"America's Foremost Satirical Magician" -- Jeff McBride.
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I used to think that not being "up" on the latest magic gadgets and videos and stuff was a disadvantage; I'm starting to change my mind. All I know are a lot of very old classic sleight of hand tricks/routines that I've played around with over the years and shaped into something that looks cool to me . . . and I wouldn't have thought that would impress people. . . but I was wrong. My brother bought the "Bitten Quarter" trick here lately - a trick I've wished I had for years, and I watched him perform it for people . . . and I've gotten much stronger reactions from simple little coin and card tricks, or sponge balls, and so does he . . . he told me he didn't think it had been worth the money he paid for it. . . so maybe all this "keeping in style" and buying up endless gimmicks and videos and now DVDs . . . maybe that really hurts magic. Maybe there isn't enough effort and work in it anymore . . . just some thoughts to add to the thread . . .
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Randy... You've started a wonderful thread here. Bravo! People WANT to experience wonderment. They want us 'magicians' to be good at what we do. EVERYTHING we do as magicians or illusionists, or mentalists should stem from this belief.

Was I as polished as currently when I first stared? BY ALL MEANS... NO. I become better and better with each practice session. My magic takes on new meaning, and therefore affects people differently than it did 20 years ago. Life experiences have made my magic so much the better. When we go to the movies, we want to see a good movie. We want to view creative and emotionally impactful works of art. People want to feel that special feeling of surprise and wonderment... it's our nature.

I personally try for the true human emotion that my routines reach for. Real human emotion, in many ways, is better than all of the applause in the world. When was the last time, someone you met... experienced magic? Not a trick or a gag... but real, emotion releasing wonderment.

Randy, thanks for writing this topic!

- - Troy
"If you go around sprinkling Woofle Dust on everything... people will think 'My... What an odd character." www.magicmafia.com
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As for respect. That may or may not come but is it really that important?

I believe it is. But, we can hardly expect it of others if we do not give it to our own.
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On this topic, I like what Teller said (as quoted by Jamy Ian Swiss in his review of "Germain the Wizard," Genii, July 2002):

"Caught up in the difficulty of mystifying, magicians often forget that the first job of any artist is to communicate a beautiful idea...."
David Hirata

"Life is a combination of magic and pasta."
--Federico Fellini
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When Hofzinser became the star of the Vienna society in the 19th century, the respect and admiration for the art of magic had reached it's highest point (in fact so high, that there is still a street in Vienna named after Hofzinser)Why? Surely there where many reasons for his success.

Hofzinser performed exclusively in his own drawing room, he was a perfect Gentleman and he was a learned man, who could articulate himself.

He deeply loved magic, but as far as I know, he did not do magic on the streets, he did not hang around in Café's asking to perform there, he did not use corny gags or mix his magic with unrelated things like juggling, clowning, etc. Think about it.

In my opinion, we can all learn a lot by studying Hofzinser's and other past masters APPROACH to magic, because they worked very hard to make magic a very special experience and to gain the love and respect of the most demanding audiences.
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Payne says that, up until about 150 years ago, "We were reviled by both the Church and the Ruling Class."

Well, that's got to be SOME progress: Now we're reviled by just about everybody!

A big part of the problem, I would suggest, is that just about anyone can call themselves a magician if they buy a few props and get a handful of cheesy business cards. I know; I've met some of them.

You wouldn't go out an buy a piano and, that night, give a concert. But a lot of people think nothing of buying a few tricks and going out that night and doing a "show".

As was mentioned, we can only teach by example. One person at a time.

Of course, a quicker way to improve the art and raise its esteem in the public's eyes would be if about 75 per cent of those doing magic would simply stop!


Oh, well, one can dream.

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Why is most magic so bad? Recently I was at a fair where there was a magician who must have owned Ten Thousand dollars worth of props. Each he did exactly as the instructions told him to. No personal touches, no combined effects, zero originality. It was like watching a magic shop demo itself. The audience was kind and applauded for each and every demo and I am sure they thought he was pretty good. I mean every trick worked so he must be good, right?
Every town has their local magic hack. Ours is no different. We have a guy here who is so bad that not only will people who have mistakenly hired this fellow never hire another magician again but may very well have to go into therapy after seeing him perform. Not only has he had his clients buy the props he needs for his performance at the local shop but also has been known to say to a spectator, who failed to locate her own previously selected card after a long and complex mathematical procedure , “well you certainly f**ked that up didn’t you”.
I have an acquaintance with more money than sense who buys every trick that comes along and inflicts them upon his co-workers. I am sure, by his performances that he has practiced each and every effect once or twice before doing this and may even have read the instructions.
What do we do to fix this? How can we get these people either to stop performing in public or see the error of their ways.
Do we send them copies of Nelms, Ortiz or Fitzkee with the proper sections highlighted?
How about anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night threatening them with bodily harm unless they change their evil ways?
Or perhaps the more direct approach of just walking up to them and telling them everything they need to know in order to improve their show.
I know I will post a missive here with a list of books and videos to purchase that will improve their magic tenfold. I will post my philosophy on the subject of performing so that they can read my wizened words and experience the nirvana of performing magic perfectly. If only they would take my advice to heart, follow my carefully laid out instructions, adopt my performance style, perform magic exactly as I say it should be done. Then and only then will magic be accepted as the art form it should be.
What do we do? What do we do? What do we do?
To paraphrase Mr. C “The bad will always be with us”.
Nothing anyone can do is going to make them any better, mainly because they don’t realize that they’re bad to begin with.
The first step to becoming a good performer is to realize that your bad. This is a personal epiphany that you have to make for your self, no one else can make it for you. Until that point we must quietly tolerate the poor performer and their performances.
So what can we do to make magic better?
Make your own magic as good as you can. Show the lay public that a good magic show is more than just having all the tricks work. It’s story telling or theatre or mystery or a thousand other things, what ever works for you, your character and your performance style.
"America's Foremost Satirical Magician" -- Jeff McBride.
Dave Egleston
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A long time ago, in one of the big Magic magazines - One of the most prominent magicians around, started one of the most spirited debates in recent years - "Professional" magicians being copied by mere "amatuer" magicians - Like all discussions - This one meandered from tangent to tangent
Though I don't have the exact quote - This Magician stated that Magic is the only field where performers were copied and plagerized - Comedian/singer/actors policed themselves

Oops - Sorry about that
Oops I did it again
Oh Man!

How many times have you gone to a concert - then sang all the songs with the performer and all the way home?
How many times have you tried to tell every joke and reinact every bit that you saw a comedian perform onstage?
How many times have you told your friends about every scene in a movie and quoted the actors lines? Go Ahead ---- Make my day

So why in the world would we think that everyone who goes to see our acts, aren't going to descibe or try to duplicate what they've seen????

Just my observation on performance

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