Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Mystery of the Props

Television is as responsible as anything for my interest in magic. Not only was there Marshall Brodien and his TV Magic, but in Montreal we had "Magic Tom."

Magic Tom Auburn was THE local magician.  He hosted a local kids show that was our equivalent to Bozo.  He also seemed to be the go-to performer for live events around town.  And why not?  At the point when I was introduced to him, he presented himself as everyone's idea of the uncle who could do cool stuff.  He was friendly and respectful, great with kids and he could do magic.  What was not to like?

It was with this image in my head that I thought I too could perform for kids.  He made it look so easy that I thought it was easy.  It was not until I had retired from the stage that I came to understand that it was only because of absolute mastery of his material that he could appear so effortless. 

Here are some videos where you can get a sense of what I'm talking about.

So, not only was I hearing that "magic is easy once you know the secret" but I was seeing it every week in the person of Magic Tom.

At about the same time that I first saw the ads for TV Magic Cards, I remember seeing a similar style ad for the Wonder Mouse.  I don't know who was selling it, or even if it was called Wonder Mouse at the time, but I have a memory of seeing this advertised and being completely fascinated by this magical plastic mouse.  There was no abracadabra, no magic wands, just an inanimate plastic mouse that appeared to be able to do impossible things.  It looked like real magic.

Well, here, take a look for yourself:

This isn't the actual ad, but it gives you some idea of what I saw.

As I was preparing this piece, I was surprised to see that the mouse is still being sold. There is a more modern variation called the "Squirmel," but the mouse is still going strong.

This surprised me because when I finally got my hands on one, I remember being so completely disappointed in the "secret." The little "motor" that made the mouse do his wonderful tricks didn't make me think so much of Magic Tom as it did Rocky's famous line to Bullwinkle: "those tricks never work."

As I have noted elsewhere, I was pretty focused on getting caught and so a trick's "technology" had to pretty bulletproof. The part that I didn't get about performing is that elaborate technology comes with its own set of problems. The more the moving parts the more parts there are to break. In its own way, the Wonder Mouse is pretty bulletproof, but for a different reason. It's simplicity means that the performer doesn't have to think about it and can instead focus on his presentation.

What continues to impress me about magicians is that they willing enter into a performance with a hostile audience. The promise of trickery means that the audience is alert for possible clues that will enable them to discover the method. Nontheless, the magician distracts, misdirects and charms the audience so that he or she can pull the wool over their eyes. That's a kind of bravery that I can respect, but otherwise can't get close to.

Magic is storytelling, not technique. Every set of instructions I have ever read begins with the effect of the trick. That is the primary consideration: what does the audience see? The path to accomplishing that effect can take many routes and the actual work of the trick can happen at any point before the end. Some tricks are done before the performer has even begun and others can have a variety of outcomes depending on what happens along that path.

When I was still doing kids shows, I would go to the magic shops--Morrissey's in Ville St. Laurent, or Cramer's on Bleury--and look for the items that I saw Magic Tom use. I remember getting a piece of used equipment from Cramer's that became the close of my show. It was something I had seen Magic Tom use, a glass of sugar that turned into a glass full of candy. That was something a professional used. I used it, so I was on my way to becoming a professional.

It has taken me some four decades to recognize something that should have been painfully obvious: magic is not about the equipment and the technique. These are the details, the accents in the story told by the performer. It's not what happens when the simple metal tube covers the glass, but all about what happens to the spectators when the tube is removed. When they are transformed from cynics and secret-seekers into those who believe in wonder, that's when the magic happens.

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