SPS Magic

Getting Help

When I started doing school shows twenty years ago, I had one of my shows videotaped and passed it along to my father. He watched the tape twice and made detailed notes and criticisms. Most of the suggestions were valid—I could see that, painful though it was. So I began making alterations and improvements. I understand that Johnny Ace Palmer, whose delightful close-up act has won numerous awards, had help from his mother in developing his material. For you, it may be someone outside the family. But whoever you find, make sure they have the ability to be a good judge—and make sure they are honest. John Young, a professional magician and balloon artist, says that magicians are among the few showmen who don’t ask for professional help. Singers take voice lessons, dancers take dance lessons, actors have coaches and follow the advice of directors. But what about magicians? Or clowns? Or jugglers? Or ventriloquists? We generally try to do it on our own. One reason is that it’s difficult to find a qualified instructor. Difficult, but not impossible.

After my father had analyzed my show, I made the corrections I knew how to make, but realized there was still room for improvement. So I looked around to find a performer I admired and trusted. I had seen a guy named Chris Carey at the Florida State Magicians’ Convention in 1980 and thought his act to be thoroughly professional. When we crossed paths again in 1983, I asked if he would be willing to critique my show. We arranged a two-day consultation, and he watched one of my programs. He offered some valuable criticism—and despite that fact, we have since become good friends!

Perhaps a big step in your career, no matter how long you have been performing, would be to ask yourself, “Who do I know who could critique my show? Is there a professional in the business whose advice I could trust?” Then contact the person to find out if they are willing, what it would cost, and when th ey are available to see you work. Make sure they understand that you want specific, honest criticism.

Just the Facts, Please!

Getting people to tell you the truth is difficult. If they feel that you will get angry about their advice, they will give you a vague, “Oh, uh, yeah . . . enjoyed that . . . that was fun. Thanks for inviting me.” Or they will give you a review you could take anyway you want—like Mark Twain’s reply to aspiring authors: “I have read your book and much like it.”

If they trust you and your maturity level, you are much more likely to get an honest evaluation. Be mature enough to know that they aren’t criticizing you, just your material. They may like you, they may like your performing style and most of what you do. But some of your act may be inappropriate or poorly performed. The job of the coach is to help you weed out the weak stuff and strengthen your good material.

The key to making this process work is to listen and learn. I was delighted in 1985 when Fetaque Sanders went to see one of my shows. Fetaque is a long-time performer, one of the leading school show magicians of the 1940’s and 1950’s, and a great comic entertainer. After the performance, I walked over to where Fetaque was seated. He looked up at me, and he wasn’t smiling. He paused long enough to make me wonder if I should get out of show business. Then he said, “Perfect. Absolutely perfect.”

But I wasn’t vain enough to fall for that. I managed to convince him, during the next few months, that I am always looking for an honest appraisal. Fetaque began accompanying me to my shows in the Nashville area, and we became good friends. One day, feeling free to offer constructive criticism, Fetaque said to me, “You know, that thing you do with the bag . . . .”

“Yes?” I asked.

“Get rid of it,” he said.

And I did! 

That is an all-important step—if the advice of your coach makes sense, do it.

Fetaque himself asked for and took advice from other professionals during his own career. One gag line he delivered at the end of a joke was, “So would I!” A professional comedian told him the line would have more “punch” if he shortened it to, “Me, too!” Fetaque took the man's advice and found that he was right.


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