SPS Magic

The following excerpt is from Samuel Patrick Smith's book ON STAGE: BRINGING OUT THE BETTER PERFORMER IN YOU. 

A Magical Myth

A colorful old character of magic, Dr. A. M. Wilson, editor of The Sphinx, once uttered a proverb which has been repeated by magicians many times during the past 75 years:

Magic is an art that sometimes instructs, often amuses, and always entertains.

The fact that this saying has been accepted at face value and repeated for many years is evidence that a good quotation doesn’t necessarily have to be true! Magic does not always entertain. Sometimes it bores! Sometimes it annoys! Sometimes it gives people a good laugh—at the magician. Evidently, old doctor Wilson didn’t get out much! If he had, he would have seen the ill-prepared, self-absorbed folks who persist in showing people magic they don’t want to watch.

But a little literary license could easily repair the good doctor’s quotation. Instead of saying, “Magic is an art,” it should read, “Magic as an art. . .” Then the quotation would appear as follows, and it would be true:

Magic, as an art, sometimes instructs, often amuses, and always entertains. —A. M. Wilson with Samuel Patrick Smith

Magic cannot stand on its own. It does not automatically entertain people. Rather, magic can be used as a means to entertain. The key is that the magician must take magic seriously enough to consider it one of the performing arts. It must be presented in a professional, entertaining manner. The performer must approach it from the standpoint of the people watching. Do they really want to see an hour of dealing poker hands? Do they want to see a long, humorless card trick? The answer is most likely no—especially when a more direct, amusing, and equally amazing card trick could be substituted.

For the magician who approaches magic as a performing art, the goal is to help spectators enjoy themselves. Magic should not be a form of punishment! It should be, and often is, something that people ask about and want to see.

When Are You “On Stage”?

Whether you are entertaining friends with the Salt Shaker Through Table or performing on stage for a large audience of ticket-buyers, there are certain practices which evoke positive responses from spectators. The use of these principles is called “showmanship.” Keep in mind that this term applies to all levels of performing. 

The public’s image of magic is affected as much by the pool-side performances of the amateur magician as it is by the professional’s assembly show or night club act. This is true mainly because there are more amateurs than professionals! In fact, professionals can’t honestly look down on hobbyists, because many amateurs are superior performers! Often, it seems, the professional is busy drumming up jobs, leaving little time or energy for the progressive improvement of his skills. He is like the woodcutter whose production decreased because he would not take the time to sharpen his axe.

So, whether you are an amateur or professional, whether you specialize in close-up or in stage illusions, the principles of showmanship apply to you. And even though we may become involved in magic out of curiosity or fascination, the thing that gets us interested is not the thing that makes us successful. It is the presentation that counts.

The Real Magic

During my many visits with Fetaque Sanders, one of the main things he emphasized was that apparatus is not magic. “Props aren’t the real magic,” he always said. “The real magic is in the presentation and patter. Besides, patter packs better than props.” Patter, to Fetaque, was the careful selection and economy of words used to misdirect and entertain spectators. This, he felt, was the only magic there is. Many other top professionals share this opinion. While some performers are always acquiring more and more props, buying bigger and bigger illusions, the real pros know that audiences just want to have fun! They love to see great magic, but only when it is presented in a great way. 

Watch Gene Anderson perform a paper cutting and folding act, and you will see that the magic is in presentation. That marvelous magician/mime, Vito Lupo, takes such mundane props as mouth coils, throw streamers, and even soap bubbles, and creates wonder and beauty on stage. It is showmanship which makes every great entertainer great!

How Burling Hull “Sold” A Fifty-cent Trick

Years ago, in Jacksonville, Florida, Burling Hull was booked as the featured performer for the annual banquet of the local magic club. At that point in Burling’s career, one of his feature effects was the Burned and Restored Turban, a simple, old-fashioned trick. But according to Bob Hutchings, who was president of the club, Burling completely “sold” that oldie to an audience of magicians. He told me, “The trick cost about fifty cents, but in the hands of Burling Hull, it was a masterpiece.”

Burling’s presentation was in dramatic story form, as he related his “recollection” of the ceremonial burning of a turban “on the banks of the sacred Ganges.”

He began, “Ah, well do I remember…when old Omar took the turban from the top of his head . . .” Burling tossed one end of the turban to his assistant, and the other end to a volunteer on the other side of the stage. Burling cut the turban in half and tied the cut ends into a knot. Striking a match, he ignited the knot into a healthy blaze which he then extinguished, bare-handed. Then, gathering the burnt ends in his hands, Burling pattered his way to the climax.

As Bob Hutchings told me, “When Burling came to the end of the trick, he opened his hand to reveal the restored turban, and at the same time dropped to one knee, saying, ‘Thus endeth the mystery of the turban reborn.’ When he went down on his knee and gave that final line, the whole audience jumped to their feet and gave him a standing ovation…for a fifty-cent trick.”
Showmanship put it across.

Dunninger Did It

Another great performer was Joseph Dunninger, who also had a knack for taking simple tricks and turning them into astonishing feats of mental magic. It has been said that his skill as a showman was second only to Houdini’s. His dramatic flair and unusual presentations literally won him fame and fortune. Kreskin does an act similar to Dunninger’s, and as fine a showman as Kreskin is, I still suggest that those who have not done so, should listen to some recordings of Dunninger’s radio show. Even for someone, such as myself, who does not do mentalism, recordings of Dunninger are a postgraduate course on presentation. His sheer nerve, combined with a pleasing personality on stage, created his masterful performances.

Of course, I believe in the importance of doing quality magic, of having skill and dexterity. In fact, doing good, strong magic is a must. That is half of the show. The other half is the effective presentation of strong material. Effective presentation is not “entertaining” an audience with a series of unrelated one-liners culled from the latest encyclopedia of insults. We are not talking about killing time with by-play and gags. They have their part, but they will not take the place of skill, thoughtfully combined with good, solid presentation. 

Magic consists not in one’s collection of apparatus, but in the quality of one’s presentation. I have been greatly entertained by Jay Marshall and Mike Caveney. They both present terrific acts which could fit into a small briefcase. This doesn’t mean that equipment and illusions aren’t useful. Blackstone’s show was a fabulous display of props and settings—but wasn’t it his showmanship that put the show over? When I saw Blackstone perform in Orlando in 1979, it was the Floating Light Bulb which produced the most oohs and aahs.

The First Step

If we agree that presentation—not props—is the key, let’s now consider how we can develop showmanship. 

The starting point of showmanship is practice. Just as roots support the tree, so too does practice (the unseen), support everything the audience sees on stage. 

There’s no way around it—if you want to present magic that is entertaining to the audience and satisfying to you as a performer, you will have to put in many hours of practice. A simple idea, but how difficult for us to follow! It is very tempting to “wing it” with a new trick. Haven’t we all had the feeling that, once on stage, a golden stream of comedy patter would come to mind? If we haven’t thought of it in those exact terms, I’m quite certain we have all felt that we could “get by” without having thoroughly practiced a trick and its accompanying patter.

Nobody Is Immune!

A few years ago, I saw a magician, a professional who is admired throughout the United States, try to present a trick he had not thoroughly practiced. He is a great performer, but the trick still flopped. Even the finest performer is not immune to the basic law that practice makes perfect. It sounds so elementary, I hesitate to say it, but to do good magic, you will have to practice the tricks. The following five suggestions for effective practice may be helpful.

Five Keys to Better Practice

1. Focus on what you are doing.

Haphazardly running through random moves of a routine cannot be called practice. That is playing. You are practicing when you have a definite aim and are working toward it.

For instance, in your billiard ball routine, you suspect that the ball “flashes” while doing a change-over palm. Your objective might be to improve your timing and turning to eliminate the tell-tale “showing.” With that in mind, you would work on the move in front of a mirror until you could fool yourself. And even then, you would work some more.

2. Use a mirror.

It’s one of the oldest ideas in the book and also one of the best. I realize that some people object to practicing with a mirror on the grounds that you won’t have a mirror when you are on stage. But for most of us, our level of self-awareness is very low—we simply do not realize how we look to others. Looking at yourself in a mirror helps you see what your viewers see. Of course, during the later stages of practice and during rehearsal, you won’t use a mirror, because you will want to feel comfortable doing the moves without seeing them. But for starters and for working out the rough edges, practicing before the mirror will be a good reflection on you.

3. Let a qualified performer watch you.

Note the term, “qualified performer.” A competent performer can give you the best help. He knows about stage movements, graceful handling of props, and a dozen other details. Beware of those critical folk who have made a hobby of downgrading performers. Anyone can find ways to change your material, but you don’t want change—you want improvement. Criticism can be very helpful, but make sure it is constructive.

I’ve been fortunate to have Burling Hull, Fetaque Sanders, Chris Carey, David Ginn, and many other fine magicians help me analyze my performances. Seek out someone who is qualified in your area of specialty. If you are doing shows for family audiences, someone working comedy clubs may not be the best advisor. Likewise, if you are working comedy clubs, a birthday party specialist won’t know the ropes. 

4. Record yourself.

Recording your practice sessions will help your patter as much as a mirror will help your moves. (We are speaking here of audio recording, but video goes a step further and can be very helpful.) I make recordings of my shows for future reference. The following year, if I want to use a routine that I’ve taken out of the show for one reason or another, I review a recording of that effect, and in very little time the patter is fresh in my mind. Recording your routines for pocket tricks is also a good idea. Sensible patter is just as essential there as it is for a stage production.

5. Be excited about learning and improving.

A positive mental attitude will keep you working until you “get it.” No one has arrived. We are all still working to improve, so remember that you don’t have to be perfect to perform. As you mature as an entertainer, you will find ways and means to improve what you do. We don’t have to attain perfection right now—we simply have to practice!

Practice vs. Rehearsal

These five points apply not only to practice, but to rehearsal as well—except for using the mirror. There is, of course, a difference between practice and rehearsal. Practice applies to the individual tricks themselves and the skills necessary to perform them. Rehearsal applies to your complete run-through of the show, or act, which is made up of the individual tricks you have practiced. Some would say that this distinction is nit-picky and insignificant. I say that it is very important: Have you ever tried to rehearse a show of unpracticed tricks? It gives you the feeling that you are trying to tunnel through a mountain with a toothpick. By understanding the difference between practice and rehearsal, this frustration can be reduced or eliminated. So start by learning the tricks to perfection, then blend them together in rehearsal.

Now, here is some interesting news: You will never be through rehearsing! Why? Because once you have put together a show, you will continue to polish, to “rehearse” the program as you perform it. Sometimes people ask me how often I practice or rehearse. The answer could be never, or 400 times a year—depending on one’s viewpoint. Once I learn a show and start performing it, there is no need for extra rehearsals, unless I have detected a major flaw. The “rehearsal” comes with doing the show 15 times in a week. I make a little change here, a little adjustment there, and the show naturally evolves.

Periodically, I try out a routine from my show in front of a mirror to make sure I haven’t slipped into a bad habit: holding a prop too low or at the wrong angle, or not pausing long enough for the audience to understand what has happened.

Practice Makes the Difficult Appear Easy

Performers in all lines of show business put in grueling hours of practice and rehearsal. Only in magic do you have the strange phenomenon of a person buying a trick and putting it in the show the same day! No musician would ever consider buying sheet music in the morning and performing it that night. No dancer walks out on stage and tries to improvise an entire routine!

In the performing arts, things which appear the simplest may be very difficult to do. Fred Astaire had a very easy and graceful performing style, but back of the ease and grace was a man of great intensity, working himself very hard mentally to achieve that style. In a documentary about his life, a television program showed some out-takes—footage not used in the final product—from one of his movies. He was dancing a very difficult routine with a cane in a relaxed, carefree manner, but he was not achieving the precise result he want-ed. In the midst of his smiles and easygoing manner, he stopped his routine and snapped the cane across his knee in anger! What appeared so simple on the surface was very difficult to achieve. Fred Astaire perfected his skills with intense mental and physical rehearsals.

Footage of Charlie Chaplin at work has surfaced in recent years, giving us a clue to his genius. His genius, it seems, consisted mainly in his incredible persistence, in his absolute refusal to quit filming a routine until he had just the right smile and exactly the right kind of stumble and recovery. He filmed routines over and over again, reminding us of Edison’s quotation that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration!

Selecting Material

Run through a list of magicians you admire and think about some of their routines. Off hand, I’m thinking of Dan Garrett, Max Howard, Hiawatha, Johnny Ace Palmer, Terry Seabrooke, Mac King, Topas, Bev Bergeron, Jeff McBride—all very different types of performers. But they have at least one thing in common: they have selected uncommon material for their acts. Not all of what they do is original or unique, but each of these performers has found at least one or two effects not commonly seen. When I asked Fetaque Sanders for his recommendations for new material, he said, “Go back through the old Sphinx magazines. You'll find things there that are so old nobody else is doing them." At least two other noted performers have told me the same thing!

However, your act doesn't have to consist of golden oldies. The point is to be a litle different from other performers. When David Copperfield performs a close-up effect on television, 15,000 magicians rush out and buy that same trick. Why? Maybe to show their friends that they have something in common with Copperfield! David Ginn, who has earned his living entirely from magic for almost 30 years, told me that he never includes a trick in his show which someone else has recently performed on national television. If Copperfield were to do an effect which David Ginn already had in his show, David (Ginn, that is) says he would remove the trick at once. He doesn't want spectators to say, "Oh, yes...I saw David Copperfield do that on TV."

The material you select for your show does not have to be exotic or complicated. You can perform standard routines, but try to find a way to set yours apart from the others. Stan Allen, Dan Garrett, and I all perform a rabbit-in-the-hat puppet routine. Each routine is substantially different from the other's, using the same prop. All three of us have found that what might normally be considered strictly a children's routine gets an excellent reaction in our shows for adults.

Developing a Trademark Routine

Review your current routines and see if something you are now doing could be made into a trademark effect. Often, you won't even realize what routines are your best until someone else points it out. On a couple of occasions, I learned a routine from a book, and a year or two later was asked by another magician where I got it. It then dawned on me that I had completely personalized the routine until it was nothing like the original. We've all done this kind of thing, but it usually takes someone else to point it out!

Working for Guinea Pigs

When your new routine or show is ready for a live audience, select an engagement that is not crucial to your future in magic. Friends and family are usually tolerant of new material, but if you're doing this on a paid basis, try it on a smaller less important audience. I can hear cries from magicians, near and far, saying, "you can't do an inferior show for one audience, just because it is smaller and less important!" True, but you will have to give the first perfomance to someone, and it might as well be exposed to as few spectators as possible in the early stages. You can practice and rehearse till your heart's content, but there is something about a live audience that will affect your initial performance of a show or trick.

Even if you have carefully scripted out your routine, you can't possibly know how each line of your patter will go over. I remember carefully preparing a script for a Botania routine in 1983. I was trying it out in a beautiful old school auditorium where Birch had played many years before. I had rehearsed the routine line-for-line at home. But when I tried it on stage, while Botania grew, the routine itself wilted!

This phenomenon is the reason Gene Anderson, in his lectureThe Part-time Pro recommends doing no more than one new trick in any given show. This is excellent advice, and I try to follow it as best I can.

However, there are exceptions. For instance, some markets such as school assemblies call for a new show each year, however, even in this situation, I can test a routine in advance by working it into a show I'm doing for a different market. Or, sometimes I try out a new routine for an audience which will not be re-booked for the following year. This gives me a chance to check audience reaction before the new show actually "hits the road."


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