SPS Magic

By Samuel Patrick Smith

The Oxford American Dictionary defines mentor as “a trusted advisor.” That's the whole definition—three simple words. The same dictionary defines influence as “the ability to affect someone's character or beliefs or actions.”

This booklet, then, will discuss the advantages of having a trusted advisor who affects your character, beliefs, and actions. While the examples here will pertain to the business of the variety arts, I believe the tremendous power of influence will spill over into other areas of life as well.

My examples will be from the viewpoint of a magician, since I went full-time into that occupation in 1982. Two magicians—Burling Hull and Fetaque Sanders—had particular influence on me. But the principles will, of course, apply to careers in clowning, juggling, mime, ventriloquism, and other branches of the variety arts.

Finding a mentor is not something you will put on your To Do list in the morning and check off at the end of the day. More likely, it will be a process which may first develop as a friendship, and by good graces, continue as a friendship.

What mentoring means to you depends on whether you're on the giving or receiving end. Having a mentor may provide you with a role model in one or more areas of personal and professional development. You may get advice, instruction, and inspiration from a mentor which helps you develop into a better performer and business person.
On the other hand, being a mentor gives you the satisfaction of feeling that your experience has not been wasted. As Oscar Wilde wryly noted, “Youth is wasted on the young,” but through mentoring and friendship, the lessons life has hammered into you can be passed along. Meanwhile, the Law of Compensation makes it impossible for you not to receive a commensurate reward.

Should a person strike out for the open road with the definite purpose of getting a mentor? Being too deliberate about it may not be the best approach. As Elbert Hubbard noted, “a prime requisite for success is a goodly dash of indifference.” But there are some clues to look for along the way to help you recognize people with whom you may develop such a relationship.
Sometimes, it's not who you think. One time I thought a certain professional speaker could develop into a mentor of mine, but as I had occasion to talk with him, I found him to be quite a braggart. Several glimpses of this convinced me that we were on different wavelengths. At that time—about 15 years ago—had you told me that a poor, retired black man living 650 miles away would soon become a good friend and mentor, I would have been surprised. Yet, that's exactly what happened.

In December 1984, I noticed the name and address of Fetaque Sanders in The Linking Ring magazine. It caught my eye because I had just been to Nashville, his hometown, and was planning a return trip.
So I wrote to Fetaque, and a week or two later, he called and invited me to visit him next time I was in town. He would show me his brochures and posters, he said, and we could “talk magic.” I returned to Nashville in February, called on Fetaque, and found him to be an interesting and knowledgeable person. Each day, I picked up Fetaque in my rented car, and between shows we talked about magic and advertising.

I was surprised how little attention he received from local magicians. This man was a real pro, a creative thinker, a unique character, and nobody was paying attention to him!

After our initial conversations, Fetaque said he suspected that we were on the same wavelength (“minds in accord” was his expression), but he quizzed me to make sure.

He would say, “Now, when I was in New York, I met the man who edited a monthly...” “Jean Hugard?” I'd venture. Fetaque would grin. “Hugard—that's right.” Later he might say, “...the name of the magician who worked on clocks...” “Robert-Houdin,” I'd reply. 

Fetaque would grin and say, “You're my man!” Or when I correctly explained the working of an effect or described a routine, he would say enthusiastically, “Yeah, yeah...that's what it's all about.”

For seven years, we visited, talked on the phone, or exchanged letters every week or two. Every time I was in Nashville, he accompanied me to my shows and eventually survived more of my performances than any other single person! He was fascinated by my career—he thought of it as an extension of his own. Although he had a healthy opinion of himself, in fun he would say, “I'm just a has-been—but you''re getting ready to be the world's greatest magician!”

I'd laugh at his exaggeration. I discovered that his own style of performing was similar to what I wanted to develop, and I would listen with fascination as he reconstructed his patter and routines from the 1930s and 40s. Sometimes he would offer specific advice. “You know that trick you do with the bag?” he inquired.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Get rid of it,” he said.

And I did!

He continually told me about the importance of writing down your routines so you could see them in print and work from a script, making needed adjustments and corrections. I resisted that until I began writing my book of routines, Big Laughs for Little People, and as I wrote the patter, I understood the value of his advice. I really could see the rhythm and flow of the routines much better after I put them on paper. But more important than his influence on me as a performer, which was significant, was his influence as a friend.
I knew that he always had my best interests at heart. Living alone and being eccentric enough to have alienated a number of acquaintances and relatives, he needed a friend. (I had already been inoculated by the eccentricities of Burling Hull, whose rugged individualism was legendary in magic.) After Fetaque and I had known each other a few months, he said, “How about this: I'll be your show doctor, and you can be my attitude doctor.” And that's the way it worked.

In all mentoring relationships, there are side benefits. One of the primary serendipties of knowing Fetaque was developing a greater awareness and appreciation for African-Americans. I never considered myself racially prejudiced, but knowing Fetaque and hearing his stories—none of them told with even a trace of anger—greatly enhanced my understanding of the effects of segregation.

In 1988, I suggested to Fetaque that he visit me in Florida and go with me to critique my new school show. He resisted. “I haven't left Nashville in twenty-five years, and I'm not going anywhere now.” I told him to ask his doctor what she thought of the journey, and with her encouragement he agreed. But he was cautious. “Will we be able to sit together in a restaurant? Or will people say anything if we're walking down the street together?” “Of course not,” I said. “Well, the last time I was in Florida, that was a problem,” he countered. “Fetaque, the last time you were in Florida was 1949.” So he came.

The shows went well, and after one school show he enthusiastically said, “You're a pro!” He said I was the Johnny Carson of little kids, which he later modified by calling me a combination of Johnny Carson and Mister Rogers! His encouragement and insight was always valuable and helped me see my strengths and weaknesses.

I've shared these reminiscences to show you how a mentoring relationship may develop and proceed. But every case is a little different. My friendship with Burling Hull developed much earlier and began as a mild form of hero-worship. I knew him as an author of magic books—over 60 books and manuscripts to his credit, I later discovered—and that impressed me. When my great-uncle, Conrad Smith, introduced us, I was immediately impressed by his resonant voice and smooth, refined manner—and he was 84 years old! During his long career in magic, he had known many of magic's legendary performers—Kellar, Houdini, Thurston, Blackstone, Dante—and he was awed by none of them. But even Burling had a trusted advisor: Paul Valadon, whom he considered the finest performer in the history of modern magic.

I discovered that Burling Hull and I lived 30 miles apart, and as a teenager, I persuaded relatives to cart me over to Burling's house where I would listen to his stories of show business for hours on end. He critiqued some of my early shows in an unusually kind manner. Nothing about me as a performer—an awkward teenage magician—seemed to challenge his famous bristling ego, and we got along famously.

But enough about me. Let's talk about you. In every part of the country there are people who would love to be valuable resources in someone's career. They are retired or lonely or concerned about their experience going to waste. They are waiting for someone to contact them and ask for advice or be a friend. They are waiting to hear from you. It may start with one question—asking for advice about one routine or joke or promotional piece. That small act may be the start of a long-lasting working relationship. Who knows where it will lead? You'll never know unless you take the first step.

Of course, you can read biographies and develop an imaginary mentorship with any great figure in history. But for our purposes, let's consider such imaginary mentors as heroes—a principle I also consider useful and important. As Thomas Carlyle pointed out in his book, Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, “One comfort is, that great men, taken up in any way are profitable company. We cannot look, however imperfectly, upon a great man, without gaining something by him.”

I have particularly benefited from and enjoyed reading Elbert Hubbard's Little Journeys to the Homes of Good Men and Great, 14 volumes of entertaining, inspirational, philosophical books covering approximately 170 of the world's greatest men and women. In magic, I''ve enjoyed John Booth's books because he writes about successful magicians and offers insights into their methods. But again, unless the person actually becomes an advisor to you, he is a hero, not a mentor.

True mentoring, then, is a two-way street. The mentor is a trusted advisor, implying that advice is given and at some point taken. The advantage here is that a mentor can offer specific advice exactly suited to your needs. Whether or not you take it is up to you.

I recently reread a book admired by persons of many faiths and cultures as one of the greatest compilations of wisdom of all time—the Book of Proverbs.
On this reading, I was struck by the frequent references to seeking and accepting advice.
“People who accept correction are on the pathway to life.” 
“Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many counselors bring success.”
“A single rebuke does more for a person of understanding than a hundred lashes on the back of a fool.” 
“Though good advice lies deep within a person's heart, the wise will draw it out.”
“It is an honor to receive an honest reply.” 
“As iron sharpens iron, a friend sharpens a friend.”

You can read the book for yourself, but this sampling gives us an idea that Solomon, a very wise man in spite of his thousand wives, achieved his own success by heeding trusted advisors.

We have mentioned some of the benefits of mentoring—receiving sound advice and friendship on the part of the mentored and gaining a sense of fulfillment and purpose on the part of the mentor—but what are some of the possible pitfalls in a mentoring relationship?

One is that we can come to expect too much of a mentor. The process is not designed to replace the necessity of thinking for yourself. A mentor is not a guru or master. He is a competent, qualified, willing, and able advisor, but at times, he may teach by example what not to do.

Flexibility is essential. You can't expect anyone to be perfect, and you may find flaws in your mentor which you'll simply have to overlook. In the case of performing, I think it's best if your mentor has the same kind of performing style you're seeking to perfect. If your mentor is helping you with the business side of performing, his on stage personality may be less important. Of course, the ideal is to develop a mentoring relationship with someone who excels in your style of performance and also knows the ropes of booking and promoting.

In retrospect, Burling Hull was not the “perfect” mentor for my performing career, because his style was the opposite of what mine turned out to be. On the other hand, Burling's prodigious career as a writer and publisher helped inspire me to publish some of my own books and start a mail order business. And just as the coral takes from the running tide the elements it needs for survival and growth and leaves the rest alone, so too may any one of us take from an advisor what we need for our personal growth, even if the advisor isn't perfect.

Competition is another consideration. If one magician becomes a mentor to another magician, and they are both working the same markets, competitive feelings could develop. In the case of Burling Hull and Fetaque Sanders, they were both long retired and gained their enjoyment in seeing me succeed. But this is not always the case.

Some years ago, a friend of mine asked if I would teach him the business of booking day care centers. He said, “Would you be willing to tell me how you do it if I agree to work in areas you aren't working in?” I was pleased to pass along the knowledge, especially to a friend who needed the money and had spent many nights sleeping in his car. He pulled out a map of the Southeast and I told him specifically which areas I was then working. I booked a show for him so I could watch and critique his act, then scheduled a week of day care shows for him out of state. Over a period of a year or two, I helped him develop a solid portfolio of promotional materials. Later, in appreciation for my help, he offered to book shows for me, and I turned over my database and notes to him. Then, at some point, the line got a little fuzzy, and he began working the same areas I was still booking, using my client lists. Of course, being a free country he was free to work wherever he wanted, but it discouraged me from passing along any further information about booking and playing these shows. I later greatly cut back the number of day care shows I was working, and he never became a serious threat to my livelihood. Our friendship was able to weather this challenge, in part because I attributed his memory loss to a medical problem which he actually had.

My conclusion on the subject of directly competing with your mentor is don't do it! Find one who is either retired or has moved into a different phase of the business or who works far out of your market area. Naturally, if you respect his need to earn a living and do not interfere with the clients he has developed or use his material without permission, the relationship is likely to last longer and be more rewarding.

So where should you look to find a mentor? And is there a checklist of qualities he should have? To answer the first question, look right where you are—your local magic or clown club, your friends, family, people you know, people you've heard about. You probably already know someone who could serve as a trusted advisor. You may know several people who could fill the role, and it may take several people to act as your trusted advisors. Some mentors may serve for a single occasion, others may become lifelong friends. As to the second question—is there a checklist of qualities to look for in a mentor?—the most desirable would include someone who is (1) Positive, (2) Encouraging, (3) Knowledgeable, and (4) Has done what you want to do but is not now doing what you want to do where you want to do it.

Your experience in having or being a mentor will be unique. No two relationships or friendships are the same. But using the advice and influence of positive people to help shape your character, beliefs, and actions, you will move closer to your ideal. And in the meantime, don't feel like you have to be perfect before you pass along the help you've received. Find someone who could benefit from your experience, and offer to help—gently, kindly, and diplomatically. You will discover that there's magic in influence. Use it and pass it along!


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