By Greg Chapman
I’ll be honest, this may seem to be a strange choice of topic to choose when I have been very kindly asked if I would write a post for the ‘Merchant of Magic’ blog, especially as a first blog post, however, I want to talk to you about the most disappointing moment involved in buying magic tricks and effects, and especially when buying them online.
I do think that this is an important subject and one which isn’t discussed enough, and I certainly wish that I had understood it when I started my career in magic.
What is this magic secret disappointment of which I speak?
I think that most of us have at some point (and for most of us, many, many times), seen a trailer, or read a description of an effect and been absolutely blown away. We have immediately rushed to our favourite magic dealer’s website and placed an order – and it always feels to me a little like writing a letter to Santa!
Then the waiting begins. Again, like a child waiting for Christmas (or, if I’m going to be completely honest throughout this post, like me waiting for Christmas), it seems to take forever. Although it may only take 48 hours for that package to reach us, it seems like weeks as we login to our accounts over and over again to check the order status.
Excitement builds as it tells us that the order has been dispatched. If it is a tracked order we then start checking and rechecking the tracking website until suddenly we find out that the delivery will be the next morning. A vague time is given, and we get ready to wait within earshot of the doorbell between 8.54 and 12.54 the next morning lest we miss the delivery and (horror of horrors!) have to wait another two days for the delivery to be attempted again.
Finally, our mail carrier arrives with the post, and there it is, a parcel containing this great effect which we have been thinking about for days. We have been desperately awaiting the moment when we can discover the ‘magic secret’ behind this effect, and we can begin to learn the trick. We are prepared to take time, to put in the ‘hard graft’ to ‘practice, practice, practice’ until we can finally perform this trick ourselves.
Then, we open the package, we look inside the box (obviously we would never touch any of the items inside the box before we read/watch the instructions carefully!), and we finally learn the secret.
At that moment, so often, especially early in my magic career, I felt like the audience watching the ‘sucker die box’ routine, when the doors are finally opened to reveal that the die has vanished, and all of their suspicions of it sliding backwards and forwards have been proved wrong. In the trick, this moment (if performed properly) is immediately replaced by the moment that the die is revealed elsewhere, and a moment of magical joy can leap to the forefront, the disappointment of the empty box completely forgotten.
This moment is lost after we learn the magic secret of an effect.
Jim Steinmeyer wrote:
“Magicians guard an empty safe. In fact, there are few secrets that they possess that are beyond the capacity of a high-school science class, little more complex than a rubber band, a square of mirrored glass or a length of thread. When an audience learns how it’s done, they quickly dismiss the art: ‘Is that all there is?’”
While on occasion the method presented by a trick may be so beautiful we have to suppress the urge to share it with the world, the fact of the matter is that on many occasions when the trick is revealed to us, it is as disappointing as it would be to an audience member. This great secret we have been puzzling over is nothing more than a simple gimmick, or a simple ruse.
The worst part of it is, now we know the secret, it suddenly seems so obvious.
Especially when we are starting out in magic (although I still feel this sometimes), once we know the method to a trick, even a trick we haven’t been able to figure out for ourselves having seen it a couple of times, we can so easily allow ourselves to think that because the method seems obvious once we know it, that it will also be obvious to our audience.
“This will never work in the real world,” we tell ourselves. “People will see right through it.”
This is when we hear of tricks being placed into a drawer and forgotten about – I have done it myself in my early days in magic. I have bought tricks and not performed them for many years, not because of how difficult they were, but because of how easy they were.
This all changed for me about a year into my magic career when I purchased an effect which changed everything for me – White Star by Jim Critchlow.
For those who haven’t seen this effect, it is a beautifully designed and thought-out ‘living/dead’ style routine, all based around the story of the sinking of the Titanic. It is a wonderful effect and (spoiler alert) would go on to become one of my most performed pieces for over a decade, and one which I still regularly perform today.
Going back to the moment when I first discovered the magic secret of ‘White Star’, I was beyond disappointed. I felt that I had wasted my money, which at that stage, at the start of my career, hurt really badly. I had bought the effect for a particular show which I was going to tour that summer, and I couldn’t afford to buy another trick to replace it with (this was, of course, also before I realised the wealth of tricks waiting in magic books!). I really didn’t have a choice, I was going to have to practice, and try it in the show, and hope that the audience would enjoy it and it would fool some of them.
I performed the trick for the first time – the entertainment factor was high, and during the show, it seemed to go down really well. As I was performing it on stage rather than in close up, it was still difficult to know whether the audience in their seats had actually been fooled.
At the end of the show, as I always do with stage performances, I made myself available to meet the audience, and was surprised, delighted, and a little bit disconcerted when more than one person came up to me and asked me about the ‘experiment with the Titanic photographs’. Did I believe that there was some sort of spirit in the air, or did I think that people were picking something up from the photographs themselves? This was, I should point out, in a show which also involved a mentalism trick where the discovery of a number was made by cutting the head off of a plasticine model of Charles I, and included my comedy routine ‘The Battle Of Hastings – as told through the medium of interpretive dance’. Yet this trick, which I had almost abandoned, had fooled the audience to the extent that some of them weren’t even looking for a trick, but rather some paranormal explanation!
From then on, whenever I perform that trick, I feel morally obliged afterwards to remind people that I am a magician, just to make it clear that no ‘ghostly forces’ are in play.
Thus I learned a truly valuable magic secret – just because a trick seems simple once you know its magic secret, It doesn’t mean it’s easy to figure out. Especially when you add all of the skills of performance, the design of your routine, and the words you use around it. Even the simplest, most obvious seeming trick can become a miracle if properly presented, so before you put that trick in a drawer after that initial look inside the box, remind yourself how the box looks from the outside!
Earlier on I quoted the great Jim Steinmeyer, talking about magicians guarding an empty safe.
“Magicians guard an empty safe. In fact, there are few secrets that they possess that are beyond the capacity of a high-school science class, little more complex than a rubber band, a square of mirrored glass or a length of thread. When an audience learns how it’s done, they quickly dismiss the art: ‘Is that all there is?’
When opening a new magic trick, and looking inside that ‘empty safe’, however, I suggest remembering the second half of that quote:
“The real art is how the rubber band is handled with the finesse of a jewel cutter, how a mirror is used or concealed precisely, how a masterful performer can hint at impossibilities that are consummated with only a piece of thread.”