David Blaine: The Next Last Greatest Magician in the World?

Inside Magic Image of Ed Mishell DrawingMagician and endurance maven David Blaine takes to the air this evening in the United States through ABC television to ask Real or Magic?  He is joined in this endeavor by Will Smith, Olivia Wilde, Woody Allen, Stephen Hawking and other celebrities who, we are informed, will react to his tricks.

We like David Blaine and believe he has done much to revitalize our wonderful craft and feel badly that we want him to be different than the way he is.  He is not Doug Henning or David Copperfield or Harry Blackstone Jr. but he is very talented and, in his own way, charismatic and captivating.

Still, we miss Doug Henning performing the Water Torture Tank live on national television.  We miss David Copperfield’s well produced escapes and illusions performed on tape but with the assurance the home audience was seeing the events unfold in real time without camera tricks.  We miss Harry Blackstone Jr. for many, many reasons; not the least of which was his wonderful persona – so serious and light-hearted at the same time and able to convince even the most jaded teenager that he could really perform magic.

But David Blaine is bringing magic to the audience of the times where camera trickery is expected and even celebrated.  Attention spans are short and expectations are high.   Each generation of magic faces a similar challenge.  Jim Steinmeyer’s outstanding book, The Last Greatest Magician in the World tells of Howard Thurston making the transition from vaudeville to the traveling, full-evening show and the ultimate demise of that elaborate show type.  We know of Thurston today because he survived and conquered the new formats and met his audience where they sat.  They were no longer in vaudeville halls watching one of eight shows in a day’s time.  They came to see a full-length show and he had the props and chops to show them what they wanted to see – year after year.

We like David Blaine and wish him the best with his newest take on a classic art.  If there is anyone that can again move magic in a new direction, it is David Blaine.

Magic’s Demise Predicted — Again

We have been reading The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards and enjoying every page. Jim Steinmeyer could have made his living writing books and wouldn't have needed to be the prodigious inventor of so many game changing illusions. We are fortunate as a community that he lost his way and fell victim to Magic's seductive call.

After Kellar's passing, there was a heated contest between Houdini and Thurston to assume the position of Dean in the Society of American Magicians. The debate was ugly and filled with attacks founded and otherwise to prove or disprove worthiness to the throne. One of the knocks on Thurston was his alleged violation of Magic's sacred rule against exposure.

Audiences could purchase candy in specially printed containers that taught basic magic tricks. Some of Magic's elite branded this activity evil and worthy of disqualification. Others saw no problem with the general principle of teaching very basic tricks to young people. The case apparently turned on a bizarre technicality: because the candy was being sold, there was no offense. If the same candy had been given away in the boxes, the case would have gone against Thurston.

In the midst of the debate, the magician and historian Henry Ridgely Evans penned his essay "Is Magic Decadent?"

Ah, for the good old days, when magic was a genuine mystery, and one had to learn it from a professor of sleight-of-hand; when books and boxes of magic did not exist, and stage secrets were as closely guarded as the formula of certain patent medicines.

Magic has been on the cusp of ruin for centuries and apparently the advent of mass production of magic kits and publication of magic books indicated the last days in 1923.

In an article published this weekend in the online journal, Salon, writer Santiago Willis voices concerns almost identical to those of Evans. His article, The Internet Makes Magic Disappear runs parallel to Evans' concerns and is familiar.

Magic depends on secrecy, magic shops controlled access to secrets, brick and mortar magic shops are shuttered by the internet outlets, youtube.com exposes all to everyone with a computer; and therefore, magic will die out from over-exposure.

The writer notes New York City had 16 magic shops in 1960, three in 2003 and now only two. Willis quotes Jamy Ian Swiss for the proposition that the decline in brick-and-mortar shops portends the erosion of one of our art's essential support structures.

We cannot disagree that youtube has permitted really bad magicians to expose what could be really great tricks. But magic has been with us for a very long time and it has never been just about figuring out the secret. Magic in its truest form focuses on the performance, the give-and-take with an audience of one or a thousand, and the experience shared.


Continue reading Magic’s Demise Predicted — Again