On Being A Magician

A glimpse inside the world of magic and illusion.

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Ethan Brackett performed in studio and talked about what it's like to be a magician in Connecticut. Photo:Chion Wolf
On Being A Magician
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On Being A Magician

A magic act is sort of a joke we're all in on, right? We may not know how it's done, but we know it's an act.

This was not always that case with magic -- especially in the day when magicians were just as likely to be known as "conjurers."
 
In 1856, Napoleon III's Second French Empire sent the magician Jean Robert-Houdin to Algeria with the idea that he would perform tricks more dazzling than the miracles that Islamic leaders were said to do -- miracles that were stirring up rebellion.  
 
By some accounts, this really worked. Robert-Houdin inspired not only awe but fear, especially when he let an Algerian Muslim fire a pistol at him and then "caught" the marked bullet in his teeth. Robert-Houdin has a legitimate claim as the father of modern magic, the guy who took it off the street and public square and onto the stage.  
 
But in his day, magic seemed more like magic.
 
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E-mail from William

Wonderful topic today!

No need to waste your air time with my call; I just want to confess to being the kind of audience that your magicians probably prefer.  I don't want to know how they do it.   I just want to enjoy it, and I will enjoy being amazed by a good illusion no matter how many times I see it performed.

For me, watching a magician is exciting just as watching an aerialist or a dancer or a tight rope walker or a WC Fields class juggler.  I feel priviledged to have the opportunity to be surprised and amazed because all of these artists have skills far beyond my own, and are willing to risk demonstrating them before a live audience.  I can't perform magic, but I can appreciate and applaud.   Knowing how it's done would spoil it for me, even though I know I couldn't repeat it myself.

Working in theatre years ago gave me several opportunities to see magic performed person to person.  That pumped up my amazement wonderfully, especially for an artist who was confident and unafraid to perform at just an arm's length, surrounded by fascinated admirers.  I remember him once tearing up a section of my New York Times, and then handing it back to me in one piece.

He did teach me one trick that I can perform flawlessly, if not fearlessly:
  Show your audience an empty paper bag, the kind that liquor stores use is best.  Hold it vertically by the bottom, explaining that you will cause a bottle of wine to appear in it.  Wave your other hand over it, and recite some magic words.  Squint down into the top of the bag, tell your audience, "Yes, its in there."  Then immediately make it disappear the same way, and crush the bag to prove it, without letting them see into the bag!   Even little children will protest loudly.   But he never taught me the second half of the trick, in which he would apologise, snap the bag open again, and offer to repeat the trick. This time he would pull something outrageous the bag (though never an actual bottle of wine).

I enjoy a good comedian, too, but that's different because I can tell a story well myself.   Yet I do need to practice a story to tell it best.   I don't deceive myself that time and dedication are not required to master a story, not to mention willingness to make a fool of yourself.   

I can even juggle, but my limit is two balls.

Love your show.  Being able to catch it often now is one of the best parts of being retired!