Not long ago, at the end of training session wherein I taught for about five hours about being successful as an entertainer, a lady said to me, “I am surprised that you would be so open about what you do. Do you really want other people to know your secrets?” This person went on to comment that she had been exposed to several established entertainers, in particular magicians, who were extremely guarded. She commented that she had found some individuals who, along with being unwilling to share with others, did not even want other magicians to see their shows for fear of being copied or having pet ideas stolen.
Her question caught me off guard. I wasn’t exactly sure what to say in response, for I had never really thought much about the matter. Nevertheless, I did immediately realize part of my motivation.
I said to her, “I too do not like having signature pieces in my show used by others without my permission, but it is even more important to me that I do what I can to promote good magic. I would like to see more successful magic shows and more magicians doing well, so I am willing to talk about the things I have learned.”
After the conversation, I found myself thinking about what had been said. I had a long drive home after the event, so I thought more about it while in the vehicle. I realized I have convictions and passion about this subject.
Conviction #1. I do not want to be the only magician who has his own theater and the privilege of putting on a grand scale magic show.
I definitely am not the only such magician, but it is difficult to name more than ten performers in America today who are enjoying ongoing stage shows featuring magic in an established theater. Try to do it. In Las Vegas there are Mac King, Penn and Teller, and Chris Angel. In the Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, there is Rick Wilcox. In Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, there is Terry Evanswood. In Branson, Missouri, there are Kirby VanBurch and Dave Hamner. I have my show in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Greg Frewin is in Canada, near Niagara Falls. Who else comes to mind? Surely there are others, but not many. (My apology to any names overlooked. It is not intentional.)
The above names are only nine. Three of them are in Nevada, two are in Missouri, and one is in Canada. Subtracting South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin from the mix leaves forty-five states without a “name” magic show that I know about.
There must be more places in this nation where magic shows can be featured in theaters. The competition for places to perform is not so extreme that magicians need to fight with one-another about it. Is it not time for attention to be given to the other forty-five states?
Conviction #2. I think, over the past decade and more, magic has been hurt by the belief held by magicians that to be successful you must “play Vegas”.
It is certainly a compliment and credit for a magician to get hired to work in a prominent casino in Las Vegas. Although, to a large degree, such a thing does not mean what it used to because so many performers are now “buying their way in” rather than earning it. If you have enough money, you can play Vegas whether or not you are any good. (There are such performers in Vegas today, but there are also “old school” performers who achieved their position and recognition by way of merit.)
Whatever the case may presently be in Las Vegas, the thing magicians need to get into their heads is that Vegas is not the only place.
As well, they need to understand that what “plays in Vegas” may not work in other places. Why spend immense amounts of energy trying to develop a “Vegas act” when there are comparatively few opportunities in Las Vegas and a wide open market across the rest of the USA. Also, why pursue Las Vegas when, nowadays, playing Vegas seems to have more to do with how the depth of your pockets than the level of your skills?
Does it not make more sense to work at mastering the type of magic and show that appeals to the same people who made the founding family of Walmart multi-billionaires? Why not work at putting on a spectacular show for what might be labeled “average America” or “middle America”?
Some might say, “Apart from Vegas and Branson, I don’t see the other opportunities. Where are the other theaters?” The answer is: Almost every town in America has a theater that is not being sufficiently used. Some are getting no use. Not all such theaters are located in places with enough population or tourism to be financially viable for a magic show, but there are plenty of them that could work.
It seems a big part of the problem is too few magicians are willing to be original in their thinking. They see what someone else is doing and want to do the same. If one guy is doing well in Branson, their immediate thought is, “I need to go to Branson too”. Typically, if they follow through on the thought, they fail. There are many stories that can be told about magicians who have come and gone in both Branson and Las Vegas.
One reason why trying to work in the same place as another magician usually results in failure is the other performer already has his marketing machine in place, already has a good reputation and fan base, and has years of experience in the specific circumstance which means he has worked out the details involved in making his show just right for that regional audience. A new show in town will have a lot of rough edges to work off. It is difficult for a new show to survive the time needed to craft, refine, and establish value while being compared to another show that is already known and appreciated.
Beyond that, if they do end up putting on a good show in the same place, and surviving the process of getting established, they end up “cutting the money pie” into smaller pieces so neither performer is able to do well. The amount of money people have to spend on magic shows in an area is typically limited. In simple terms, if one magician is grossing $100,000 dollars (which means, after expenses, paying salaries, marketing and other expenses he may have $10,000 left), and a second magician comes to town, he is not likely to gross $100,000 as well. Instead, if the two magicians are equal, they are each more likely to end up with $50,000, which means almost no profit to pay their own bills and stay alive for another season.
The fact that another magician is finding success in a particular place does not mean that is the place other magicians should go to as well. It makes more sense for magicians to look at places where there are no magic shows. It would be wise to search for a place that already has the attention of the public, yet no working magicians. Consider making magic a new and interesting addition to whatever is already attracting people to that area.
Conviction #3. No matter where one is, doing solid business as a magician is difficult.
A reason why forty-five states are without well known magic shows is simple. It is a daunting and difficult task, which at times seems to border on the impossible, to perform in a way that appeals to the public and sells enough tickets to do business in a profitable manner.
I confess that I approach each new season of our show with trepidation. The concern is always, will we be able to fill enough seats to pay the salaries of the cast. That is apart from wondering, will there will be any dollars left over for Mary and I to live on.
The magic theater business is a serious challenge for Mary and I, in spite of the fact that we come at it with a wealth of experience in the “show” and “business” aspects of being professional performers.
If we did not have the experience that we have, our present situation would not be possible. We spent seventeen years traveling the world and working in a broad variety of shows. Our act was seen on a rotating stage in Hong Kong and on the historic stage of the Zenith Theater in Sydney, Australia. We worked in almost every venue imaginable. We did magic for a crowd of barefoot people in South Africa. We entertained at the Blackpool magic convention, which was the largest gathering of magicians in the world at that time (and still may be). I will never forget the show we did with Fukai and Kimika in the basement of a building in Tokyo. It was actually a sort of nightclub, but not like anything we had seen in the USA. There was only one door in and out. It was necessary to squeeze down a narrow stairway to access the seating area. The room was hardly big enough to hold fifty people, yet well over a hundred were crammed in. All I could think was “fire trap”, but everyone had a great time. There are many stories to tell about unique and memorable performances.
We were able to learn from our own work and what we saw others doing. It is hard to imagine anyone having a better exposure to the world of magic, on an international scale, than we did.
This was followed by two seasons in our own Montana Wonder Theater in Libby, Montana, which prospered, but could only be open two months a year because of long hard winters that kept tourists away. We loved the Montana experience, and learned a lot.
Next was the opportunity to work in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. At first we were the “second magician” in a show that was already in place and making money. In time, on an alternating schedule with another magician, I stepped into the starring role in that theater. Eventually I was the only magician in the show. Day after day, with two shows a day on many days, we did a wonderful, two-hour, all magic performance for the public. That show had a good run. It eventually closed because of a property transaction involving the owners of the theater and a big business interest.
Our next move was to rent space to put our own show in another theater in Pigeon Forge. It started well, but ended prematurely because of a knee injury that kept me off stage for a while.
We learned much through all of this. It was practical education about performing and marketing. From popping and selling popcorn, to hiring and firing employees, we were able to see how things are done. When the opportunity came to take over a theater in South Dakota, and manage every aspect of it from stage, to human resources, to concessions, to theater maintenance, to marketing, and more, we were ready.
Our first season in the Grand Magic Theater in Custer, South Dakota was a strong success primarily because we knew what needed to be done when we started into it.
Now back to that question, “Why share my secrets?”
Does it make sense that we would view our experience and education as something to keep only for ourselves? Would it be right for us to refuse to share the things we have learned?
This should be especially considered in light of the fact that so many have shared valuable ideas with us.
Conviction #4. Practical and wonderful knowledge has come our way. It is not ours to hoard or hide. If there is a way we can encourage other magicians, and help them find success, that is not only an opportunity, it is a trust to be honored.
If, by sharing lessons we have learned, we can speed up the learning process for others, we should be glad to do so. If we can share our mistakes, so others do no have to make the same mistakes, we should be glad to do it. In whatever ways we can, we should view it as a blessing to be able to help other magicians succeed.
I share this because I believe a family friendly magic show is a marvelous thing. I want to see more magicians presenting such shows and more of the public being able to enjoy them. It is in my heart to see the world of magic prosper. Taking an “every man for himself” and “nobody can know about anything I do” attitude will not aid in that happening. It is time to help other magicians swim, not sink.
Final thoughts on the matter:
- I am not talking about exposing the secrets of tricks and illusions to those who should not know them. That is a different matter.
- I do not believe in “casting pearls before swine”. I’m willing to work with those who are willing to work. I’m glad to share with those who will listen. I do not waste my time with those who do not respect our art. I am only open to sharing with those whom I believe will value and apply that which is shared.
- Confidentiality must be respected. If a mentor has asked me to guard one of his personal secrets, I do not pass that on.
- I admit I am peeved about magicians who take the attitude “No one else can do what I am doing!” Where would magic be if everyone had that attitude? Besides, magicians who have that attitude certainly did not create and invent every aspect of their own shows. They learned from others. Most of them use tricks, techniques, jokes and patter developed by other performers. They have no problem using ideas that started with performers who have gone before them, yet they act as if, now that they have done something, or used something, no one else should touch it.
- In spite of my openness about sharing, and my wish that others would be open to share as well, I am not suggesting that the ideas of others should be used without permission. Nor am I suggesting that a magician is wrong to want to keep a personal creation to himself for a while. There is competition for performance opportunities. Having something different from what others do can help in getting a booking. That is an appropriate way to think. Beyond that, people should get proper credit for their creations. It is wrong for one performer to act as if he or she personally developed something that is the invention of another. Copying others is not a way to find success. We should not copy and we should discourage others from doing so.
I am advocating mentoring, teaching, and finding ways to help others be successful in magic!