After Tom’s appearance on our show regarding magic and his magical career we had so many listener questions come flooding in that we didnt even get to half of them. Tom was gracious enough to answer the remaining questions we’d collected by email. Here are his responses:
13 QUESTIONS FOR TOM OGDEN
First, let me thank your listeners for tuning in to listen to my babblings. Their inquiries are really insightful, and they run the gamut from questions about theory to performance.
What are your thoughts on mentalists? Are they considered magicians?
Whether you believe that mentalists have real powers or are doing illusions depends upon whether or not you’re a magician. The term “mentalist” is magician’s jargon and was created to differentiate the performers from actual psychics and mind reader. “Mentalism” is a performance art in which practitioners, known as “mentalists,” appear to have special mental abilities, including various forms of mind-reading (such premonition, clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy), mind control, and unusual physical phenomena such as psychokinesis and telekinesis. Some also perform the allied fields of hypnosis or being a spirit medium. But bottom line: mentalists are psychic entertainers.
Who historically was your favorite magician?
I hate to name a cliché, but Harry Houdini, both as an entertainer and a self-promoter, is endlessly fascinating. Just when you think you’ve heard every story there is about him, you find out a new tidbit that makes you reevaluate all you know.
Is there any etiquette in using bought tricks? Do you have to customize them?
There’s nothing wrong with performing a trick right out of the box, exactly as the instructions are written and using the suggested patter that comes with it. For example, part-time pro magician Gene Anderson invented and published the method for the most popular contemporary version of ripping a newspaper to shreds and restoring it. When Doug Henning did the trick on Broadway in “The Magic Show” in 1974, he performed Anderson’s routine word-for-word. As do I today. I’ve seen other presentations for the trick: they were different, but none have bettered Gene’s original. Ideally, however, magicians should come up with a new “take” on standard effects to make them unique. When an audience hears a singer perform “Over the Rainbow,” they want to hear the performer bring something fresh to the Judy Garland classic. Magicians often put their stamp on marketed effects with their patter (the words magician say while performing) or by adding background music. Some change the entire premise of the trick. As an example, there’s a magicians’ standard that uses three different lengths of rope. The magicians then stretches the ropes to become the same length. The trick’s original patter was about a mathematics teacher who became obsessed with the geometric principle that all parallel lines are equal if stretched to infinity. The trick was marketed under the name “The Professor’s Nightmare.” Although the trick is still sold with that nae, very few (if any) magicians still the title as the prefer for their routines.
Is “Trick poaching” a common thing? Do you have to worry about someone stealing an original trick?
Unfortunately, yes, theft in magic is a common practice, and there’s very little that can be done about it. It’s next to impossible to patent the method of an illusion or copyright its presentation, and even if either one is secured, they’re difficult (and expensive) to defend in a court of law. A few magicians have been successful in this regard. David Copperfield introduced a new a self-levitation effect over a decade ago that he called “Flying.” Although the trick’s method relied on earlier techniques, it was original enough that the creator was able to secure a patent. The patent was moot, however, because the trick’s execution required a full stage and major resources to produce. Plus, it put an enormous physical strain on the performer. Even if people wanted to steal the trick, they would probably be unable to perform it. Teller, the silent half of the duo Penn & Teller, sued a European magician in international court over one of Teller’s signature tricks. Not only had the other magician begun to perform Teller’s original routine, he was advertising online that he would sell the props to other performers. After much time and expense, the court ruled in Teller’s favor. A magician in Thailand ripped off the entire act of Vegas performer Jeff McBride move for move. I’ve had two of my own routines lifted over the years. This type of “acquisition” has been going on for centuries. In the 1870s, French magician Buatier De Kolta invented an artificial flower that he would produce onstage by the hundreds. Other magicians had no idea how he did it—until one day a breeze accidentally blew one of the fflowers into the audience. A magician who was at the show scooped up the fake flower and ran with it out of the theater. Soon everyone in the magic world knew how the trick was done and was imitating it. More often, magicians don’t steal an entire act or routine. They just “adopt” a joke, phrase or patter. I should mention that pilfering of intellectual property is also being done by some magic dealers, the folks who manufacture and sell magic props. There is a major problem with knock-offs coming into the U.S. from countries such as India and especially China. Besides the ethical and legal issues, the equipment is seldom as well produced as it is here, but because of labor costs it’s usually much cheaper.
Is someone like Uri Geller who tricked the people on purpose doing an effect or is he doing a hoax?
Magicians use the term “effect” as jargon to mean “what the audience thinks happens or what it thinks it sees” (i.e., what “effect” it had on the spectator). The word “hoax” isn’t used in magician’s jargon at all, so it can mean anything from a practical joke to a malicious act used to take money unscrupulously. I won’t enter the Geller debate (which has resulted in major cross lawsuits between “debunker” James Randi and “psychic” Uri Geller) except to say that every phenomenon Geller has produced can be achieved by magical methods. It’s up to individuals to decide whether Uri has real psychic abilities, whether they are victims of a hoax, or whether they’re just seeing novel presentations to unfamiliar magic tricks being performed by a very convincing entertainer.
When you go see a magic show, do you find yourself enjoying the show or critiquing?
Generally, I do both. Because I’ve been performing professionally for forty years and seldom make changes to my basic repertoire, I seldom try to figure out the “method” of tricks (i.e., how they’re done). Instead, I try to watch like a non-magician, to just enjoy the show. If I’m critical, I generally find it has nothing to do with the tricks. It has to do with acting or stage techniques: Did the performer roam back and forth for no reason? Were they audible? Were they courteous to volunteers from the audience? And so on. A magician can always defend why he or she tells a particular joke, does a particular trick or places it at a particular point in the show. There’s simply no excuse for bad showmanship.
Is there one trick you always wanted to do or try that you didn’t because it was too complicated or dangerous?
Danger has never been an issue, but they’ve been of interest to me. I’m a comedic performer. My show has never been about building tension or possible physical danger. Even when I perform pseudo-dangerous effects (such as putting someone in a guillotine or sticking a sword through an audience member’s throat), no one believes that they could get hurt. Because they can’t. I will confess that there are some tricks I decided not to work on because of their difficulty. Among these would be producing dozens of playing cards from an empty hand. I learned the technique but decided that I didn’t want to dedicate the hundreds of hours it would take to perfect it. More often I rule out tricks because they are messy (tricks with water), take a lot of time and preparation off stage (owning birds or a rabbit), or tricks with fire. (I’m not worried about fire danger, but licenses are required for its use in many venues.)
What is the most dangerous trick; and, if so, it really the bullet catch?
Historically, yes, the bullet catch is probably the trick that has been documented as harming the most magicians. In fact magician/author/historian Ben Robinson wrote an entire book about the trick called Twelve Who Died. Much more mundane injuries are paper cuts while opening a deck of playing cards, snipping a finger while trying to cut a rope in half, or straining an ankle while jumping off a box and yelling “Ta da.”
My son loves illusions but he gets frustrated with most of the magic kits available. Which books or websites can he look in to (he’s 10)?
I hate to sound self-serving—but I will be. Both of my instructional magic books are good for beginners, young and old. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Magic Tricks is out-of-print but still available online as a used book. (Most of the used books will have the gimmicked cards that came with the book removed. Check before buying it.) My Complete Idiot’s Guide to Street Magic has more contemporary items and is aimed at a slightly older reader, but many of the tricks are still perfect for a ten-year old. Magic for Dummies is also a great stand-by. I highly recommend you take your son to your town’s library. Magic books are found at 798.6 in the Dewey Decimal system. As an eleven-year old I lost myself at the library and read every magic book on the shelves. Even though I wound up not doing most of the tricks, learning about them provided a breadth of knowledge that’s been invaluable over the years. Forgive me if I don’t recommend any websites. I personally disapprove of most of the so-called instructional videos that are posted online. The magicians who post themselves range dramatically in ability, and most free “how to” videos on YouTube and elsewhere do little more than expose the methods without having any instructional value.
What is your opinion on the “shock” magicians like Criss Angel?
I think there’s room for every style of performer in every genre of entertainment. Criss’s wardrobe, grooming, music, and choice of effects appeal to a very specific demographic, and he has many ardent followers. And shock sells. Dan Sperry, whose make-up is a goth/emo mash-up, is currently touring internationally with a multi-magician show called “The Illusionists.” Penn Gillette (of Penn & Teller) has been at the Rio in Las Vegas for almost two decades and is known for being bombastic. And until his retirement last year, The Amazing Johnathan was a Vegas fixture. He was famous for his loud, caustic humor.
What is the biggest thing you’ve made disappear?
My lunch? I’d have to go back to when I performing “illusions” – magician jargon for the “big boxes”– in a tented circus. I raised a girl in a cage high above the center ring. She pulled up a curtain around the cage; I fired a pistol; the curtain fell, and the girl was gone. I then pointed to a locked steamer trunk in one of the other circus rings. The box was opened, and the same girl popped out, none the worse for wear. The trick was a feature in Howard Thurston’s show in the 1930s and was later sold as the “Girl Cabinet Tabouret” by Abbott’s Magic Company.
What is your favorite type of effect to do?
My act is a parade of well-known effects, from the cut-and-restored rope trick to the Linking Rings. I prefer to work the classics for many reasons. First of all, audiences have loved them for generations, and if I can bring something fresh to them it’s as if I reinvented the trick. I have also been doing those tricks the longest, which means I don’t have to worry that something will go wrong: the tricks will work. Also, by knowing the tricks like the back of my hand, I’m free to improvise comedy patter and ad-lib with the audience.
What are your thoughts on shows like Penn & Teller’s BS or Magic’s Biggest Secrets Revealed? Does giving away the secrets ruin the illusion?
Your two examples are very different. Although Penn & Teller became famous by advertising themselves as “the Bad Boys of Magic,” very few of the minor tricks they exposed were of any consequence. In fact, most of the secrets were already well known by laypeople. In the case of their TV show BS, I think Penn & Teller are providing a valuable service. They’re using entertainment to warn people about frauds and cheats. Shows like The Masked Magician and Magic’s Biggest Secrets Revealed have caused no permanent damage. Sure, the magicians who were performing those particular tricks when the shows first aired were a bit miffed, but people have notoriously short memories. And as Penn & Teller proved, you can fool people even if they know how the tricks are done. They showed audiences how the classic Cups and Balls trick worked by slowly explaining it while using clear plastic cups. Then they immediately repeated the trick at regular speed AND STILL FOOLED EVERYONE. Exposure of magic tricks has been going on for millennia. Writing in Automata in the first century A.D., Horace of Alexandria (in Egypt) showed how priests used secret pneumatics to open the large temple doors – which worshippers believed was being done by the gods. In 1584, Reginald Scot wrote The Discoverie of Witchcraft to convince readers during the reign of James II in England that witchcraft didn’t exist. To prove his case, he explained how the most common magic tricks of the day were done. He argued that the people performing them weren’t witches. They were merely street magicians. In the 1920s, Horace Goldin was performing his version of Sawing a Woman in Half, at the time a brand-new illusion. When Camel cigarettes revealed how he did it on the back of their cigarette boxes (as part of a series “It’s fun to be fooled, it’s more fun to know”), Goldin sued – unsuccessfully. My concern isn’t about television exposure. It’s about television magicians who create tricks that only work on television. Some of the tricks are done by trick photography, careful editing or by using actors who pretend to be ordinary members of the audience. Unfortunately, viewers at home believe all the tricks they see on TV can be performed live, when they can’t.
Visit Tom’s site at www.tomogden.com