Whether they're performing a big illusion that makes a tiger disappear or showing off card tricks on a table, magicians spend years perfecting their performances. We spoke to several from across the country (and beyond) to find out how they learn their trade, the type of resource they spend thousands of dollars on, what they hate most at shows, and the one question they really wish you'd stop asking.
1. THEY DON'T GO TO MAGIC SCHOOL.
Surprise: There’s no Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry out there. "There's no real training," says Dave Taylor (a.k.a. Magic Dave) from Southend-on-Sea in England. "It's all personal experience, lecture notes, DVDs, books, etc. You can go to workshops, but for most things you have to be self-taught." One big asset, he notes, is a local magic club, which can provide feedback on shows.
Randy Follis, a magician from southwest Missouri, agrees: "The training is mostly independent. Researching books, DVDs, and—if you're fortunate enough to find them—fellow magicians." After that, all that's left is a lot of hard work and practice, practice, practice.
2. THEY SPEND THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS ON BOOKS.
“Most magicians are serious scholars," says Las Vegas magician Xavier Mortimer. "I don't know any professional magicians who don't have their own extensive libraries about our craft." (One notable example, Harry Houdini, assembled close to 4000 books on magic and spiritualism, now held at the Library of Congress.)
The costs of those books can add up, though: "Most books are small print runs, for a small audience, which can lead to high prices," Mortimor says. As an example, Denny Haney, who owns the Denny and Lee Magic Shop in Baltimore, Maryland, says that one book he sells—Soirees Fantastique by the French illusionist Christian Fechner—goes for $3000.
3. THEY MIGHT SPEND A YEAR PERFECTING ONE TRICK.
Magicians are nothing if not obsessive. Danny Whitson, a comedian and magician from Knoxville, Tennessee, says he spent a year in front of the mirror mastering one particular move. "It sounds insane," he says, "but a great magician is always learning."
All that rehearsing can take a toll on loved ones. "You spend most of your time rehearsing a trick over and over again, to the point where it annoys everyone else around you," Taylor says. "My wife threatened (jokingly) to leave me if I kept playing with a Rubik's Cube after I spent a solid two weeks learning the ins and outs of a trick."
4. THEY CAN EARN THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS PER GIG.
Magicians can earn more than you might think, but it depends on the type of gig. "Corporate gigs pay the most at $800 to $2500, then your bars, clubs, festivals $300 to $1000, and a birthday party $200 to $500," Whitson says.
While that might seem substantial, as Taylor notes, "you are self-employed, so you could work lots in a week and then the next two weeks have nothing. Then, there's the task of advertising yourself, administration, rehearsals, prop maintenance, etc., which take up your time. You might only have two shows in a week for two hours and get paid £500 [about $675], but you still work a full week doing everything else.”
5. THEY AREN'T ALLOWED TO HAVE BAD DAYS.
"Being a pro magician basically means you are selling a product—yourself," Taylor says. "You have to convince your audience you are the best even when you don't feel like it." That means pulling through a bad show, or a bad day, with a smile: "If you're in an office you can be in a bad mood. If you are in front of hundreds of people performing that's another matter."
6. CONNECTING WITH THE AUDIENCE CAN BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE TRICKS.
Doc Eason, a legendary magician who performs at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California, and at the Stonebridge Inn in Snowmass, Colorado, is known for his incredible memory; he does one trick where he memorizes the names of 20 people in the audience as well as a card held by each person. Despite the impressive feat, Eason says, “The trick is not the thing ... what is the thing is connecting with the audience. Without connection, you just become a clever person who learned to do a few cool things." Establishing that connection is a matter of eye contact and remembering the names of the people in the audience, Eason says—which requires plenty of practice in front of friends, family, and then strangers before taking to the stage.
7. THEY HATE CELL PHONES MORE THAN HECKLERS.
Magicians have probably dealt with hecklers (“I know how you did that!”) since they first stood on a stage. But today’s electronics are considerably more annoying, performers say, what with people constantly recording the show, checking messages, or texting during performances. “Holding audience attention is increasingly difficult," Eason says. However, he doesn't ban cell phones, since that can "start a show on a hostile note."
Randy Forster, a magician from Delaware, handles the annoyances of technology by turning them into an opportunity for humor. He'll open a show with a comment like, “If you have any devices with you with an on-off button, such as a snow-blower or generator, please turn them off now.” Should someone’s phone ring, he’ll say, “We’ll just hold the show until you get that,” or “Put the phone on speaker so we can all hear.”
8. THEY'RE NOT ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL.
Haney says there are several types of magicians: those who specialize in close-up magic (like card tricks on a table), illusionists (think Siegfried and Roy or David Copperfield), mentalists (those who pretend to perform mind-reading), the "bizarre" (think sword swallowers), and children’s entertainers (balloon animals), among others. While some may do one or more types of magic, they generally stick to one category, and develop routines that play to their own strengths.
That's worth keeping in mind when you're hiring a magician. Although many magicians are happy to accommodate special requests, keep their specialty in mind—"someone who does close-up [magic] might hate animal tricks and wouldn’t do them within the scope of a close-up act. Each has its place," Haney says.
9. THEY'RE TIRED OF THE DORKY STEREOTYPES.
"The media gives magicians a bad name sometimes," Taylor says. "Think Howard Wolowitz on Big Bang Theory with his cheesy, annoying manner and performing at inappropriate times." Then there's the memorable Gob Bluth from Arrested Development, whose ineptitude as a magician is matched only by the obnoxiousness of his personality. Magicians like Taylor aim to change those unpleasant associations: "Many magicians, like myself, try to make the magic cool. Not over-the-top cool, but entertaining enough that you’ll talk about it in the pub that night and be impressed and not use 'geeky' to describe it."
10. THEY'VE HEARD ALL YOUR JOKES BEFORE.
Rich Bloch, a magician, inventor of magic effects, and owner of Dickens Parlour Theater in Millville, Delaware, says that when you think you’re being clever by asking the magician, “Can you make my husband disappear?” or “Can you saw my wife in half?” or “Can you change this dollar into a $1000?”—you aren’t. Also, the magician has probably heard the joke “How’s tricks?” before, even if they laugh with wide-eyed amazement like you’re the first person to ever crack it.
11. DON'T ASK THEM TO WORK FOR FREE …
Taylor’s pet peeve is someone asking, "Can you work for free?" or saying "I don't have much of a budget, but it will be great exposure for you."
"Unfortunately, exposure won't feed my family or pay my phone bill," he explains. "And I hate to say it, but 99.99 percent of these ‘exposure’ gigs don't lead to anything else. You wouldn't ask your electrician to work for free so why ask entertainers to?”
12. … OR TO EXPLAIN THE TRICKS.
As tempted as you may be to learn how a trick is done, don’t ask unless you’re paying for a private lesson. Once you learn, you’ll probably be disappointed, our sources say. “It’s usually something very simple,” Haney says. “It’s always more fun to be amazed.”
13. THERE ISN'T NECESSARILY A PENALTY FOR REVEALING HOW TRICKS ARE DONE.
While revealing a trick can lead to some ostracism for magicians, doing so won't get them sent to magicians' jail. For one thing, magic tricks aren't copyrightable, so it can be hard to prove ownership, and there's usually plenty of resources out there explaining tricks already. They have occasionally even been revealed in court—as when David Copperfield was forced to reveal the method behind his Lucky #13 trick after a participant claimed he'd dislocated his shoulder during a Las Vegas performance.
But there are certain centerpiece tricks—ones the magician created or purchased for thousands of dollars—that can ruin a magician's act if their mechanics are revealed. For example, Bloch has a trick where he copies someone’s signature while he’s blindfolded; it's a key part of his act, so revealing how it's done could be devastating. If a trick like that is unmasked, a magician might sue, as when Teller of Penn & Teller filed a lawsuit against a Belgian entertainer who posted a YouTube video of an illusion similar to one of Teller's signature tricks, and promised to reveal the secret behind it for $3050. Even though magic tricks aren't specifically copyrightable, Teller won his lawsuit because he'd registered his trick as a "dramatic work," which is protected by copyright.
14. THEY AVOID USING TRICK DECKS.
Although there are numerous trick card decks out there, Haney and Bloch both say a good magician needs only a standard Bicycle deck. “If you have a funny back, if people don’t recognize it, they automatically suspect it’s a trick deck,” Haney says.
15. THEIR TRICKS DON'T ALWAYS GO AS PLANNED.
Magicians sometimes perform in unusual environments—outdoors, at birthday parties, etc. Taylor remembers the time he was performing in a church hall for a corporate event and fell victim to its old wooden floor, which was riddled with gaps between the boards. "I was doing an escape from a replica set of Victorian prisoner chains and it's supposed to take 20 seconds in total," he says. But just as he went to flee, he realized he couldn't move his legs. "Turns out the chain had got trapped in the floor, meaning I couldn't get my feet out of the set of chains. I was stuck to the floor and could hear the music ticking away. Panicking, I grabbed hold of the cloth [that was supposed to drop and reveal him] and covered my feet with it as I yanked at the floorboards. I spent about 30 seconds of hell trying to subtly escape from the chains while talking to the audience as cool as I could. With a large yank, I managed to get my feet free, injuring an ankle in the process, and hobbled off stage as soon as I could."
Occasionally, even the little "disasters" turn out OK. Follis says he was once working a restaurant when a couple's dollar bill, which was part of his trick, got "a little too close the flame and burned—only a little, but clearly visible." In a panic, he tried to replace the dollar, but the couple "insisted on keeping it as it was their first date and they thought it would make a great story." The next Halloween, the same couple came to his show, sat in the second row, and told him how much they enjoyed the performance—followed soon after by an invitation to perform for their first family Christmas as a couple.
16. MISDIRECTION IS KEY.
“The essence of a magic performance is misdirection," Bloch says. "Not as in causing someone to look here rather than there, but displacing their expectations." He compares magic to humor, which often seems funny because of the unexpected turns a joke or a skit takes. "The unexpected is what causes the laughter reaction," Bloch explains. "Magic is the same. People expect an assistant to remain stable on the table, yet she floats, so you are changing the direction of their expectations.”
17. MAGIC TRICKS CAN HELP PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN INJURED OR WHO HAVE DISABILITIES.
Over the years, magicians have realized that learning to do tricks can be a valuable form of physical therapy. Haney says a customer bought a trick for his wife who had suffered a stroke; her doctor had said she’d never use her right hand again, but the trick gave her a goal to focus on, and she ended up regaining the use of her hand.
Several magicians have created programs that combine magic with other forms of physical and psychological therapy: David Copperfield founded Project Magic in 1981 to teach people with disabilities how to do sleight of hand work as a means to improve their dexterity, problem-solving skills, and self-confidence. After being in a debilitating car accident in 1988, magician Kevin Spencer created a “Healing of Magic” program that uses simple magic tricks to boost physical skills and motivational levels. According to his website, the concepts of “magic therapy” are now being used in more than 2000 hospitals, schools, and rehabilitation facilities worldwide.