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Richard Buffum

The Dangers of Conjuring in the Electronic Age

September 07, 1986|Richard Buffum

Several years ago at a party, Prof. Tony Delap, an amateur magician who is a professional sculptor and member of UC Irvine's fine arts faculty, momentarily astonished patrons by levitating a woman outside Newport Harbor Art Museum.

In the darkness, with a spotlight trained upon the "floating" woman, the wires extending down from an overhead crane were not visible. But seconds later, party-goers could glimpse the glitter of metal--exposing Delap's secret.

"Such magic can look miraculous on TV where simple camera control can exclude the secret apparatus that live audiences can't miss," commented John Booth of Los Alamitos.

Booth, formerly one of America's highest paid lecture-platform magicians, was expressing his opinion of the damage to the public's image of theatrical magic when impossible feats, like causing the Statue of Liberty to vanish, are performed on television.

We were discussing this problem several months ago over lunch. At that time, Booth was writing his latest book of memoirs and conjuring history, entitled "Wonders of Magic," to be published by Ridgeway Press of Los Alamitos.

Our talk was wide-ranging, touching on inadvertent exposures of secret methods by bunglers to intentional exposures in popular magazines.

I had observed that intentional public exposures, usually a simplistic description of methods, rarely harm the mystery of a well-performed illusion. The public's memory is short. What's more, a psychologically sound and technically well-executed illusion of magic deceives the public into believing that the method used by that particular magician could not possibly be the same one exposed in the magazine, although in reality the methods were the same.

Booth had agreed. Even so, he does not approve of public exposures. To expose is to deprive the non-magician of his sense of wonder. Magicians should zealously guard their secrets. To give them away is to cheapen and destroy the elfland of make-believe.

Booth's book is now published. In his chapter on "The Drama of Pretended Miracles," he tells of a syndicated newspaper writer who noted that Harry Blackstone Jr. delighted in pretending that his magic was real. The journalist had commented that the photograph of the magician's wife being "disconnected" by a 36-inch steel blade spinning at 200 revolutions a minute looked "incredibly real." In deep indignant tones, the tall, goateed conjurer had replied:

"It is real. That's not a fake picture. That's my wife being sawed in half. She's now in New York . . . and Atlantic City."

Blackstone had maintained his position as a giver of wonder.

Booth is dismayed by television illusions that purport to cause a jet airplane to vanish.

"Unfortunately," he said, "by the very nature of such illusions on TV or in motion pictures, they give the impression of trick photography to a public well aware of how special-effect techniques and use of camera technology could achieve them.

"This regrettable line of identification, even if and where mistaken, can doom acceptance of conjuring as a product of the TV magician's craft skills--the only basis on which he can be accepted in his own right as a legitimate magical entertainer."

He is convinced that television conjuring is "in mortal peril if seemingly obvious explanations for it, even though simplistic and partially or wholly incorrect, are taken for movie industry photographic techniques."

Audiences feel betrayed, he believes, when they suspect that camera techniques have created the illusion. A spectator, convinced that he knows the method, reacts negatively and cynically to magic, even though he may be wrong about the secret.

Legitimate conjuring skills must not be compromised by camera technology and false advertising claims, Booth asserts. And I agree.

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