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Fox Isn't Disillusioned as Masked Magician Series Ends

Television: The illusion-spoiler's unmasking episode Thursday drew a not-so-shabby 14.7 million viewers.

October 31, 1998|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His name, we now know, is Leonard Montano, a.k.a. Valentino, a.k.a. the "masked magician." Fellow illusionists have been aware of this for some time, but Fox, insisting it would send "shock waves" through the magic community, officially unmasked its illusion-spoiling magician Thursday night in the fourth and likely final installment of "Breaking the Magician's Code," specials that have given away trade secrets of the profession.

After showing viewers how, among other things, a magician can escape from a coffin after being buried alive, Montano ended the special by peeling off his black mask and giving a brief testimonial, saying that his specials have helped make magic a more accessible art form to all.

"Coming out and explaining who I am now brings more credibility to the message that I'm bringing," he said in an interview earlier in the week, when he was still calling himself the Masked Magician and refusing to confirm his identity.

Montano, a veteran Las Vegas-based performer whom fellow magicians characterize dismissively as an afternoon lounge act, said he might resurrect the masked magician persona in other forums.

"I'm sort of excommunicated now from the magic fraternity's world. I've heard there's talk that when I perform they're going to picket, or make it difficult for me to work. That's to be seen."

Bruce Nash, whose Nash Entertainment produced the specials, called the unmasking "a way to close out the saga." But it was also an attempt to boost the ratings of a series whose numbers have flagged considerably since the first installment aired in November of 1997 and drew 24.2 million viewers, the highest-rated special ever on Fox. Thursday night's show drew 14.7 million, up from the 12.4 million who watched the third installment of the series last May.

Though a coalition of magicians' groups organized free magic shows and urged a viewer boycott before the third edition of "Breaking the Magician's Code," there was no such campaign before "The Final Reveal."

Instead, magicians were hoping the series would simply go quietly into the night.

"You can only play this out for so long," said Stan Allen, editor of Magic magazine. "I think the public becomes bored with it."

From the outset, the specials have divided the magic community into two camps--those who've actively discredited Montano as a sham artist while campaigning against Fox and urging boycotts of the show's advertisers, and those who've felt ignoring the specials was the quickest way to make the controversy go away.

"You can teach someone to sing a Frank Sinatra song but they're not Frank Sinatra," said Milt Larsen, founder of the Magic Castle in Hollywood. "That's where they have this thing wrong. Magic isn't about knowing how it's done, it's about watching the beauty of magic."

Fox, meanwhile, plugged the final special by claiming Montano had received death threats, a notion other magicians saw as so much hype.

"Certainly no one's out to break his legs or kill him," said Kevin Spencer, a touring magician based in Lynchburg, Va. "That's just hype. We're just disappointed that someone who made his living performing the art of magic for over 25 years would be so quick to betray their community."

Spencer, who performs with his wife, Cindy, says the specials forced the duo to scrap two of their tricks, the Shadow Box (in which Cindy slowly materializes into an empty box) and the Houdini-inspired Chinese Water Torture Cell.

They're now suing Fox over the loss of the illusions, which Spencer says cost as much as $50,000 apiece.

Theirs is one of a number of lawsuits filed as a result of "Breaking the Magician's Code." Magician Andre Kole unsuccessfully went to court in May to prevent Fox from airing a special featuring the secret behind the Table of Death, an illusion Kole says he perfected. Kole says he's licensed the trick to seven of the top 10 magicians in the world and estimated his financial damages as a result of the special at more than $500,000.

Kole's attorney, David Baram, said there's been no movement on his client's multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the network. Indeed, there's an inherent difficulty, Baram conceded, in suing over the loss of a magic trick, because the laws don't protect illusions the way copyright laws protect intellectual properties in other media.

"Magicians and designers of magic tricks haven't had to take those steps," he said. "A handshake has worked for several centuries."

Handshake or not, some magicians criticize Montano's explanations as sloppy or inaccurate, saying he created the mistaken impression that the methods exposed are regularly used by professional magicians.

Magician Mark Wilson, who hosted the Saturday morning kids' show "The Magic Land of Allakazam" in the 1960s and calls himself "the world's most televised magician," says some of Montano's "reveals" were dangerous and not generally used by fellow magicians.

"If I had a television series on now, I would welcome masked magician shows because I would go on the next week, do the same illusion and prove his exposure was wrong by showing how the reveal didn't work."

Producer Nash, though, hardly sounded disappointed that the end had apparently arrived for his masked magician. For him, it's on to a new reveal, anyway--"Exposed: Pro Wrestling's Greatest Secrets," which airs Sunday at 7 p.m. on NBC.

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