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Style & Culture | Al Martinez

Believing in magic may take a miracle

January 03, 2003|Al Martinez

I stopped believing in magic at about age 7 when I discovered that Jody's cards were marked. He was a ne'er-do-well who lived next door and bamboozled the neighborhood kids with all kinds of tricks intended to convince us he was a sorcerer. But something went out of my life when I found markings on his cards, and it wasn't long after that that Santa and the Tooth Fairy followed Jody's magic out the door.

And yet I'm not one of those guys who says that kids should be told right from the beginning that there is no magic or that adults who believe in miracles ought to be told that there are none. Fantasies have a place in our lives if only for a moment, even though Jody inadvertently taught me that there's more fraud than reality in the possibility of the implausible. What seems impossible probably is.

I broach the subject today because I have just spent a weekend exposed to two episodes of magic. One was a show at the Orange County Center for the Performing Arts called "Seussical: The Musical," based on the wondrous books of Dr. Seuss, and the other at Garden Grove's Crystal Cathedral called "The Glory of Christmas," based on, well, you know.

Both shows involved the necessary suspension of disbelief, and the audiences that packed the venues seemed willing to provide it. About half of them at "Seussical" were children, including two of my own grandchildren, who seemed caught up in the splendor of the fantasies that Theodor Seuss Geisel brought to us all.

Cathy Rigby, as the Cat in the Hat, flew through the air with the ease of a bird, or with the ease of those eight angels soaring high above us in the high-domed Crystal Cathedral. Of the two shows, the holy one was the more fascinating, because it dealt with what arguably involves the greatest magic act of all, the virgin birth of Jesus.

Experience teaches that, in the case of magic, what doesn't exist in reality exists in belief. If one believes that an elephant can disappear off a stage in a puff of smoke, then one can surely believe in a God, his Son, flying angels and a host of other heavenly miracles. I have a little difficulty with all of it, but then that's Jody's fault, not mine.

It was my first trip to the Crystal Cathedral, a gleaming, slightly garish edifice that dominates both its surroundings and the lives of those within its glittery confines. The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, who pioneered in drive-in religion, built the cathedral 22 years ago, as much a monument to his own imagination as to God's dominance. A year later, he introduced the world to his "living nativity" called the "Glory of Christmas." There is also a "Glory of Easter," but as of this writing no glory of Halloween, Thanksgiving or Monday Night Football.

The lavish production has been seen by an estimated 3 million people, some of whom emerge believing they have witnessed something superbly religious, while others come out shaking their heads at its tackiness. Gleaming costumes, flying angels, magical lights, camels, horses, sheep and I think a goat or two all played parts in the 70-minute production.

I was impressed by the sheer audacity of it all. It was as much showmanship as it was a celebration of the birth of Jesus, whom one expected at any moment to rise from his crib and perform some kind of super-duper magical trick, like, as my wife suggested, turning a columnist into a toad. Lacking this sort of hocus-pocus, the production was nevertheless compelling for what it was, and the voices of the soloists were worth the price of admission.

As I looked around at the audience of 2,500 who had gathered in that awesome glass house, it occurred to me that probably most of them were believers in magic. They were embracing a fable as though it were a reality. Why else would they come from across the country, pay good money and be jostled by crowds in long lines to see a show or buy a religious trinket on a cold and windy night?

There is a kind of purity in belief. One accepts on different levels of faith that there exists a two-headed creature in the jungle of Nool who will amuse and fascinate us or a God in heaven who will ultimately protect and forgive us. If, after the whimsy of Seuss and the hustle of preachers, doubt creeps in, that's as it should be too, because we are as much creatures of skepticism as of belief. I came away from both "Seussical" on a Saturday night and "The Glory of Christmas" on a Sunday night wishing in a way that Jody hadn't shattered my belief in magic so early in life. I wouldn't mind a cat in a hat or guardian angel soaring overhead now and then to amuse and protect me on days of gloom and stress.

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Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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