Stock magic poster from Mike Caveney's Egyptian Hall Collection. (Patrice Roe / Los Angeles…)
As exclusive gatherings go, this one was noteworthy, even by the high local standards set by A-list Hollywood, with attendees including a former acting director of the CIA, at least one prime-time TV star and half of Penn & Teller (the smaller, quieter half).
That last guest is perhaps the one clue you need to figure out the subject of their mutual interest: magic. Or more specifically, the history of the art, as long-dead prestidigitators, illusionists and "miracle" workers were resurrected for the 10th Los Angeles Conference on Magic History, held Nov. 8-10 in North Hollywood.
The biennial invitation-only conference -- so exclusive that it generally takes a death to create an opening for the following event -- is billed as "a unique weekend of wonders" by its organizers and the "hottest ticket in magic" by the editor of a leading magicians' magazine. The conference attracts an eclectic group of attendees who share a passion for magic history; I'm one of them, having attended more than half of the events, starting with the first in 1989.
I got hooked on magic after I saw Harry Anderson, star of TV's "Night Court" at the time, perform at a comedy club. He used magic in his act.
After learning a few, small magic tricks, it was clear I was no performer. But I became fascinated with the psychology of magic and its history. I eventually went to work for the magician, publisher and conference organizer, Mike Caveney.
"I'm the bally man. I turn the tip," Caveney says of his emcee role at the conference. The bally man was the fellow at carnivals who convinced people to "come on in" to the sideshows and see "nature's oddities."
The invitation to attend this year's conference came in the form of a puzzle. When assembled, it read, "You are cordially invited to the Queen of Hearts' party, the long-awaited encore of Dr. Hooker's 'Impossibilities and Rising Cards.' "
Dr. Hooker and his effects have achieved a reputation of mythical proportion in the magic community. His "masterpiece" was the rising cards. To someone unfamiliar with magicians' methods, the trick may look unremarkable. A card is selected by an audience member and then rises from a deck onstage.
But there were subtleties employed by Dr. Hooker that have baffled the greatest minds in magic from Harry Houdini to present-day magic scholars.
John Gaughan restored and presented the half-hour re-creation of Dr. Hooker's show, aided by "Miltiades III," the animated head of a teddy bear. Dr. Hooker chose the name Miltiades from his granddaughter's storybook, "Adventures of Miltiades Peterkin Paul."
Gaughan, an award-winning builder of magical effects, is another of the conference organizers. His quiet, modest demeanor fits well with the slower paced presentation style of the early 20th Century effect.
Brian McCullagh made the "very expensive" trip from Australia specifically for Gaughan's show. McCullagh, who has attended four of the conferences and lectured in 1997, said he had originally read of Dr. Hooker in the 1950s. He called Gaughan's presentation "brilliant."
McCullagh became interested in magic as a boy and tried his hand at performing. "But I found that as a performer, I make a better math teacher," McCullagh said.
While many magicians' secrets were revealed during the conference, Gaughan is keeping those of the "Impossibilities" to himself. Richard Kaufman, editor of the magicians' magazine Genii, wryly suggested that perhaps water-boarding would get Gaughan to talk.
Besides the rising cards, the Conference on Magic History offered the 250 registrants an exhibit room, two dealers' rooms and 18 lectures and shows.
The conference, since its inception, has been held at the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn in North Hollywood. The number attending is still small compared to other mainstream magic conventions. But there were just 120 at the first; that group fit nicely into a small theater at the hotel. The popularity of the conference has increased the number attending, and now all the events are held in the hotel's ballroom.
This year's conference, as a result, lacked some of the friendly intimacy of earlier gatherings. A few of the speakers, reading woodenly from notes or neglecting to present graphics, gave some in the audience an opportunity to grab a quick nap. Nonetheless, there were plenty of highlights ? enough to justify the admission cost of $260.
Dr. Peter Lamont spoke on a Victorian-era personality, W.J. Vernon, in a presentation titled "Professor, Pseudo-scientist, Terrorist." Lamont is a historian and psychologist based at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
Lamont was informative, quirky and entertaining. He described Vernon's beginnings in phrenology, the study of the bumps on a person's head, through the end of his career, when he landed in jail for promoting armed revolution in England.