Originally published in Genii magazine
As I write this, it is the first of September. I have been traveling much of the year and have come home to Chicago only for short periods of a week or two -- usually to face a small mountain of mail. This time I have been home for twelve days. Chicago is presently muggy and hot. In a few days I will go to Las Vegas for two weeks where it will also be hot but not muggy. After dozens of visits, I still find Las Vegas an exciting city.
In Las Vegas, I will conduct two Master Classes with Jeff McBride and also work with Dan Harlan and John Thompson on a book of John's magic and fascinating recollections about magic and magicians. These are all exciting projects for me: teaching with Jeff is always stimulating and surprising, and a book by John Thompson will be an important addition to magical literature.
You will be reading these words in December. Richard Kaufman tells me that Mastering the Art of Magic, the book of my early collected writings with Interludes describing my present thoughts on some of that material, will be published this month -- and suggested, further, that I might want to write about what it was like to reread and think about these early writings. Perhaps you will forgive me for these personal reflections.
The fact is that, after each of these booklets was published in the early 1980s, I reread it and then put it on a shelf and didn't read any of them again until I began work on this project with Richard. As you might expect, the experience of going back was mixed. On the negative side, there is always the sense that I could have done it all better. Endless judging of ourselves and finding ourselves wanting. Fortunately, over the years, I have come to see the utter futility of spending much time in this negative frame of mind.
On the positive side, happily, I thought the booklets held up pretty well over the intervening years, and I enjoyed reflecting about those years of performing during which the booklets were written.
When I became a professional magician in March of 1978, I turned to restaurant magic because my mind had been dulled by years of regular paychecks, and I felt, without them, my life would simply involve too much worry and anxiety. Restaurant magic provided me with the regular paychecks that I craved and also, and much more important, the opportunity to advertise myself for private and corporate parties -- and get paid for it at the same time!
To be honest, when I began working in restaurants, I really had only the most general idea, derived from observing restaurant and bar magicians while I was young, how this sort of thing was done. I was to learn my trade on the job, as it were, but I deeply enjoyed this learning and so those were exciting times for me. I found out what worked and what didn't work by trial and error. In the process, I was growing and things began changing.
To give but one example that I discuss in the book, after years of doing restaurant magic, I asked myself the simple question what I dislike most about this sort of work. The answer was instantly there: walking up to patrons cold and trying to interest them in a magic show. For me, this was the most difficult and awful part of an otherwise most delightful performing situation. Then I asked myself why I was doing it this way. The only answer that came to me was that this is the way all the monkeys are doing it. Since I was being another monkey, I was doing it that way too. In that moment, I also saw how insane it was! And I vowed, then and there, that I would change things and free myself from that aspect of restaurant work that I so disliked. And I did.
I moved to another, more expensive restaurant. When the owner asked, how having a magician in the house "worked," I immediately replied, "Well, since this is such an upscale restaurant, I know that you don't want me walking up to tables like a traveling Mariachi." "Oh no," he replied, "I certainly don't want that. How do we do it?"
"Simple," I said, "you tell the waiters to tell each of their tables after dinner, 'We have an absolutely wonderful magician here tonight and he'll come to your table to do a little show for you. You'll really enjoy it.'" And that is how I have worked in every restaurant or lounge since. I would never go back. This scenario makes me much more special. Walking up to a table cold doesn't.
People, when they learned about the magician, either said yes or no -- but not to me. I only went to tables that had made a positive response. Restaurant magic became much more fun. Further, I soon realized that this way of doing things was better not only for me but also for the restaurant. What any restaurant wants is for every patron to have a pleasant experience without any unpleasant moments. If people are having important conversations and the magician appears, they either have to say no to the magician or watch the show when they really would have preferred to continue their conversation. Having a third person introduce the presence of the magician not only makes the magician more special, it also removes a potentially embarrassing moment for the patrons (and the magician!).
Honestly, it still amazes me how many restaurant magicians continue to see their jobs as walking up to tables and trying to sell these strangers on a magic show. If you talk with many restaurant magicians, as I have over the years, you soon discover that very few enjoy walking up to the tables. Some do, of course, and even find it an exciting and invigorating challenge, but most really don't. Most restaurant magicians seem to find walking up to the table an uncomfortable moment that they hope is over as soon as possible. I understand that feeling because I shared it myself for many years when I was walking up to tables too. Happily, one day I realized that enough is enough -- and it was time to move on.
These are the kinds of thoughts that came to me when I reread my early booklets. I realized that, in some ways, I had definitely grown as a performer over the years. Most important, I think that my respect for myself and my magic has grown and deepened. Most of this growth, further, came from asking questions, and not simply doing what everyone else is doing.
Could there be a message in all this for you as well?
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