Thursday, June 12, 2008

Top Three

In the 20+ years I have been interested in magic, I've seen a few magic shows. Hundreds, perhaps.

Many of those shows have been mediocre. Some have been awful. Others have been very, very good. And while I hesitate to create "best-of" lists, for the purpose of this blog (and perhaps due to the fact that I have nothing else to write about this week), I'm going to take a shot at it.

In my estimation, the three greatest magic shows I've seen are, in no particular order, are those of:

1. Del Ray

I saw one of his "farewell" tours and in one evening, despite significant health problems, he performed both his close-up and stage acts. To say that his work in both arenas was staggering is to understate the case grossly. Between Willie the Mouse, the blackjack deals, his rising cards and, well, everything he did, the audience of magicians was simply left without a prayer. His bolo tie perfectly complimented the seemingly Southern drawl he affected (every time the deck was offered to a volunteer, Del said, "Cuhhht", drawing out the center of the word in a way I won't soon forget). Del appeared to be on the verge of death during the performance, but ever the trouper, soldiered on and in the process, slew everyone in the audience.

2. Lance Burton

As a teenager, I was lucky enough to have indulgent parents who, on a trip to Las Vegas, tipped the matre'd at the Hacienda to ensure we sat at one of the tables next to the stage in the showroom where Lance was performing. There's only one way to describe the show I saw that night: awe-inspiring. I remember floating around Las Vegas for the remainder of the trip wondering about this likeable, personable, charming magician. Clearly he was the greatest. Nothing could compare to Lance's show - not even Siegfried & Roy, who we saw later on that week. For my money, while the dove act and many of the illusions (partiuclarly the Masked Ball sequence, the Gramophone illusion and the Cane Cabinet) were memorable, the picture of that evening that still resonates in my mind is of Lance, standing just in front of us. He leaned over and picked up a cocktail napkin from our table. In the action of tearing it up, the bits and pieces of paper were transformed - they morphed at his fingertips - into a tiny, flapping parakeet.

3. Ricky Jay

Indulgent parents take their kids to magic shows while on family vacation in Las Vegas. The world's most indulgent parents (mine) drive their children to Chicago to the Steppenwolf Theatre on Halsted Ave. to see Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants and then drive home after the show (the drive to and from suburban Detroit took five hours, each way).

But the sacrifices my parents made to take me to Jay's show were not what made it great. What made it great was a transcendent blend of writing, humor and obvious displays of skill and cunning woven together in an elegant theatrical production. At 15, I thought I knew more than the average kid about card magic. I probably did. But Jay's show was erudite, funny, engaging and struck a note in me that I was then barely aware of: an interest in the history of the art, of conjuring's rich back-story, of the mountebank and magicians like Malini and Vernon who've become legends. Jay told us why these men were important, and more importantly, he showed us how they became legendary. He charmed with stories of Allen Kennedy and the center deal, Malini biting the button off of Senator Mark Hanna's coat, and chucked pasteboards into the rind and flesh of a watermelon. A tatoo vanished and reappeared on his arm, an automaton - always under the master's control - restored a card torn in four, and cups and balls danced together in concert in a fitting close to a strong, strong show.

1 comment:

mai-ling said...

I've only seen Del Ray work (live),
and that was in 1985.
I sort of remember his act.

I will admit, that when I was
13 seeing Jeff McBride at
Abbott's, I was blown away.