Kids these days: David Kaye talks about performing magic for children and how to get young illusionists off the internet and into the magic club

April 6, 2018

I don’t think it’s overly cynical to say that children, to put it mildly, are a handful. They’re loud, obnoxious and prone to eating paint and wandering out in front of traffic. You may be able to deal with one, possibly even two children, but handling an entire flock of screeching proto-humans is best left to the professionals.     

Professionals like David Kaye, or Silly Billy as he’s known to under-12s. Kaye is a New York-based children’s magician and the first vice president of the First Assembly of the Society of American Magicians. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Kaye about his experience producing the 109th Salute to Magic show (read all about his work pulling that together here). During the hour-long interview, we also talked about Kaye’s twenty-year-plus career performing magic for children, the growing divide between older magicians and their younger, social media savvy counterparts, the Society of American Magicians’ role in molding young magicians and, of course, card decks.

GeniiOnline: You’re primarily a children’s magician. Do you think your experience herding children will be useful when it comes to managing magicians?

David Kaye: *laughs* No, that’d make a great quote, but there’s no relationship between working with kids and working with adults. Which is why it’s really hard for people to work with kids. People who’ve produced shows and then worked with kids soon realize that there’s no common skills. Working with kids is completely different. Children’s brains are different. You have to treat them different. Use different words. Different psychology. 

Well, I will say this: entertaining kids is really hard, and if you can do that, then you’ll probably be a more entertaining magician for adults.

GO: So how did you end up in that line of magic?

DK: Well, it was an accident. I grew up in magic. Loved magic since I was a kid. I went to the magic shops. One of the things I really enjoyed growing up was watching magicians street perform in Manhattan. After college I got a job because that’s what you’re supposed to do. I hated my job a lot, so I quit and started street performing magic.

GO: What was the job?

DK: I had a job in marketing.

GO: Oh god.

DK: *laughs*

GO: Though I imagine some of the skills you learned in marketing might transfer over to magic.

DK: There is a relationship. That being the use of language to manipulate. In fact, that’s what I studied at Northwestern. I studied the psychology of human communication. For example: A magician uses words to manipulate people’s thinking, so does someone who’s writing an ad or a press release. You use language to convince someone to make a purchase or something along those lines. There is a relationship.

GO: So you quit marketing and started performing street magic?

DK: Yeah, that’s right. And I really just did it as a way to make money while I was looking for another job, but I enjoyed it so much I never went looking for another job. I was performing and people in the street asked me if I did magic for children. I didn’t, but I learned how, and started doing that. I was very successful and people kept hiring me for private parties.

Grey: So what’s the trick to performing magic for kids? Is there a cardinal rule?

DK: Oh yeah, there is. This is my whole philosophy which I wrote about in my book and I teach at conventions: Interaction. Most magic for adults is one directional. The magician is on stage and the audience watches. I believe the key to being a successful children’s magician is that it should be a two way street. I’m performing, but the children are interacting physically or verbally with the show. They’re calling things out, they’re wiggling their fingers, and this is much more engaging for the audience. When you perform for children you have to be extremely engaging because their attention span is shorter, they get distracted much more easily. In order to hold their attention, you need to increase the interaction. If you keep the interaction going throughout the routine, the trick or the whole show, then you keep their attention and they enjoy the show more. There is one secret, and that’s it.

GO: So you have two main acts, Silly Billy and what looks like a very cool hammer horror-inspired act, Dr. Blood.

DK: Yeah. It’s the strangest show for kids ever. I’m the only person in New York doing this kind of show, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in the country doing stuff like this for kids. Mostly because New Yorkers are very different from other parents around the country. They’re fine with it. Maybe because New Yorkers are more into things that are new and original, or because they’re more in-tune with theatre, but anyway, no one else is doing a show like this. It’s scary. The goal is to scare the kids. And depending on their age, you can achieve fear at different levels. Young kids are easily scared, but with older kids you have to push a little harder to get them to be frightened to the level that I want them to be.

GO: Have you ever had any complaints from parents about that show?

DK: No, if there are parents who think it’s a terrible idea they’re not going to hire me. The truth is the show has a happy ending. In the show I scare the kids really badly, but at the end of the show I empower them and teach them how to scare their friends. There’s a lot of psychology in this show. A lot of his has to do with haunted houses or roller coasters. People like to put themselves into positions that feel dangerous. So when you’re on this roller coaster, there’s this adrenaline and this experience of danger, but at the end of the roller coaster you want to go on it again. It’s like a haunted house. You go to a haunted house to be scared. And then you want to do it again.

GO: What other responsibilities do you have besides performing for children?

DK: I’m the first vice president of the New York branch of the Society of American Magicians and the New York branch is called the parent assembly. The SAM is a national organisation and each club is called an assembly, and the first assembly, the first version of the national organisation started in New York. That’s why we’re called the parent assembly number one.

GO: In your own words, what does the society offer younger or up-and-coming magicians?

DK: Well, maybe they’ll kill me for saying this but I think the SAM is having trouble recruiting younger people. Older people grew up in magic by going to magic shops, meeting other magicians and then relying on the monthly meetings to further their education. Young magicians find that YouTube and internet chat rooms replace the need for the monthly meeting. And so everybody involved with the SAM and the IBM (International Brotherhood of Magicians) are having trouble bringing in young people. 

One of the things we’re trying to do is have lecturers come to the club meetings. Sometimes meetings can be people showing each other magic tricks, but let’s say there’s a famous magician that’s going to give a two hour lecture on his or her specialty, then that’s a unique event and I think that brings young people in. 

For example, what they do is they see these guys on YouTube doing their magic and they get to meet them in person and see them perform live. I think that’s one of the things clubs are doing to bring young people in. And one of the things we’re trying to do at our club is more hands-on things. You know, come to the meeting, perform a trick and all the other guys at the meeting will help you make it better. We’ll fix it for you. We’ll watch it, give you ideas, offer you ways to make it better.

GO: That workshop experience, yeah?

DK: Yeah, a workshop, exactly.

GO: Do you think there’s a big generational gap between old school magicians and more social media savvy magicians?

DK: Well yeah, and again, I don’t think anyone reading this would be surprised by that answer. Yeah. The internet has disrupted every aspect of life including the art of magic. In the old days, in the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s even, maybe the 80’s, the only way to learn about magic was to go to the magic store and the magic store, at least in New York, was very often hidden in buildings. We used to have this saying, “If someone’s making the effort to find the magic shop and go to the magic shop, they will be rewarded with learning the secrets and becoming a magician,” because there was an effort that had to be made to seek out the magic shop. 

Now, it’s completely different. People who grew up in the old days had this wonderful experience of walking into a magic shop. We all tell the same story, we walked into a magic shop and all of a sudden we were in heaven, and, you know, this is why we became magicians. It was just one of those things. It triggered something in our brains. We all have this wonderful memory of that experience of being in a magic shop and the joy of being surrounded by magicians and magic tricks. So much so that David Copperfield, now that he’s collected everything else, is putting replica magic shops into his museum. For example, his local magic shop was Tannens, in New York. This magic shop was on the 17th floor of an office building and you had to know that to find it. The building was nondescript, the floor was nondescript, you open the door and it was like Judy Garland opening the door in the Wizard of Oz. He’s literally replicated the magic shop. He’s built a replica of the magic shop in his museum. And I think that goes a long way to explain how much of an impact that experience had for him. 

The thing is, brick and mortar shops are closing up. There’s only a handful of brick and mortar magic shops left in the country and kids today, they just don’t have that experience. Their magic experience is completely different to mine and the way I grew up.

GO: So in some ways is the society trying to preserve that magic shop experience with the workshops?

DK: Yes. That’s a good point, but I wouldn’t say “preserve,” because preserve makes it sound like we’re stuck in the past. I think maybe “replicate” is right. We want to replicate the feeling of being in a room with a bunch of magicians. That experience for me was so powerful and I look at magicians who are 15 or 20-years-old now and I can’t imagine they get the same joy from watching videos as I did from going to a magic shop. 

So in a sense the people who run the clubs who are older, they just don’t speak the language of younger kids, so they’re having trouble attracting them. Like, one of the guys we’re honoring at the Salute to Magic is called Bob Little. He’s 86-years-old and he doesn’t even have a computer. How can a guy who doesn’t have a computer even understand what it’s like for a twenty-year-old magician to live on YouTube and learn magic tricks from videos?

GO: A controversial question I know, but do you think the quality of magicians has gone down in recent years?

DK: Oh, no I don’t think that’s controversial. In fact: I hadn’t even heard that was a thing. I don’t think there’s any difference in the quality of the final product. 

Okay, there is one thing. The first answer is: I don’t think there’s any difference in the quality of the magicians that are being turned out, and are on stage now. There is one big difference and that is that, when I learned a trick, I learned it from another person or a book, usually a book. But in order to do the trick I had to stand in front of another person and perform the trick, that’s how you practice the art. The art is a performance art. You stand in front of another person, two people in the same room, and you do a magic trick for them. 

The difference in the newer generation is they don’t have a lot of experience performing magic for human beings. People my age think they just perform magic to their computer camera in their bedroom and then they post their performance online. There are probably a lot of young magicians who are very good technically, but may not be as good entertainers because the difference is when you perform the trick alone, you’re performing the technique, the dexterity, but an entertainer not only has to perform the technical aspects of the trick, he has to entertain the audience. You can’t gauge your entertainment value if you’re performing on video. So that’s a difference.

GO: So you think that face-to-face element brings out a better patter?

DK: Yes, absolutely. No question. But that isn’t to say that’ll be the same when you get on stage. When someone reaches a level in the magic world where they’re on stage performing then they have transcended the camera.

GO: If they’re on stage they deserve to be there?

DK: Yeah.

GO: One final question, do you have a preferred deck of cards that you use for your shows.

DK: No. And for one reason, I do magic for kids, I don’t do card tricks. Hmmm. I… look, Red Bicycles is my preferred deck of cards, but that’s my hobby, not my job.

GO: We’re all deck collectors here at GeniiOnline.

DK: Yeah, I know. No, I have to tell you if there’s one thing that older magicians don’t get about younger magicians, it’s that. Collecting decks of cards. To tell you the truth, collecting decks of cards has, in large part, saved brick and mortar magic shops, because kids are coming in and buying decks of cards. They almost single-handedly saved brick and mortar magic shops, but I don’t get it at all.