I remember being enraptured by David Copperfield’s television specials as a child, but neither the larger-than-life illusions nor perfectly coiffed hair has remained as vivid in my memory as his interactive tricks. These illusions, with use of props like a deck of cards or even the TV screen itself, seemed like an impossible shattering of the fourth wall: a magician reaching into my quiet living room to create something amazing. David would ask me to pick a card from my own deck, or trace my finger on the screen, and he’d reach out and solve it as if he were in the room. As an adult, it’s clear enough that these were essentially elaborate logic puzzles, but that doesn’t make the feat any less impressive. Instead of a magical effect, the beauty is in the meticulousness of creating it.
“These became so popular,” Copperfield said in a commentary on one of his most famous interactive tricks. “You know, we’d spend all this time and money and choreography and lighting and writing on other pieces, and these very calculated and tested interactive things were the pieces that people remembered the next day. So it’s not like we didn’t work hard on them but the impact these had really was remarkable to us.”
In the same commentary, Copperfield claims that his organization consulted with the television data firm Nielsen and found that 90% of the audience participated in the interactive tricks. But when Copperfield said these tricks were calculated, he meant it very literally.
“All of them come back to some sort of mathematical calculation,” magician Kevin Spencer told GeniiOnline. “All of these interactive effects are taking these calculations and using them in a way that’s surprising and interesting. I think because there’s multiple steps to them, it’s much more difficult for the audience to go back to recreate it. You could DVR or, at the time, tape it, and go back and look at it and try multiple possibilities.”
To dissect the puzzle of interactive magic, I did just that with Copperfield’s famous destination trick. In it, he presents a clock-like grid and has the participant choose a number between five and 15, and then moves back and forth a few times, ultimately landing on the Moon at the 10 o’clock position. Unbeknownst to the audience, the trick actually converges every participant into one space relatively early.
The first move begins from outside the clock face, adding three extra spaces just for the first move. Since the first move is to pick a number between five and 15, this effectively hides the similarity to a clock face from the beginning. The trick would be the same if it started from the 12-o’clock position and told you to pick a number between two and 12, but by adding a few extraneous spaces that are quickly removed after the first instruction, Copperfield is able to pick a range that seems less tied to the familiar, even numbers of a clock. Either way, the result is the same: players can land anywhere but the Clouds at 11 o’clock. Then, by having the viewer repeat their previous move in reverse, everyone will land on the same piece: the City at the 3 o’clock position. From there, Copperfield simply eliminates a few pieces on each side, seemingly at random, and instructs viewers to move four times in either direction. Due to the precise elimination of moves, and the fact that by this point all participants have converged in one space, they’ll always land on the Moon for the final reveal.
Crucially, the instructions tell the viewers at home to pick one volunteer to participate. If two or more people did it at once, they would easily see the paths converge on the second move.
That isn’t to say that interactive tricks can never benefit from multiple participants, however. Spencer said he did a similar illusion called Final Destination in his stage show, with an audience of participants keeping track in their heads instead of tracing their movements with a finger. In a live setting, the reveal was two-fold: first that he knew which landmark you had landed on, and then as the audience of up to 3,500 people realized they all did it together despite their wildly varying choices.
“You had this double response,” he said. “One you had a singular response from them, ‘oh he knew I was going to be in Rome,’ and then a second wave where they look around the theater, and that’s when it’s really powerful.”
To give another example, Spencer walked me through a brief interactive card trick over the phone. And while I could dissect the steps somewhat, he was sure to throw in several extraneous steps: putting some cards to the side, tossing one away, and so on. These steps, which didn’t actually impact the outcome of the trick, were interwoven with the ones that did, which helps hide the puzzle even more.
“How do you take these things and make them appear magical, this thing that’s very logical?” Spencer said. “It’s because of those diversions, the impossibility of what you’re asking them to do.”
Copperfield’s destination illusion was tightly timed for a television audience, and as a result didn’t include any extraneous steps. It’s easy to see how a live version could add more moves to obscure the effect, and interactive tricks often have at least a few meaningless pieces added to the calculations for just this reason. In a way, the Copperfield illusion is the perfect mousetrap of the interactive trick: the exact minimum parts needed to achieve the goal.
Inversely, the moves the magician makes to limit your options serve two crucial purposes. The first is the function of the logic puzzle itself, to limit options and narrow the possibilities so that players are forced to move in certain ways. The second, though, is a bit of magical flourish found across all types of tricks. By exposing which pieces of the game board aren’t in use, the magician adds a slow-burn of constant delightful surprise.
“In magic we call those proofs,” Spencer said. “The more proofs you can have as part of a trick, the more incredible it is, the more impossible it is. With each proof it becomes more and more powerful.”
In a more traditional illusion, the proof may be planted to make the trick seem more visceral or even life-threatening. A sword box might open midway through to show the assistant’s side still in the box, or a giant fan might shred a stack of newspaper to prove the blades are deadly-sharp. The more times a magician can anticipate your skepticism and take steps to debunk it, the more astounding the final effect. A participant in an interactive trick might be trying to puzzle out the possible moves, when the magician reveals that some of those options aren’t even on the table.
Meanwhile, interactive magic leaves room for lots of different stage personas. While Copperfield played up the mentalism aspect by suggesting he was “finding” the participant through miles of separation, Spencer pointed out that another magician could suggest he’s actually controlling your movements with the power of his mind. On the other end of the spectrum, a magician could casually point out your location with a “shucks, isn’t that neat” charming tone.
“There are a lot of magicians but there are only a few magic tricks,” Spencer said. “What each magician brings to it with their own personality is what makes it uniquely their own. We all draw from the same magic catalog and it’s what you do that lets you own that trick. The patter, what you’re going to say, the moves you’re going to make.”
Copperfield, ever the showman, acknowledged the logic puzzle aspect of the trick in his commentary, but kept a little of his mystical edge intact. It wasn’t the math that made the magic, he claimed. It was his precise tuning of every aspect of the instructions.
“To make that work we had to test it, and we tested it everywhere–inner city schools, rich areas, poor areas, we tested in other languages,” he said in the commentary. “We found when we were testing this all around, the intonation of my voice, how fast I gave instructions, how I said it, if I changed one word it wouldn’t work. But if I said it a particular way with a particular tone of voice, the illusion would work, so it had to be just, exactly perfect.”
Spencer suggested that the popularity of interactive magic has helped feed the advent of street and close-up magic, as a new generation uses the same tools to replicate the effect on a more personal level.
“People began seeing these big audience responses to these interactive tricks. I think David Blaine was the first one to kind of key in on this,” Spencer said. “So let’s take this to the street and get this from a one-on-one or two-on-one perspective, and that feeds back into the stage performer. Maybe it’s more circular than it is evolutionary.”
Even in a medium defined by heroes who do the impossible, comic book writers continue to develop characters whose abilities surpass the boundaries of human knowledge by use of magic. More than a mere narrative cheat, this allows creators to stretch outside the even loose boundaries of science-fiction and tell stories that would otherwise be impossible. From stage performers to special effects to actual mysticism, magic has become inextricably linked to super-heroic adventures.
With theatrical showmanship and fabulous costumes, stage magicians are fertile ground for comic book heroics. A short-lived European cartoon called The Magician even had a stint on the Fox network in 1999, sporting a look similar to the popular Batman and Superman animated series. The hero, Ace Cooper, was a stage magician and superhero flanked by his sidekick and assistant Cosmo. And just in case that wasn’t enough zaniness, this all took place in the year 3000.
The most famous stage magician in superhero continuity, though, is DC’s Zatanna–a member of the Justice League and childhood friend to Bruce Wayne, aka Batman. Though she has powerful innate magical abilities, she steadfastly abstains from using them during her shows. In fact, she often uses mastery of sleight-of-hand tricks as a meditation and practice for using her actual powers. Her secret identity is not-so-secret, as her crime-fighting outfit is often portrayed as the same stocking-clad tops-and-tails tuxedo as she uses during performances.
Zatanna first appeared in 1964, but even at the time she was essentially a new, female version of an already-existing character. It was a soft reboot, of sorts, making her the daughter of Giovanni Zatara, who preceded her by almost 30 years. Despite his relative obscurity, Zatara shared a debut with the one of most famous characters of all time. Action Comics #1, widely known as the first appearance of Superman, was an anthology of 11 different superhero stories. Superman was the showpiece and claimed the most pages of the book, but Zatara was actually a close second.
Zatara was just one of many comic book characters who struck an uncanny resemblance to Mandrake the Magician, a popular comic strip introduced just four years before Zatara. Mandrake was more known for his hypnosis techniques, hailing from a time when hypnotic suggestion was more associated with mysticism than psychology, but he was known to adopt other powers as needed. Mandrake and Zatara were both stage magicians who also had magical powers and fought criminals, but the similarities even extended to oddly specific aspects–each of them had a hulking bodyguard from a foreign land.
What differentiated Zatara from other characters of his day was a stylistic flourish introduced by artist Fred Guardineer. Zatara controlled his powers through backwards-speech, casting any spell by describing its effect in reverse. Fire, for example, could be summoned by uttering the word “iref.” It was a small touch, but one that invited kids to imitate the gimmick. Years later his daughter, Zatanna, uses the same gimmick to express her own superpowers most of the time.
DC Comics attempted to make lightning strike twice a few years after Zatara’s first appearance, with another wizard named Sargon. He’s been a minor character and bit player in stories revolving around the magical heritage of some in the DC universe, but never caught on the way Zatara did. Instead, he’s often used to expand the universe of magicians.
Magic does carry one more special application within the DC universe, however, and it appropriately ties Zatara together with the much more famous Action Comics hero who shared his debut issue. Superman, often criticized as too powerful for his own good, is actually vulnerable to sorcery. This doesn’t mean that the presence of magic itself weakens him, as in the case of kryptonite. It simply means he is not invulnerable to magical attacks in the same way that he is to most physical attacks. Superman can stand in a raging inferno without feeling the slightest tickle, but a magical fire will hurt and burn him just as much as anyone else. Given Superman’s wide range of abilities and near-invincibility, this is one rare gap in his armor.
That may be why Superman’s first super-powered nemesis wasn’t a rogue Kryptonian or hulking alien, but rather, a magical imp from the 5th Dimension known as Mister Mxyzptlk. The character is often portrayed as silly and mischievous, not malicious, but his disregard for the inhabitants of our dimension can cause some real chaos. In the classic tradition of Rumpelstiltskin, he is traditionally only defeated when his own name is used against him. In a touch borrowed from Zatara, though, Mxyzptlk has to be tricked into saying or spelling his own vowel-barren name backwards. The plot contrivances needed to force a character to say “Kltpzyxm” can only be repeated so often, so more recent comics have found other ways to banish the little imp.
In contrast to DC, Marvel has made its name on being tethered to the real world. Events in the Marvel universe take place in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles instead of stand-ins like Metropolis, Gotham, and Coast City. Real events like national elections and 9/11 have been incorporated directly into Marvel books.
With that added layer of realism comes the ability to host real-life cameos, as a Spider-Man and Deadpool book did last year. That issue featured an appearance from magic duo Penn and Teller, written by Penn Jillette himself, while the book’s usual writers took the extra time to work ahead on the next issue. Among the shenanigans, the always-silent Teller disguised himself Deadpool, a wink-nudge joke for those familiar with Deadpool’s persona as an obnoxiously chatty anti-hero. The two take on a super villain and ultimately defeat him with, what else, a card trick.
Of course, the world of magic is innately about deception and trickery, which naturally lends itself to occasional villainy. Mysterio, a B-tier Spider-Man villain and member of the collective Sinister Six, was a special effects producer who realized he could create illusions to mask his crimes. His schemes often revolve around trickery, but comic storylines are nothing without some escalation, so he’s occasionally turned to hypnosis, deals with demons, and actual magic. A minor Marvel villain known as the Magician is similarly a trickster without any supernatural powers. His name, Lee Guardineer, is a hat-tip to the creator of DC’s Zatara.
Much more pervasive in Marvel continuity is the existence of real magic and mysticism. Marvel has a wide array of categories for its super-powered characters, from mutants to aliens to actual magic, and most famous among the latter is Doctor Strange. Having earned his own film and a spot on the Avengers, Strange was an accomplished surgeon who lost the use of his hands following an accident. Turning to mysticism for a cure, he discovered a cabal of magic users led by the Ancient One, and ultimately became the Sorcerer Supreme protector of earth–a title given the most powerful magic-user of any given world. Though he has learned to control magic with a great degree of innate skill, he relies heavily on the use of magical artifacts.
On some level, all comic book superheroes are fantastical in some way. There doesn’t seem to be much difference, narratively, between the super-science of Iron Man or Wonder Woman’s near-invulnerability and a character like Doctor Strange who taps into a supernatural force to draw upon his abilities. The power of magic in comic books and super heroics goes beyond a mere extra avenue for larger-than-life stories, by providing writers and readers with the power of the unknown. Science-fiction is constrained by its own narrative limitations and has to work within the rules it sets for itself. In the hands of a good writer, magic can be limitless.
Long before larger-than-life David Copperfield specials and Masked Magicians, it was an open question whether magic could even garner an audience on the burgeoning technology known as television. Much of the groundwork laid for current televised magic owes itself to when the medium was a wild west of producers experimenting with different ideas. One of those early pioneers was a determined young Dallas newlywed, fresh out of college in the early 1950s with an advertising degree and a fascination with the emergent technology. His name was Mark Wilson.
“Television had just been coming to town in the last few years,” Wilson told GeniiOnline in an interview. “At first nobody had ever watched a picture on a TV screen at home. My goodness, why in the world would you do that? You’d have to have one of those actual TV screens in your home. Now if you wanted to see one you could walk down main street in Dallas and you could look in the window of either a department store or a electronics store and you could see some kind of a black-and-white picture on a screen on that big box, and they said, that’s television.”
“My father, who was in the oil business, bought a set. Then we had one in our house and other neighbors would come and watch the one that we had in our house. They had news, sports, and a cooking show. The neighbors would come watch and I thought, boy, magic could be wonderful on television. Magic would be great on TV.”
Wilson developed a plan. Already an adept stage magician, he attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas. There he majored in advertising to learn how to pitch his magic show concept to local stations in his hometown.
At the time, this was unheard of. While world-class magicians like Marvyn Roy would occasionally be featured on the Ed Sullivan show, those were rare guests booked sporadically. Wilson dreamed of reaching a large audience on a regular basis–or at least large compared to the handfuls of people who would watch him perform during his day job clerking at Douglas Magicland.
“I majored at SMU in advertising because I wanted to sell a television series with magic. Who ever heard of this?” he said. “I graduated, I married the lovely Nani Darnell, and I wanted to sell that series I’d been talking about. Think of how many people you could get on television! Where I worked you could get maybe 15-20 people at one time, because they could all line up in front of the counter and I could do magic for them. I bet on television I could get several hundred people, maybe even a thousand people!”
“I know, that sounds impossible,” he joked, “but at the time, can you imagine that?”
With degree in hand, he set off to sell his concept to the four local stations in the area: ABC, NBC, CBS, and one independent station. His first attempt failed spectacularly, as he was rejected by them one-by-one.
“They were all good enough to tell me, ‘Mark, you’re talking about a new form of entertainment called television. A lot of television can be done with trick photography. Your kind of magic just won’t work on television, so you stick to those live shows.’”
Wilson was discouraged but not defeated. He noticed that many television shows, like radio before them, were based around endemic sponsorships. If he could secure a sponsor first, it would make his pitch that much more appealing to TV stations. He set his sights on Dr. Pepper, but the soda company would need him to offer something in return. Wilson promised the company a premium that he would offer in exchange for proofs-of-purchase. His proposal was a booklet of magic tricks called the “Dr. Pepper Sealed Secrets.” The show would serve as an advertisement for the booklet, which could only be obtained by drinking lots of Dr. Pepper.
“You had to have proof of purchase of the product, and they would receive a little booklet that contained 13 tricks,” he explained. “I would do one trick per week. I didn’t teach the magic [on the show], I showed the effect, and if you want to be able to pull that coin through the handkerchief like this, you must send in 12 Dr. Pepper bottle caps, and we will send you the Sealed Secrets book.”
That was enough to earn him a sponsorship and two time slots, 15 minutes apiece on Tuesdays and Thursdays, in 1954. The show, titled “Time For Magic” was a smash hit in the Dallas area, with ratings that sometimes even beat out airings of news broadcasts and Howdy Doody. The 13-episode run earned a second season, with a second booklet. Dr. Pepper itself was responsible for printing the books, but hadn’t counted on the sheer number of books it needed to make.
By the time Wilson finished the run of Time for Magic, Dr. Pepper had received 300,000 bottle caps. Wilson, who had dreamed big of performing for a thousand people through the new mass medium, had brought in enough caps to print out 25,000 booklets.
Wilson wasn’t finished steering magic’s development on television, however. He went on to develop Magic Land of Allakazam for CBS in 1960, the first magic show to be nationally syndicated. Having learned the value of them, he secured a Kellogg’s sponsorship for it. It aired Saturday mornings, a prime viewing time for young children, and featured kid-friendly tricks, children volunteers, and a clown assistant.
The legacy of that first televised experience has lived on in more subtle ways as well. Wilson may be best known for his published book, Mark Wilson’s Complete Course in Magic. The Sealed Secrets sponsorship was a precursor to this step-by-step guide, which is still used as a reference and teaching tool for young and aspiring magicians.
Wilson has long since taken a step back from the televised stage, letting a new generation stand on the foundation he helped create. One of those young magicians is own son, Greg Wilson, who appeared on Penn and Teller: Fool Us in 2015. As the finishing flourish to a lengthy sword-box trick, Greg revealed his parents, Mark Wilson and Nani Darnell, to a standing ovation from the hosts.
Penn gave a passionate monologue about his surprise at seeing two of the most influential magicians of his life. It turns out Wilson can still make an entrance on television–with a few more than a thousand people watching.
In an era of proto-reality-shows centering on deadly animal attacks and crash-prone police chases, the Fox network introduced one of the most controversial television airings of magic ever recorded. A series of specials, verbosely named “Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed” explained the common tricks and gimmicks in step-by-step detail, giving audiences a behind-the-scenes look at classic illusions.
After four hour-long specials, the incognito Masked Magician revealed himself as Val Valentino–the stage persona of performer Leonard Montano–who ended on a speech claiming he wanted to push magicians to further their craft and engage young would-be magicians. But decades later, the impact of Valentino’s work reverberates in the legal mechanisms magicians use to protect their secrets, the current state of magic reveals, and a lingering sense of annoyance from his colleagues in the community.
The Magic’s Biggest Secrets specials lasted just under a year in their initial run, from November 24, 1997 to October 29, 1998. In that time the Masked Magician gave primers on a wide range of tricks, comprised mostly of classic mainstays like sawing a lady in half or the sword basket. The final episode promised to reveal his secret identity, which he delivered with an impassioned, if somewhat defensive, monologue.
“I’m not revealing my identity because of all of the controversy surrounding these specials or because of the pressure that I’m receiving from my fellow magicians. I face you tonight because of my love of magic, and to tell you why I chose to reveal these age-old secrets,” he explained. “Can you honestly say that you’ve been hurt by watching these television shows? The truth is you probably love magic more now than ever before. Now you feel a part of it too. It doesn’t hurt the art of magic when the audience is in on the trick, because the secret is a small part of it. The real magic is in the performance.”
At that moment he removed the mask to reveal his identity as Val Valentino. This was no surprise among those in the magic community, however. They’d known from the start.
Kevin Spencer was a touring magician who filed suit against the show, and said he and his fellow magicians recognized Valentino almost immediately.
“Those of us who have been fortunate enough to be successful in this industry, we’re successful because of the unique traits that we bring to the stage,” he said. “And those traits, with or without a mask, are pretty noticeable. So I’m sure that I could put a mask on and walk on stage and do a trick and every magician would know who it was. Valentino wasn’t someone who wasn’t making a living in magic, so putting a mask on does nothing to disguise his stage mannerisms. Honestly, a lot of us knew from the very first episode.”
That identification helped the magic community organize and mount a response. Spencer recalls sending a camera crew to Valentino’s driveway around the airing of the third episode to expose the exposer, leading to a testy private exchange with a Fox executive. He still has boxes of hand-written letters to advertisers and Fox executives, the best sure-fire way to get a response in the days before online social media campaigns.
Mark Wilson, a television pioneer and former president at The Magic Castle, suggested that the backlash from the magic community had started to impact Valentino’s bookings even before he identified himself publicly.
“I think most magicians did know who he was,” Wilson said. “He was having a terrible time getting bookings because most magicians disliked the fact that he was exposing magic and told their agents or representatives not to book him because he was exposing magic.”
The L.A. Times reported at the time that while magicians had organized free magic shows to encourage a boycott of the third TV special, the fourth passed by without as much controversy. By that point, the magic community was hoping the specials would simply fade into obscurity. And while the final reveal did attract more viewers than its slumping ratings over the previous specials, it was still barely half of the show’s original audience.
“You can only play this out for so long,” said Magic magazine editor Stan Allen at the time. “I think the public becomes bored of it.”
To hear Valentino’s final monologue, though, he had done the community a favor.
“I wanted to rekindle that sense of wonder that we all felt when we saw our first magic show,” he said in his closing monologue. “I wanted to get people excited about magic again. Do you remember our first television special last year? The next day at work, at school, and around the dinner table, people were buzzing with excitement. For the first time in a long while magic was at center-stage again.
“I’m happy to report that as a result of these specials, magicians everywhere have been letting go of their old tired tricks and moving forward, creating bigger and better illusions, and taking magic where it has never gone before.”
Spencer was unconvinced.
“I’m sorry, that’s such a cop-out,” he said, laughing. “First of all, if you consider magic to be an art form, we rise on the shoulders of those that came before us. You don’t destroy a Picasso to make room for a Pollock. And so for Valentino to use this idea that he’s moved the art form forward by destroying the things that are old and causing people to be more inspired to create new things is, quite honestly, a way to deflect and appease his guilt.
“As magicians growing up, we all learn the same tricks. When someone comes along and intentionally destroys the value of those tricks, it hurts all those people who are trying to get started. That fourteen year old boy who’s been mowing lawns all summer so he can buy a sword basket for $800, which seems like a lot of money to him? And then Valentino comes along and says, I no longer respect that, so I have the right to expose it and impact your ability to get further in your career.”
Wilson’s critique may have been even more pointed, suggesting that some of the Masked Magician’s reveals were actually dishonest or dangerous. In an effort to keep from revealing too much, he said, he would invent more convoluted methods that could actually put imitators in danger.
“What he does, he exposes, and does it rather poorly,” Wilson said. “Fortunately most of his exposes are not the honest way to do the trick. About half are, half aren’t.” Plus, he said, “if people wanted to know and it increased their curiosity, the Masked Magician would still be on TV, and he ain’t.”
What the Masked Magician did accomplish, though, was to expose a glaring flaw in the legal mechanisms behind magic and secrecy. Many of the secrets were old and passed around magic circles casually as a rite of passage. Some more modern secrets, or more recent iterations on classics, were still being actively used by the performers or engineers who made them famous. The Table of Death trick was still being licensed out by magician Andre Kole, but the legal protections to secure his livelihood were scant. As Kole’s lawyer David Baram put it at the time: “A handshake has worked for several centuries.”
The problem lies in a conflict between the way American law protects trade secrets, and the needs of the magic community itself. U.S. law requires patent filings to include detailed sketches and explanations, to prove that it’s a unique technology or used in a unique way, which then become part of the public record. To properly protect the gimmicks behind a new illusion, an engineer or performer would have to give up the secret itself. The strongest legal avenue to protect a secret will ultimately expose it. The problem is self-defeating.
Instead, magicians often copyright the performance of a trick. That doesn’t protect the methodology itself, but covers every aspect of how the audience perceives it, from the script and presentation to the music cues. Another relatively recent step is the proliferation of detailed nondisclosure agreements between engineers, performers, and anyone else on staff who may know the secrets.
“When we buy a new piece of magic, an original piece of magic, we sign intellectual property documents, we sign documents on how we’re going to perform it on television, on a live stage, every aspect of the way we’re going to use that trick is covered in this intellectual property document and nondisclosure agreements,” Spencer said. “Inventors and creators are more particular about who they sell to and they want to make sure that if you’re a magician you’re not just going to call one of our leaders and say ‘hey, I want to buy a trick from you.’ That doesn’t happen anymore. They want to know who you are, where you’re performing, your level of credibility. And when you are approved to buy that trick, you’re going to sign a series of non-disclosure agreements and intellectual property agreements. From that side they’re protecting themselves, which is great. Sadly from the magicians’ side of it, it makes it more difficult to create illusions if you’re not already recognized in the magic community.”
Meanwhile the Masked Magician specials, and their more recent sequels with a new and as-yet unidentified Masked Magician, seem to have inspired imitators. YouTube is rife with amateur exposes and explanations of common tricks. Whether Valentino intended to inspire other secret-spoilers or not, the legacy lives on.
Philosophically, magicians widely agree that the real danger in exposing magical gimmicks is much larger than the legal drama. Dr. Peter Lamont, a magic historian and senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, explained.
“The larger problem is that when characters like the Masked Magician reveal the secrets of magic, they give the impression that magic is simply a puzzle to be solved,” he said. “The purpose of magic is to create the effect that something impossible happened. This is a really difficult thing to do properly, and requires an enormous amount of time, effort, skill, and experience. The method is merely a means to this end, and the ‘secrets’ exposed are a tiny fraction of how you do this. However, the Masked Magician, like the novices on YouTube more recently, presented magic as a tacky puzzle. It’s cheap, easy, and selfish, and it reduces magic to the lowest common denominator.”
That said, Lamont suggested that exposure is nothing new, and magicians have already been working around it for quite some time.
“Magic secrets have been revealed for centuries and magic has survived just fine,” he said. “The public has known for centuries that magicians palm things, and hide things up their sleeves. They’ve known about trapdoors, mirrors and wires, and various moves and gimmicks. Magicians continue to use all these methods, they just do it in a way that’s not suspected. It doesn’t matter if the audience knows about palming if they think that the hand is empty. It doesn’t matter if the audience knows about wires if they’re convinced that there are no wires. The key thing is that the magician needs to know what the audience thinks is possible, so that they can make the effect seem impossible. If the audience knows about the existence of a particular method, then the magician needs to rule it out. And that’s what magicians do. They show their hands are empty, or pull up their sleeves, or show that there are no trapdoors, mirrors, or wires. That doesn’t mean they’re not using these methods, but it’s essential that the audience doesn’t think that’s how it’s done. It has to seem impossible.”
For Valentino’s part, he was still performing as of 2012, when he used a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) to promote a tour and his Shriners charity events. Predictably, many fans’ questions focused on his work as the Masked Magician, and he continued to defend the work.
“In the beginning, magicians were angry because they did not understand my intentions,” he said. “Magicians had become complacent and were not prepared for any changes that were to come.”
On the whole, however, his star appears to have faded; the audience was concerned mostly with the secret of his identity. Valentino professed a desire to push aside the old and usher in new innovations. In doing so, he may have pushed himself aside as well.