One of the most fascinating forms of magic is street magic, taking your work out into the masses to make a living busking. Arguably the best known of the street magicians is Gazzo, the ‘King of the Buskers’. After ten years in the UK, Gazzo has left Old Blighty’s shores once again to head back to the US, but why?
While it’s easy to blame everything on Brexit these days, Gazzo’s departure was financially, rather than politically, motivated: “Well I’m a full-time busker and I don’t busk in England, at all. I mean, I’ve done it a few times, it’s just that to me England’s not a busking country. You can only do it in the day, there’s no busking areas at night – everyone’s drunk and in pubs and when they come out of the pubs they’re drunk and obnoxious. There’s no café culture in the UK, you know?”
Britain’s lack of café culture is well documented and often cited as the cause of our binge drinking problem, but Gazzo makes it clear that this ‘let’s go out and get wasted’ attitude makes it difficult for buskers and street performers in the UK. With the drunks ruining the nighttime hustle, buskers are forced to work the day shift, which comes with its own issues: “When you’re busking in the day, I tend to find it’s just mostly shoppers and tourists, and these people just don’t have the tolerance for it, in my opinion.”
Before leaving the UK, Gazzo had been running the Krowd Keepers Magic Theatre in Bath, putting on regular shows along with other magicians, including his protégé, Billy Kidd. While Krowd Keepers has become a very successful venue in Bath, Gazzo laments that he originally had something grander in mind: “I got that going about two years ago and it’s a successful venue, but it’s very small […] the idea was to open it up in Key West, Florida and I was this close to doing it, but obtaining a room in Key West is very difficult because of high price rentals, and not anybody is willing to give you a room for free to get a business going. So, I ended up abandoning that idea.” Krowd Keepers is still open in Gazzo’s absence, in the capable hands of Billy Kidd. Gazzo speaks very highly of Billy, both as a magician and a businesswoman: “She was the one that was really running the thing. I was doing the shows etc., but she kind of runs the business side of it – that is not my forte […]. She’s probably, in my opinion, the best female performer in the world right now as far as magic is concerned.”
Now Gazzo is leaving the theatre business behind in favor of touring the USA performing street magic. For a man with the moniker of “King of the Buskers”, it’s familiar turf, but I was interested to know why Gazzo developed such an affinity for street magic over traditional stage shows: “The idea of magic is to perform it in front of an audience, you know? I’ve never liked the idea of practicing in my bedroom or anything. I like to practice, but I also like to practice while I’m performing, to put it in front of a real audience, and the best venue for that would be the streets because it’s an accumulation of different crowds, constantly and forever.”
Gazzo insists busking is the best way to learn, saying that “today, on the internet people are buying the latest trick, which is a two-minute trick to perform and it’s usually on a one-on-one basis. You don’t really learn to perform with those tricks”. Gazzo’s routine is filled with the classics of magic: the cups and balls, the ambitious card, the gypsy thread, all “classic routines that are tried and tested in time” as he puts it, emphasizing that they’re “wonderful tricks to perform in front of an audience”. As a result, Gazzo doesn’t develop new tricks of his own, preferring instead to put his own unique spin on well-known tricks. He puts it best when he says that “if someone comes out and juggles three balls, they didn’t invent the three-ball juggle, but the way they do it is what makes it unique […] I never invented the cups and balls, but I invented a routine using the cups”.
Gazzo’s own style is that of the ‘wide boy’, a description that will likely mean nothing to readers outside of the UK and it’s a difficult one to explain. When it comes down to it, a ‘wide boy’ is a hustler – the streetwise conman who uses a mixture of charisma and underhanded tactics to make a living. If you’ve ever seen Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, any character in either film fits the bill. Gazzo’s character can also be brash and offensive, engaging crowds by insulting them as often as entertaining them, though he’s always quick to point out that it’s only a character: “everyone needs a gimmick when they perform, and my gimmick is my English accent in America […] it helps me get away with certain things. I can hide behind that character, my English accent, even though I’ve been in America longer than I have my own country, England”. So, while he may look, sound and act like the quintessential British magician, Gazzo moved to the USA at the age of 20 and spent nearly 30 years performing for American crowds all over the states and developing his Gazzo persona.
Though he’s now regarded as one of the greatest street performers in the industry, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Gazzo. Back in 1994, on Venice Beach, LA, Gazzo suffered a stroke mid-performance and was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Hospital. “I remember it because it was the day Nicole Simpson got killed,” he recalls, stating that he’d lived a clean life free from drugs and heavy alcohol consumption and yet still suffered a stroke at the age of 34. The stroke severely impacted Gazzo’s left hand and left him unable to perform. Gazzo was effectively out of the magic business for 5-6 years: “I had suffered greatly because of loss of earnings, all my stuff was repossessed, I lost my house, it was devastating for me. I didn’t have health insurance and I had hospital bills […] it was a horrible time in my life”.
Despite these hardships, Gazzo managed to make it through, thanks in no small part to the support of his wife at the time, along with the generosity of his fellow performers: “I didn’t have a lot of savings, but luckily magicians and performers from all over the world collected money for me and it was great […] It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to enable me to keep my head above water”.
Gazzo made it through to the other side though and got his career back on track, even being featured on season one of Penn & Teller: Fool Us where he performed his rendition of the oldest trick in magic, the cups and balls. Penn and Teller loved the act, with Penn saying that “in all art and performance, it’s the singer not the song and you are the best singer we have ever seen”. After relaying my appreciation to Gazzo, he immediately hits me with a bombshell: “Not what you saw though, you only saw the edited version […] I did a 40-minute cup and balls routine, that’s why […] If you saw the full version then you could understand why they praised me highly – I didn’t deserve the praise for the two-minute piece they showed on TV”. Looking back on the show, this makes sense. Penn opened his comments to Gazzo by saying “can we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for letting us be on your show”. This line always seemed a little out of context in the original recording, but if they’d just sat through a 40-minute cup and balls extravaganza then it makes perfect sense.
Another thing that seemed odd to me was Gazzo’s choice of trick – it’s a fantastic version of the cups and balls, but it’s still a trick that Penn and Teller obviously know how to do, so why would Gazzo choose it to fool them? Well, as it turns out, he didn’t: “Well it was actually Johnny Thompson, their advisor and consultant who suggested they bring Gazzo on, because as I understood, they told me they needed a laugh track. They wanted to tape the laugh track for certain performers who were on there who weren’t funny”.
Now after giving his home country one last go, Gazzo has come to terms with the fact that the UK just isn’t for him. So he’s returned to the land where he made his fame, living on the road and performing magic on the streets of America’s most beautiful cities. It’s a shame to see one of our finest performers leave Britain’s shores again, unlikely to return this time, but it’s hard to argue with his reasoning: “I have a box van that I live in and I park anywhere I want to go, usually by the water and I open my doors and see beautiful blue water. Where else can you see that?
Most parents spend time with their children by taking them to the park or going fishing. When 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star Jane Krakowski was a kid, her dad would have her act as a lookout for his illegal street magic routines on the streets of Manhattan. The video above is from a recent interview with Krakowski on The Late Late Show with James Corden, where the actress recounts her less-than-normal childhood helping her chemical engineer father moonlight as an illicit busker.
“He would do sleight of hand magic, and we chose a butcher shop because the light was on the meat all night long so you could see the cards,” says Krakowski, “and my job was to be sort of the police lookout for my father, because we didn’t have the right permits and it was illegal.” If the cops came, they’d pack up the table and hoof it to another spot with lights on outside. You know, what normal families do.
It’s all well and good to have a routine, but as any street magician knows, it’s only half of the equation. Learning how to properly build and keep a crowd is as much of an artform as actually performing, as Steven Bridges lays out in this entertaining video.
Bridges takes his fresh-faced apprentice Owen into the streets of London, showing him the ropes on how to engage an audience, how to gather more people, and how to keep them there. He explains the importance of group psychology – it’s much easier to build a crowd if you can get at least three people to stop for a simple card trick than only one or two – and then shows how you can build up to your signature routine from there.
(He also explains the importance of getting paid at the end – this is a job, after all.)
It’s a quick but informative watch, and when you’re done, you can check out Owen’s video and to see how he did on his first day on the streets from his perspective.