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.”
Magician Kevin Spencer seriously injured his hand in a car accident, but the therapy needed to regain his manual dexterity had an unexpected side effect: it started him thinking about the therapeutic benefits of magic. It’s an idea he explores more fully in the award-winning documentary “Powerful Medicine: Simply Magic,” as Spencer takes the healing power of magic around the world.
“Could a simple magic trick be used to help someone with a disability become more confident, more capable, more sociable?” Spencer wonders in the film, but he’s not just idly pondering. Spencer is the founder and executive director of Hocus Focus, Inc., which is “dedicated to researching the benefits of the arts to help improve the skills that many children with disabilities find challenging.” He and his colleage, Dr. Susan O’Rourke of Carlow University (PA), have developed an assessment tool that “measures student learning outcomes in five areas – cognition, motor skills, communication, social skills, and flexible thinking – using an arts-based curriculum like magic tricks.”
To get your daily reminder that magic is for everyone, spend 22 minutes watching Powerful Medicine, which you can rent or buy from the Simply Magic site. For more information on curriculums including magic, visit the Hocus Focus site.
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.