Despite the obvious and heavy editing of this segment, it was still an impressive audition.
The Masked Singer(s) UNMASKED! It’s Penn & Teller as The Hydra.
Itsy bitsy spider … Klek Entos crushed his audition on America’s Got Talent, though he later crashed and burned. Well, he burns here, too.
A not entirely successful performance by Klek Entos (a masked David Stone, well-known and extremely talented French magician) on America’s Got Talent last year still manages to generate enough creepy atmosphere to give judge Sofia Vergara the willies.
The premise of Deception, ABC’s new mid-season police procedural, is really fun: professional stage magician Cameron Black uses his expertise to help the FBI catch bad guys as he hunts for the illusionist with a grudge against him. So it’s basically Castle, but with a magician instead of a mystery writer. Great idea! But that’s where the greatness stops. Deception is the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter of both crime shows and magic. You can see the resemblance to the real thing, but it’s only a satisfying substitute if you’re desperate.
We’ll get to how it fails the magic community in a minute, because magical authenticity isn’t the show’s remit, presenting an engaging cast solving crimes is. And therein lies the first problem with Deception: you won’t particularly like anybody on the show. The character of Cameron Black is supposed to be a magician on par with David Copperfield, someone flashy enough to have had several TV specials and Las Vegas runs. Jack Cutmore-Scott is a perfectly decent actor, but as Black he exudes none of the charisma that a magician of that level requires. You can’t imagine him holding the attention of the people in an ATM kiosk, let alone an entire theater. He’s a 30-something white guy and…that’s the most distinct thing you can say about him. He starts off going for a House-esque obnoxious arrogance, but that falls by the wayside once he needs the FBI’s help.
He’s not the only one lacking any kind of definition to his character. Ilfenesh Hadera is Kay Daniels, the FBI Agent straight from the “Normal Person to contrast with Quirky Main Character” playbook. I’m assuming we’ll find out at some point that the death of one of her parents is why she’s in the FBI. She does the little she’s asked to do, which is mostly tell Black he’s not as charming as he thinks he is, and give him a pretty smile when it’s time to let the audience know it’s ok to like him.
She is, at least, treated like a competent agent, which is better than the way Deception handles the rest of the FBI. Not only do they let a civilian walk onto an active crime scene and later let him take over their entire investigation, they also gawp like besotted fans. Apparently in order for Black to look smart, everyone around him has to look dumb. It’s a tired trope that can work when the ensemble is fun to watch, but nobody in Deception has any chemistry with each other. They’re all doing their part and saying their lines, but they could all be by themselves for as much as they relate to each other.
The cast isn’t doing the show any favors, but the core idea for Black’s involvement with them is clever. An illusionist sets up Black’s twin brother – a secret used to pull off some of Black’s flashiest tricks – for murder. She has a grudge against the brothers, though what that is, and how she knows twin Jonathan even exists, is a good enough hook to sustain the series, as is Black using his knowledge of trickery to help solve crimes. Here’s where our critique of the show is going to get a little nitpicky, because if you have even a passing knowledge of magic, Deception is going to drive you bananas.
First, Black awkwardly crams magic terminology into every situation possible. REVEAL! MISDIRECTION! DECK FLIP! CROWD WORK! STOOGES! PEPPER’S GHOST! It’s certainly true that magicians use lingo when talking about their craft, but Cutmore-Scott doesn’t deliver them with the smoothness of someone who’s absorbed magic into their bones. He says them like a guy playing a magician. In much the same way actors stumble over technobabble when they’re on Star Trek, Cutmore-Scott never once comes across as someone who genuinely understands what he’s talking about when he’s explaining magic to the laypeople around him.
Second, and far more aggravating, is our introduction to Black and his team. The setup is the performance of a grand escape as the finale of Black’s Las Vegas show: he’s in a straightjacket, hanging upside down over swords. Blowtorches are cutting through the three chains that keep him aloft; if he doesn’t get free in time, he’s a shishkabob. One of the blowtorches apparently malfunctions during the escape and begins cutting through the chain too quickly, which sends his engineer (a one-note Vinnie Jones) into a panic. He wants to pull the plug on the stunt to ensure Black’s safety, but decides to let it play out instead. No, no, no. When it comes to a trick or escape that could potentially hurt someone, every eventuality is tested and planned for, to ensure safety at all times. The idea that anybody would see a potential issue and just shrug it off is insulting. Now, had Black’s team ever been shown to be in on the “malfunction” – the prematurely cut chain is what leads to the big reveal that Black is not only alive, but across the country in New York – then fine. But they weren’t.
Then there’s the jargon Cameron uses with his magician brother. What the hell is an “auto Slydini” meant to be? Pepper’s Ghost is indeed an effect (and a cool-sounding one, at that) but not one to be seen in the plan Cameron says uses it. And don’t even get me started on Black saying “Ta da!” all the time. Even “abracadabra” would’ve been better.
Black performs several tricks over the course of the pilot that indeed are possible – with enough set up – yet he does them off the cuff with no warning or planning. His final grand illusion, which is used to catch the bad guy, is the kind of thing that only works from a single perspective and only if every single condition is planned for. Fine for the stage, but not likely to be successful out in the real world. Ok, ok, it’s a drama not a documentary, fine. It all looks enough like something a magician would be able to pull off to serve the premise of the show, but it’s not magic. With so many other options available for both crime and magic fans, there’s just no reason to put up with everything Deception gets wrong. No matter how much you want to like the imitation butter on your toast, you’re still going to be disappointed.
This hefty one-hour documentary is an excellent look into magic’s relationship with television. Featuring interviews with Richard Jones, Penn & Teller, Barry Cryer, David Berglas, among others, and showcasing footage of greats like Cardini and Tommy Cooper, How Magic Changed TV is an engaging look at televised magic from the days of the variety show to the current renaissance on shows like Fool Us and Britain’s Got Talent. It skews more towards UK performers, but it’s a must-watch for anyone interested in magic or entertainment history.
For insight into how magic made it onto American TV, be sure to read “How a bunch of bottlecaps got a magic show on television,” and if you want to know more about the Masked Magician, take a gander at “The Masked Magician’s enduring legacy.”
As we venture closer to the closing of the year, we find ourselves in a time when we’re wrapping lots of gifts…and popping lots of bubble wrap. Look, your mug will get there just fine, grandma, let me pop a few of these, ok? And, hey, if you’re Luis Piedrahita, you can even make some money doing it. I don’t think Justin Timberlake, Jesse Eisenberg, or Andrew Garfield understood a word he said, but they didn’t have to, because magic is the universal language. The best bit is Andrew backing away at the end; when you can freak out a grown man, you know you’ve done well.
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 & Of Itself is Derek DelGaudio’s one-man show, but it’s not really a magic show, per se. Rather, it uses magic and illusion are used as a “metaphor for identity and the things we can and cannot see about each other.” We’re not entirely sure what that means in practice, but it had a major impact on Stephen Colbert when he saw it, to the point that he felt immobilized by the end of the show.
The interview is necessarily cryptic to avoid giving away anything that happens on stage, but it certainly sounds like a remarkable experience. You can learn more about In & Of Itself (which is directed by Frank Oz of Muppets fame) or purchase tickets here.
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.